Back to the Garden

Prose, Photos + Videos by Gretchen VanWormer

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The garden is good at fulfilling the peculiar fantasy that language captures nature. Very Genesis. You practically get to name the animals.

A mother-and-daughter duo stands by the Water Garden, contemplating the koi and shubunkin that slip through the pond at the bottom of a stone waterfall. Calla lilies and bee balm. The two might be Mennonite—both wear conservative dresses, the little girl in soft pink, Mom in gray. The girl’s hair is in two long braids; Mom’s hair is partially covered in a gauzy, white fabric. I dragged my stocky binoculars to the Botanic Garden at Oklahoma State University in search of something like prayer, after a month of Sundays at local churches left me pining for my former church-love, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.: a space so cavernous that I could duck the church ladies, and so old that, after the service, I could wander the crypts, run my hand over Helen Keller’s polished penny of a plaque, and make the slow climb back into daylight, where I’d listen to the thistle fountain and nose my way through the roses.

Late May in Oklahoma is humid and buggy; sweat pools on the insides of my knees, elbows. I am feeding every mosquito in creation. I sit on the metal bench behind this duo, pretending not to snoop.

“Oh, it’s no fair that the fish stay cool and I don’t,” the little girl says.

“Well I’m sorry the Lord didn’t see fit to make you a fish,” Mom says.

The girl leans over the shallow pond; Mom warns her not to stick her hand in the water. The fish might mistake her fingers for a light snack, though they wouldn’t mean to hurt her, they’d just be peckish.

We’ve had strong storms in Oklahoma these past weeks—the tail end of tornado season. Earlier I noticed the gravel had washed away from parts of the path, revealing the black canvas beneath. The seams of this garden.

“Would you rather be a fish and stay in there while the thunder storms, too?” Mom says.

“No,” the girl says, scooching closer to her mother.

The Lord has a plan, and that plan does not involve soaking your dress in pond shit. The two wander on down the path, toward the Shade Garden. I resist the urge to plunge my own hand into this murky, baptismal font.

My mom is a plant junkie; she asks my stepfather to pull over if she sees a flower she can’t name. She recently traded her car for a truck because the bed can transport great volumes of mulch and potting soil and fancy palms. When my parents retired, they moved from Vermont to North Carolina, in no small part because of the longer growing season. Walking this Oklahoma garden reminds me of humid trips to the local greenhouse in Vermont, when Mom was plotting her summer garden.

I wish the tiny Prairie Restoration Project by the south entrance were as swoony as the open prairie, but of course, this is not the case. I do love the restoration’s big bluestem, growing taller by the minute, seedheads like a turkey’s foot. Wildflowers keep popping up: butterfly weed, Indian blanket, pink evening primrose. Instead of majestic bison, though, squirrels roam these grasses. And folks are geocaching in a birdhouse at the edge of the field. I pull a white strip of paper out of the birdhouse, review the list of names. Knowing “Trevinator” was here on 3/8 does somewhat spoil the romance of the prairie.

I wander the mulched path through the prairie and note a fiery searcher—a gorgeous, metallic green beetle with hints of blue and gold—who has gone to that great burrow in the sky. Then, through the tangled grasses, the searcher’s food: several caterpillars inching their way up thick stems. The caterpillars are electric green, with black stripes and circles of yellow and orange. Future white-lined sphinx moths.

If attention is a form of prayer, then the Botanic Garden answers my prayers with tiny, perfect riddles. What is and is not a prairie? Our own cached Adam and Eve: “Andrew <3 Amy 5-1-17.”

Restoration prairie grasses and wildflowers. Photo by Gretchen VanWormer.

Now a charming, older couple ambles by the Water Garden and considers lingering.

“Do you want to check out the koi?” the husband says.

“Well I want to check these out,” the wife says, placing her hand under a purple-and-white flower as if lifting a child’s face. “They’re beautiful.”

They debate what kind of plant this might be before spotting the garden’s instructive tag. The couple says the words “calla lily” several times with care, like they are practicing a new language.

I have an app named Merlin that helps me identify the birds that flit through the garden, but sometimes they flit too fast, and I want to squawk, What are you?! As if the birds are willfully depriving me of their identities. The garden is good at fulfilling the peculiar fantasy that language captures nature. Very Genesis. You practically get to name the animals.

Cala lilies by the koi pond. Photo by Gretchen VanWormer.

I stroll to the Buffalo Grass Lawn by the Green Cottage (think alternative energy, not paint color) to see if the grass feels… buffalo. It does not. Dense and springy and native, but nothing I’d use to knit a sweater. Once I settle in, a wild bunny comes hopping onto the lawn to nibble on the buffalo. I hold my breath, try to imagine my veins pulsing with chlorophyll. Mourning doves call overhead. A firefly lights up the nearby Shade Garden. I am feeling at ease with the buffalo, the garden, the nearly-full moon, until I hear a great rustling below the Green Cottage that sounds like the proverbial rough beast.

Whom does the Green Cottage birth?

Fucking cute-ass armadillo.

His light-brown nose pokes out beneath the porch, and he pauses, ears turning, before sneaking his curved back into the evening light. Sniff, sniff, sniffing the air, he lifts one armored front paw, then the other, until he’s fully upright, surveying the Buffalo Grass Lawn. Seems to decide I’m non-threatening. He rambles through the grass before turning a corner, presumably on the hunt for grubs or worms.

I caught a short video of the little guy, and now I send him to my sister Heidi, who says, “Omg stop <3 <3 <3. He looks like he’s there for a tea party with Frog and Toad!” I’m thrilled she loves him too. I tell her this garden is such a landscape for the imagination. That the gardens remind me of Mom reading us stories in the orange-and-brown bedroom with the giant mushroom on the wall. “I keep getting grumpy and grossed out in the heat,” I say, “but eventually there’s always some magic.”

On the walk back to the car, when a frog springs by on his way into the prairie, I think of Heidi again and this strange storybook of a garden.

If Frog and Toad were having a tea party, they’d be swigging succulent tea beneath the cherry plum. Heart-shaped chairs tuck into a circular table, where gardeners have repurposed a teapot to hold a trailing jade. The plum is an absurdly pretty tree. Velvety red. I want to eat those leaves, fashion a dress from those leaves. A gray bird with a delicate comb flits over to a feeder, then perches in the branches, breaking seeds against the pale bark.

Two women in matching purple shirts and khakis wander by this tea party, smiling big. I hear the older woman say this would be a wonderful spot to get a bite—she’s disappointed her garden tour will end sans iced tea and Cobb salad. And I think, “Yes, this is exactly where you take your mom to lunch.”

I’ve seen men in this garden, but almost all are accompanied by women and children. The few who are alone seem to be on what their moms might call their best behavior, nodding at me with serene, angelic faces that say, “I’ve never masturbated a day in my life.” Unsurprisingly, there’s no street harassment in the garden, save what the birds do to each other. I wouldn’t feel safe here long after dark, but during the daylight, women grin at one another, high on milkweed and monarchs. Undeniable lady haven.

I wonder if this is a good thing—how women-and-children this garden feels, as though the lifeboat just washed us ashore after some new wreck.

Bee in flowers at the Botanic Gardens.  Photo by Gretchen VanWormer.

At the edge of the Prairie Restoration Project, Cow’s Creek, also under restoration, meanders so slowly I have to ogle the leaves and pollen on the skin of the water to get a sense of which direction the creek flows. A large tree has uprooted around the bend, and reposes on a steep bank. For a while, I think the creek below the roots is full of old sediment. The water has a textured, brown surface that doesn’t budge. A number of visits later, though, a strong wind ripples the water through the so-called sediment, which I see now was a reflection of the roots: the tree’s mother lode.

I have photos of my maternal grandmother and great grandmother basking in backyard glory. Hydrangeas as big as your face. A pink flamingo wading in the perennials. Beside the porch stairs, a brown bag full of acorns Heidi and I collected for Chippy the chipmunk, who lived in Grandma’s backyard. When we were little, our mom’s alter ego was Linda the Ladybug, and we understood Linda’s habitat was her garden. I’m sure these are the most direct ancestors of my belief that gardens are a refuge and a womanspace. But where did those women get that belief? Where are the roots?

In the Water Garden, a butterfly lands on the right shoulder of my flowered dress, keeps tickling my shoulder, probably thinking, “What kind of a flower is this bitch? And how do I make her work?” I adore the notion of being a foodplant, and this visitation leaves me feeling Snow White fabulous. I take a video, send it to my sister, my girl friend. They gush. “Love!” I rely on flora and fauna to give me a boost, and I assume nature offers an unambiguously female affection. Of course nature supports me like a sister, mother, girl friend. The garden and I have this in common: we are women.

But then again, maybe something unnatural lies in the story that nature was made from your rib and is girly as fuck and super into you. I wonder what the garden would even look like, released from this nature-as-woman story. That is, restored to the time before any creature was gendered, named. Before Adam birthed us into a particular way of seeing.

Plum trees with deep red leaves.

My friend Rachel is pregnant, her first baby due in a few days. She lives in Baltimore—so very far from Oklahoma—so when I spy what I’m guessing is a Baltimore oriole in the garden, I can’t resist taking a short video and migrating him her way.

She writes back, “I bet you knew from its distinct call: HEY HON.”

Rachel has a Ph.D. in virology, and the last time I saw her, a little over a year ago, she was shredding napkins at a fancy tea joint in Washington, D.C., and wondering whether she cared about the so-called biological imperative. With us at fancy tea was our friend Haley. We were all 37. If you were to line us up in order of most-to-least interested in our bodies as sites of miracles, Rachel would’ve been most interested, Haley least, and I would’ve been leaning heavily toward Haley. I imagine that, when your field is biology, the biological imperative feels especially bossy. As opposed to fields in the arts (me) and lobbying (Haley). Haley’s uterus will not be lobbied. Mine is simply too busy wandering the garden and wishing there were more bison.

A few days after the oriole, Rachel sends Haley and me a photo of her baby’s “delicious ear,” as well as a bunch of mostly-full nudes showing what pregnancy and a C-section have done to her soul. “ALWAYS USE A CONDOM,” she writes. “I have gas pains in my arm. My ARM.” Rachel’s baby is delicious; I threaten to bite baby Quinn through the phone. “Cannot handle the cuteness! Nom nom nom!” But still. Did you say your ARM?


I’ve been sitting in the buffalo grass, reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, which makes me crave chlorophyll as though it were heroin. The book connects beautifully to my lust for grasses. And Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatami Nation, has a different perspective on Earth’s origins. She suggests using neutral pronouns of ki (singular) and kin (plural) instead of it when talking about nature in English, to represent the kinship relationships humans have with other living beings. Her interpretation of gardens is still in the Mother Earth realm, though: “This is really why I made my daughters learn to garden—so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.” Kimmerer’s words are lovely and wise. But whenever I read about Mother Earth, I feel dragged back to Woman land, to ribs. Perhaps my brain is still picturing Mother Earth as a woman, even though I know there are mothers with all kinds of genders, including no gender.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never tried to imagine an androgynous garden before. This seems like such a failure of attention. Of prayer. Maybe this is why, though I love the garden, I’m starting to get the itchy feeling that I haven’t been connecting to nature or God in this space, but something more like a human story so old and seductive it inspired the authors of the Bible. How do I get to be a fish?

Sunset at the Botanic Gardens.  Photo by Gretchen VanWormer.

My favorite part of the service at the National Cathedral was this small moment at the start, where one of the Episcopal priests, who could be of any gender, would say, “We begin our service with a moment of silence, to still ourselves for a time apart with God.” I’d close my eyes, relax my shoulders, and breathe into that silence. Soon the voices of the choir floated up through the sanctuary, beautiful and terrifying. Filling the space. The silence, though, was the closest thing to God. And I think if I could get Adam to hush up for a sec, then I would feel restored to God, to the garden.


For the last hour, two dogs have been bounding through the garden, collared but unleashed. I saw them by the milkweed, the rattlesnake master, the lamb’s ear. One appears to be a Weimaraner, the other a black Lab. I hear someone complain about unleashed dogs, how kids can be afraid. I’m not unmoved by that concern, but the dogs are so joyful, and they don’t stick their noses up my dress overmuch, and I love how their breath is either loud or silent, as they listen for whatever names they call one another. I think of Simone de Beauvoir’s words about the girl in nature, the freedom girls experience in woods and fields before they become women: “She is herself this limitless land, this summit jutting toward the sky.”

At the Water Garden, I’m watching the koi circle in the shallows when the black Lab trots up and, without pause, splashes into the water.


Gretchen VanWormerGretchen VanWormer grew up in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of a chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans (CutBank), and her essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

All photos and videos by Gretchen VanWormer. Photo of Gretchen VanWormer by Hollee Koester. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.