David Naimon

Acceptance Speech

I

t is fitting, I suppose, standing here before you, a room of fellow gardeners, that I confess to a dirty little secret. For what is dirt if not a repository of such things? Non-gardeners the world over stomp across its surface without a thought. They imagine it as a flat and homogenous thing, merely a stage for their lives, if they imagine it at all. Never do they break the skin; never do they willingly, solely for the pleasure of it, or with great purpose and design, stick their hands deep down in the stuff. Someone wise once said we know more about the stars at the outer edge of our galaxy than we know about the goings- on of bacteria at the root nodes of plants, more about the farthest sun than the dark dirt beneath our very own feet. Seems to me a matter of attention. Of skull orientation. Of orientation period. We gardeners are always unearthing secrets, the subterranean love affair between taproots and earthworms, the unconquerable underground of morning glory networks, the white softness of larvae in the fetal position, so little and helpless in the darkness, yes. But also human things, turn- of-the-century pharmacy bottles woefully absent their drugs, green mesh from a long-gone sheet of sod, maybe even a tin penny. We peddle in these dirty things. And, I’ve been told, the dirtiest of them all, bacteria, are our true ancestors. Older than us, older than everything alive, these germs germinated us all. The wisest, if comparatively quite young (laughably so, really), human scientists say these bacteria are quite remarkable. They cooperate across species, share survival tips, trade adaptation strategies, leave messages of what they’ve learned or encountered for the benefit of the whole bacterial family tree. These same sweetly confident scientists also say we are more bacteria than human, more other than self, ten bacterial cells for every one of ours in each and every human form. But, I must confess, my husband and I, while we too leave messages and presumably are merely, like you, just two human-shaped bacterial colonies ourselves, we fight about the smallest of things. Take my nighttime gardening for instance. He thinks it is barbaric, that I’m barbaric, due to the apparent joy I display, the insecticidal gleam in my eye from the scissoring of slugs by flashlight, their fat tiger-striped bodies snipped cleanly in two, draped doubly across my escarole beneath a springtime moon. He prefers the “humanity” of beer traps to methods he considers not only unnecessarily but unbearably cruel. But, I ask you, isn’t the whole gardening enterprise full of cruelty, a task best suited for sociopaths and tyrants? If not them, what mentality best suits a pastime where we alone choose what deserves to live and what deserves to die, that demands we constantly kill things to groom and nourish the others we prefer? Does it really matter that my husband wants to lure them, that he wants it to happen passively, when he isn’t looking? He still engineers it to happen, he still lays the trap even as he pretends otherwise. And honestly, isn’t that worse, the dishonesty of it? My husband eats meat; we both do. He makes an admittedly transcendent osso bucco, fills the house with its aroma while ants in the sunroom gather at his trap of poisoned sugar gel. Bit by bit they bring it back to their queen, slowly, quietly, and unwittingly poisoning her and her community while he sips wine and sings his best Caruso. I just squish them with my thumb. Drone, drone operator, and hellfire missile all rolled in one, I get it done. I crumble their bodies between my fingers and sprinkle them down the drain with no more or less thought than my husband. But without all the moral sleight of hand. Yet somehow I’m the barbarian. We can argue the effectiveness of a given strategy but certainly not moral superiority of one over the other, I complain. These are our fights, existential ones of the garden variety. We don’t fight over ordinary things. Or rather, we too, like you, fight about the ordinary things, but for us they are only a thin film across an extraordinary abyss. I suffer a misery of vertigo every time we skim off that layer. Take recycling. We recycle as I imagine all you gardeners do. And like you, I’m sure, my husband sees it as a virtue, as a nod toward nature, toward coexistence, toward the merits of human economy. But we fight about it because it seems like a terrible lie to me. Even if we put aside that so many of our recyclables just end up as trash in landfills in Asia, or that the recycling process is a ridiculous Band-Aid on the open sore that is consumer capitalism, even if we imagined that recycling worked, doesn’t it just keep the human farce going? Wouldn’t it be more honest to realize the world has a fever for a reason, that it is trying, like all good fevers, to kill something off, the question being not whether it will kill us but when and how quickly? I say, let’s look to our ancestors and to their ancestral wisdom for the answer. When we place bacteria in a petri dish with an abundant food supply, what happens? They reproduce rapidly, exponentially. They are unstoppable. That is, until they choke to death on their own waste, an ending to their story that is beautifully scatological and eschatological, both. That patrimonial urge is so clear in us. I say let’s embrace it, embrace our humanity instead of half-assing it, hedging against it with recycled toilet paper. Let’s be fully, naturally human, live and die as we are, until we are taken care of. I’m serious here. My husband knows it and says I’m a misanthrope. But it isn’t that simple. I hate anything that is elevated without proper cause. We all know humans aren’t humane. That humans are, in fact, inhuman. I don’t need to tell you that. So let’s take for example the universally loved otter, those adorably furry mustachioed animals that float on their backs holding hands with their mates, who drift asleep together tethered to strands of seaweed as if in a fairy tale. What could be more cute than that? I don’t disagree. But they rape baby seals. They herd them off the beach into the water, bite and claw at their faces, lacerate their eyes and noses, hold them below the surface and mount them. They rape baby seals and often continue raping them for hours or days after they’ve raped them to death. But when I tell people this, they get mad at me, not the otters. Seems strange. My husband still loves them and still gets mad at me when I grumble about recycling. But to be fair to him, if it wasn’t for my husband, I wouldn’t be here accepting this Happy Valley Horticultural Society Green Thumb Award from you tonight. One day, the fateful day in fact, he rescued yet another recycle- approved plastic yogurt container from our trash and waved it in my face, pointing at the recycle symbol, a Bermuda triangle of self- referential arrows embossed on its bottom, in grave accusation. “Why won’t you have babies then?” he yelled in a weird and random flourish. “If, as you say, we should accept the purpose of the fever, if we should stop recycling to advance it to its inevitable conclusion, then why on earth won’t you have kids with me? That would be the ultimate act toward filling the petri dish, wouldn’t it? Both the most natural of human things to do and the most effective embodiment of your warped world view?” Needless to say, I was furious. So furious that I stormed out of the house and drove straight to the nursery. And I came home with the absolute ugliest plant I could find, the lumbering purple- leaved Sambucus Black Tower. I brought it home and, flummoxed where to put it, saw the azalea my husband loved so much and decided to put it right there, uprooting the azalea and recycling it in the bin for yard debris. It seemed like poetry. But unbelievably he didn’t even notice. Or if he did he didn’t say a thing about it. Which only made me return to the nursery yet again. Absent any grand plan, other than the floral expression of my rage, I was torn between the reptilian creepiness of Brunette Snakeroot and the terribly unremarkable purple of the castor bean plant. When the employee told me the seeds of the latter looked like engorged ticks, explaining that its Latin name, ricinus, comes from the same root as that of the bloodsucker (a wonderful marriage of etymology and entymology), that the plant was so poisonous that it was never planted near playgrounds, that the consumption of a mere twelve seeds would kill an adult human male, I was sold. So much so I took, in my giddiness, the Snakeroot home as well. Again, to be clear, I recycled. I did. This time the honeysuckle and one of our prettier rose bushes to make space, to make room for the new. Of course, I expected my husband to be furious. He always rolled his eyes when I referred to weeding as a way to get in touch with my inner serial killer, but certainly now he would cry bloody murder as I uprooted, not a weed, but the very architecture of our yard. Or so I thought. So far I had just received some queer sidelong glances but was left by him, suspiciously, to my own devices. It made me feel a little randy, to be honest, a little dirty, even more keen to recycle. And almost as if by magic, my destructive rage turned into constructive delight as the unexpected synergy of the dark corner I had created, of unnaturally black, poisonously purple, and uncannily lizard-like plants suggested a plan to move forward from, a blueprint for an alternate garden in my mind. A garden with the complete absence of greenery. Many of you have asked me tonight if I took my cues from Joris Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel Against Nature, if I was inspired by Des Esseintes’s desire for a collection of the most artificial looking plants possible to accompany his jewel-encrusted pet turtle. It’s true, I won’t deny it, I do envy his collection. Who wouldn’t drool at his vegetal ghouls, shaped like rolled-back tongues, sporting glandular hairs, turgid stalks, voracious trumpets, or shiny pouches that ooze a viscous glue? But I had not yet read his book, no. Instead, my own dark corner began to suggest the next step to me. And with each new plant added, the next revealed itself as the inevitable new member of the family. I listened to my gut. I used my gut instinct. And what better thing to use? For far more neural tissue resides there than in our skulls, and interestingly, so do pounds of bacteria. What are they, our neurons and these bugs, this dirt, saying to each other? No one knows, for the conversation between them is no less mysterious than the one at the root nodes of trees. But we can think with our guts. And we do think with them. That is, if we are indeed the ones thinking down there at all. Perhaps instead we are being thought, thought through our guts by our invisible ancestors. But regardless of who is deciding, I or we, me or other, I continued with texture and color, to plant plants the hue of skin and rust, that shined like metal or plastic, recycling a weeping Japanese maple, an unruly quince, a row of redolent sweet box in the process. And slowly but surely the garden began to take shape, to swallow light as the dark bruise of a corner became a full black and blue yard. I’d be lying if all this time there wasn’t a hiccup from my husband. No, we did not fight, not with words or thrown objects, when I excavated our fig, the same one we had planted when we first moved into the house, a traditional gesture toward good luck and fertility at the time. But something stirred as I did, sunken and subterranean, behind my husband’s silent eyes. A secret swam there, not his but mine, a secret that I was hiding in and hiding from, that my dead- wrong husband was right about one thing all along. Faced with my first day with nothing left to plant, no trips to the nursery yet to make, the very day the first tree we planted became the last green thing removed from our garden, the day I completed my mission, my vision, through its death, the day my brainchild, so carefully conceived, had been delivered, like a miracle, complete, I knew, from my husband’s wounded puss that the garden, however glorious, was no reply to his infant questions unanswered, but a terrible lie. That it was I performing a moral sleight of hand. That it was my garden, the one you have so kindly bestowed this award upon today, that was ill-conceived, a misconception, a noisy masquerade, a hide-and-seek from the fact that nothing did fulfill my philosophy more fully than hominid propagation, even if somehow it also, disturbingly, satisfied my husband’s hackneyed hope for humanity’s future as well. But I must admit that while I have now conformed my life to the shape of its own logic, I still sometimes fear that my husband has lured me here. In the end it doesn’t matter. For now when I go out with my scissors amidst my award-winning garden at twilight, one absent the song of birds or the scurry of squirrels, who have both forsaken it, I can almost hear the bacteria hum. I’ve heard that some reproduce so quickly, five hundred thousand times faster than us humans, that there is a new generation every twenty minutes. Perhaps it is this I am hearing, the binary fission of bacterial cell division. Or perhaps it is that much slower divide happening within me now. That bundle of implanted cells, half-me, half-other, sequestering my blood supply for its own purposes, an engorged tick, a swallowed castor bean seed, that I hear as it splits and grows, splits and grows some more. I place my hand below my navel as the sky continues to darken, blacker, bluer, and the yard releases its musk. I fake a drag off an imaginary cigarette and watch a fat tiger-striped slug slide in the moonlight. I decide not to scissor it. Not yet. I decide to leave it whole, as my husband would prefer, leave it unsplit, undivided for yet another moment. But the hum, it is unmistakable. I like to think it is both that I hear, the bacteria and me, the hum of our division, as together we feed the fever and add to the dish. The garden and I, we are so full, so full of life. Thank you for this great honor.