The Life of a Houseplant by Matt Berman

What I’m thinking as I pack everything I own into the bed of my pickup—again—is that my houseplant has been through a lot. It’s a seven-year-old jade, and it’s never lived in any house longer than five months before having to move again.

jade plant few leaves with rain drops on window behind

chefranden/flickr creative commons

That’s my fault; I’m a seasonal worker, and I’ve moved every spring and every fall for the last twelve years. I’ve sprinkled my houseplant’s base with the coolest tiny treasures I’d found on my never-ending road trip—a pure quartz crystal from Washington, an agate from California, petrified wood from Wyoming—and put my plant in the space a passenger’s feet would normally take up. Regardless of her sensitivities to extremes of heat and cold and sun, she was happy to go along for the ride, so long as I secured her pot well, squeezing it in between boxes and blankets, so that she didn’t tip over, even on the sharpest turns.

When I first met my jade’s mother, she was dying.

“Don’t water that, dude,” Alex said the day he caught me watering out of pity. “It’s a desert plant.” I couldn’t tell Alex anything. He had the over-confidence of a man who’d already developed a passionate regret for more than one of the tattoos he’d been adorned with as a teenager.

“I worked at a nursery in college,” he said. “When the leaves turn red, that’s a good sign.”

“Those leaves are beyond red,” I told Alex. “They’re dying of thirst.”

“It doesn’t need water. It’s a desert plant.” Alex had apparently never spent time in the desert, where monsoons periodically dump so much rain, so quickly, that the water accumulates into flash floods that briefly flow like violent rivers before disappearing again into the sand. Desert plants are adapted to take advantage of those sudden abundances of water. That day I took a small cutting from the top of Alex’s plant.

Driving north toward Flagstaff, Arizona, the Coconino National Forest sign looks mighty ironic set against desert hills with hardly a substantial tree in sight. “Some forest, huh, plant?” She was baking in the heat of the car even with the AC on. “20 percent of the trip down,” I said. “Just 800-something miles left.” The last time we’d moved on this scale was three months earlier, when I left Northern California for Tucson, Arizona, a thousand miles away. And I’d just moved to Eureka, three months before that, from Grand Teton National Park, in Northwest Wyoming, also a journey of about a thousand miles. My plant liked Eureka the best of all our homes, with its moderate, coastal climate, where the sun was never strong enough to damage her leaves. I hoped she would like where we’re moving to next: Mineral, California, on the line between the Northern Sierras and the Southern Cascades.

As we climbed up the Coconino, and ponderosa pines took over, I pointed them out to my houseplant. “Look at those huge trees, blowing over like that in that wind.” Up until now we’ve been driving north and so the jade was protected by the shade of my car’s roof. As we headed west from Flagstaff, though, into the afternoon, we both started taking on a lot more sun.

Down the other side of the elevated plateau, near the town of Ashfork, the trees turned to junipers and again I prodded my plant. “Look. Desert plants.” Then we laughed about water, how the plants had adapted to take it or leave it.

As the day turned to night and we drove into the Mojave, a true desert, our laughter receded. The hills looked barren, stripped of vegetation by the sun and the heat and the lack of water. The land there was harsh, and it would quickly overwhelm any creature not evolved to handle its pressures. My jade and I felt humbled, exposed, precariously perched on a slim sliver of life. We just hoped we could make it through, as there was no option to stop there.

That forlorn feeling of the desert continued as we traveled up the gut of California, from Bakersfield north to Chico. That’s where the road trip grew old, where I stopped talking to my plant, and where I started wishing I was at the house in Mineral already, or down on the California Coast after that, somewhere, at least, for a minute. When I stopped to get gas, I pulled out the reflective visor to block out the desert sun and accidentally tore a few succulent leaves from my jade, leaving them unevenly tattered instead of perfect and round.

With tired eyes and the brain of a zombie, I drove northeast out of Chico on Highway 32 and the desert immediately dropped away.  We’d traveled far enough north, and gained enough elevation to reenter the habitable zone, where we felt comfortable again because the air was cooler and trees blocked most of the sun.

We found our new house, the one we will live in from June to October, to be guarded by massive Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, one of them six feet thick through and two hundred feet tall. The cool air smelled of woodstove fires. I figured I could safely leave my jade there for a few weeks while I traveled down to the coast to visit my girlfriend Carrie, and as I went to Kentucky to take a week of classes, before coming back up to Mineral to start the summer.

The good thing about houseplants is that you don’t have to treat them like pets. They don’t need much in the way of food or attention. All they need is the occasional flash flood. But they can take to the road, too, and experience each place they visit, even if they can’t tell their side of the story.

matthew berman with a fruitFor the last 10 years, Matt Berman has written short stories about travel, work and the world, bringing far-away readers into engaging natural world settings and real-life drama.  Since earning his bachelor’s degree studying Media Communications at the University of New Hampshire, he has worked seasonally on trail crews in America’s National Parks, from the Grand Canyon to the Grand Tetons. His experience working outdoors in these natural cathedrals drives him to write. He writes about the physical interactions people make with the planet and how those bonds create meaning. Matt is currently enrolled in Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Non-Fiction in Louisville, Kentucky.

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  • John Redmond

    Matt–

    Place and landscape are certainly important. Somehow they help us define and understand ourselves. My parents were living in Estes Park, Colorado when I was born. I spent my first five years there, and returned in my 40’s. I couldn’t believe how much Longs Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park had imprinted themselves upon my soul. I can’t seem to be happy now away from mountains, and always seek them out wherever I go. I am sure in your wanderings you and jade have found some special places, too.