I visited the Big Island of Hawaii some years ago. While there, I walked across one of the more recent lava fields, the flow from the volcano having obliterated the meadows and roads it had crept across.
The air-bubbled blackness crunched under my shoes, sounding gritty and like nothing else I had ever encountered. At the far edges of the lava field, life went on unconcerned. The greenery that had been there before the eruption still existed—grass, trees, flowers waving in the tropical breeze and moisture beading from the daily showers. It seemed a sharply defined demarcation between the resolute death that the lava had caused, and the lucky ecosystems that had escaped it.
Then a tiny patch of green caught my eye. Hurrying forward, I spied a small fern growing from a crack in the seemingly lifeless regolith. It was vivid emerald, healthy, strong. As I looked at it, I felt I had time-travelled; this was how life had begun on this planet. From the bombardment of space rocks, from the endless explosions and expulsions of lava, life yet found a way. Hiding in cooled cracks, seeking the calmer edges of the violence of a young Earth, ferns began to break down the monolithic slag into fertile soils that allowed other plants to flourish, and from there, all other life.
Much closer to home, there is a lone rhododendron in my back yard. It had been planted by the previous owners in full sun, in a dry patch of earth, and within full exposure to the elements (avid gardeners among you no doubt just cringed). For the uninitiated, rhodies—sometimes called “mountain laurel” here in the southeast, though they are separate species—require shade, moist conditions, and at least some protection from winter ice and summer heat. This plant had none of those protections. And yet, somehow it had endured for years, though it grew weaker and more frail with every passing season.
My residency is recent, and so, watching this valiant plant put forth showy blossoms last year and this, I thought I might attempt a transplant to a more welcoming spot in the shade—always a risk with an established rhododendron under the best of circumstances. A branch of the rhodie’s trunk was dead wood, and when I removed it, I discovered that the remaining live wood, at the plant’s base, had a divot in it that had rendered the three-inch trunk no more than half an inch thick in that spot.
In other words, any attempt on my part to move this plant would result in its demise.
Gardeners among you will no doubt relate to the twin emotions of frustration and resignation that we plant lovers must cede to the vagaries of nature. Generally being a glass-half-full kind of person, I chose to enjoy this plant in what was likely its final season, as the winters here can be icy and window-rattling windy; I expect that the rhodie will snap off at some point this coming December or January.
I could stake it, certainly, but without a move to the shade, it will continue to languish, its inevitable death prolonged. One might debate the nervous systems of plants as being irrelevant in this situation, and simply perform those “heroic” measures, or conversely just yank it out of the ground and plant something more suitable to the sunny site, like a Buddleia davidii (commonly known as a “butterfly bush”).
The picture of the blossom that accompanies this article is from that life-challenged rhododendron, and the entire bush lit up with many more identical blooms as the spring progressed. Yank it? No. I might stake it, but at the moment my inclination is to let it continue its natural progression and close the circle of its existence. Since it has already surprised me once, who knows? It may survive the ice and snow, defying the odds to give me yet another spring showcase.
There is a perspective to be gained from these two, not uncommon examples—the fern and the rhododendron. Spend any time on a social media platform and you might conclude that the most vexing problem facing humanity today is that Facebook changed to a different shade of blue. A big brain does not guarantee a smooth existence, but it does seem to create an expectation of such.
And then we have the tiny, primitive fern struggling up through the crack in the former death of the lava field, or the intrepid rhodie thumbing its metaphorical nose at uninformed gardeners, both getting on with the job of living their lives under whatever conditions have been dealt them. In no other species does an organism simply give up, until a tipping point has been reached.
And no matter how often or loudly we complain about out cell phones not connecting to Wi-Fi fast enough, or having to sit in traffic as we travel to and from our jobs, when it gets down to it—when we face that thinned trunk or that impending lava field, we will fight.
Until we know we can fight no more.