The Plants Are Fine
On life, death, and the secret language of houseplants.
When I moved in with Charlie, our furniture met for the first time. I counted how many things we each had; he had more and his things looked nicer and more practical. I, on the other hand, had shown up with a bed (too small), a desk, a piano bench, and three or four chairs.
Every time I don’t want to feel at home in the apartment, I scowl at these objects that aren’t mine. But my cold, stern looks never land on Charlie’s plants. They’re not part of my selfish calculations. I’ve adopted them. I treat them as my own, as though I’ve always had them. In addition to providing some of the oxygen I require to exist, they put me in my place. They remind me that if they can flourish here, so can I.
I love my houseplants, but I don’t know them. I give them silent nicknames when I plan my watering itinerary. I have no idea what their scientific names are, nor their common names, nor even what they need from me. I’ve never bothered finding out, because I mistakenly thought that I was going to keep those little cards with the pictures of suns and drops of water that sometimes come with the plant. Paradoxically, I find comfort in not having an instruction manual for everything. It requires something I rarely have recourse to: my instinct. How hard could it be to keep a living thing alive? After all, I’m able to maintain myself, every day, with varying degrees of success. But anyway.
Plants speak the language of colour and texture. And while I’m no polyglot—far from it—I still think I can master the fundamentals of this vernacular. For example, if Granddaddy turns yellow or if Tree-that-sprouts-random-flowers loses its leaves, I’m fluent enough to know that I need to do something about it. I always have a room-temperature jug of water on hand—a detail that makes me feel like Mother Nature herself every time I reach over to use it. This feeling evaporates, though, the second I try to remember the last time I watered them. Was it yesterday? Last week? Last year?
I remember my mother who, when I was a kid, would actu- ally grow her own plants. She’d orchestrate an impressive rotation system whereby when one of them had outgrown its pot, she would move it to a bigger one, and so on and so forth with all the other botanicals in the house, to help them reach for the stars. I liked helping her. I liked feeling earth on my hands, making little messes, the dust wafting off bone meal. There was something magical about giving a plant the chance to get bigger just by giving it a bigger home.
My mother had grown her plants as she grew her kids, though the latter had been considerably more complicated: repotting confused little humans doesn’t help much.
The problem is that on Google the plants are just fine.
My cat, Ténèbres (darkness), died last fall. He got hit by a truck in front of my house. I waited for the SPCA, stroking his flank persistently. Everything felt strange and off-kilter in that moment: my dumb neighbour trying to be less dumb than usual; passersby with tears in their eyes because they recognized my cat and admitted, without an ounce of embarrassment, that they fed him every day; my neighbour Ginette who stayed with me for an hour and who’d somehow thought to bring peroxide to clean the pavement. People asked me his name. Others talked to me about their own dead animals, as a way of sharing my grief.
The next morning my parents came to get us, me and my still-living cat, and brought us to Sorel, Québec. During the trip my dad never said, “Sorry about your cat, it’s sad,” or “It’s gonna be okay,” and it didn’t go unnoticed (I have a nasty habit of noting what people don’t say instead of what they do). As we were leaving to go back to the city, however, a surprise was waiting for me in the trunk of the car: terracotta flowerpots, gardening gloves, a little rake, and bone meal. With a bag of earth on his shoulder, my dad said, “I thought we could repot your plants, at your place, when we get back.”
I understood something important that day. I may speak the language of words. My dad, on the other hand, speaks the language of actions. In his own way, he wanted to bring life back into my own. By taking care of my plants, he was taking care of me.
My parents left me that day with a bag of earth, a pair of gloves, and a new vocabulary.
Sometimes I think about this one plant I used to have, which was never able to properly exist, to adapt to my animals, to my house, to me. Half palm tree, half hay, she looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. No matter where I put her, nor how often (or not) I watered her or gave her pep talks, nothing would do. As a last resort, I turned to Google for some answers. The problem is that on Google the plants are just fine. Like everything on the internet, they’re always at their best: green, abundant, lush. My own sad plant had no virtual counterpart. Powerless, I watched her die for two years. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to completely abandon her. Who hasn’t kept a dead plant a little too long, hoping for a resurrection, a miracle? Besides, what do you do with a dead plant? Bury it?
There’s something strange about houseplants. When they don’t die, when all their needs are met, they seem to live forever, unflappable, protected from bad weather inside our homes, as though the sands of time trickle ever so slowly for them, yet flow very quickly for us. Our collective obsession with wanting to surround ourselves with plants goes far beyond matters of appearance (or the benefits of photosynthesis): on the one hand, plants remind us how brittle existence is, and on the other, they make us believe in the everlasting.
Mostly, they remind us that things take time. That nature doesn’t unfold at the speed of a modem. That putting on a Spotify playlist called Nature Sounds for inspiration won’t make me write any faster.
This essay was featured in the inaugural title of the BESIDE Journals: Green Screen.Get your copy now!
Facing me, on the dining room table, my plants form a makeshift Garden of Eden. I watch them, unable to penetrate their mysteries. I have a vague impression that they sometimes speak to each other and that they could decide, at any moment, to rise up against me—knowing very well that I don’t really know how to take care of them, but maybe also knowing that I’m doing my best.
This morning, though, I’ve nestled in and I’m taking some time to watch them grow. ■
Gabrielle Chapdelaine writes stories with dialogues for the stage and the screen (mostly). She received the Gratien-Gélinas prize in 2018 for her play Une journée. She’s also a screenwriter for the TV show Les invisibles. She lives in Montréal with plants, a cat, and a boyfriend.