Uprooting a Renter’s Garden
Daylilies in a buttery yellow line the steps between Scott & Ethan’s house and their back garden. I am spending a few weeks of summer in their home in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, as I have most summers since moving to Tucson from Pittsburgh in 2015. Ethan & Scott have kindly allowed my partner Harrison & me to return again and again, in a sort of seasonal pattern which renews our connections to people and places. This July, we have returned to Pittsburgh and to our friends while we wait to hear if I’ve been selected for an “innovative” library position elsewhere.
From the dining room table, I watch the plants slope and pour over the rocks of a retaining wall. The perennial daylilies cluster in water fountain spurts of droopy green leaves and craning slender stems. Under the classificatory rules of taxonomy, a daylily’s grass-like leaves, with long parallel veins running up the center, play the role of a seed and identify the plant as a monocot (plants whose seeds contain only one proto-leaf). The middle-creased leaves grow skyward from the ground and cluster like stacking spoons around the stem. Up top is a branching complex of three-lobed buds. When the buds open, the outer edges of the lobes form the bottom three petals of the flower while the other three petals emerge from inside the bud. This convergence of inside/outside has led botanists to class the rays of the daylily flower as tepals—a dizzy portmanteau of sepals (the lobes outside the bud) and petals (resting inside the bud). Unlike many monocots, these particular daylilies do not reproduce primarily by seed. They send out runners to search for new places to take hold.
Plants so readily refute the taxonomies of botany, and so regularly make a mockery of my hurried observations. “Slow down. I won’t move any faster,” I can imagine the daylilies saying. Even flashy flowers like daylilies require us to linger, to give away some time, in exchange for understanding.
When I was offered an on-campus interview at a university in the Mid-Atlantic, I did not hesitate to say yes. I do not know an early-career academic who would not jump at the chance for a chance. Academia is something of a predation frenzy—eyes moving wildly, in search of movement and empty spaces. Jumping and running stay ready in our mammalian limbs. For the past four years, I have lived in Tucson and my lease there ends in late June. In mid-July, I will find out if I have been hired in the Mid-Atlantic. Between where I am and where I might be is a gap of three weeks. My landlord was not willing to adapt to this misalignment of life seasons and suggested that we not renew our lease. So, we emptied our belongings from our house and placed them in a storage unit. We’ve spent the past week in Pittsburgh, visiting with friends, and will stay here until we know where we will live next.
I have to admit this isn’t a unique story. Houses for sale with no sale in sight, troubled sublettings, storage lockers on the wrong side of the Mississippi: these are the strange displacements many of us have come to accept so that we might spend our lives pursuing curious ideas.
Next week, we will go to Berlin. Then we will return to Pittsburgh and wait here, living out of four suitcases, until a search committee forecasts the next season.
One euphemism for this suitcase-based life is that I am “uprooted.” In my mind, “uprooted” is a package containing the image of a grand oak lying with its trunk pressed into the grass and its roots stuck into the air. Small, thread-like roots and clumps of clay soil form dangling earrings. Why shouldn’t trees have style, too? These thin roots are temporary and were sent out from the main roots in search of water or minerals. They would have died back if their search failed. The area around the sky-reaching roots of the upturned tree is unkempt and hollowed-out pockets of earth become puddles, homes for insects, leaf catchers.
This image of uprooting is an image of death’s excess. The uprooted tree becomes too: too heavy to lift, too big to move away in one piece, too messy to leave in place, too old to be re-planted, too visually chaotic to be accepted by the homeowners association as “landscape.” Perhaps pulled down by a mudslide or storm winds, the tree is full of green leaves and is not yet dead, but thinking of it as living disturbs us. If we watch it lying perpendicular on the ground, we realize how difficult it is to know when death comes to plants. How will we know when death comes to the tree, to ourselves? An uprooted tree is too alive for us to comfortably treat as an object, a utilitarian thing. Fungi and lichens and mosses move in to break down the wooden structures in which life-as-living-tree has either slowed or ended. As the tree is decomposed by smaller lifeforms, we see inside and outside commingling in ways we don’t like—rot, evisceration, extrusion, eruption. It’s too much growth, too much diffusion: death. We quarantine these irrepressible bodies in forests and parks; we do not leave fallen trees on the front lawn.
Uprooting is an action for imagining otherwise.
Uprooting is also part of our negotiations with plants and with plants like daylilies in particular. Some daylilies have foregone seeds in favor of clonal propagation—reproducing by making new plants which are attached to the existing plants by stolons, a sort of stem running parallel to the soil. A gardener can move daylily plants around their garden by cutting the stolon between two adjoining plants and relocating the resulting two independent plants. Uprooting allows us to reconfigure the distribution of plants (and all the microbes and insects which frequent them) in the landscape, and it also allows the daylily to assert itself in new spaces. Uprooting is an action for imagining otherwise. If the daylily dislikes its new location it might begin to wither, prompting us to move it once again. If we fail to understand withering as communication, or refuse the request, the daylily might die and leave a rotting body. Or it might linger, sickly and uncomfortable, seemingly between the memory of where it was and the place it cannot be. Uprooting is a context for negotiation, for finding agreements between humans and plants. Either party may terminate the contract.
A renter’s garden is a troubled promise.
My digital lease contained JPEGs of my initials indicating my assent to the landlord’s right to control the presence of life—human, animal, plant, otherwise—in and around our apartment. In the legal realm of property rental, the rights of animals and plants (but especially plants) are confined to the rights of the respective humans involved. You keep the pets the landlord permits you to keep. Plants are grown where and how the landlord authorizes. When I plant a plant in a rental garden, that plant is only promised a future on the property so long as the law grants me the right to live on that property myself.
Two weeks ago, our former Tucson landlord instructed me to remove all plants from the ground prior to vacating our home. Over nearly four years, I had introduced cohorts of plants to the gravel yard. Each planting was a proposal to a species or kind or entity, an invitation to converse and strive together. These invitations were laced with curiosity and pleasure. I both studied the shape of Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) leaves and gasped in their medicinal scent as the leaves rubbed against my hand. I tasted their metallic, menthol clusters of small white flowers and surveyed the visiting insects. Wildflower seeds were scattered around the lot. They sprouted at unexpected times, spread hungrily, died back. Last summer, Arizona poppies (Kallstroemia grandiflora) opened their antenna-like stems wide across the lot and commingled with their foot-piercing cousin aptly-named “puncture vine” (Tribulus terrestris). I knew what pain Tribulus could bring, but its petite yellow flowers and dense foliage made such visual sense with the sprawling poppies. Orange on yellow, feathery on firm. Throughout winter and spring, my feet paid the price for my curiosity. The results of these invitations to plants were regularly beautiful and shocking, peaceful and irritating, inspiring and disappointing.
In my mind, I promised to respect the plants’ varied and complex lives as they took place, took up and took in space, alongside and through my own life. I promised to look for ways to appreciate the aesthetics of overgrown “weeds,” and I let wild London rockets (Sisymbrium irio) grow three or four feet tall. They undulated in the wind, heavy with sun-turned leaves, flower stalks busy with small bees and mutated seed pods. I promised to try (and fail, but try again) to see myself as inextricable from these plants. My promises extended outwards and relationships between plants, soil microbes, insects, birds, small mammals, wind, rainwater, neighborhood litter, and dust became implicated in my initial invitations.
The more carefully we live with plants, the more soon-to-be-broken promises we create.
And then, with a few words in an email from my landlord, I was asked to undo those invitations and scatter these groupings of life outward. No negotiation. My arms directed movements of a shovel and transformed the familiar into the unrecognizable. My stomach turned sour as my feet stepped through now emptied patches of land which had—for four years—been filled with plants. These were accursed vantage points. An uncanny scar of gravel and loose dirt took the place of a garden.
The etymology of the English term “promise” is perhaps clearer in French: pro + mise, put forward. In a promise, we put forward our hopeful predictions for the future and demonstrate our intention to make those predictions come true. As speech acts, however, promises rely on felicity—the correct combination of social context, logic, and speaker’s authority. For instance, I can promise you will enjoy the taste of carrots, but since I don’t actually control the chemistry of the carrot or your sense of taste, that promise is not felicitous. It’s broken on arrival. As a tenant, I lacked the authority to promise the plants’ continued place and authorize their presence. The reach of my promises was bounded by my lack of ownership over the property, the limits of my ability to persuade or convince the owner, and my own mortality.
Promise, as a noun, is also a quality someone can have oriented towards an unknown future: to have promise is to have potential to. Underneath the scar-garden described above rests promise in the form of wildflower seeds. Prior to their displacement, two large desert marigold plants (Baileya multiradiata) wobbled in the wind near our front door and produced a recursive wealth of flower heads and seeds. When summer rains arrive to the Sonoran desert this year, the seed plants will expand and take on new shapes. Plants will put themselves forward. The landlord’s power to authorize and forbid life will prove a hollow promise extended from one human to another, dogged by the knotting of existence across species lines. Property ownership, too, is a troubled promise. The more carefully we live with plants, the more soon-to-be-broken promises we create. As those promises break down, other possibilities open up. The removal of desert marigold plants opened up space for other seeds to be activated by sun and rain.
This should comfort me, but it doesn’t. Instead, the deep impression of loss continues to make landscapes full of plants feel uneasy, like a familiar stranger. Packaged in the oft-repeated phrase of becoming with is the potential to—the promise of—unbecoming without.
Five weeks have passed since I began writing down these thoughts. In this time, fruits ripened on Scott & Ethan’s raspberry canes. A paw-paw tree was spotted on a nearby lawn. Daylilies stopped flowering. I did not get the job.
Today, an unripened black chestnut dropped to my feet and I smelled its peppery aroma. Plants here seem to be alternately drowning and thriving in the heavy summer rains—rains which bring to mind the phrase “climate weirding.” I don’t remember summers here ever being this rainy. It’s like time has begun to tangle the seasons and their intensities, and we’re hanging out like uprooted roots waiting to know which promises come next.
Dani Stuchel is a Tucson-based archivist and artist. Dani’s recent writing has appeared in the Journal of Critical Library & Information Studies, Smithsonian Collections Blog, Sundog Lit, and Cactus Heart. Contact. Website. Twitter.