Forty years ago, in my first semester of college, I bought some plants to furnish the room. The dorms were dim and dogeared, depressing. Plants were cheaper than chairs, so I picked some up at a campus sale, all in little 4″ pots. For a few bucks they brought a little life into the place. At least for a while. The room was so dark, most of them died by the end of the first year.
One, though, managed to hang on. An odd little thing, just a grey scaly bulb the size of a billiard ball, with skin like an elephant, half buried in the soil. A stout trunk tapered up from the bulb, topped with a pom-pom of grassy green leaves. It looked like something right out of Dr. Seuss. A botany major friend determined it was a ponytail palm. I became rather fond of it. Frond of it?
The next year I moved off campus and it came with me, suffering mightily for the rest of my college career – knocked over by inebriated housemates, dug up and defecated on by ill-behaved cats, neglected when I went away for holidays. Even stayed home alone the summer I went abroad. It survived all that, and eventually outgrew the original pot, earning a splurge on a new larger non-plastic container.
I left college, and the plant came with me.
Years went by and wherever I went the plant went, too. Cars and furniture and clothes and jobs got shed along the way, dead husks shucked off like snake skins, but after each purge the plant remained. If I dug through all the photos of my life over the past 40 years, this one odd thing would keep popping up in the background like a silent Forrest Gump:
In a cabin on the York River where I had my first wooden sailboat, sitting on the old grain scale that served for an end table.
In the apartment in downtown Atlanta just off Peachtree Street, where I squatted under a tree next to John Lee Hooker playing the blues in Piedmont Park, and saw R.E.M. in a bar in Athens for $5, which included a pitcher of beer.
On the iron balcony of a pink victorian in the historic district of Savannah, where church bells chimed on Sunday mornings and Spanish Moss collected on the railings, and finches twittered in the aviary I built for them that summer when the Challenger exploded with a teacher aboard.
In the basement of my grandmother’s house in Richmond, when Apple and Microsoft started marketing the first viable desktop computers, and the Berlin Wall came down.
There in the attic in Richmond when I logged onto the World Wide Web for the first time, and stayed up all night exchanging messages with people across the world over a dialup modem.
In the background, a little bigger now, when my daughters were born, and learned to walk and swim and ride a bike.
In Scottsville, where they played soccer and finished high school and went off to college themselves.
In the sunroom where Terri and I drank coffee and planned trips to the West Coast or the Low Country.
All the while that funny little plant kept going, eventually filling a large oriental porcelain pot the size of a bucket, standing in the corner so tall it brushed the 9 foot ceilings in our house.
Until the night of the fire.
When we walked through the house the next day, all the plants were wilted, black like everything else. That night it got down to 16 degrees. Though heat from the fire kept the whole house warm for a day, it dipped below freezing every night the following week. There was no power and no heat in the house. Everything froze.
Seven days after the fire, I gave Doug a tour of the damage. When we came to this plant – black and wilted, covered in soot –he said, you know, that’s a pretty big root ball, it might be OK, maybe you could save it?
So a few days later I took it out back, lopped off the stalk, and stuck it in the neighbor’s spare room with the other smokey things we hoped to save. A month after that, I brought it to the cottage, still bare and black, and set it near the window and watered it.
A month later still, two months after the fire, I noticed a small lump on the stalk. Then, a few days later, a tiny spud of green broke through.
I tipped the pot over and let all the black sooty water drain out, added some fresh soil. A week later, another spud appeared, then another.
Now, there are several sprouts of green, and it seems this tough old plant refuses to die.
When I lived in Savannah, I discovered a remarkable native plant called “Resurrection Fern“. It spreads out along the top of big Live Oak limbs forming a fringe of little bonsai forests.
An epiphyte, it has no root system, since there’s no soil where it grows. It clings to the bark and survives in the humid southern air on nutrients in the dust and rain dripping down the limbs.
In periods between rains it turns grey and shrivels up like origami ashes, losing up to 97% of it’s moisture and going dormant. But it revives and turns vivid green again within hours after the first splash of rain. Most plants die after losing only 10% of their water, and don’t come back. These plants could remain dormant without water for over a century, and still revive.
Very impressive, these little ferns.
So I’m christening this tough and homely house plant of mine the Resurrection Palm.
One hundred forty years ago on this day, in 1879, Henry Morton Stanley set out to explore the Congo for brutal King Leopold of Belgium, thereby opening central Africa to the ravages of colonialism and Arab slave traders, and thus became the inspiration of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Prior to that, he traveled up the Nile to its source to search for David Livingstone, whom he may not have actually greeted with “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Henry Morton Stanley was not even his real name.
Born in Wales, he was abandoned by his mother and never met his father (actual parentage undetermined). He grew up abused in a poor house until the age of 18, when he emigrated to the US by way of New Orleans. Walking off the ship looking for work, he was taken in by a storekeeper, and thereafter took the name of his adopted father.
He is perhaps the only person to have served during the Civil War in both the Confederate Army (fighting in the Battle of Shiloh), the Union Army, and the Union Navy. As a journalist, he traveled the American West, then organized an expedition to the Middle East where he was captured and imprisoned by the Ottoman Empire. But eventually talked his way out of jail.
His many expeditions, while successful, typically resulted in the death of most of the participants.
In later years in Britain, he served in Parliament, and was knighted shortly before his death in 1904.
Six Terabytes of data, over 50 thousand photos, all the raw and finished video footage, hours and hours and hours of it. Everything. Going all the way back to 2004. Photos of the girls since middle school, scans of family prints now gone, the boat building and sailing archives, travels, life.
Somehow tonight they all came back from the grave.
I had given up on it all. Already mourned the death, mentally buried the body and said last rights. And yet, still.
Next to the living room, the office got it almost as bad. Smoke and flames and water. The intense heat melted anything made of plastic, making macabre Dali-esque drip art. Then smoke and soot seeped into the smallest crevices, turning all black. Then the water and foam from the firemen. The room was several inches deep in water before they were done, dripping through the floor to the workshop below throughout the next day.
Days after the fire, I went in and collected the hard drives. All the wires, the power supplies, and the cases of the cheaper backup drives, all melted. I yanked out what remained of the cables and put the bodies in a plastic tub in the boatshed, where they sat in the freezing cold for over a month, drying out.
I assumed they were all lost. Had to. Too hard to hope. But, still, mapped out a plan to try and recover what I could. It would require buying exact copies of each, sometimes used on ebay, and transferring the guts of the deceased into the bodies of the still living.
Last weekend the burned drives came to the cottage where they got cleaned off as best I could, at least so I could handle them. On some, the cases had to be broken off with pliers to access the drives within.
Tonight a duplicate of the main RAID storage unit arrived. I borrowed the power supply and cables from the new one, updated software on the laptop, and plugged it in, fully expecting to have to pull out the drives and transplant them. But low and behold, the dang thing fired right up and mounted on the desktop. Amazing.
Paying extra for the good stuff paid off this time. The cheaper drives, with cases made of plastic, all melted. I’ll still try to save a couple of those, but chances are slim. The LaCie 5Big RAID was expensive. Twice the cost of cheaper drives of comparable capacity, but made of metal, with premium drives and controllers, it took it all like a champ apparently. Even the LEDs and power buttons survived the heat.
Sometime in the next few days, a third party replacement power supply will arrive. Then I can connect the new and old together and start the transfusion, transferring a lifetime of imagery, digital lifeblood, to the new host.
I’ve back-dated this post. Looks like it didn’t come through when sent from my phone on the front porch, 12 hours after the fire.
I’m not going to post a lot of photos from the interior. There’s a grim surreal beauty to it, which is not lost on me; but for me those will be easier to look at once the restoration gets well down the road. I’ll save them for then.
For now, here are just a couple from the Living Room. The fire started in the outside wall at the sill, in the floor between this room and the basement. Lots going on there – three iterations of electrical wiring going back to maybe the ’30s (the house was built in 1919), plus the chimney, plus rodents coming in from the snow, etc.. Inspectors say they may never know for sure what caused it.
Astute followers will recognize this view, though somewhat altered. There were once over 2,000 books here and in the next rooms, which I’m told unsulated the house structure from the worst of the fire, all gone now.
We’re presently living in a cozy little two room cottage about a half mile away, where we may remain throughout the yearlong rebuild process.
This is a story within a story about one of the few things saved from the fire.
A few years after college I moved from Savannah back to Virginia to look after my maternal grandmother. She was living alone and having heart and hip problems. I was still untethered enough I could pick up and move easily – all my possessions fit in Mr. Earl, a trusty old ’67 Ford LTD.
I moved into the basement where, like our basement, decades of life collected. Among the many things I found stored away was an old cedar lined blanket chest. It was in bad shape. Pieces had fallen off, veneer chipped, the varnish black and bubbled. I had nothing but time, so described it to her an asked about refinishing it. She couldn’t remember which one I meant, but said sure.
When the project was done, I brought it upstairs. She looked at it for a long time, remembering, and told me the story of the chest, and why it had been kept all these years.
She and my grandfather lived in Arkansas during the Depression. She was a young school teacher, and he pumped gas at the local Esso station.
As the Depression deepened, and became more dire, they were among the only people with a job, and they had two. What little money they had was the only money in their community. Sometimes men – formerly proud and skilled men – came to the door with things they had made, hoping to sell them for whatever they could, to buy food for their families. So they would buy these things when they could. She pointed to a tiny delicate side table that had been in their living room as long as I could remember. It had hand carved legs and parquet inlay. It had been made by one of the elders of their church.
On Christmas Eve it was cold and snowing. My grandfather was late coming home. They couldn’t afford a car then, so he walked home from the gas station. It grew dark, and she was worried, so walked out to the road to look. Finally she saw my grandfather walking down the road through the snow, struggling under something large and heavy. He carried this hand made blanket chest on his shoulder.
They set it down in the house and brushed off the snow. He would not say where he got it, only that this was their Christmas gift to each other this year. And it meant someone else got a Christmas, too.
The chest had been at the foot of our bed, piled high with folded clothes not yet put away. Those clothes protected the chest from the worst of the fire, so it can be saved.