Share https://www.terrain.org/mp3/2015/may/Meek_Weiwitschia.mp3 The heart is a caldera of ash encircled by two wind-whipped leaves: what begins banner-broad as Miss Landmine’s sash ends in a pageant of feather-fray spiraling the stem’s terminal groove, tar-gray lips spongy as hot asphalt crowning what bore and bears it, a wind field’s drift of sand. With distance, they’re great hulking spiders hunching a limbless horizon, wind-raked debris, stacks of tattered carcasses, not what felled Welwitsch awestruck to his knees: mirabilis, miracle, this circle of siblings born five hundred years ago of a single freakish week of rain. Not bushes, but trees driven underground, five, ten, twenty sentient centuries they thrive off collision—morning’s fog belt an alchemy divined of desiccation and a current’s icy rise to a sabered coast rattling its outsized pearls, sea-smoothed stones and the knobby wreck of oysters pried open, clean as kneecaps. § Survival means living always in reverse: night-opening stomata, trunk a taproot plunging toward core, that interred star centering a planet warmed not by light but decay: U238, forty-five hundred million years a half life ghosting the age of Earth where surfacing terminates as discovery, as drilling fuses, No Entry’s freshly dug perimeter of signs jutting the park’s own rusting signage warning tourists against trespass, curiosity which killed a lichen field laboring centuries toward this very absence, the poise of ore trucks straight-lining horizon paused until the unearthing word— Okay. § What survives is made visible most for what scars it, field history endures as ox wagon tracks neatly scoring it still. A lichen’s fragility its strength: that it exists only as fusion, scaffold of fungus an alga feeds. But nothing’s singular; lop off either leaf, a welwitschia will never sprout a third, will remain always the flawed schism it never lost faith with. Welwitschia: in Nama, !kharos; in Herero, onyanga: desert onion. Because it isn’t landscape that starves. § Lebensraum, just a little elbow room—Konzentrationslager, a little space to disappear in. Nama. Herero. A little space for forgetting, century we were born to born here in genocide, all exits blocked but to thorn, waterholes poisoned, survivors strung into plots of barbed wire, narrative enthralling the young Hitler a halved world away— § Whether influence or confluence, inspire or conspire, like leads to like, desert by desert. Namib, Kalahari. Nothing singular. Nothing true twinned: Race hygiene. Bastard studies. Operations overt and covert, wars civil and cold: history a spectral arc so deeply dug, the desert’s pronged with sand-shrouded tiaras, the antlered plates of bounding mines; with blast mines forged to the span of the human palm, of baby carriage wheels ground puck-smooth, scattered like shattered spines, disks of some fossil species more or less human. But nothing’s fossil but the living here—Darwin’s term, living fossil, for the welwitschia, for what stalls at origin. What changes only circles: seasons clocked by arrival, fetal fists of cones unfurling. Pollination by flies. § Like butterfly feelers, the narrow shoots the cones top; like delicate antennae tuning the static hum of the world’s latest mined harbor. The human body needs no acoustic signature. Is both trigger and crutch. § Despite his urging a local name, the Academy ambered Welwitsch in Latin: welwitschia since conserved by military occupation, by colonial proclamation, by the serendipitous sowing of mines unharvested still. § Phantom by phantom, the desert unscrolls dualed leaves rind-thick and corrugated as the zinc roof held down by stones of a house a woman one morning walks away from, into a field suddenly percussive with light. To survive, the body will seal at the thigh, heal to a single bruise of air—a tenderness that lies only in the missing. https://www.terrain.org/mp3/2015/may/Meek_Protea.mp3 Protea lepidocarpodendron (Black-Bearded Protea) Silvermine Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa Each outsized bloom’s a cup on the cusp of inflorescence, flowers held at bay: half fist, half swan’s folded wing, each a downy clutch of quills dampered by cream bracts tipped a burgundy-black tattooing fading as my father’s did from recognition—18, shore-leave drunk, goading shipmates, still he chose the smallest in the book of offerings, what best to shrink away from: his bicep mucked a flowering he couldn’t name. To define that day’s place is to again dissolve in fog so thick its milky smoke stains, breathing in; even my hands clouded with descent that robbed all direction but the bite of jagged cliffs knived over sea, trail a question I failed to answer to until late afternoon’s clearing threaded me back to a now abandoned lot, everything missing where I’d stupidly stashed it: car lock you cracked, tires you slashed I drove to the rims, that metallic rattle on gravel the tin can-clatter ghost tailing me of the day I cast off my own name just to slip free of my father’s. In its first painting, only the bloom’s complete, that single specimen Bauer, at eighteenth century’s end, detailed down to the beaked outer bracts, leaves and stem left a faintly penciled gray. Unfinished as what I’ve failed to picture beyond descending mist steeled in a bivalve of silver light, my purse’s compact mirror: your face, your appraising eye I can’t catch as you sort camera from lip balm, passport from lunch sack you’ve eaten my peanut butter sandwich from even before you test the flashlight’s narrow beam, twisting its blue fashioned best to betray blood’s spattered trail to the night- vision red pitched to illumine charts that constellate what’s missing from Cape Town’s drained sky, what sundown disappears with the flats you came up from—tin houses bogged beyond the bright city grid that bleeds even your unelectrified sky blank as my pocket notebook you stack with the packet of tissues, nail file, hairbrush: play, I imagine, for your youngest. Truth? Even my photographs fog as much as flower what I sought that day, what Linnaeus christened to preserve his own good name, hedging uncertainty, species he knew solely through his period’s penchant for florilegia, not by the dissection of his own touch. Elusive he clouded allusive: Protea for Proteus, for that mythic shape-shifting, not for knowledge, future that men kept holding him down to. To be no one in a country that doesn’t care to know you is one version of home. Out of range but for one quartered second’s connection, a single text lit the cell I held exploratory, morphed aggressive, stomach liver bone brain Dad—message I must only have read as fragments, as crouched against the road’s view, you must have been deep in your own best work just then: crowbar, knife in hand. That undocumented night, as I braided my hair back in tangle for the photographs that would restore me to name and place, as I watched from my hotel window two friendly battleships nose into False Bay, the harbor sundowning to a shimmer of refracted light that would spill the dusk streets with crew-cut boys razored toward the end days of youth, did you picture me? Did you see them, Protea lepidocarpodendron, that rare stand only lost I finally found—bush after bush, every flower head’s pearly grail inked to what survives the poverty of night’s slow burn: near exhausted coals rinsed in morning to rescue what still might warm, the crumbling black bits at the heart. Was it you who patted them into cakes, soft fists mapped to the tracks in your palms a day’s winter sun would harden? So tenuous the hold of some Proteas, to dig the foundation for a single house could erase them forever from this earth. But the face you stole was paper, not bone, and whatever limit stamped my book, my father’s urging stay left me to witness what I’d crossed a world for, what I barely saw though all I did for weeks was look: that spectacle, spring. In one gold- shrouded view, desiccation and bloom; desert dunes morphed to meadows, Namaqualand daisies’ fringed wheels and succulents I could distinguish only by scale: some larger than my outstretched hand, some less than the tip of my thumb, as if what had shifted was only the matter of perspective, as white sand deepened to red fields at dusk—shattered stone starred by innumerable black eyes lashed electric white, neon blue, magenta bright as the King Protea, your nation’s flower rayed across every rand in that roll surely you pocketed first. Truth? I made it back for goodbye, and what I can’t let go is what I can’t know: how what’s held so long as seed can suddenly riot into bloom; how what’s stared directly down still eludes. And that second charge to the Cape Town McDonald’s, the last to blink through before my card cancelled: who you went back for to feed, your confederates, or your children. But truth’s what we tell when no one’s listening, and lacking more than the most rudimentary vocabulary for anatomy, or grace, hunger’s all I’m holding you to: brain, heart, bone. Sandra Meek is the author of four books of poems, most recently Road Scatter (Persea Books) and Biogeography, winner of the Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press), as well as editor of an anthology, Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad (Ninebark). Her fifth book of poems, An Ecology of Elsewhere, is forthcoming from Persea Books in May 2016. Photo of Welwitschia mirabilis, Namib Desert, by Sandra Meek.