The porch that supports me and my coffee mug lifts from padded earth with three shallow stairs made of wood boards. I am surrounded by spectacular greenery, and the non-silent silence of the countryside.
I study the details: an old habit that the pandemic has amplified. Ahead, across the pebble driveway, a square of tall grass and flowers, groomed, beautiful. It demands attention. Beyond it, a slice of forest. The sky dips into it. My feet rest on the last step, my back is against the chop of wood that makes the rail. The wooden board on the ground spreads taut, bleached, cracked, and details the shape of feet with red toenails. A crushed weed springs from one of the board’s cracks at my left. It’s a sad little plant.
It is our first getaway since the pandemic. My boyfriend is still asleep two feet from me, inside the tiny cabin we rented somewhere driving distance from New York City.
That slice of forest: the sun plays patterns on the tops of evergreens. That cube of tall grass and flowers: purple, yellow, white. And green. So much green. The crushed weed. My red-painted toe touches its leaves.
I have stepped on it. It is obvious. My boyfriend probably also has. The cabin owners who prepped for our arrival: no doubt.
A small bird flies at an angle out of the cube and disappears into sunshine. A bee follows, but cuts towards me. I swing at it. It insists. A swell of cicada.
Five leaves: four fanned into a bottom line along the boards-made horizon, the fifth alone describing the other pole. Together, they have something of the posture of an octopus flailing her arms behind an alien head. They hover in an artificial parallel line above the boards, with small pyramids dipping in — the result of feet. Longitudinal creases make each of the leaves look like badly folded paper. The head has suffered a hole torn right through its middle.
I finish my coffee. I go inside and kiss my waking boyfriend and say good morning. We go hike through beautiful places.
On its own, without the context of this cabin, without the implicit countryside charm, and unlike everything else around me, this weed is not pretty. The leaves are too large for the fragile stem. Their green does not expand smoothly: it is blotched and fizzles into unseemly dry spots. Its very design looks confused, a mishmash of ideas. Besides human feet, there is damage from the pressure of the wooden boards. I have seen this weed everywhere where nature is not completely redesigned or eliminated. It grows in spite of everything, not because of.
The next morning, I am back on the porch, sipping coffee.
The weed looks a bit like a basil plant that has never figured out its place in the world. Why is it here and not across the driveway? Why not along one of the waterfalls we explored yesterday? Why not in the patches of grass beside the wooden boards and around the cabin?
But it doesn’t have a choice over such matters, of course. It does what it has to do, part of a greater design that demands survival.
I finish my coffee. We go on another hike.
There is an easy symbolism for the weed’s existence: it represents survival at all costs. A human can notice a weed springing from the crack of an aged board and remember that life always has a way.
This bothers me. The more I think about it, the more it does. In fact, I find the idea repulsive. Symbolism of this sort relies on the human capacity for ideation; it validates the human need for survival and nothing else; it is self-serving; it has nothing to do with the plant itself. Survival at all costs as symbolism: it misses the case for the weed’s existence in its own peculiar circumstances and for its own sake. Because we’ll take the symbolism and discard the plant.
The boyfriend joins me on the porch with his own coffee. Good morning! Good morning, baby. We inhale sunshine and feel the green air. What’s the plan for today?
The next morning, we drive back to the city.
I’d like to believe that the weed caught between the boards of the porch steps of the tiny cabin knows delights that my mind cannot imagine. The sun licking its leaves? Perhaps, but that’s something that the well-attended, well-admired cube of grass and flowers across the driveway also know. The drop of water sprinkled by mistake at the right time? Same.
What could it know that they never would? Maybe a rush of water from a storm that pushes its way through the cracks and into the packed earth underneath the stairs? The water hovers, gloss and swell, until the earth sucks it in, gradually or all at once, expands and the wood with it, the weed caught in a tumult of experience that the cube across the driveway will never feel. Or the push of the wooded boards? Their pressure must hold some force that these flowers can’t possibly know. The trample of the human foot? It induces excitement; it must. A short life, threatened by extinction: does it deliver some magic unimaginable to other creatures living in less restrictive environments? Is the cube the most restrictive of all because of constant human tending and trimming, and the need for aesthetics? What happened to the weeds within it? Of course, I know that answer.
We are back in the city. We drop off the rental car. I kiss my boyfriend goodbye and drag the carryon luggage that hasn’t seen a plane in months through damaged city sidewalks back to my apartment and it rolls right over crushed weeds grown out of the many cracks in the city asphalt.