The Art of Science: Karen Russell’s Bad Plant Romance

badgraft

Photo by Michael Marcelle for The New Yorker

My art of science posts usually focus on visual art, but this week I stumbled upon a beautiful example of a much rarer species – a short story thoroughly saturated with science. “The Bad Graft”, a story by Karen Russell in this week’s New Yorker, tells the story of a sort of love triangle between a man, a woman and a plant. Russell, best known for her novel Swamplandia, knows her way around exotic flora.

This story is set in the Mojave Desert, where a young couple, Angie and Andy, have come to visit Joshua Tree National Park. The Joshua tree, aka Yucca brevifolia, is a tough, twisted plant with painfully spiky leaves. Angie and Andy happen to arrive in the park during what a ranger calls “a pulse event” during which yucca moths pollinate the trees. “You think you’re in love? The moths are smitten. In all my years, I’ve seen nothing to rival it. It’s a goddam orgy in the canyon.”

The ranger goes on to describe the obligate relationship between the moths and the Joshua trees, each species entirely dependent on the other. He explains that the trees may be on the brink of extinction, and that the current “orgy” may be the ancient species’ “Hail Mary pass” or last shot at survival.

The trees may be prepared to go even further. The “Bad Graft” of the title occurs soon after the couple’s meeting with the ranger. Russell describes it in prose that suggests an earthquake or a war: “The yucca moths arrive like living winds, swirling through Black Rock Canyon. Blossoms detonate. Pollen heaves up. Then the Joshua tree sheds a fantastic sum of itself.”  Angie pricks her finger on one of the plant’s spines “and becomes an entire new creature.”

I won’t spoil the rest of the plot. I’ll only say that Russell has given serious thought to what it would be like to have a hardy desert plant take over the core of your being. She also thoroughly explores the metaphorical aspects of convergent evolution, obligate relationships and the idea of rootedness in both people and plants.

You can read “The Bad Graft” here – it’s subscriber-only, but you can get a free month’s trial that will unlock this little treasure.

 

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