Excerpt – “The Plant Hunter”

Seed Magazine

Seed Magazine

The Sea Heart

 

It began with the Sea Heart, a glossy red thing like a chambered nut they found rolling in the waves. The water should have been cold on that Scottish island but wasn’t; it was as warm as a bath, although no one had troubled to notice this–no one but Thom and Clarabelle. They were standing side by side in the water, as usual, she with her skirts yanked up to the knees and her toes nudging his in the sand, when they spotted the Sea Heart bobbing.

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“Look!”

Thom let Clarabelle snatch it first. She ran a wet finger all around it, her tongue slipping between her teeth, then dropped it in his hand and demanded he tell.

Thom knew all about items like this, about seeds and geology and the stars; he was tall and lank and blushed too easily, and he was in terrible love with the botanical earth but in even worse love with Clarabelle.

“A drift-seed,” he told her, as they pondered it. An exotic seed that once hung in a pod on a vine in the Carib, then fell one day into a river, floated to sea, and drifted until it found the secret warm stream that flowed all the way from the tropics to Scotland.

Clarabelle sighed and took back the Sea Heart with her reddened fingers. The day was windy and grey, and the bluff behind them was bald; not a tree stood for miles. She looked hard at the thing in her hand. Then she gazed out to sea, and Thom gazed at her, at her downy cheeks and bright feral eyes, and he could tell that the Gulf Stream was seeping into her blood and riving her with desire for the tropics.

“But look,” he said quickly, to console her, “the Sea Heart might put out a root! With luck it shall clutch the soil and grow. Because the Gulf Stream makes the earth so warm here–”

“Makes it so secretly warm,” she said.

They looked at each other a moment, thinking. Because if the Sea Heart could grow there, couldn’t other plants, too? Palm trees, tree-ferns, philodendra, yuccas, the creatures he’d showed her in books? Clarabelle was gazing up and down the strand with her green eyes slit, envisioning. And in a flash Thom saw it too: the tropics could spring up all around them!

“I’d like it,” she whispered. She took his hand.

Well, he couldn’t just wait for seeds to wash up.

“There are–” he began, a little nervously.

She looked up with her freckled cheeks.

“There are men who go hunting exotics these days,” he said.

Because curious plants grew all over the earth–in Terra Australis, the Orient, Spanish America–and the Empire needed men to hunt them, young men whose brains sparked with Latin and whose bodies were built to endure, young men exactly like Thom. He could go out and fetch her the tropics himself.

Clarabelle looked at him, barely breathing.

“You’d like it?” he said.

She nodded, fast.

“I’d be gone a while.” He was suddenly worried.

“How long?”

“Maybe three years.”

But she broke into a crooked, glorious smile. “That’s nothing,” she said. “I can wait.”

But then perhaps she noticed his face. With great solemnity she placed the Sea Heart in his hand.

My heart,” she said, and gazed at him sweetly. Then her face twisted up wicked.

“And that’s not all,” she whispered, and smiled.

She bent and pulled him down as well and dipped his hand in the sea. With his finger she drew a wet line up her calf, and never had he felt anything so toothsome, and she made his finger slowly circle her knee, and then urged it evermore upwards . . . When his hand reached her skirts he glanced at her eyes, but they were shut dreamily, encouraging. So his hand crept upward inside her skirts to where it grew even warmer, and her own hand slipped into his trousers and began moving up and down, and the warm waves rolled in and splashed all around them, and his toes squeezed rhythmically at the sand, and his breath began to grow short and quick, and her Sea Heart glistened and gleamed on his palm, and an astonishing heat seemed to rise from his feet–but just then she stopped.

He stared at her, stricken.

“No,” she said hoarsely. “Not yet. Not yet. But when you come back and we marry, oh, then . . .”

A whole explosion of greenery! Exotical tropics would spring up all around them, palms and passion-fruits and yuccas and figs, twining all over their coast!

The Great Man, Sir B–

Thom met Sir B– in his private study, a museum of the Great Man’s own exploits when he’d first circled the globe. There was a stuffed kangaroo, a chorus of dried birds, a skull, a shriveled platypus; all over the walls hung prints of the exotics Sir B– himself had introduced: grevilleas, eucalypts, dicksonias. For it was just that, introducing. He and his hunters slithered on their bellies or shimmied up trees and plucked the healthiest specimen of pod or cone, then returned to Britain and introduced their finds to the world. These seeds that I have through mighty strain and toil produced . . .

Thom stood at attention as Sir B– examined him and then slit open the letter of recommendation. He had a terrifying face, pink and bulldog.

“So you desire to be a plant collector,” he said.

“I do,” said Thom.

On Sir B–’s desk were a globe and a porcelain teapot and teacup, from which he took a shaky sip. “You understand,” he said, “that while desire is crucial, it is far from enough. Your training, I see . . .”

But Thom’s training was found to be satisfactory. Under-gardener, private botanizer, extraordinary promise. Sir B– read the letter through twice.

“And you must have humility, too, you know,” he said, with a sharp look from under the eyebrows. “A plant hunter must not for an instant fancy that he differs from a servant. He must grow used to deprivation. And he must not,” he went on, “attend only to plants. He must examine the environs in toto, look closely at the bare edges of cliffs. He must see what rich veins of minerals lie there and consider the quality of the soil. He must feel the earth, taste it, know it!”

Of course Thom would feel it and taste it! He would know it and plunge himself into it! Just as, when he came home, he would truly know Cla–

“And of course,” said Sir B–, “a plant hunter is unattached.”

He looked at Thom with eyes that branded, and poured himself more tea.

Thom cleared his throat. “At the moment, indeed–”

“No,” roared the Great Man, the teacup clattering. “I have no interest in at the moment’s. This is a commitment few are offered. A plant hunter never thinks of himself! You either seize the matter whole, my boy, or . . .” He stared a hot moment, during which the clock ticked, and then his head returned to his papers.

Thom stood on the Oriental, and looked at the sad eyes of the kangaroo, and fumbled in his pocket for Clarabelle’s heart. He thought of her hand and how it had moved up and down in his trousers. He touched the heart privately, and wrapped his fingers around it.

“Yes,” he said. “I am unattached.”

Because who cared about lying? He was young, the world lay open, there was so much time for things to change.

Sir B–’s face lit. “Splendid! I thought so. A lover of curious, beautiful plants.” He gazed with satisfaction at Thom and then began shuffling through his papers. “Your terrain,” he said, “I think we shall start you with orchids in Brazil. Best to become used to the tropics straight off. And perhaps then the west of America for conifers . . . or Australia for fresh acacias . . . and perhaps if you do very well–” He looked at Thom thoughtfully, stroking his teapot.

“Four years?” said Clarabelle, when Thom came home to pack. This was longer than either had wagered.

But down at the dock, when he stood ready with his trunk full of measuring devices and galoshes, she pressed all her softness and bones warm against him.

“I’m a tarty thing, you know,” she whispered. “But I promise I’ll be true.”


The Plant Hunter
 

Then ropes were undone, sails flapped and filled, and the ship creaked and headed out to sea.

Once the dock and her small waving form had dissolved, Thom sat and began making notes. All of nature, I must have it in my ken! And then, and then, my Clarabelle.

He studied the horizon and calculated its distance in different climatic conditions. He took note of the varieties of algae and seaweed. He measured the currents, dipping beakers into the famous warm stream and transcribing its temperature, tasting its salt. As the warm water lapped around his tongue, he shut his eyes and pictured it lapping her knees.

My love, my love, he wrote to her. As we entered the Tropics, how the stars changed! Farewell to my known constellations. And the flying fish that flop upon deck, and the albatrosses that soar . . .

Don’t worry, he added. I will not shoot one.

My love, my love, she wrote back. Very interesting about the stars and the albatross. But I hope you’ve got my little heart in your pocket. And I hope you give it a rub sometime, hidden nicely away in your pocket?

In Brazil he was not met and made his own way. He was struck with fever almost at once, but this had been expected. It lasted only two weeks, and when it receded he was thinner and green, but, as he wrote, now accustomed to the climate. He hired an entourage and set off for the jungle.

There he slid on his belly through thick yellow mud to wrench tender bulbs from river banks. He shimmied up wet and sticky trees to reach bombastic creations that were as much frog as flower. He ran his finger up a long white throat and touched his tongue to the sweet drop at its tip.

He dug up plants and put them in pots: blushing cups, scarlet stars, passion flowers, blood leaves. These he transplanted in special glass cases, which in turn would be placed upon ships. Bligh’s man had done this, in Tahiti, with all the tiny breadfruit trees. The world was even younger then! But poor little plants: Mutinous sailors cast all eight hundred tender things into the deep Pacific.

Thom paused a moment, spade in hand, surrounded by lianas in the jungle, and pictured with a pang the little Tahitian treelings as they floated down, lost, through clear green water. He blinked, wiped his eyes, and continued to dig. He hoped his orchids and tiny plants would survive the long journey. Seeds, also, were to be sent, packed in wax or sugar. Together with drawings of the creature as it looked when alive, and the conditions in which it was happiest, and the uses the natives made of it. All to give Sir B— a sense of the prospects. The backs of many Africans, Indians, and mules were employed, for all the pots and greenery.

My love, my love, he wrote to Clarabelle. How you would like my glass cases. The green plant is laid gently within, and delicate ministrations are made, and soon the leaves unfurl and the plant breathes its sweet breath and releases its sap and then the glass walls themselves are flushed with the secret….

My love, my dear! she wrote with passion. The orchid has come and how I adore it! The tender full throat, the trembling lips, you should see how they part at the touch of my finger….

He remained in Brazil for seven months. He glanced now and then at the African women moving about in their clinging bright skirts, but it was no trouble to look away again.

You have done tol’rbly. well, wrote Sir B— when the Brazilian shipment arrived. Your orchids & bromeliads etc. are adequate, a quarter having surviv’d. You must be more frugal with funds, however, & am astonshd. to need to remnd. y. of this. Now go to Chile by way of the Argentine. We want fresh Araucarias. The one previously transmtd., which has givn. such delight in our gardens at Kew, has unfortuntly. perished, and our man Archibald in Chile is confin’d. Trouble with locals, own fault, not to worry. Note too the prospects for transpltg. gums.

The pampas were flat, and gray, and dull, and salty. The earth shimmered at the edges, and it was easy for Thom to imagine that he was not on land but at sea. Yet Pampas Indians rode by now and then, clutching horses between their bare legs; most were being shot at by Argentines. Thom kept his own head low and galloped.

When he reached the Andes, the lower slopes were manageable, although his breath grew short. Then there was a stretch through chest-high thorns, but the skin for the most part stayed on his body, excepting some fine strips along legs and forearms. After that, as he climbed, the trouble was principally the coldness and terrific pressure of the air; at a certain height his gums and nose bled. It was oddly tempting, he noted, to lie down in the snow, although of course he resisted this. A frozen mule was found at fifteen thousand feet; so too was a seashell, and the sight of it up there made him rock just a little.

Chile? she wrote. You’ve gone to Chile? Now you’re on another ocean! But send me back a monkey-puzzler tree. I’ve seen these and I want one. The spiny green teeth, you know. And is it true, she added, with blue ink that still glistened as if fresh from her hand, that the first monkey-puzzler came in a man’s trouser pocket? That’s what they say. Oh, picture. A sharp thing like that pricking in your pants….

Well, really it had just been a cone. Thom now was no longer in Chile but northwest America, where the streams were ice and he’d lost a toe to frostbite. He sat on his pallet, surrounded by pine trees. Carved atop the posts of her bed, she’d told him, were great lusty pinecones, rising up all around as she lay bare in her nightie. He slipped a cold hand in his pocket and found her warm Sea Heart, and shut his eyes, and thought of the sea, and her hand and his hand and the gleaming . . .

Chicook women were moving about, bending down to pluck things, light fires. But he looked at them no more than he had looked at the African women or the bare Patagonians. Or rather, he looked at them but then looked away. He got up and limped over to a sequoia, and slid a thumbnail into its soft pink trunk. The feel of the flesh made his palm tingle. Gently at first, but then not so gently, he pulled at the tree’s thick green hair.

Tolrbly. good colls. of pines, wrote Sir B—. Although am disapptd. with their condition. Salt spatter. High mortal’ty. of course expected but must take better care. Nvrtheless. collectors will be pleased w. this addition to their gardens etc. Now proceed round the horn to S. Africa. Unfrtntly. we’ve lost sight of our man Francis there and are wanting new proteas. Yr. services more than ever requr’d.

Cape Horn, as expected, was icy hell. Three times the ship set into the blast, three times it was flung back again. Sailors’ noses froze on their faces, and Thom’s ears froze as well. A piece of one snapped off in the wind, and he watched it disappear in the waves.

Oh no! she wrote. Not Africa! Three years already, my love, my love. But surely if you’re in Africa, next you’ll be on your way home? Your monkey-puzzler thrives, I should tell you, to say nothing of the passion-flowers…. But do you know, I’ve just seen something grand from Africa. They call it a cycad. Encephela something. Long brushy fronds sprouting from the center, but oh, the center, such a cone, you’ve never seen such a cone, my dear, on the male of the species I mean. So so high, a foot high at least, I could barely get my hand around it or even up and down the length of it, tho’ secretly as you’ve guessed I tried….

In Africa, while coaxing a protea from its soil, Thom encountered an enormous caterpillar and was stung, the result being the deadening of his arm. He looked down at the limp thing and thought of his lost toes (two) and the piece of his ear and the strips of skin on the brambles, and had a sudden odd sensation of himself scattering, of drift. He looked at the protea in his hand. Furred pink petals around a thistle of feathers. He looked at the others lying about uprooted, quietly awaiting transport. Few, of course, would survive.

He gave the matter some thought, then wrote: Most esteemed Sir (he had to take his left hand in his right and place it upon the paper), at the end of nearly four years I find myself with respect to physical capacities in reduced circumstances, and tho’ I make no complaint, as a plant hunter must expect such in his enterprise, still I beg that you consider relieving me….

WHAT! wrote the Great Man. After the trouble I and the Compny. have taken to train you? Do you not know how the French snap at our heels? Not only hv. they got cloves and nutmeg in hand but they hv. procur’d. the vanilla orchid, as well as the means to pollinate! Proceed straight to N. S. Wales. Our man Matthew aggravtgly. is lost, and we must at once learn more about trees. Inter al., nutritious palms to be removed to India, so we Brit. conquerors properly rever’d.

Before leaving Africa, Thom wandered the coast, looking out at the sea, and northward toward home. Suddenly he tripped over something large, and found it was a coco-seed. A gargantuan thing, with such a smooth and suggestive shape as to make him blush, yet so like his sweet little Sea Heart that he collapsed in the sand and wept.

After a time he stood up and wiped his runny nose. “Never mind,” he whispered. “A plant hunter thinks not of himself.”

Australia! she wrote. It will take a year just to get there and back! And it’s already been four years! Ah well. Ah well. Send me a tree fern. I’ve seen one and I like how it feels. Its trunk, you know, is beautifully furred. Like a big long muscley cat. I saw one in a hot-house Sunday last. One that belongs to Mr FitzP, you might remember Mr FitzP? I pressed my face against the trunk when nobody was about.

In fact, she added, I did more than that….

Thom shut his eyes, her letter in his hand. And for a whirling instant he felt melt together the white paper and the tree from whose flesh it was made and the soft hidden skin of her thigh, and he had to concentrate for the three to grow once more distinct.

In Australia, Thom trod upon blinding spinifex shores that sliced his soles and ankles. Along the coast he saw, carved into tree trunks, the names of ships and earlier hunters. The Mermaid, The Amity, Francis and Matthew.

Inland he navigated by way of bottles containing messages tied to trees. His Lordship’s surveyors attain’d. this point after four mos. of unremitting struggle…. The original inhabitants of the continent, their presence revealed by wisps of smoke, had subtler means of navigating, he knew. Stories sprang from the ground as their feet trod upon it.

At night Thom lay with his ear pressed to the earth, for he was lonely and longed to hear such a story. When he held his ear to a tree swaying in the wind, he heard the mutterings of its woody innards and the curious song of its roots….

Tall trees, wrote Sir B—. What we are looking for is tall trees and straight ones, we require new species at once.

Ah, masts. You could picture them looming up in his mind, masts all over the seas. Trees no sooner sent and grown up than they’d be chopped down again.

But funny he didn’t know those days were ending. Even Thom had a glimmer of that. Older trees, much much older trees, would be doing that job soon instead. Trees that had been dead for millions of years but whose corpses lay deep in the ground, black and fuming.

Incidently, Sir B— added. I shd. like you to procure a skull. Aboriginal, male or female, adult or child no mttr., but it must be polish’d. quite clean. Mine has fallen from shelf and shattrd. I acquird. it for a set of white linen drawers, so doubt you’ll enctr. difficulties.

The sun hung in the north in Australia, and Thom followed it, looking for tall, straight trees. Their lofty heads nodded to and fro in the glare, as they’d done for millions of years. He trod through mangroves and sand dunes, past the bloated bodies of whales. Beaked turtle skulls winked from the niches of caves where he slept; bottles clamored from the trees.

Once he looked up to see the body of a man high in the branches. A skeleton, just a few scraps of dried flesh. He hadn’t been hanged, he’d been placed there; it was his burial in the arms of a tree. Thom stood blinking up as the tree gently rocked the old bones.

In tropical rainforests insects whirred at his ears, tender young leeches strained to cling to his boots, chiggers bore through the soles of his feet. He sat on his pallet and pulled a foot up to look. Pinkish white foot, fishy and wrinkled and astonishingly tender, even if now missing three toes.

His own foot, the skin of his own foot: Suddenly he marveled. For the foot and the skin of the foot were no more, nor less, than one segment of the continuous envelope in which his mind sparked and swam. And there, living within that foot, were dozens of chiggers, each within its own tiny envelope, each with its own spark of mind.

In awe he looked down at his body. His belly and legs were speckled with pink bumps, and the hair on his head swarmed with Pediculus humanus, his lower nest with Phthirus pubis. Tiny creatures, tiny lice! All those sparks of mind! And he himself was host. He felt all at once rather strange and magnificent, as if he were a globe.

Where are you, then? she wrote. Tahiti? There are screw pines there, and bananas, I’ve seen them in FitzP’s (you do recall FitzP?), I’ve seen them in his hothouse. But we don’t need a hothouse. Do we! They will do perfectly well right here where I sit, where I have sat for the past five years, out here on the sand with my monkey-puzzlers and palms and the warm water round my ankles. The warm streams, though perhaps you’ve forgotten them, continue to lap round my ankles. And legs! In any case. Send me a screw-pine. Or banana! Musa something. And then soon, whenever you decide to come back, if you ever ever decide to come back, you shall find here that which you sailed out seeking, our own exotical paradise….

Well done, wrote the Great Man. Araucaria bidwillii mst. useful. And am grateful for the skull. I believe you’ve gaind. suffct. experience and are ready for the mission we’ve had in sight since the incptn. of our grd. enterprise.

One last journey, Thom wrote to Clarabelle, but already he marveled at his hand holding the pen, at the way the blue-black ink simply flowed. And where had the ink come from? And where would it go?

One last journey! she answered. And then you come home.


Tea

 

China, wrote Sir B—, has been hitherto impntrbl., the Chinese astonishingly impudent and refusing all requests for free int’rcourse. Camellia sinensis is what we want. Flowering shrubs all v. nice and your collectns. of florals all v. fine, but now we’re down to the nub of the thing, and what we must have is tea. Twenty thousd. plants. To be removd. to Hmlayas. Need I say in secrecy. May reqr. Chinaman disguise. I have grt. faith you can manage. Look for boy called N—.

Monsoons posed difficulties for a time, as did pirates in the open seas, but at last Thom’s ship managed to slink through them, and he made landfall in darkness. He shaved himself with a razor so dull that shreds of scalp came free; he acquired and wore a long black pigtail and a variety of robes. Quietly he found young N— and the usual assembly of servants and mules. They set off stealthily into the hills.

The tea plants were not difficult to find. Low shrubs with shiny pointed leaves, little white wintertime flowers. Soil, acidic; humidity, high. Uprooting them, potting them, presented no trouble.

Twenty thousand plants, though, are not easy to take from a country. It’s noticeable when they’re torn from the ground, even the very small ones. And it seemed the Chinese did not wish their tea taken.

At the first whooping that tore through the trees, as Thom and his entourage were digging and potting, he paused, in the mud, a spade in his good hand.

The servants and mules all scattered at once. It seemed possible that they’d been through this before. He and N— ran through the trees, the boy shrieking uncontrollably and rather unhelpfully. N— scamped away into the greenery at last, but Thom–missing toes and with just one good ear and an arm that was dead and could not help him through shrubbery–he was not so lithe.

The Chinese seized him. They shouted and knocked the spade from his hand and bound his arms behind his back. He could understand little of what they said, but of course that didn’t matter. They could see the ravaged tea plants and the famous glass cases, and his pigtail came off in their hands.

So they tied him to a tree. This did not bode well, Thom knew, yet it was a spotted lace-bark pine (Pinus bungeana), so he felt he had a friend at his back. From his tree he watched them debate the matter. He could not overlook how they sharpened their knives.

He sighed and gazed at the scenery. It was a lovely spot. Cupressus funebris, bleeding-heart, new species of rhododendron.

Thom had by this time walked 27,000 miles. He had trod across every drifting continent and climbed the major peaks; he had nearly drowned so many times they were all a single whirlpool. Aside from his lost toes and skin and ear and his limp arm, he had noticed lately that his vision grew dim.

After a time the Chinese reached a decision. They rose and walked toward him slowly, with smiles.

He hadn’t really expected better. He was, after all, a thief.

The designated fellow came near and whispered, and Thom smelled his curious breath. But then, quickly, the fellow sliced off Thom’s nose….

Of course, previous plant hunters had gone lost. Or at any rate not turned up again. Hadn’t he been following them all along? Francis and Allan and Archibald and David…. Perhaps they’d just cast away their clothes and wandered, having grown acclimated once more to the bare sun and the earth and the ravishing green life, and finding they needed so little?

The next day, the fellow removed Thom’s right ear. After a good deal of hooting at the state of his left one.

And on it went, next a joint of each finger.

Thom could imagine, as he stood bound to the tree and bits of him were sliced off, that he just drifted away. Fevers came, all melted in pain, and flies and ants and hallucinations. He imagined that he was not tied to the trunk but asleep up high in the branches. Perhaps they were his own peaceful bones up there, being rocked in the arms of the tree; perhaps it was his own polished skull gazing down from a shelf in the Great Man’s study. Thom turned his bloody, sticky head and pressed his cheek against the lace-bark, his last fingertip playing with the tree’s cool skin.

“Flesh of my flesh,” he whispered dreamily. He hoped Clarabelle wouldn’t mind.

And how would it end? Oh, predictable. Yet it seemed he could do with so little! And how wonderful, how strange, to lose bits of himself…. For all along so much had crept through him! More than making up for the losses. Dwelling in his feet and hair, sipping his blood, swimming his skeining innards.

Finally they came for his heart. There was not much left of him by then, yet that sad, hopeful organ beat on.

The tea plants were lying all around. Only a few were safe in glass cases; the roots of most were bare and drying. Twenty thousand little tea plants, quietly looking on. The Chinese hadn’t troubled about them at all.

The fellow came before Thom and grinned. Then he uttered a spectacular shriek.

And the last thing Thom thought as the knife flew up was that the tea’s little plant-souls were surely gone. They’d already joined the mutinied breadfruits, the orchids, the pink-feathered proteas, all the other plants lost at sea….

The knife came down with a flash.

When? she writes.

The blue ink is thin, the line a scratch at the end. The letter sits on a shelf in a Company storeroom. It will be joined by others, each placed atop the one before, dust and age softening the edges.

Because this is a very long time, you know. A very long time to wait. The full stop here has pierced the fibers. I’m not sure I can bear it. Oh I struggle, my love, to bear it!

I grow old, you know, she writes, more than once.

Perhaps you’ve gotten lost?

There are silences then, and the ink’s color changes, and so does the hand that writes the letters.

Ah my dear, my long lost dear. But don’t worry. I shall wait. All around me, you know, your tree-ferns are nodding…. And can you believe, some swam to shore the other day? Tossed overboard in a storm! There they were, like ruined mermaids, all along my strand. But I saved them, don’t worry, they shall root, they have found a place that’s warm….

As perhaps, I hope, somewhere, has my Sea Heart.

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