On the George Washington Botany Project: In Search of Lost Bamboo


In which The Gay Recluse remembers old plants.


Growing up in the 1970s, there were a lot of plants in our house.


Having plants was a sign of liberal thinking: our mother, of course, was involved in the women’s movement, so she had a mix of spider plants, cactus and marginata; our dazed-and-confused sister did macrame and partied a lot with our dazed-and-confused brother*, so they both had a lot of plants, too, although for reasons that escaped me even at the time they favored waxy philodendrons.


And ferns, in the case of our brother, although he didn’t exactly have a green thumb: even our mother — not one to ever be critical of her children — used to refer to his “magnificent collection of brown ferns.” We can still remember them lined up on his window sill, and how we used to sneak up there when he was out of the house. His room smelled faintly of the cigarettes and joints he used to smoke while locked in his room, but we braved this to touch the dessicated fronds, the dust from which would mix with the ash on the sill. All of it — the dead plants, the smoking — felt impossibly illicit to our five-year old brain; we couldn’t understand what would ever lead our brother to be so “bad,” at least with regard to our parents. (We weren’t bothered at all by the idea of spying on him!)


Our favorite plant was a potted bamboo that our mother had bought before we were born. It lived in an enormous terra cotta pot, and was the focal point of our mother’s 1970s living room (yes, the one with orange shag carpet). Once when we were six or seven, we pulled up a dead stalk and found an earthworm; it never occurred to us that the natural world could live undetected in the suburban one! For many years after, whenever the subject of the bamboo came up, we were always compelled to point out that an entire civilization probably existed in that pot, if you knew where to look.


As the 1980s approached, however, she wanted a change of scenery, and the interior decorators (terrifyingly gay!) thought a well-trained ficus would be more in keeping with the new decor. With no place to put the bamboo, it was sent off to college with my brother, where somewhat miraculously it survived four years of hard partying — there are photographs of my brother, his friends and the bamboo, all drunk! — and then came back to our basement. By that point we were ready to leave home, so it went with us to boarding school and then college, where it lived by our side for seven years.


Rather than come to New York, though, it ended up back with our mother, who by this point was in a new house with room for a ficus and the bamboo. She cut it down to nothing, but unlike The Giving Tree, it grew back, fuller than ever! Which is to say it’s still alive, and we make a point of saying hello — or maybe just nodding, because we’re not very good with hellos and goodbyes — whenever we go back to visit.


It’s easy to make fun of those who aren’t capable of loving other people, and instead resort to plants and animals.


But any love that’s honest, no matter how small, is better than one that’s fake, no matter how big it seems to be.

*Note that the entire teenage population was dazed and confused at this time; we don’t mean to single out our brother and sister for special treatment in this regard: to the contrary, we admire them for having experienced this suburban anarchy firsthand.

4 Responses to “On the George Washington Botany Project: In Search of Lost Bamboo”

  1. I cannot imagine dwelling in a place without plants, even if it’s just one–but I prefer a jungle.

  2. 3 c.

    “But any love that’s honest, no matter how small, is better than one that’s fake, no matter how big it seems to be.”

    Thanks for noting this, mid-holiday season. Useful.

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