"Natural History" by Natalia Ginsburg
[This story originally appeared in Epiphany Fall/Winter 2016]
Carl Linnaeus, the “father of modern taxonomy,” wrote this line in 1729:
The flowers’ leaves . . . serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity.
I think he was obsessed with both sex and flowery language.
Linnaeus’s plant taxonomy was based solely on the reproductive organs; a plant’s male organs determined its class, the female organs its order. This resulted in many groupings that seemed impossible and unnatural.
Imposing a flawed mammalian logic onto botanical reproduction was always doomed to fail. When I mention Linnaeus to a botanist friend over a cup of hibiscus tea, she tells me that plants have polyamorous and interspecies relationships all the time.
While some plants have separate male and female flowers, a typical flower has both male and female organs together in the same structure. The female parts of the flower are known as carpels, or gynoecia (ORIGIN: mid-nineteenth-century modern Latin, from Greek gune, gunaik- ‘woman, female’ + oikos ‘house’). The male parts of the flower are the stamens, collectively called androecia (origin: mid-nineteenth-century modern Latin, from Greek aner, andr- ‘man’ + oikion ‘house’).
When did flowers take on this language of homes and bridal beds? Of love? I bring flowers to weddings and funerals, send them as forget-me-nots and fuck me notes. Since when did petals speak as a norm, a requirement, even a social demand?
Since when did plants have their own concept of gender?
I refer back to my notes from ninth grade biology.
I’m sorry, Mr. Jones. In those days, I believed capitalization made things True. Now it no longer makes any sense to me.
But can I question this picture?
Who among us is brave enough to argue with biology? The weight of science could press any flower flat.
I have never been good at biology. I tried to lay it out for myself in high school study guides.
I am even more confused now. If flowers are hermaphroditic, why the need to gender them at all?
Do plants feel desire? Do they lie awake at night and wonder if another body could cure them of their loneliness? And if so, do they fantasize only about the misplaced parts of themselves?
Once or twice I have fallen in love.
It only made me feel watched. Aware of
my arms made with the earth.
But tonight, I am alone to the point of invisibility. Spring is flaming outside of my window and I cannot sleep.
I am thinking of flowers, bursting open into the world while holding every piece of themselves in place.
Are they angry at the order we have imposed? Do they all identify as genderqueer and intersex? Do they all believe themselves fierce femmes flipping up their skirts to defy an androcentric world?
Am I falling into Linneaus’s trap, imposing my own desires onto stamens and carpels?
Sometimes I think the most feminine thing about me is the way I sometimes wear skirts and speak mostly in questions.
When the questions outweigh my proof of existence, when the anxiety creeps in like this, I take two sprays from a plant tincture and wait for the flowers to settle on my tongue. I know the glass jar holds only a vague hope, a placebo even, but I want so badly to Stop Thinking and Feel Better. It smells of alcohol and burns my throat.
White chestnut for a restless mind.
Star of Bethlehem for trauma and shock.
Clematis for bringing me back from far away.
Cherry plum for the fear of my mind giving way.
Impatiens for tension and irritability.
Rock rose for panic.
Tonight, I take an extra dose of California poppy, for sleep and a sense of home.
Sylvia Plath, mother of madness, wrote this line in 1963:
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
‘I am, I am, I am.’”
But I fall asleep to the echo of Peter Pan, a lost boy who wants to run away with a Tiger Lily, who drums against my chest with his own bragging refrain:
“I do believe in flowers.
I do. I do. I do.”
With or without my consent, I have grown up. I no longer read bedtime stories about mermaids and islands. Instead, I read think pieces about how Tiger Lily is an exotified colonial projection and how islands were plucked like flowers for the centerpieces of imperial dinner parties. Not everything can be solved with a plant extract.
Do flowers suffer from a flaming madness too? Caught between biology and history, I think they must. They can only cure my insanity because of the insanity they have embodied.
Because if you want to talk about madness, look at the orchidelirium of the Victorian Era.
Fanatics collected commoditized petals, thieves smuggled flowers like paintings, and colonial explorers delved ever deeper into lives that were not theirs to own.
Plants became a short hand for stolen people and places. Colonial collections brought back from jungles, colonial wars fought over poppies, red splashes across the British Empire.
And not just Britain. During the Dutch Golden Age, the first recorded economic bubble burst. Imagine flame-colored tulip bulbs sold for more than their weight in gold. Suddenly, such bred beauty was worthless. Tulipmania threw all value into doubt.
The Ottoman Empire had its own tulip craze in the eighteenth century, signaling the rise of consumer culture and a new orientation towards Europe. Tulips represented the height of nobility and privilege until, suddenly, the era ended. Empire moved elsewhere.
It is madness to talk of plant families, placentas, invasive species, male and female organs, as if we are not talking about ourselves. Our own disordered and flawed systems of gendered, colonial logic.
Me, I am flipping through old notes looking for my misplaced gender.
If two things can be true in one body, can neither be true as well?
My mother sends me my birth certificate in the mail so I can be documented for payment. I rip open the envelope in the mailroom and stare at the printed words, the signatures of my parents and the local registrar. It seems impossible.
That I was born at 11:06 am.
That the home address was 1031 Ninth St.
That my birth attendant’s name was Amrit K. Khalsa and she used black ink only, as directed.
I begin to cry.
I worry the paper will blot.
What would happen then to my proof of existence?
Proof of gender?
In the package with the birth certificate, my mother has sent another tincture of flowers (how does she know I was running low?) with a note attached. It simply reads:
“For your anxieties.”
While I was crying, it turned springtime. I travel from the mailroom out into another season. I have forgotten the feeling of sun on skin.
A few blossoms burst on cherry trees, one or two bunches of daffodils push up against a building. Tufts of green defy sidewalks.
Behind me, a motorbike and a car nearly collide with a cutting screech and the obligatory fuck yous are shouted. A crowd gathers and we watch each other watching.
I imagine blood blooming red across the concrete. Petals begging for pollen. I imagine bringing flowers to a stranger’s funeral.
A consolation prize for the inconsolable.
That’s how it feels to miss her while springtime invades.
1. Her. The woman, the other body who kept me warm.
2. Her. The comfort of living settled within a pronoun.
A question: if all gendered labels were struck from biology textbooks and plant diagrams, would anything change about the essential human world I would still inhabit?
I would still be susceptible to diseases matched to the construct of my biology, still be cautioned about the rupture of ovarian cysts, still be held accountable for my own rapes and catcalls.
I would still catcall flowers by Latin names pressed onto them from across oceans.
And for whatever it solves to distance myself from biological understandings of gender, what questions and anxieties does it add to my already growing list?
[Which box do I check on the form?
What do I wear in the morning?
Who am I trying to please?]
Am I perfectly happy to live as I am in my flowered t-shirt and full-petaled skirts?
Is my ability to blend in cis a privilege that will forever separate me from those brave enough to be marked more visibly as other?
Is being a femme genderqueer the same as being a woman?
Ask any flower. Androgyny is really just another code for masculinity.
And to the question of genitalia (which for all I know has preoccupied you this entire time).
I don’t know if Linnaeus was thinking about it, but petals always make me think of labia. And vice versa.
If we can’t free plants from the limits of gender, how will we ever free ourselves?
If it turns out I am a woman after all, I will be so on my own terms.
(In a flower, the stigma is the receptacle for pollen. The ovaries are where the ovules are produced.)
I no longer trust biology to solve my puzzles for me.