I’ve been repotting plants lately. I know. No small feat for me. The first time I tried to adopt a seedling — a small, cheery nib of basil for my kitchen — I gently piled it and some good soil into a Mason jar, placed the quasi-terrarium on a windowsill, and tiptoed giddily away to give them privacy. When my best friend came over, saw it, and cackled, I half defended the effort, but yes: within a week or two, the match had failed, and the basil had died.
This all went down in the more recent past than I care to admit; but at least my knowledge and technique have improved since then. Still, the process of planting feels foreign to me, and a little… I don’t know… artificial. Essentially another version of retail therapy. Buy the plants, get the soil, scrounge some containers, and put it all together. Homemaking, yes, the making of a home — a chronically undervalued form of labor. Always fraught and menaced by the hallucinatory expectations of the white capitalist nuclear family, or what Coates calls “The Dream.” Like food these days, homemaking is something we need, and also something marketed to us in combinations that make us go ‘Yum’ and later feel sick, or hollow.
I’m not completely sure, but it seems like we — I, my housemates, and my larger political community, amorphous as it is — are trying to do something different with homemaking. And within the sphere of homemaking we have a range of different relationships to plant life. (As well as to home, land, homeland, and many other sub-tunnels.)
Part of what’s on my mind is: How do we continue in this era of climate change?
How do we continue, knowing that the sixth mass extinction is devastating us, and so are evictions, police killings, transphobia, and imperialism?
How do we reckon with the ‘new’ peril of climate disaster (not so new to those who whose waters have long been dammed and poisoned) that not only condemns the present (our greed, waste, violence, alienation), but also dooms the future?
What does it mean to be squeezed from both sides in this way?
Black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler seemed to think it means: time to learn how to grow food and use a gun. Or: hope that pseudobenevolent alien colonizers swoop in to ambiguously save humankind from itself. Either way, shit is getting very real, very fast.
From what I understand, people in the U.S. used to similarly fear and dread nuclear escalation. Practiced hiding their small skulls under classroom chairs, at intervals. Knowing that this was a joke, mostly. Chairs can’t defend you from radioactive particles. Desks can’t protect your flesh, or your plants, soil, air, water, rain.
Now some middle-class people bike to work. Eat Paleo, Whole 30, local, whatever’s in style. Protecting not just our heads, but our lungs, our guts, our digestive bacteria.
Maybe it’s helping. I’m finding it hard to understand, these days, what helping means.
* * *
Been reading James Baldwin lately. He’s not an optimist by any stretch, but it seems he did have some conditional hope. If white people could begin to seriously question themselves, the spiritual roots of their delusions, and why they feel the need to keep the darker world subjugated, then maybe — just maybe — America could make some real progress. Find a truthful remedy of reckoning “more bitter on the tongue but sweeter in the stomach.”
How do we reckon with the fact that industrialism, modern society, could very well be eliminating all life on Earth?
It’s fine to abdicate. It’s the fault of the 1%; not every schmuck like me who uses clean water to flush a toilet. Altering our personal practices — installing greywater; buying organic; better yet, growing organic in our own (communal) backyards — will bring us personal joy but make no serious dent in industrial agriculture, war pollution, or privatized bioengineering.
Two nights ago I tended to a houseplant of mine that was coated in dirt and grime. We had been separated somehow in April, during the move to this new house, and after she’d been missing for a day or two I found her down the block. Evidently whoever picked her up from my unloading spot didn’t feel she was fit to keep.
I was happy to have her back, but also kind of took her for granted. Her leaves were covered in small brown sticky bumps of scale that pesticide powder only seemed to encourage. She hung out in limbo, not dying, not flourishing. This week I finally gave her a cotton-ball spongebath, using soapy water and rubbing alcohol.
Now she’s as lustrous as a Pantene Pro-V commercial.
Still not sure if it’s helping.