Invader

Let me believe that I broke through.

The Escape (1961) by Remedios Varo

After spending my entire adulthood in California, I’m living in North Carolina again. We’ve only been here for about a month but the entire world feels so different that it’s hard to get my footing. So I run up hills in the sweaty heat, inside this terrarium full of goldenrod and pine, fireflies and copperheads, bitternut hickory and eastern blue phlox. Everything smells like it’s blooming or rotting here, bugs and creeping vines and seedlings inching in, coming for you every second you’re alive and definitely after you’re dead, too.

My older sister leads the way, blue eyes and a bird’s light steps, an avian sergeant ordering a mule up a steep incline, breathing in the steam from the ground, kicking up the gravel. I’m counting to ten and twenty and thirty, making the pain pass more quickly or more slowly, huffing water molecules and microscopic seedlings. I’m a private, a maggot, a beast of burden, new to everything, humbled by this moist world, scrambling for some purchase on this red clay soil.

I’m running behind now, always late, yanking weeds out of tree branches, slightly panicked. Giant spiders with egg sacs loom under every shrub, taking issue with my technique, telling me they were here first. Esoteric locals gently hint that I’m doing it wrong, dropping clues about how this works and how that has to be, how it is now and how it always was.

I was born here, I want to say, I went to elementary school downtown, I went to high school out by the old mall, my father drank at this bar, my mother worked in that building, that’s my freshman dorm right there, I lived here until I was grown, then I got in my car and drove away.

Why did you drive away? some ask. It’s so nice here.

I drove away, too, some say. But I hated it so I came back.

I should’ve gone somewhere else for a while, others tell me. But what’s done is done. Plus it’s nice here.

When I think about leaving and coming back, invading and retreating and returning and staying forever, my head floods with too many thoughts. I’m trying to talk less these days, so I just say Yeah.

But I think For some of us, it ain’t enough. Dissatisfaction drives the conquistador and the dreamer and the invasive pest. Same thing, pretty much.

***

It’s nice here. Everyone listens quietly, but they have ideas in their heads, concepts of how things should be done. There are principles in play, structured theories backed by information, stuff you need to read, lists you might want to memorize or better yet, actually learn. Concepts are creeping in, training schedules, trimming techniques, gardening philosophies, strong feelings about the lack of birds in your yard, robust opinions about the absence of keystone species, the dearth of pollinators, the excessive presence of invasives, all of these thoughts and ideas and strategies and paradigms lurking under the natives’ neutral faces like Carolina wolf spiders ready to lay their eggs somewhere dark and then wait.

They appear neutral but they hold their ground. This is not the high-wattage friendliness of Los Angeles that burns brightly and sometimes burns out completely. This is not the immediate openness of desert dwellers anxious to tell you who they are, anxious to make friends and make it official and then disappear for a year or two, knowing that they’ll need a lot of borrowed water to make anything grow, living on borrowed time, always aware of death but somehow unaware of the passage of time and the passing seasons, hoping time is slowing down or even stopping, hoping that they’ve still got forever left to do everything.

In LA, everyone puts their ideas on the table and then everyone goes home with something new, a gift game, a clothing swap, a swap meet, but when we get home we question everything: what she said, what they said, even what we said. We question what we took and what we gave away. We always give too much away, but half of it is worthless. We don’t cling to ideals we can’t uphold or promises we can’t afford to keep. We can’t afford much. Everything is gorgeous and we can’t afford it. We’re immortal and we’re also, always, about to die.

In LA, if you want something to die, you just stop watering it. But in the jungle of the southeast, everything grows everywhere, it never backs down. So you have to be prepared to kill. Gardening is assassin’s work, everything is creeping in, something invisible could choke you out or bite you or drag you down into the mulch. You don’t open your heart that quickly, you don’t throw your ideas on the table, you don’t go home with something you’re not sure you wanted, you don’t change your mind constantly like a dry wind shifting direction.

You think carefully about what you want to accomplish before winter comes.

***

“Watch out for hairy crabweed,” a local gardener tells me. This is a weed that sneaks in with nursery plants or lifts a ride with a cardinal, she explains, but once it squats somewhere it’ll never leave.

It sounds like a cartoon character: Harry Crabweed. “It’s a real rat,” she adds. “Don’t compost it! Throw it straight into the trash or it’ll go everywhere!”

I’m not paying close attention or taking notes. Instead I’m noticing her boots and wondering where she got them. I’m a true LA transplant. She has cool glasses, too. She has a straight back like a piece of well-made furniture. I like her a lot so I keep telling her everything in spite of my resolution to shut the fuck up, emptying my purse onto the table, confessing my ignorance along with all of my sins, a true Angeleno, an invasive species, the hairiest of crabweeds.

“Swamp milkweed is better than a butterfly bush, which attracts butterflies but doesn’t sustain them,” she says.

“When I was growing up, ‘Your mama grows milkweed!’ was an insult,” I tell her.

She doesn’t laugh.

In Los Angeles, hometown of the laugh track, we chuckle at everything. Death itself makes us cackle and high five, but so do weak jokes. We hug each other as we set up the joke, exit on a punchline, wave goodbye on a tag line, and feel exhausted as we turn the corner for home.

But this gardener’s head isn’t packed full of those receptive noises, and that leaves extra space in her brain for red chokeberry and flowering crabapple, for possumhaw and sparkle berry and scarlett beebalm. Her face can stay neutral while her mind fills with full-color visions of what a yard like mine could become, once it’s freed from the aggressive manipulation of its former owners. They loved beauty, they were artists — yes artists, certainly artists, but artists obsessed with exotic wonders and high-maintenance foreign species, botanical aestheticians who lived in their own little world and loved to fuss over tiny shit inside their private terrarium.

“This one is wondering what the fuck it’s doing here” she says of a tree, finally letting her strong opinions seep out. I look up and she’s right, the tree’s entire posture looks defeated, its leaves are yellowing, spotted, surrendering. Someone dragged it far away from its home and now nothing makes sense, it has no ideals to cling to, it can’t kill or be killed. It’s been confused for so long that it’s finally given up.

I stare at the tree and privately vow to stand up straight, to learn new skills, to adapt. In Los Angeles, we get confused. Our memories fade quickly. It’s easy to forget everything when every day is the same as the last. Time never passes but somehow we can see the bitter end clearly. Disaster lurks under every punchline.

Anyway, I’m here now, so I’ll have to stop saying we. Now I’m just an invader, no ideals beyond sticking close to kin, no knowledge beyond what I miraculously haven’t forgotten, which isn’t much. I am empty-handed, sweating profusely, out of step with the locals, lagging behind, a native daughter trying to remember, an ignorant disciple trying to learn, a prodigal son with irrationally expensive tastes and not much else to show for his time away. I have linen overalls that people admire but that’s about it. My hair is wild in this humidity. My ignorance precedes me into the room.

But I do remember these winding roads, these infinite trees elbowing their way into my path, these enormous clouds lurking at the edge of every open field. It feels like home. I’m blooming and rotting and this is where I’m from. I’m home.


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