Spartina

E. A. Farro

Slow, sliding, smooth, shimmering, the river flows around my legs. I cross a flooded bridge and splash through the pink Maine dusk. The creek was dry this morning, but now my boots fill with water. In the marsh, tides mark time. I stumble, catch myself, the air cooling off and water wicking up my pants. All that keeps the ocean from reclaiming this land is the amalgamation of roots and shells that hold it together. Later, when the water returns to its cradle, the grasses will be left coated in white chunks of salt.

Do you know a word for the interior world shared by lovers? A place—a paracosm beyond others’ imagination. To sustain love requires continually building that place, living in it, speaking its particular languages. It is a place to approach but never arrive. Ambiguity, longing, and mystery fuel for the approaching.

To love a landscape is no less effort and no less imagined even in all its obvious palpability. I am a field geologist. My daily life is the repetitive prayer of muscle memory, the Latin naming system of plants, and the attempt to capture entropy by drawing it on a page. All this, a means to peer outside myself, to slow down, to look back, to wonder. To find wonder.

I learn the marsh by walking it: taste of salt, warm breeze, swollen mosquito bites on my forehead. I battle my way from waist-high grass and undulating mounds in the fresh, tidal marsh to where I can scan open vistas in the salty lagoons. The grasses leave linear cuts on my skin; the salty air curls my hair.

The river cuts the marsh with streams and creeks, dividing the thick pungent mud alive with mussels, birds, and green green vegetation. Spartina grass colonizes the land, locks the horizon in place, domesticates the churning mud and sand. Without it, nothing could live here. Spartina possesses the magic of aerenchyma tissue that sucks oxygen out of the air and pumps it into the water-saturated ground. It is then that a neighborhood assembles: crabs scamper, anxious to burrow around roots; young fish nestle safe in the flooded grass. Spartina is the continuity, the foundation of existence.

I watch marsh grass unveil in turn—seasonal cycles overlaid on the daily tides. In the middle of July, Puccenillia begins to sing, dangling wheaty, soft, almost translucent flowers into the wind. In late August, it looks as if rice has been scattered over the lower marsh as Spartina flowers. In September, the color drains out from all the grasses except Salicornia; stringy and segmented, it flushes a last wave of crimson. Time moves forward without regard.

I study modern settings where I can learn the landscape, use this language to reconstruct past ecosystems and climates. Episodic events like hurricanes show up in the marsh as thick layers of pebbles and sands. Droughts show up in lake sediments as sandy fingers where hundreds of years might be missing, winnowed away by lapping waves that moved inward as the lake shrank.

The repetitive prayer of muscle memory—movements between lovers forge a bond that to break would break their identity. In the same way, my body stores sequences of fieldwork and laboratory procedures.

Starting in Minnesota darkness, three of us drive north. By the time the sun is up the bare deciduous trees give way to the dark green of conifers. The edge of the lake is a boundary with no meaning—the snow thigh deep, the lake ice two-feet thick. I place a rope across my chest, pull the loaded sled behind me. Between us, we pull thirty plastic tubes the width of my upper arm, fifteen metal rods the width of two fingers, measuring tape, sandwiches, chocolate bars, and a roll of duct tape.

We go to the middle, clear snow from the ice, auger a hole the size of a basketball, and begin to assemble our equipment. If the lake were a milkshake, what we are about to do is stick a straw down through the water and into the sediments below. We will push our plastic tubes down with the metal rods, the piston like a finger over the straw to pull the mud out. The mud is nothing more than a collection of everything that fell into or died in the lake. With burning thighs, grinding teeth, five or six or ten hours pass with jokes and periods of silence over which we pull fifteen thousand years of mud from the lake—the time since ice sheets melted back from this site.

When I return home from my expedition, I wake in the night, thinking I’m in a tent. I free fall in the stillness of my house, the aloneness of the indoors.

I spend months in the laboratory uncovering the one-and-a-half meter sections of mud that I keep wrapped in layers of Saran, stored in plastic tubes, sorted on shelves in a walk-in refrigerator. I work through the length of them, sampling mud, and extracting from it the lignin of wood or the waxes that coat leaves. My hand squeezes the trigger of a spray bottle over and over. I sieve, search for a seed, a piece of cone, something with carbon that I can use to place the sequence of mud in time. A meter of sediment could contain a thousand years or just one catastrophic moment.

The eyepiece of the microscope, like a mother kissing a sleeping child, barely touches my forehead. I draw the spiny monster forms of pollen in a notebook. For weeks, my world becomes a north-south grid viewed through the scope. Some grains are patterned like the skin of a tiger, others like a tortoise shell. I make notches in my notebook: 5 pine (Pinus), 10 grass (Poaceae), 20 ragweed (Artemisia). Grass pollens are spheres with one hole, the edges raised like big, puckering lips saying “O.” Conifer pollens are different variations on Mickey Mouse, with a head and two big ears.

I move through our house the way I learned to sneak in and out of my parents’ in high school. I crawl down the stairs, skip the squeaky ones. I bike in the dark, shivering, my body not fully awake. It’s 2:30 am. I am squeezing together the five days I have on a machine to run samples. It’s taken half a year of laboratory work to reach this point; by now I, too, am a machine. The work has rhythm and little thought. I bike home for breakfast, kiss my husband, hold my baby. I am shaky from sleeplessness. I will do the same at dinner. My samples, ancient soils, tell the story of the evolution of grasslands and how it weaves into the story of the evolution of horses.

The Latin naming system of plants transcends mother tongues, connecting scientists across the world—a code with two parts. First the genus, a tribal name marking ancestry. Second, the species, a specific name that describes simple features: Quercus rubus, a red oak, Quercus alba, a white oak.

For me, the language of botany transformed the green brushstroke of landscape into distinct stories. Mint has leaves that grow in pairs opposite each other, but at ninety- degree angles from the leaf-set below, opposite decussate. When I learned this term, I saw something new—opposite decussate roadside weeds. This feature, combined with a square stem and the certain lips of the flower, give mint away. I find it in the Rocky Mountain wilderness, a first clue of past disturbance; only hours later do I find the ruins of stone houses from a long-ago mining camp.

I go to the public library in Walden to spend an afternoon in the men’s bathroom. I’m on an expedition in the Never Summer Range of Colorado. Just steps from the urinal is a collection of pressed and catalogued plants stacked in a metal cabinet. When adolescent boys and men in cowboy hats come in, I step out into the hallway. I scribble plant names and draw leaves and flowers. I’m voracious. Without names, I don’t know for sure if what I saw yesterday is what I saw today.

I learn to identify plants by small clues: a piece of a leaf or needle, a grain of pollen, chemical fossils measured in machines. I wake in the night to churn through ideas. I jot notes in a small journal I always keep in my bag. My mind lingers on details. I puzzle. I dream.

I read the landscape, each plant a story with a range of conditions it can live in—soil types, temperature extremes, drought tolerance, salt tolerance. The collection of plants holds meaning, tells of the land and climate. When I braid these together, they build a rich narrative of ice ages, drought, the formation of ecosystems. But these puzzles are missing too many pieces—nothing is certain. The distance this creates leaves something like the longing of separated lovers.

Capturing entropy on the page: All the scientific process, encyclopedic knowledge, scars, the photographs of mountains and ocean; this means nothing until translated. The translation of the relentless and indifferent action of nature is made with equations, diagrams, statistics, graphs. All the dirt and color and wind removed to leave only two dimensions. My art is to structure that love letter, to turn my rambles through the woods and marsh, my protocols in the laboratory, my counts and naming of plants into patterns that form a narrative. To be able to share the story I read in the land.

I sit alone at my desk with my field notes from the summer, the pages smudged with dirt or chocolate:

July 5th hike to Lake Agnus, 3,153 meters
Area looks like may have been logged in the past.
Off side of trail still some snow patches.
Visible moose droppings. Forest is pretty dense.

During our courtship, my husband and I lived apart for months at a time. He wrote letters—love letters. A whole page to describe me walking across a room, the way he would touch my shoulder first. The details of an old house told of the bigger fantasy we were building—the sun through leaded windows, the smell of bread baking. He conjured an image we both held tight to.

He doesn’t write me letters now. I’m here in the house with him. It’s not an old Victorian we renovate together; instead we have an easy 1950 split-level with a porch we can sleep on in summer. We aren’t separated. Our bodies no longer feel the rocking of a ship that leaves you displaced when you are back on land.

He once sent half a loaf of bread express mail. He wrote, “Toast it and spread yogurt on top so we can share the same breakfast.” It wouldn’t make for a good marriage to have only longing and distance. But I still eat bread this way some days, just to remember the loneliness and quiet of waking up alone. At the time, I was in graduate school, living in a large house with a mound of shoes by the door. I watched from the sidelines as the mound grew, dispersed, and was stacked high again with the coming and going of my five housemates, overnight guests, friends joining for dinner, late-night band practices, crowds that came for concerts that made the floor bounce like the wood beams were elastic. I want to remember the intense connection I felt to a far-away lover sharing dawn. The moon most beautiful reflected in a lake.

Alone in my office it is like this: no kiss of the microscope on my face, no razor grass edges, no murmur of mosquitoes, no depth of mud holding me at a frozen lake after dark to just get a little further back in time. I look at my computer screen, and I think of the weeks I lived without electricity. I remember how my body fit into the landscape just so, how I washed myself by swimming in lakes with floating ice. My office furniture is not ergonomic, does not hold me or make me feel alive.

I take the raw data from running samples of mud through instruments in the laboratory, the data ordered by depth, depth converted to time. I can’t smell the trees or feel the sun, but twenty thousand years of time flow through my mind, and I see the retreating ice sheets, growing and shrinking lakes, the march of deciduous trees northward. I’m no longer held to this dusty, university office, not pinned to the present moment. This is time unobserved, the lover baking bread to send in the mail, hands kneading the dough, yeast brewing and pushing the wet mound up and up.

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