My Shrub of Emotion

Getting this plant to talk was like pulling teeth. Since when did it take hours for my bush to form a sentence? Maybe it was because we were on the airplane, and my potted friend disliked the cabin pressure. Maybe she was shy because out the window we saw some topless female genies flying by on colorful rugs. For a female bush, she can be a prude. I said, “Damn, that genie’s stacked,” but the plant just sat there. (I date guys, and my plant needs males to produce seeds, but I thought she could at least appreciate nice tits with me.) Someone gave me a look from across the aisle. For a minute, I didn’t know why. I was dressed down, normal-looking. My long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, and I had on a solid pink T-shirt and jeans. “Ohh. They think I’m talking to myself,” I said to my weed, annoyed that she was making me look bad. It was like this for the duration of the flight. I kept her in a duffle bag under my seat, so only her leaves peeked out. Don’t ask me how I weaseled my way through customs.

I took my leafy friend along to my new home because murdering plants is a sin. Plus, this is no ordinary plant. Sure, I will smoke her when she reaches maturity, but in the meantime she has been teaching me what it means to be herbaceous. I can see her wilting with fatigue, then perking up when mist from my spray bottle hits her. I nicknamed her the Shrub of Emotion.

My emotional shrub forms sentences by bending her stems and buds into a series of squeaks, wheezes, and bursts of air. She sounds like a child making choo-choo train sounds. I can hear her plainly now, being well attuned to her needs, but I may offer you an ear trumpet so you can magnify her words until they become recognizably audible. As with any new language, her creaks and whispers will sound like an untranslatable jumble until you learn her vocabulary. It’s a mistake for humans to personify plants, but it’s also a mistake to assume plants don’t have feelings.

I used to be a dolphin trainer. I drove to work in a black Speedo one-piece and flip-flops. My office was a bench next to the pool. I sported a clipboard and all my work supplies were waterproof. I was into the idea of being aquatic. The real dolphins, however, could fetch, jump through hoops, score goals in water polo, and were advanced synchronized swimmers. With a whistle and some hand signals, I could tell the dolphins to circle the perimeter of their pool, pick up a disc and chuck it to me like a Frisbee, then come over for fish. Dolphins can handle a string of up to twenty commands.

Getting to know dolphins will convince any skeptic that animals have feelings. That’s why it didn’t seem far-fetched to me when this sprout I germinated began to make noise. I just brought it into a quiet corner of the house so its sounds would bounce off the walls and be magnified.

Plants are sensitive to acoustics. My weed’s first word was water. It took me a week to figure out what she was saying. It sounded like a two-syllable, high-pitched hum of mra mur. It could have been a bee talking. Since then, her voice has deepened. By the time she was a month old, she could say things like Get these gnats off me.

My shrub and I left the airport and arrived at our new Swiss home. She was back to her chatty self after requesting an extra dose of fertilizer. Put me in the window, she said. That artificial light was hard on me.

This house in the Alps is clean and sparse. It’s dark brown both inside and out, has old school windows that crank open and closed, and the ceiling shows exposed wooden beams, making it feel farmish. There’s a bathtub that probably used to be a trough (hopefully no livestock drank from it). I bathe and put on a nightgown, even though it’s still light out. It’s tweaky how the sun never sets on the plane heading East. A neighbor just dropped off a strudel.

Goats are roaming through my yard. I’m here on a grant to study how alpine flora and fauna feel about living in snow. Do the animals like having thick fur? Does living on the side of a cliff suck or is it fun? Is ice fishing too risky? I have lists of questions, and a trunk full of equipment to record and transcribe my wildlife interviews. I’m a middleman between species. My main duty, as I see it, is to ease communication between the plant and animal kingdoms.

A donkey was choking, so my boyfriend at the time and I stopped to help it. We were in a dusty marketplace, traveling through Mexico on vacation from California. There were donkeys all over, standing idly with stuff on their backs, mostly fruit and blankets. This donkey’s owner yelled for help, and we could see the donkey trying to cough something up. I stared at the animal for a minute, since I wasn’t dying to put my fingers down its throat.

When I did finally grab a stick and insert it into the donkey’s mouth as my boyfriend, Francis, held its jaws open, a baggie full of seeds fell out. The donkey gasped for air and we gave it some water. People were clapping. No one wanted to touch the seed pouch, so I snatched it up, rinsed it off, and pocketed it.

“Sick,” Francis said. He was wearing army shorts and carrying a walking stick, so with his big beard he looked like a saint.

“See how they’re bundled?” I asked. “Someone was smuggling them.”

“Looks like drugs,” Francis said. He always stated the obvious, to get facts straight. Sometimes I admired this, but this time it was annoying.

These seeds reminded me of jumping beans. But the donkey seeds were smaller. Would they grow donkeys?

Francis and I were taking a trip to forget that we were sick of each other. When we met, I loved his gentle demeanor and simple approach to complicated topics, like love. “I love you,” he’d say. “That’s all that matters.” He reminded me of an animal in the sense that he wasn’t sidetracked by people’s excess psychological baggage. He never doubted my intentions, for example. But his idealistic naïvete irked me. I felt like hurting him. When it started affecting our sex life, I decided it was time for a vacation.

To my mind, these seeds added a lot of excitement to an otherwise dull trip. I felt compelled to bring the seeds home with me, in hopes that they’d continue to work their mojo on my life, which needed spicing up.

I snuck the seeds across the border in my bra, and then germinated them in wet paper towels. Day by day, I’d enter the kitchen and find another sprout dead. But my Shrub of Emotion was thriving. By the time I transferred her into soil, she told me that if I harvested her in a year, I could smoke her for a pleasant high. Francis the skeptic came over to see her.

“I don’t hear her talking, if it’s a her,” he said.

“She only talks at night, and it is a her because her hairs are crossed,” I told him. (If the hairs point straight out, you’ve got a boy, and if they make an X, it’s a girl.)

“I think you already smoked her,” he said.

“I’m no druggie,” I said. “Stoners can’t train dolphins.”

I continued the rant. “I’m going to make an exception this time. If a plant tells me to smoke it, I’d be dumb not to. It’s my scientific obligation.”

“You’re spending too much time around dolphins,” he said.

“They’re more fun than you,” I said.

“Well, that settles it,” he said. “If you’d rather be with dolphins than with me, go right ahead.”

I was shocked that he stood up for himself, it made me like him more. For a split second, I thought that I’d made a mistake. He was a nice guy, the solid down-to-earth type. But actually, that was the problem. You can re-evaluate somebody on the spot, but usually your previous assessments are correct whether you like it or not. Someone can be wonderful and still not be right for you.

We don’t keep in touch. I was sad, but the plant had already replaced him, in a way. I couldn’t wait to roll up a fatty and taste her sweet leaf.

A few days after my split with Francis, Mike (the dolphin) tried to hump me underwater again, so I resigned. It was the fifth time this had happened, and each time my supervisor, Ron, said it was natural, even good, a sign that Mike accepted me as a true mate. Ron is a twerp; he probably likes getting boned by dolphins. But I don’t like being violently pumped from behind by a large rubbery creature. It’s scary and painful.

Ron gave me a month’s pay, and recommended me for this grant. I packed my clothes, donated my furniture, gave my pantry’s contents to some local bums, and bought a one-way ticket to Switzerland.

This brings us up to date. Here I am in a Swiss chalet. A new life has its advantages. Each morning, I eat cheese and bread, brew tea, and feed Shrubbie with compost from a nearby turkey farm. Women hang clothes on twine clotheslines, and kids carry wooden buckets around for water. Cows moo constantly. It’s summer. The other day, I saw a man in lederhosen pulling a wagon full of chickens. Everyone drinks beer and plays the accordion. What century am I in?

I rode my bike into town to mail letters and to buy more cheese. Life is simple when all you have to do is pedal around. When you actually have free time, it can seem like something’s missing. It can seem like you have nothing to do, even though you finally have time to do what you want. Finally, I can interview animals, but instead I wander around the chalet aimlessly, trying to get my mind in shape. I have macaroni in my head instead of a brain.

Shrubbie suggested that while I wait for alpine animals to show up, that I might research cannabis not only for her benefit, but to better my understanding of marijuana’s magic. Here are selected excerpts from The Alpine Weed Research Journal (dedicated to Shrubbie):

Day One: Reading medieval herbals for hemp’s medicinal cures. In Culpepper’s Complete Herbal (1649), the seed emulsion, dropped into your ears, is said to “draw forth earwigs and other living creatures.”

Day Two: I smoked a bit of Shrubbie. Snipped a bud with newly purchased Swiss Army knife. She winced. Went to sleep trying to decode words I imagined in cursive, upside down and backwards, words like UPHILL and REINSTATED.

Day Three: Read about Fitz Hugh Ludlow, nineteenth-century American writer who documented his addiction to THC. Once sober, he satisfied his cravings for hash by blowing colored soap bubbles.

Day Four: Pruned Shrubbie. Sang her a birthday song, said, “Make a wish,” and blew some candles out for her. Sometimes, when I smell Shrubbie, I get the munchies. But I so admire her palmate leaves and her strong, pungent stems, that I don’t have the heart to kill her. Last night I told her I loved her. She is, at present, my closest friend.

Three months, and finally I made contact with an owl. I think all it was saying, though, was Stay away from my babies. I stashed a dictaphone in its nest and caught its hoots on microcassette. I played the tape for the lady who lives next door, and she seemed only momentarily impressed. It’s easier for me to talk to animals than the people here. Maybe humans experience nature in the same way we experience being in a foreign country. We merely skim the surface. Are all humans missing ninety-nine percent of the forest action? I don’t feel like I’m missing so much when I hike.

Plants and animals have different methods of communication than humans do, and they don’t hide their feelings. It’s documented that animals and humans share emotions: rage, fear, curiosity, sexual attraction and lust, separations distress, social attachment, and happiness. But only humans can think ambiguously; only humans can have malintent toward something they love. I think about that when I think back on Francis. I loved him, but only sometimes.

Shrubbie loves me unconditionally. I know what Shrubbie needs because she’s learned English. She needs a lot more than just water. Once she told me that she’s lonely when I leave the house. Another time she said, I’m so healthy, maybe I will live forever. It sounded like haiku, the way she enunciated each syllable. That was our most poetic moment. I absorbed her words as if she were my Zen master. Most plants won’t form words, but they speak through movement and physical appearance. Maybe dancers are the human equivalent of plants.

The fourth month into my research, my first big breakthrough occurred with a squirrel. He had dark red-brown fur, black rings around his eyes, and pointy tufts coming up from his ears. My door was finally opening.

Interview with Eichhörnchen, AKA Squirrel:

How old are you?

—Don’t steal my nuts.

Do you like eating pinecones?

—I have a thousand cousins to feed. Don’t steal my pinecones.

What was the saddest day of your life?

—I’ve learned three things from tragedy. One, keep your tail away from bicycle wheels. Two, buck teeth are nothing to mock. Three, there’s a reason you never see squirrels at the beach.

Can I pet you?

—I climbed a tree once, to check my stash. Winter was coming. I heard bees leaving a nearby hive; they had their eyes on some sap I’d gathered. Soon, they surrounded me. They threatened me with their stingers. Give up the sap, they hummed. Screw You, I clicked back. A Sap War was about to start. Then I changed tack. I put my tail up for a baby bee to rest on. I pet her, groomed her, and said to the queen, Your baby is good. I’ll trade my sap for her. Negotiations were made, I raised her, and now I have a tamed bee colony and more honey than I can drink.

Do you have any regrets?

—I wish I could eat you.

I went home and played Shrubbie the tape. She swayed from side to side when she heard it, as if wind were blowing her. She said the squirrel sounded like a dolphin, so I checked to make sure I had the right tape in. We both had a good laugh. But then when I told her what the squirrel was saying, she said, All squirrels think about is their stash.

My eyes welled with tears. When I heard Shrubbie say that, I thought, You’re my number one stash. She wasn’t my buddy anymore, though, she was my sex object: I wanted her inside me. She was dripping with sticky resin, and I wanted to cook her into a tray of brownies. I wanted to see her sizzle in butter, and then lick her up. Stoner time. Dude, all this time I’ve been the witch in Hansel and Gretel. I’m already living in a sort of gingerbread house.

That time Shrubbie said she sought eternal life, was she trying to imply that she was too beautiful to harvest? Was that her way of begging for mercy? And what did she wish for on her birthday two months back? Why did Francis have to be so nice? I never realized being too nice could be a liability. My Shrub of Emotion was so ripe. “I love you, Shrubbie,” I said, clutching a pair of Swiss-made precision scissors. “But you know I have no choice.”



Photo: James Bowe