Making space for new growth, telling stories about our home places & supporting good causes during difficult times
Vol. 2, Issue 4
My thumbs are decidedly not green. I wouldn’t call them totally black, but a sickly sort of gray would be the right way to describe my handling of various forms of plant life. A few meager houseplants have struggled their way through the years with me, and my yard is populated with lots of shrubs, flowers, and trees that do best when wholly neglected by human attention. I don’t come by my inability honestly—my mom grew up on a farm and is a master gardener, an accomplished botanist was my college roommate for three years, and I now live in a suburban neighborhood surrounded by retirees with beautiful landscaping.
And because I know so many capable plant people, I occasionally forget that I am not one of them.
So a couple of weeks ago, as the news about the war in Ukraine and inflation and a new COVID variant was especially bleak, I forgot my extensive personal record of plant-tending failures and bought the makings for a small garden. I dug out three new beds in my back and side yards. I weeded and composted. And then I bought one beautiful, healthy bell pepper plant and stuck him in the soil … two days before the temperatures plunged below freezing. In the morning, my young daughter crouched down beside the wilted plant and shook her head. “Does not look good,” she said.
I regrouped. I bought seed packets and peat-free starter cups and set them near a south-facing window in my basement. I’m trying my very best to remember to water them and to resist the temptation to plant them outside too soon again. Lettuce, peppers, beans, chamomile—if even one of these seedlings survives and becomes a full-fledged plant, I’ll consider my garden a true victory.
It will be weeks yet before any stems erupt from the cups of dirt, but of course that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Right now, right this second, at least a few of those seeds are awakening their radicles, the first portion of themselves that will emerge and grow downward to become roots. There’s something tender and important about this part of the growth process. The little plants must make sense of the darkness before they can venture toward the light; they must establish foundational roots long before they bear fruit.
I’ve often felt this way about my own creative process. I’m not someone who writes well during chaos, but instead, my work flowers best when I’m personally feeling grounded in a secure setting, with an established routine. Perhaps that’s why I’m finding myself inexplicably drawn to plants this year, of all years. Amid the chronic chaos of the world right now, I’m clearly in search of a nurturing patch of ground for myself before I begin the arduous process of once again growing a new idea into a manuscript.
And what it’s worth, I’m feeling relatively optimistic about those fledgling pepper seeds in my basement. One of them, at least one, is going to make it. I can feel it in my twinging thumbs.
This week, I’m going to selfishly plug the latest issue of the literary journal I work for, Newfound. I’m the new fiction editor there, and I’m glowingly proud of our spring line-up. Each in their own way, these five prose pieces wrestle with the concept of “home place” and the complex ecologies of human/natural relationships in which we are all embedded. I loved collaborating with this group of writers, and I sincerely hope you enjoy their work.
Autumn Fourkiller is a writer from rural Oklahoma. “When the Night is Over” is a heart-wrenching novel excerpt about love and identity: “I have such a limited grasp on how to be what I am, you know. I ache for the knowledge of it. To hold it in my hands.”
Charlotte Gross works outside on traditionally Washoe land. Her experience with wildlife inspired/informed “Trapped,” a layered story about a woman healing from trauma who encounters a grizzly in her cabin in the Grand Tetons.
Kate Cohen lives in northern Michigan. “Line 5” subtly explores the emotional & enviro consequences of a leaking oil pipeline in the Great Lakes. “The lake draws a breath and the water rushes away from the sand.”
SK Brownell is a writer from Wisconsin. “Genus Antigone” draws parallels between a troubled family and a trio of sandhill cranes: “You know there is an order to everything ... You have thrown off the balance & your parents never let you forget it.”
Surnaí Molloy was raised on Ireland's Aran Islands. “Abandon” evokes the unsettling beauty of nature reclaiming a decaying cottage: “Inside a small & silent house, light weaves through floating dust and illuminates depth within the air.”
Here in Tuscaloosa, there’s a robust pipeline between the creative-writing MFA program and a local nonprofit called Schoolyard Roots, which partners with elementary schools to incorporate gardening, food, and sustainability concepts into the curriculum. I know several wonderful writers and artists who are involved with the organization, and if you’re so inclined, I’d like to nudge you to consider supporting the group—or a similar initiative in your town.
Here’s one of their teachers reading a beautifully illustrated book about seeds and new growth:
To garden well is to be happy amid the babble of the objective world, untroubled by its refusal to be reduced by our ideas of it, its indomitable rankness. —Michael Pollan
One of the great challenges of this moment is that many of us sense that something is unsettled and amiss, but we can’t seem to agree on a collective narrative about what exactly is happening—in both the world at large and in our day-to-day lives. For me, it’s been almost impossible to really articulate what I’m feeling to others, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been having a hard time offering support to others who are struggling in their own distinct ways, too.
But I’ve decided that, personally, I can’t wallow anymore in the despair of this Great Aloneness. I feel restless to move, even if merely downward, deeper into the soil of my current surroundings. I’m eager to start unfurling into whatever project is coming next. I’m ready to break free of the self-protective casing I entombed myself within this winter.
If you’re not currently at work on a creative project right now, I’d like to encourage you to try something different for a few weeks: join me in my gardening experiment. Whether you have a yard or a windowsill, let’s try to sprout some kind of seed this spring. Whatever you like, whatever is realistic for your setting.
Maybe the poor thing dies, but maybe, just maybe, it survives. Perhaps it even thrives.
If you’re a regular reader of this humble newsletter, you already know I’m expecting my second daughter in the coming weeks. This issue will likely be the last before the baby arrives, and then Writing Matters will go on hiatus for the duration of the spring. I’ll revive it when my household finds our new rhythm, but in the meantime, please stay in touch! I very much want to hear about you, your creative projects—and your fledgling little plants.
You can find Sandra on Twitter, Instagram, and at sandrabarnidge.com.