We’ll be leaving this little two room cottage soon, moving to a larger rental next week. It’s been a place for us to retreat and regroup, heal our wounds these last six months. We’ll miss it.
There’s a small pond through the woods. The bullfrogs chuckle and moan all night. We’ve had a lot of rain this year, good for frogs.
And fireflies. i’ve never seen so many. They rise from the grass at twighlight, a living net of liminal phosphorescent green. By full dark they’ve clustered in the trees, stitching them with Christmas lights. On a night like tonight, before the full moon appears, the whole world sparkles with stars, above and below.
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.
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.
Somehow our wedding album survived, found in the burn pile four weeks after the fire. The clean up crew called me Friday to say they found it in the front yard as they were filling up dumpster number four, with a mass of undifferentiated black muck. Said they left it for us on the wood pile.
It had been in the living room with the worst of the blaze. Soaked with fire hoses and foam, then shoveled out into the snow, where it got rained on over Christmas and New Years.
The soggy album came apart in my hands. One edge of the book was melted together. But because it contained real photographs, black and white RC silver prints, the images survived. I peeled them from the pages with a blade and laid them out to dry.
Many in the pictures are no longer with us. A true memento mori. And yet so many are still close friends. And family. All older now.
Thanks, John Strader, for taking such wonderful photos that sweltering summer day. And thanks for taking them the old fashion way.
Our little town is amazing. We’ve always known that. The past two weeks, though, showed just how amazing it is. And more surprising, how very big our little town truly is. The flood of kindness and generosity has been overwhelming, from near and far – across the street, across the country, across the world even – from friends and family, and people who don’t even know us.
We steel ourselves against all the bad we know will come one day, prepare to do the hard things just so we can get through them. But we never prepare for the unexpected good. The good has slayed us.
People are amazing. Really and truly amazing.
Thank you for being part of our town. Thank you all.