Ghost Plants and the Slow Crisis / by Patrick Mainelli

The sky is, in fact, always falling. The center cannot hold, and all that. Tonight while we’re sleeping yet another hurricane—wild beyond precedent—will make landfall. Yesterday an earthquake in Mexico. Last week, that other storm, convulsing across that other paved and populated coastline. Meanwhile the smoke still rolls, thick and acrid, down the mountain in clouds so great that even here, five states removed from the flames, the sun is red stained, dull as the moon.

Of course, even calamities as telegenic as these aren’t vivid enough to push out of mind the malignancy that moves through the White House, threatening at all moments to manifest itself in ways inoperable, irrecoverable, apocalyptic.

To this I now add the knowledge that my identity has just been stolen—a phrase that now carries the oddly comforting suggestion of escape, of being unborn from times and circumstances quite like these. How much easier it would be, I wonder, to watch the world unravel if I were relieved of the details of my identity, left to read the news in peace, indifferent as the burning timber of trees. 

In the fall issue of n+1 someone named Jedediah Purdy says we’ve entered an age of “slow crisis, when the boundary between life and not-life continues to blur . . . Imagining the end of the world and imagining its ongoing life are now parts of the same everyday business.” This is more or less the territory I’ve been inhabiting lately. Somewhere in the last six months, ruminations of disaster have infiltrated my daily life, crowding my ability to appreciate otherwise small and pointless moments—afternoon light across a parking lot; my daughter’s fingers dusted in pink sidewalk chalk—without recognizing their essential connection to other moments and other forces (so many of them destructive) spread across this increasingly claustrophobic planet.

And still, oblivious to these uneasy details of my identity, the world does go on. The one thing we can goddamn depend on it for doing, age of extinction after age of extinction. Even in the barren chill of a nuclear winter there waits, patiently, the stubborn certainty of a nuclear spring.

I imagined such a season the other day, walking in the forest. There, shadowy on the edge of the trail, was a ghost plant. It has other names—Indian pipe, ice plant, Monotropa uniflora—but “ghost plant” comes closest to suggesting the strange spectral quality of the thing. The plant (only a few inches tall) pokes limp and corpselike from the soil, pale almost to the point of transparency, cold to the touch. Hold it in your hand long enough and it will melt through your fingers. Containing no chlorophyll, ghost plants can only create energy by exploiting an already existing mycorrhizal relationship between energy rich trees and the fungi populating their roots. While the fungus/tree relationship in mutually beneficial (nutrients traded for sugars) the ghost is a parasite plant. Thanks to the unknowable engineering of eons, the plant now manages to achieve what almost no other plant can, growing and flowering, season after season, in the near total darkness of a forest floor.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, this will be us. The collective us, in all our shapes and species. Emerging one day, all but lifeless, see-through, indifferent to the glow of a sun we can no longer see.  

Another name for the ghost plant is fit root, owing to its very old European use as a curative for “nervous complaints.” Even today, a contributor to the American Herbalists Guide online claims to have healed his friend’s fits of emotional convulsions with ghost plant:

Chuck took Ghost [plant] tincture at the onset of feelings of panic and overwhelm every day for the next two months or so. Then, one morning, he reached for the tincture, and saw an image of the plant in his mind and heard the plant telling him that he didn't need to take the tincture anymore. So he put the bottle down and focused on calling up the memory of what happened in his mind and his body when he took the medicine. Sure enough, he was able to shift in relation to the sources of his anxiety, examining them from the outside.”

I’ll have what Chuck’s having.

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