As you walk into the Fern Room of Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, a sign asks you to imagine these same plants, here, millions of years ago. Except for the meticulous planning and organization that arranged and nourished these ferns under glass, it could be a time capsule to the Cretaceous. The same sign suggests early visitors to the Conservatory – it first opened in 1908 –thought the building had been put up around the pond and ferns. As if these plants nestled in the ground were so different from the fancy potted plants they expected, it was easier to imagine they had entered somewhere else entirely. My friend Caro asks if I believe the sign. Do I really think that people walked into the fern room and imagined it had come out of nowhere? I’m not sure. Where would they need to look to disrupt such a seamlessly presented illusion?
I think about the Conservatory’s Fern Room months later, when I begin to work at a teaching garden in Minneapolis often mistaken for a nature preserve. My job as a naturalist is to talk visitors through the vision the garden’s namesake had for the landscape, to point out how flowers came to be here and how they change through the seasons. I also narrate divergence from her vision: how historical context, weather and attentive maintenance nudge this garden one way or another. Echoes of the Fern Room surface whenever I forget to disrupt the assumption that the garden in which I work is a secret, quiet place, somehow absent from political movements. If the ferns in my garden have survived the last few thousand years, then they have witnessed genocide and forced removal, tornadoes, the filling in of wetlands. Our acts of maintenance are political decisions. What we narrate and what we nourish set up the futures we are willing to fight for.
The ferns I help visitors identify have certainly not been in this bog since the Cretaceous period. Like much of Minnesota, this area owes its gently sloping hills and swampy puddles to a history of glaciers. These massive bodies of ice scootched across this soil that’s now planted with wildflowers. Some glaciers broke off chunks that melted into lakes and ponds. Slow, sustained pressure still shapes our future.
This sphagnum bog with the plastic boardwalk I take field trips through is the last of its kind in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. Bogs form as dead plant matter accumulates in ponds that don’t drain very well. Eventually, a spongy moss fills the whole pond. There’s no soil under your feet, but you can certainly stand on it. Brown, acidic water squishes out from the moss. Tamarack tree roots knot the moss together under the surface. Bogs fill in as time goes on. Here, buckthorn lines the edge between water and soil. It used to cover the surface of the bog until outraged volunteers ripped it out. I’m grateful for their dedication. I recognize that maintaining this space is a choice. It’s an act of care for a future in which I try to distract children from their mosquito bites long enough to see the tiny carnivorous plants along the boardwalk.
I ask some eight-year-olds to imagine glaciers during their field trip to the bog. They’re squirming around, and I try to get them to act it out with their bodies. “Flop on the ground like a giant block of ice! Imagine moving northwards and scraping all the dead leaves of the ground along with you! Practice melting! Feel your body fill up with moss over thousands of years!” We don’t get very far. We try again, standing on the plastic boardwalk through the bog, imagining twenty feet of moss below us. We jump all together on the boardwalk and watch the ground shake. It is enough of a stretch to stand on not-ground; the ice thing is too far away.
It’s one thing to watch something be born, to delight in new plants emerging through dead leaves or fox kits hiding behind the tool shed. It’s something else to foster the conditions necessary for its birth, health, and growth.
Caro and I ended up at the Conservatory’s Fern Room that day in Chicago after leading a confusing, tense workshop on confronting toxic patterns in farm projects. We had planned this workshop as a space to talk about endings. In particular, Caro and our friend Robin had decided to close the urban farm the three of us worked at. The daily maintenance required to keep the project running had made it easy to push aside an emerging realization: This farm replicated the models it had promised to break. So, we began other work. We made ourselves a very ambitious reading list. We grew flowers for fun. We practiced imagining a different future than what felt possible and being loud about it. Ultimately, our workshop proved how difficult it can be to talk about endings with strangers. I wanted a space that could imagine the future even when the present already felt too messy to handle. I told myself to stop going to farm conferences.
Six months later, I set up my tent in a field in Iowa, unwilling to miss a Queer Farmer Meetup. I’m hoping for some shared insight into futures that feel necessary and inconceivable at the same time. We talk about economy, about justice, about the commons. It’s hard for me to sit still through these questions about homestead economics and labor management. I want something louder to happen. I’m struck by way we can talk about something so just and beautiful, and yet still feel like we’re out of options for how to get there.
I visit the Conservatory again over Christmas, stepping away from family dinners to sit in the room of desert plants. It’s cool and dry in here, and a good reminder that tenderness and growth are not always visible from the outside. My grandparents are both surprised that I know how to grow and preserve vegetables. They didn’t teach my mom this, nor did she teach me. But they are pleased I know this skill their parents practiced in Chicago backyards. I have pork in my freezer from the farmer who hosted me in Iowa. Sometimes we return to things out of habit, out of an insistence that they fit what we expect to see. Sometimes, though, we return to things because we know they might be different. We are ready to bring something into the world and nourish it until it stands on its own. 🎈
edited by carmen.