You may not believe this, but I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy the same week that a corpse flower bloomed on the campus where I teach. My brain clenched its metaphorical jaw as I paged grimly through the days of the Waterless Flood, picturing bodies melting in a hot, apocalyptic landscape where people still texted with cellphones—just like us—until they couldn’t. I imagined the stink of it (which Atwood doesn’t, actually, describe very much): billions of people rotting in their houses, in the half-looted stores, in the cars that couldn’t take them anywhere far enough, fast enough, to get away. What a glut-fest for scavengers and decomposers. Atwood mentions vultures, and crows, and a bunch of weirdly bio-engineered animals but I’ve been around enough feedlots to think, my god, the flies. I’m not talking about the handful or two of maggots that one character hoards for protein or to cleanse festering flesh wounds. These would be flies like a 1930s black blizzard, like Orestes’ furies advancing on an exponential curve. Flies bubbling up from extinction’s debris field.
Meanwhile, back at the Ag School, the 15-year-old titan arum in its hothouse pot shoved out a bud the size of a thumbnail, a fist, a football, and then by the end of the week it was a 52-inch-high blossom. The spathe belled like an upside-down Edwardian skirt with a bit of scab-colored fringe along the hem and brandished a wicked looking spadix like a cross between a baguette and a bloody lance. A friend first shared news of the full bloom on Facebook but I was offline then, still reading Atwood, chuckling a little over St. Wayne Grady of Vultures, St. Maria Sibylla Merian of Insect Metamorphosis Day, and trying to decide how to actually pronounce CorpSeCorps aloud.
Corpse flowers don’t bloom on any regular schedule and it takes a decade or so after germination before a plant will be ready for its first inflorescence. When they do come to flower, the bloom lasts for only a day or two and then collapses, so if you want to see the largest inflorescence in the world you need to scoot. As soon as I saw posts about the bloom, I “liked” everybody, fast, and then drove straight to campus. I hurried past the Insect Zoo, past a couple of wrought iron benches lounging beneath an old cottonwood tree, following little laminated signs pointing the way: Corpse Flower ↗. All morning people kept arriving, taking selfies of themselves with the main attraction; it was a holiday atmosphere, maybe a little warmup for the excitement that will stream across the continent in August, as the solar eclipse lays down a 60-mile wide swath of roughly two minutes of weird but manageable darkness.
I had heard of corpse flowers before but had no idea one was under cultivation here, practically under my own nose. The horticultural greenhouses are mostly full of wheat and doctoral students, and occasionally administrators who fight over the space. I’d never been there, even though it’s on my route to work, midway between the construction site of the National Bio- and Agricultural Defense Facility where—I kid you not, America—they plan to study Foot and Mouth Disease in a Bio-Safety Level 4 research facility planted smack dab in the middle of the nation’s ranchlands, fifteen miles from Ft. Riley’s ground-zero arrival of the 1918 Spanish Influenza—remember that? Twenty to 40 million people dead and it started right here?—like I say, midway between NBAF and, ahem, the English Department.
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Man, what a stink.
Last month I stood in the Farmers Market—this is Kansas, America, and we know how just thinking about that can make the head spin; the state has been home to the Progressives, Carrie Nation, Nicodemus, Likeable Ike, Despicable Kobach, and Brownback’s lax tax law that allows individuals to claim that they’re corporations (making all their income tax-free)—and I looked around the friendly faces, the women and men I buy food from each week and reminded myself how, out of 105 counties, only two rejected a President Trump, only two, and mine—ours—wasn’t among them.
But it has now been six months since the election. And as the planet rolled the northern hemisphere back into the brighter scrutiny of summer daylight, we’ve come to realize we’re in this for the long haul, this shit isn’t pretty, no one said it would be easy, &cetera and so forth. Human venality and bigotry and cruelty are endemic diseases of the planet, we know that, and in case anyone needed reminding, the myth of American exceptionalism was a dream that, if it ever had roots in the soil, got GMO’d into a cash crop years ago.
Atwood’s trilogies play out in a globalized world where the very concept of the nation state has been bought out by capitalism. The Corporations run the show in the economic bifurcation of Corporation Compounds and Pleeblands. It’s all about branding and products, collusive secrecy and distraction. And the Corporations Security Corporation, the CorpSeCorps, well, they’re the gun in the pocket of the man, so to speak; nothing about law, plenty about disorder. It’s easy to see how one brilliant kid—Glenn, who renames himself Crake after an extinct bird—would want to engineer a more perfect hominid and wipe every human face off the face of the earth. It’s easy to see how the CorpSeCorps world would—unwittingly—enable his plan. But it’s harder to see how islands of resistance move and evolve, and, as the trilogy’s narrative shifts perspective to retell, again, what has already gone before, it’s really hard to guess where the story will go next.
In their native Sumatra, corpse flowers are pollinated by carrion beetles and flies drawn to the throat-closing stink of dead flesh. Deep inside the vegetable chamber of the bloom, the temperature can rise above the surrounding air, so the insects may get a sense of putrefaction in the heat as well as the smell. But there weren’t any corpse-sipping flies in the greenhouse, flitting from one giant stink to the next. So as the blossom closed in the fetid air, the professor in charge took a little set of tools—a pumpkin carving kit, he told me—and opened a couple of windows in the base of the spathe. Inside, we could see the individual inflorescences looking like fungus or coral. He’d been hoping the curator of another titan arum would send him pollen he could use to artificially pollinate the plant, but that hadn’t worked out. Now he was harvesting some from this specimen to set aside, he said, “So I’ll have currency. Something to trade whenever it blooms again.”
America, are you wondering why I am telling you this story?
“Write when you get work,” my father used to say just before I’d take off on some trip: the year I went to Scotland to end up near-hypothermic in a kayak class near Loch Ness, or my first time in Mexico when every word of Spanish I tried to wield came out with a French accent and people thought I must be Canadian. My dad grew up poor in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, a boy who hoed and picked cotton, who had known men so utterly broken and discarded by the nation that they wound up at my grandmother’s back door, hat literally in hand, asking “Ma’am, do you have any work I could do?” hoping to be able sit down for a hot meal when the job was through. So years later, he enjoyed the luxury of the joke. It was a sentence, he must have thought, from a world we’d left behind.
“Keep those cards and letters coming,” he used to say. But my father doesn’t write back anymore. He has shut down, fallen silent, turned to gaze somewhere, or sometime, else.
So America, I am writing home. I’m writing to you—home from the confounding always-already-otherness that home has become. There’s a whole lot of hard work to be done and a lot of us—honestly—have been reeling around, trying to recapture a sense of direction. We’re dismayed and heartbroken and lonely and furious. But I’m never comfortable in the simple algebra of allegory; I’m not offering these paragraphs as either a feel-good pep rally or an invitation to snuff out hope in some dystopian sandbox.
A fly has perched on my knee while I’ve been typing. It did fly-ablutions, first rubbing front legs together, then rubbing its eyes. It shifted position—crow pose—balancing on its front two pairs of legs while rubbing its body with the pair in back. I think a lot about rot and corruption and stench these days, but the corpse flower was beautiful, really, and over the period of its bloom I went to see it three times. The species isn’t listed globally as endangered, but it’s considered “vulnerable” and its existence could become far more precarious if there’s continued habitat loss. Which is to say, it will, in the almost-certain future: corpse flowers grow where the most rapid deforestation on earth is taking place.
And shouldn’t we assume that is the state of everything we love: vulnerable, and subject to change? You, too, America. You, too. In more ways than either of us realized.