Share https://www.terrain.org/mp3/2015/may/Meek_Weiwitschia.mp3The heart is a caldera of ash encircled by two wind-whipped leaves: what beginsbanner-broad as Miss Landmine’s sash ends in a pageant of feather-fray spiraling the stem’sterminal groove, tar-gray lips spongy as hot asphalt crowning what boreand bears it, a wind field’s drift of sand. With distance, they’re great hulking spidershunching a limbless horizon, wind-raked debris, stacks of tattered carcasses, not what felled Welwitschawestruck to his knees: mirabilis, miracle, this circle of siblings bornfive hundred years ago of a single freakish week of rain. Not bushes, but treesdriven underground, five, ten, twenty sentient centuries they thriveoff collision—morning’s fog belt an alchemy divined of desiccation and a current’sicy rise to a sabered coast rattling its outsized pearls, sea-smoothed stonesand the knobby wreck of oysters pried open, cleanas kneecaps. § Survival means livingalways in reverse: night-opening stomata, trunk a taprootplunging toward core, that interred star centering a planet warmed not by lightbut decay: U238, forty-five hundred million years a half life ghosting the ageof Earth where surfacing terminates as discovery, as drillingfuses, No Entry’s freshly dug perimeter of signs jutting the park’s ownrusting signage warning tourists against trespass, curiosity which killeda lichen field laboring centuries toward this very absence, the poiseof ore trucks straight-lining horizon paused until the unearthing word—Okay. § What survives is made visible most for what scars it, fieldhistory endures as ox wagon tracks neatly scoring it still. A lichen’s fragilityits strength: that it exists only as fusion, scaffold of fungusan alga feeds. But nothing’s singular; lop off either leaf, a welwitschiawill never sprout a third, will remain always the flawed schismit 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 spaceto disappear in. Nama. Herero. A little spacefor forgetting, century we were born toborn here in genocide, all exits blockedbut to thorn, waterholes poisoned, survivorsstrung into plots of barbed wire, narrativeenthralling the young Hitler a halved worldaway— § Whether influence or confluence, inspireor conspire, like leads to like, desert by desert. Namib,Kalahari. Nothing singular. Nothing truetwinned: Race hygiene. Bastard studies. Operations overtand covert, wars civil and cold: history a spectral arcso deeply dug, the desert’s pronged with sand-shrouded tiaras, the antlered platesof bounding mines; with blast mines forged to the span of the humanpalm, of baby carriage wheels ground puck-smooth, scatteredlike shattered spines, disks of some fossil species moreor 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 onlycircles: seasons clocked by arrival, fetal fists of cones unfurling. Pollinationby flies. § Like butterfly feelers, the narrow shoots the cones top; like delicate antennaetuning the static hum of the world’s latest mined harbor. The human bodyneeds no acoustic signature. Is both trigger and crutch. § Despite his urging a local name, the Academy ambered Welwitsch in Latin: welwitschia since conservedby military occupation, by colonial proclamation, by the serendipitous sowing of minesunharvested still. § Phantom by phantom, the desert unscrolls dualed leaves rind-thick and corrugatedas the zinc roof held down by stones of a house a woman one morningwalks away from, into a field suddenly percussive with light.To survive, the body will seal at the thigh, healto a single bruise of air—a tenderness that liesonly in the missing. https://www.terrain.org/mp3/2015/may/Meek_Protea.mp3Protea lepidocarpodendron (Black-Bearded Protea) Silvermine Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa Each outsized bloom’s a cup on the cusp of inflorescence, flowersheld at bay: half fist, half swan’s folded wing, each a downy clutchof quills dampered by cream bracts tipped a burgundy-black tattooingfading as my father’s did from recognition—18, shore-leave drunk, goadingshipmates, still he chose the smallest in the book of offerings, what best to shrinkaway from: his bicep mucked a flowering he couldn’t name. To definethat day’s place is to again dissolve in fog so thick its milky smokestains, breathing in; even my hands clouded with descent that robbedall direction but the bite of jagged cliffs knived over sea, trail a questionI failed to answer to until late afternoon’s clearing threaded me backto a now abandoned lot, everything missing where I’dstupidly stashed it: car lock you cracked, tires you slashed Idrove to the rims, that metallic rattle on gravel the tin can-clatter ghost tailing meof 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 specimenBauer, at eighteenth century’s end, detailed down to the beakedouter bracts, leaves and stem left a faintly penciled gray. Unfinishedas what I’ve failed to picture beyond descending miststeeled in a bivalve of silver light, my purse’s compact mirror: your face,your appraising eye I can’t catch as you sort camerafrom lip balm, passport from lunch sack you’ve eaten my peanut buttersandwich from even before you test the flashlight’s narrow beam, twisting its blue fashioned bestto betray blood’s spattered trail to the night- vision red pitched to illuminecharts that constellate what’s missing from Cape Town’s drained sky, what sundown disappearswith the flats you came up from—tin houses bogged beyond the bright city grid that bleedseven your unelectrified sky blank as my pocket notebook you stack with the packetof 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 christenedto preserve his own good name, hedging uncertainty, species he knew solely through his period’spenchant for florilegia, not by the dissection of his own touch. Elusive he cloudedallusive: Protea for Proteus, for that mythic shape-shifting, notfor knowledge, future that men kept holding him down to. To be no onein a country that doesn’t care to know you is one version of home. Out of rangebut for one quartered second’s connection, a single text lit the cellI held exploratory, morphed aggressive, stomach liver bone brainDad—message I must only have read as fragments, as crouched againstthe 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 tanglefor the photographs that would restore me to name and place, as I watchedfrom my hotel window two friendly battleships nose into False Bay, the harbor sundowningto a shimmer of refracted light that would spill the dusk streets with crew-cut boys razoredtoward the end days of youth, did you picture me? Did you seethem, Protea lepidocarpodendron, that rare stand only lost I finally found—bushafter bush, every flower head’s pearly grail inked to what survives the povertyof night’s slow burn: near exhausted coals rinsed in morning to rescue what stillmight warm, the crumbling black bits at the heart. Was it you who patted theminto cakes, soft fists mapped to the tracks in your palms a day’s winter sunwould harden? So tenuous the hold of some Proteas, to dig the foundationfor a single house could erase them forever from this earth. But the face you stolewas 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 sawthough all I did for weeks was look: that spectacle, spring. In one gold-shrouded view, desiccation and bloom; desert dunes morphedto meadows, Namaqualand daisies’ fringed wheels and succulents I could distinguishonly by scale: some larger than my outstretched hand, some less than the tip of my thumb, as ifwhat had shifted was only the matter of perspective, as white sand deepenedto red fields at dusk—shattered stone starred by innumerable black eyes lashed electricwhite, neon blue, magenta bright as the King Protea, your nation’s flowerrayed across every rand in that roll surely you pocketed first.Truth? I made it back for goodbye, and what I can’t let gois what I can’t know: how what’s heldso long as seed can suddenly riot into bloom; how what’s stared directly downstill eludes. And that second charge to the Cape Town McDonald’s, the last to blink throughbefore my card cancelled: who you went back for to feed, your confederates, oryour children. But truth’s what we tell when no one’s listening, and lackingmore than the most rudimentary vocabulary for anatomy, or grace, hunger’s allI’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.