postcards from the road
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:
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.