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Little Seed

A Field Guide to Grieving

PUBLISHED: May 14, 2024


LANGUAGE
LESSONS

At the time of my brother’s first psychotic break, I knew nothing about ferns but that I had one and it was dying. I watched its seashell leaves wilt and drain. First they were jade, then chartreuse, then cream and sienna, like a stained pillowcase. I couldn’t let it go, bothering it with a spray bottle, even as its leaves fluttered away. All I knew about ferns was that they like humidity and light. My little studio, meanwhile, was dry and dingy. I moved the fern around the room from week to week, trying to catch the sun. I set its pot in a plate of water, arranged on a bed of river rocks, and misted its delicate fronds twice a day. Though new tendrils came up, it wasn’t long before the fronds browned at the ends and dried to paper.

One frigid December morning, I tunneled into Manhattan on the A train. I’d read an essay by Oliver Sacks about the New York Fern Society and its monthly gatherings at the Bronx Botanical Garden. On the journey north, nodding into my fleece, I fantasized about a place where nice white people in pith helmets and many-pocketed khakis might help.

ALL IMAGES FROM THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, DIGITAL COLLECTIONS.The office was filled with fluorescent light and, just as I’d dreamed, octogenarians with translucent hands. Earlier that week, I’d bleached my hair platinum blond. My scalp stung as heat climbed down my face and seeped into my winter coat. I took the seat closest to the door and politely paid attention to a washed-out slideshow of ornamental ferns in concentric circles on immaculate Westchester turfgrass.

“Why are you here?” one of the Fern Society members gently asked, after the presentation. I told her that a plant I loved had died. When I told her I was there so that I could learn what a fern was, she told me about the other Oriental who usually came. She wasn’t here today, she said, and I was both relieved and horrified the instant she’d said it. I touched my scalp as it blazed and flaked onto my sweater.

In a large glass bowl near the front of the room, a brown resurrection plant revived as a botanist saturated it with water, opening like a hand. A rock-faced man presented exquisitely detailed paintings of ferns, their fiddleheads and fronds carved into cross sections, not a single fine hair on a rhizome missing. There was a brief lecture about the specimen the society had discovered on a recent trip to China. When I asked questions, it was as if my voice were someone else’s. I was too self-conscious to listen to their answers.

They were kind, but I never went back.

Watching my fern wither, I knew there was something incorrect about the way I thought about plants. I thought there might be a way to save my fern if I could find and correct this. So I devoured books on the subject—on the fern’s biology and cultural history and classification. I collected field guides, learned the language. I drilled myself on the shapes of pinnules, sori, rhizomes.

My urgency to know everything was fueled in part by the unsteady grief of knowing that my brother was lying in a dark room, in my parents’ home in Tennessee. They insisted that with rest, he would recover. Eventually I stopped myself from wondering and forced myself to believe them.

But the fern died and my brother remained unwell, and I came to see my life as a series of failures. I had spent all of it devoted to stories other people told about the world and my purpose in it. I recognized more clearly how I’d been so reliant on my family’s rules and expectations, forever walking around with a rubric between myself and what was right in front of me, my decisions dictated by what others thought was correct and good. I couldn’t seem to stop. It was my grief that forced me to break out of it. I needed, above all, to know what it was like to live. And within that need was the constant refrain of my brother’s name: Kang, like a distant bell, a name woven into the air— soothing me, frustrating me. I felt I needed it, but I also resented its presence.

I left my job, I left the old stories, carried the dead fern out the front door.

 

A TAXONOMY
OF INFLUENCE

At first, ferns were inscrutable to me. I couldn’t tell the difference between bracken and grass, maidenhair and ivy. I couldn’t tell one spray of green from another, didn’t know there was a difference between a true fern and a less leafy “fern ally.” But I was drawn in by their language.

Instead of leaves, for instance, ferns have pinnules (the tiniest petallike leaves) and pinna (a set of them, waving from the body of the fern like a feather). Stems or stalks are called petioles. You call the full articulation of pinnae, without the petiole, a blade. If you include the petiole, it becomes a frond. The brown wisps sweeping the floor beneath them are rhizomes.

The colloquial names of ferns can be matter-of-fact and unassuming, describing exactly how a specimen looks: Ostrich ferns look like they belong on an ostrich. The leaves of filmy ferns are only one cell wide, like gossamer. In other instances, fern names are mystical: There are adder’s-tongues, polypodies, cliff brakes, and club moss. Maidenhairs, quillworts, glassworts, spleenworts, and moonworts. In my mind, the words conjure a world of crystal orbs and dark, velveted rooms, exploring the shifts between consciousness and dreams and death.

The Victorians believed that ferns were a sign of magic, a blessing of courage and curiosity. Modern interpretations of fern symbolism are more foreboding. It’s said that to dream of tracing the fronds of a fern, winding through their fractal divisions, their obsessive symmetry, can indicate a deadening of pleasure: anxiety, a premonition of illness, restlessness, fear.

After my brother’s break, my dreams pulsed with his presence: a faraway voice calling my name, an unexpected hand on my shoulder, his orange sweater. I would wake up grappling for sense memories, like silk ripped from a hand.

In my childhood, Kang had been a loving protector and an inspiration for a well-lived life. I saw him as brilliant and adventurous, impish and alive. He was eleven years older than me and a reliable caretaker when I was a child, whereas our parents were often volatile.

They were Chinese aristocrats who had been transplanted, by revolution and opportunity, to an unremarkable town in Tennessee. In order to sustain their own lost identities, they expected Kang to achieve the standard Chinese successes and then some: medical school, a good wife, his own children, intellectual airs, fine dress, a worldliness that may have been ubiquitous in the Shanghai of their youth but was baffling and difficult to come by in the American South. They expected the same things from me, but less feverishly and with more slack. I was a daughter, after all, and American—unlike my brother, who was born in Shanghai.

One of the only persistent pressures growing up was to always submit to my elders, especially Kang. That was easy, given how much I adored him, riding on the back of his bicycle when I was small, running to his room when our parents’ arguments spilled out of their bedroom at night, following him around like a duckling. For a time, he taught me how to see and understand the world around me, led me into it and named it: Star Trek, the Appalachian Trail, a Quarter Pounder with fries, the Big Dipper, The Waste Land.

Eventually, in his twenties, fed up with my father’s violent temper and my parents’ unrelenting expectations, Kang stopped coming home, stopped interacting with my family much at all. Still the duckling on his tail, I followed him through social media and occasional letters. I watched him as he traveled the world, windsurfed in Hawaii, shared butter tea with new friends in Tibet, pursued degrees in philosophy and history.

My vision of Kang as my guide and champion persisted into my own adulthood, which arguably contributed to the slow atrophy of our connection. I couldn’t let go of my own expectations of him. I would become furious and squalling when he couldn’t fulfill them. Even as an adult, I still required his protection, his attention, his advice. I must have unconsciously decided along the way that it was better to grow apart and keep the image of him—adventurous, self-possessed, brave enough to leave—intact, bright as crystal, so that I could continue dreaming a different kind of life than the one that our parents required from us.    

One afternoon, in the fall of 2014, Kang flew from England to New York because he had something he needed to share with me in person. Over dinner, he leaned forward, a fine sheen of sweat on his broad, handsome face, and told me that he was working for the CIA, and that I should be aware that they might poison me. Someone else was giving him money; he didn’t know where it came from, it just appeared in his bank account. This strange benefactor had kidnapped him and given him a surgery that made him invincible. He drew a mysterious chart on the back of an envelope that he told me predetermined successful lives for us both. Later, as he affected a British accent to a taxi driver, I saw, sitting in the back seat of a taxi on FDR Drive, Manhattan thrown overhead, that his psychosis was the place where all familial expectations came to be fulfilled, mine included.

FROM THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, DIGITAL COLLECTIONS.

 

SPORES,
 FABLES

The loss of my brother suffused my external world, so I journeyed deeper within the one I’d stumbled into, where every day new details answered mysteries and cleared irresistible paths toward others, the backstory of a plant that, despite its categorical sameness, is unlike most others.

I learned, for instance, that ferns begin with spores instead of seeds. A spore is a single-celled reproductive unit capable of generating life on its own, without sexual interaction. This is what distinguishes the fern from most other plants. Trees, cacti, and vegetables usually require fruit and flowers to attract birds, bats, and honeybees to reproduce—they are reliant on a community of creatures to create a new generation. Ferns don’t ascend into fervent color each spring, they don’t rely on pollen to be carried from anther to pistil, they don’t wrap a seed in fruit. Instead, they set golden dust into the wind, each microscopic speck carried by breezes across terrific distances, over land and sea.

Reproducing by spores has meant that ferns are often the first species to repopulate razed areas. They make a home out of catastrophe: hurricanes, forest fires, a fallen tree, their spores propagating easily on the freshly agitated soil. After the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, for instance, the ashen, rocky outcrops were soon grown over by the tangled beginnings of ferns, their leaves unfurling like afternoon shadow. The spores of at least one species had crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan.

When enlarged under a microscope, spores can be quite beautiful. The single cells, magnified, appear in two primary shapes—bean or onigiri—and a range of colors, from pale yellow to red to black. Magnified lycopodium spores look like half-moons of coral, their walls porous and fragile. The spores of bladder ferns look like they’re covered in Astroturf. The ribbon fern’s spores look like salted plums.

Until the invention of the microscope, the reproductive cycle of ferns was hidden from observation, which stoked wild speculation that fern seeds were somehow invisible, even magical. Preindustrial Western cultures spun fables about the lengths to which one had to go to collect these mythical seeds, and the glories one might experience in doing so.

One German fable told of a hunter who shot at the sun on Midsummer Day. Drops of blood dripped from the sky. Collected into a handkerchief, the blood quickly dried into fern seed, which then allowed the hunter to harness powers of the occult.

Another story from Germany instructed fern-seed collectors to forgo church, prayers, and holy water in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Then, between the hours of eleven o’clock and midnight on Christmas Eve, at the crossing of two roads, one of which led to a cemetery, a procession of the beloved dead would pass by. The fern collector would either remain silent or perish. Eventually, the devil would pass, the last figure in this ghostly procession, and deliver the fern seed. Worn on the body, the seed would grant the strength of thirty men.

As the Victorian era approached, the process of collecting invisible fern seed had become easier, without having to endure the devil’s unsparing trials. One simply had to carry twelve pewter plates into the forest and stack them under the leaves of a fern on the eve of Midsummer Day. At midnight, it was said, the fern would briefly exhibit blue flowers from which its seed would tumble, slipping through the metal of eleven plates before collecting on the twelfth. Placing the elusive fern seeds in one’s pocket called forth a veil of invisibility.  

When I learned this fable, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why would anyone ever want to be invisible?  I would rather be rich, I would rather be blond and tall and unquestionably beautiful, I would rather have breasts and an ass that everyone admires. I would rather empty my head of all that agonizes me. I would rather remain ignorant of the shifting stories my parents tell, of the pain that sometimes erupts in my father. To desire invisibility is to already know what it’s like to be seen, to see your disappearance as a lark, rather than as an inevitability or necessity.

Invisibility isn’t the only form of disappearance. You might also learn the correct rituals, the right things to say, lie about your discomfort, omit the details just enough to blend in with what surrounds you.

 

FERN
 FEVER

As I wandered through the details of all this taxonomy and botany, I encountered others who had turned to ferns when they were lost. In Victorian England, a British naturalist named Edward Newman was prescribed three months of “walking cure” after falling into a depression. At that time, walking in nature was a common restorative for ailments, both physical and emotional. Newman was from a large Quaker family, and was expected to take on his father’s business of ropemaking, but his heart lay in natural history, in the painstaking observation of small creatures and plants. He filled his spare time writing and editing journals dedicated to plants, animals, and insects, even as he obediently dedicated himself to ropemaking.

When Newman finally sold the family business, he was overcome by a sense of failure and the terrifying release from the certainty of his family’s former path. On the advice of his doctor, Newman set out on a walking tour of Wales, winding through mountains kept damp by winds off the Irish Sea. He became fixated on the ferns he encountered as he walked, endeavoring to document each variety, memorize their names, and sketch their individual natures.

Eventually his explorations were collected in a small volume called A History of British Ferns, which was published to enormous acclaim in 1840. The book sold out as Britons turned its meticulous pages and felt for themselves the delirious urgency of venturing into the world in search of maidenhair, spleenwort, and bracken. The book was so popular, in fact, that it almost single-handedly spawned a fifty-year craze that came to be known as Pteridomania, or fern fever. Women in crinolines and parasols crowded forests and dales in search of ferns. Rare specimens fetched extravagant prices. Some British varieties nearly went extinct during this obsession from overharvesting, and as attention to ferns expanded across seas—to Ireland and Wales, then eventually the United States—precious fern ecosystems were also endangered. It became all the rage to cultivate gardens so exact that it was as if the ferny wilderness appeared whole outside one’s window.

At the height of Pteridomania, blades of ferns were carved into the stone capitals of building columns, set into the faces of tables, dressers, and cabinets as glimmering inlays. Lace makers spun their fronds into delicately woven white squares, precise to species-specific spore patterns on the back of each pinnule. The fascination flowed outward from the home too, and with the modern ease of train travel, Victorians spilled into the countryside to search for new ferns to admire, digging them up to bring home to perfectly cultivated gardens.

Those who lived in rural places could make a fortune selling local specimens to visitors at the train station. For a premium, tourists might even hire locals to guide them in search of ferns to dig up for themselves, or at least observe in their natural habitat.

Ferns often make their homes in tricky places—in the crevices of escarpments, in dolomite outcrops, on waterfall brinks, scrambling along tree bark. Fern enthusiasts seeking a rare species would occasionally disappear during an expedition, and at least one was found dead.

Near the end of fern madness, enthusiasts learned to stay put. Newman had a close friend named Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward who successfully brought ferns into the home by cultivating them in glass sealed onto wooden bases. The structures, known as Wardian cases, retained moisture and heat while protecting the ferns from the pervasive smoke in cities now powered by coal.

Within Wardian cases, fantasies could be controlled and kept safe. The early terrariums came in an extravagance of shapes, evoking birdcages, gazebos, temples, and towers. Among humidity-loving filmy ferns and maidenhairs, the Victorians displayed their collections of minerals and coral. They constructed replicas of ruins and follies set into sloping hills of sandstone and moss. Condensation collected on the glass, surreally misting the tiny worlds within. Romance was key: The focus of one of Ward’s own cases was a tiny replica of the west window of Tintern Abbey, fashioned out of pumice stone.

But imaginations spilled out from underneath even the largest Wardian cases, and eventually Victorians began glazing shut the bay windows of their homes and filling entire rooms with ferns, lycopods, and mosses. Some windows comprised nearly self-regulating ecosystems that required little maintenance, just a balance of the right collection of beings. I can’t help but wonder about all that must have gone into creating such a precise universe, the steady patience and observation required to be present to its workings, to fill it up and pare it back, to worry over its individual course, all while existing apart from it.

What happened to Newman? It was his story to begin with, and yet it’s easy to forget that all this fern madness began as a quieter form of illness, agony turned outward, made direct. All I know is that after ferns, Newman took to ghosts. In 1843 he founded a journal called Zoologist, which was intended to make natural history accessible to nonexperts, “to combine scientific truths with readable English.” The publication opened its pages to reader submissions and published the observations of well-known naturalists alongside laypeople.

In 1847, Newman began publishing reports of sea serpent sightings in the pages of Zoologist. At the time, entertaining the cryptid as real was eccentric, to say the least (imagine if National Geographic ran regular bigfoot sightings). Yet Newman was convinced that there was at least some truth to these reports of sea serpents, something in the natural world that animated the stories’ origins. Surely they couldn’t all be hoaxes. It’s easy to dismiss ghost stories if you happen to be fixated on the empirical, but their underpinnings are as real as those of any other story.

The water, the glimmer of movement, the shadow of something fantastic: To Newman, that was worth the ink. Eventually, he ran reports of moa and woolly mammoth sightings, too.

 

NOMENCLATURE

Names, for me, use certainty as their lure. They’re above and beneath us, a universal interface, a boulder on the earth. The safest place I find myself is in a heavy book I can flip through to find the name of anything I don’t recognize, rendered in a dead language that I know won’t change. In a world where so much truth is malleable and relative, there is a subset of that world in language where truth is fixed. Either way, ferns grow regardless of our names for them. They spiral relentlessly.

Here’s something soothing: Everything alive exists within one of three taxonomic categories called Domains, and, within that, one of five or six subdivisions under Kingdoms (depending on the zoologist you’re speaking with). All plants, including ferns, exist in the Kingdom called Plantae. No matter what language you speak, these names remain the same.

It gets messy up close, but only for the sake of precision: Ferns have been classified and reclassified again and again, split apart and put back together as scientists learn more about them. Ferns first started out in a class called Filices and were later moved to the division Pteridophyta, for vascular plants that reproduce using spores. The division Pteridophytawas retired when phylogeneticists discovered that some pteridophytes are closer, evolutionarily speaking, to some angiosperms than they are to other ferns.

Despite all this taxonomic shifting and revision, scientists are diligent about assigning a genus and species to each variety of fern. So far, they’ve assigned about 319 genera and more than ten thousand species names to them. Like Chinese names, we address them first by their broader genus, then by their individual species, in Latin or Greek, or words stretched to sound like Latin or Greek: Athyrium filix-femina. Adiantum capillus-veneris. Dryopteris pulcherrima. Osmunda japonica. First they belong, then they stray.

In my family, names are mirrors and wishes. My maternal grandfather renamed my mother and her two sisters when they were teenagers, to make them appear more Western, as the culture of Shanghai became increasingly cosmopolitan. Xuying became Li Li, and when Li Li came to the United States, she became Lily. My father, who has known her since they were both quite young, still calls her Xuying now and then, when he is exasperated, appealing as if to a child.

My great-grandfather, whom I have always known as Tagong, passed before I was born. In the custom of his time, he was given a private name, something that only those closest to him could use. My father was named Sheng, the character for liberation, because he was born in 1945, the year World War II ended. Among family, he was called Sheng Nu, or “son.” His sister was called Ah Nu, a tender diminutive for a daughter, and when they immigrated to West Virginia in the seventies, the locals transliterated their nicknames into Sonny and Honey. It wasn’t until my father left West Virginia and became a physician that he began using his given name again.

Tagong gave my brother the name Wei Kang, a homonym for the English “Welcome,” because before he was born, the family knew that my father would leave for the United States. In Chinese, the characters mean safety and health, protective wishes for a family launched across the ocean. In America, he went by the diminutive Con Con at first, then, when he was older, the more straightforward Wei. When he left for college on the GI Bill, he discarded this name again, choosing instead to be called by his middle character, Kang—that definitive, single syllable with its percussive beginning, the remaining sounds like an arcing tail. It was authoritative, like a fist on a table.

When I was born, my parents were tempted to name me Wei Lai, the characters of which sound like the words for “to come back” in Chinese, which I realize now reveals some deep longing for their original home. The first character, shared with my brother: twin wishes for protection. Instead, just months before he died, Tagong had given me the name Wei Xiang.

FROM THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, DIGITAL COLLECTIONS.The second character in my name is associated with flight—not the upward stroke of a bird taking wing, but a relaxed downward stroke, that same bird floating in the calm, unfurling air. I was aptly named—I’m always trying to acquire safety and freedom, to gather as much of both as I can carry. For a long time, no one called me by my Chinese name. Shortly after I was born, my parents asked an American neighbor to give me one in English, though I hate this name now, and am reluctant to use it.

Inside of our family, we referred to one another by our place in the hierarchy, by the steps of our branching—Mama and Baba, for my mother and father. Then, my brother, whom we called Gu Gu, “older brother.” Then me, Mei Mei, “younger sister,” the words like a river stone or a seed, small and round in the mouth.

Growing up, my brother and I were forbidden to call someone older by their given name. To call an elder by something other than an honorific was seen as an act of insubordination. I was smacked for calling my brother by his given name, when I was young enough that my curiosity outweighed my fear. I fell in line, though, and learned to find comfort and a degree of exploration in submission. I learned to love hearing him call me by my English name when we were away from our parents. To wander the American territory was also to invent it, to close the space opened between us by the rigidness and violence of our home. To be named by him in that new world was to be someone else.

After I left for boarding school, I again tried to call him by his given name, thinking enough time had passed for the dumb rule to have become meaningless. I was seventeen. He was twenty-eight. We were on the phone, and when I addressed him he became apoplectic, his speech clipped and loud. He was looming above me. He called me a disrespectful little girl and warned me against calling him by his name again.

 

CROSIERS,
 GENERATIONS

The slender stalk of a new fern, just shorn of its prothallium, resolves at its tip into a tightly clenched spiral called a fiddlehead or a crosier, which recalls the apex of a snail’s shell. Crosiers can be bare, a smooth green coil, or they can appear scaly and matted, shrouded in a brown or white fur, with the beginnings of fronds poking through their winding structure. A fiddlehead resembles a clenched fist or the way a snake looks retreating after swallowing a rat. Over the course of days and weeks, the crosier loosens its grip, straightening out into a rib studded on both sides by leaves—the pinnae, which is Latin for “wings.” 

Other times ferns are fractal, and the pinnae are crosiers, too, that unravel just a beat behind the larger crosier. Those leaves might be divided into even smaller leaves, worlds unraveling within worlds.

Given this fractal tendency, the structural nomenclature of their leaves relies on identifying divisions and subdivisions rather than memorizing the exact shape or color of individual structures. What does it mean, in the end, to describe a leaf when it may fork into many others? Instead, we describe ferns by the generations of their branching.

If the fiddlehead unravels into a single, undivided leaf, we say that the fern is simple or undivided. If the fiddlehead unravels into a series of discrete pinnae, like the holly fern or the pearl-like cascade of maidenhairs, the ferns are once-divided. If once-divided leaves are discrete from the midrib, the fern is called pinnate.  If the leaves are instead fused to the midrib, like the upright combs of the common polypody, or of Boston ferns hanging from baskets on porches in summertime, they are called pinnatifid.

If a fiddlehead unravels into yet another series of fiddleheads that unravel into smaller leaves, these ferns are twice-divided (think of common ferns in forests, with their enormous triangular leaves, each pinna pinched into rows of teeth). Rarer are the thrice-divided ferns, which segment even further into impossibly tiny, grooved teeth called ultimate segments. They are ethereal, impossibly delicate, identified more by feeling than observation—the morning light glowing from within the lace of a lady fern’s fine architecture, as if woven in.

The mechanism of the crosier—its tight grip as well as its spiraling—is called circinate vernation. Scientists say that the fern has developed this trait in order to protect its growing point, the tips of the leaves that contain cells capable of division and growth. The most tender part of the plant—the apex—is tucked in its deepest part, its impenetrable core, as the rest of the plant wraps around itself snugly, in psychedelic strata. All of this formation is to preserve the next stage of growth, and eventually, the next generation.

My brain slips identifying all the pathways back to the center, slips into a manic state attempting to find a fern structure that doesn’t call back to the start: the tip of the frond is also the center of the spiral; the shape of the spiral leads back to where it started; all the little leaves tuck in, pointing back to the origin.

I’ve tried to cast out further in time—to the spores, to the sori (their clustered forms), to the prothalliums (their embryonic phase)—but they all keep pointing to a deeper origin, winding back to an elusive beginning. There is freedom, sure—in the blowing, the light, the wild propagation along the crest of the acre, the abundance and diversity of species—though it’s all illusory when you really think about it. Every part suggests formation, every part is reaching home.

In tropical places, many ferns are epiphytic, meaning they grow with the aid of other plants. They scramble onto higher ground for sunlight, collect water and debris as it falls from the canopy for nourishment. Epiphytic ferns are not parasitic, but they aren’t exactly symbiotic either. Instead, epiphytic ferns perch, they assimilate, independent and indivisible from their partners. It’s clear what they need, and they get it. I have a hard time translating this relationship—a commensalism that doesn’t require harm or exchange.

I know that in personalizing, I’m trampling all over the boundary of scientific observation—allowing the questions I have of my own life to make a story of the fern world in front of me. But if I spill out enough times, if I keep asking, won’t I eventually find someone willing to answer? Someone to grow on, to show me the way, to validate how I feel: Am I good enough? Am I here at all? What is a need and how do you fill it? Without harming others or yourself? Without owing a sum? I look at a fern winding itself around a fallen branch and wonder how to even identify it without its context, without the greater body on which to mold itself.

An epiphytic fern that is a common houseplant is the staghorn fern, genus Platycerium, named for its fertile fronds’ resemblance to antlers, forking at their ends. Its basal fronds look like lily pads, and in the wild, they laminate to the bark of host trees, in tropical forests, to protect the fern’s rhizomes. Sometimes, the lily pads are lifted at their edges into a basket shape, in order to collect water and falling leaf litter that decomposes and provides additional nutrients for the fern. In the case of Platycerium ridleyi, the fronds wrap snugly around tree branches in order to provide shelter for ants within their root ball. In exchange for safe habitat, the fern absorbs nutrients from the waste of the colony.

The spores of Platyceriumcarpet the backs of their frond tips, so the fern appears as though it’s been dipped in umber paint. Staghorn ferns depend more reliably on a second method of reproduction, in which their basal fronds develop in layers underneath older basal fronds, eventually collaging a surface with many overlapping moons, like a cabbage. Eventually, they fuse onto a branch or a trunk—not of the tree, yet indistinguishable from it.

 

STRUCTURES,
 STRICTURES

Some ferns lack classic structures entirely: no pinnae, no fiddlehead, no sori—horsetails, for instance, of the genus Equisetum, resemble reeds; whisk ferns, genus Psilotum, spindly coral. Because they look so different from standard ferns, they were classified as mosses or as fern allies, which are different from true ferns because of their unique forms. Along with mushrooms and algae, fern allies were categorized as cryptogams because their reproductive cycles were hidden. Later, taxonomists reorganized fern allies back into Pteridophyta, a division of ferns that is distinct from mosses and seed-bearing plants.

In recent years, the term “fern ally” has become obsolete, after DNA sequencing found that the ancestral lineage of lycophytes, a type of fern ally, deviates from both true ferns and angiosperms, and that other fern allies actually share a common ancestor with true ferns. Subsequently, horsetails, whisk ferns, and moonworts were reclassified as true ferns. Still, the term “fern ally” is commonly used when describing these weirder genera of fern. Precision is important, but something gets lost kicking lycophytes out of the fern world and assimilating the fern allies into true ferns. I still call all the vascular spore-bearing plants ferns, and I think the idea of fern allies is important for understanding the diversity of these plants. Are we meant to keep revising the present when the past imposes itself? I’m not sure it’s that easy.

In the field guide of my own lineage, I’m an ally rather than a true specimen, despite having the same point of origin as the rest of my immediate family. I move my body like a Westerner; I am lukewarm on collectivism and Chinese social expectations. This way of rearing was deliberate and generous; my parents wanted me to become American, which evoked freedom from the unending obligations of caring for elders, siblings, cousins, and in-laws; liberation from the cycles of melodrama over money and inheritances and love: Both my parents have devastating stories about their estrangement from a sibling after they attempted to forbid that sibling from marrying someone from the wrong class. It is all very Chinese, this duty to ensure a lifetime of unbroken safety and honor for one’s family, even at the risk of scrambling that family’s sense of intimacy and connection. Everyone is always cutting each other out of their lives. One’s position in the family is conditional on what others believe it should be. My family is rigid about identification with one another and with the whole. We lack the flexibility of taxonomists, to allow things to break apart and come back together.

FROM THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, DIGITAL COLLECTIONS.There’s another reason, too, that I am an ally to my family. Girls, in my family’s culture, are considered disposable to the family unit, since they are groomed to marry into other families. There’s no return on investment. The only concern my parents ever shared with me about love was making sure I knew how important it was to choose a man with a family who would care for me at least as well as my own original family has. There were some advantages to being unseen—I was allowed to grow up wilder than my brother; the expectations my parents had for me were relatively low. So long as what I did didn’t affect how well I’d be able to marry (by being a bad student or being unfeminine or having sex), I mostly escaped their gaze, as if we still lived in pre-Revolution Shanghai and not an Appalachian enclave of Tennessee.

On the other hand, American culture remained partly indecipherable, an acquired set of signs and symbols, and my family still judged me based on clearly absurd “we are like the Chinese Kennedys” standards. I was pushed out into the world under the premise that relationships were transactional and that I had to satisfy the family’s expectations if I wanted to remain a part of it. Even if I didn’t believe in this story, it frightened me that my parents did. It pushed me deeper into the world, into America, in order to find a different story, to revise the notion that I was just a thing to be given away. I was desperate to test this notion. I wanted to know that even if I failed to leave home and become legible to my parents as someone’s wife, or as someone’s mother, I would still belong. I wanted to know that I could do exactly as I wished and still be wanted.

These conflicting expectations and ways of making meaning made me more than a little reckless and susceptible to pursuing safety by changing myself or forcing others to change. I was navigating an American sea by Chinese stars. The people around me were tallies of expectations, insecurities, needs, desires, and judgments that I could leverage to gain what I needed: intimacy, work, validation, whatever. I thought that was the definition of community. I became an expert at knowing the names of other people and naming them myself, but it was impossible for me to actually know them this way. It never occurred to me that names are a gloss.

Knowing the names of ferns is one thing; identifying them is another. I’m no expert, but I have a growing collection of field guides, and I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and beat-up bookstores with the ones I don’t own yet. Field guides almost always have two parts: first a general overview of the plant and its habitats, followed by a section on biology and nomenclature. I’m always delighted to find that the tone of each section can be a bit imperious, even wounded—fern people are eager to justify the study of ferns, despite and because of their subtleties, and to chide the general public for not paying better attention to this near-invisible being.

Pretty much all guides have a key that’s organized like a choose-your-own-adventure story. The first page of the key offers a first cut, the highest-level cleavage you can identify—it might ask you to decide whether the leaves you’re looking at are feathery and grand or small and heart-shaped. If feathery and grand, the guide may direct you to page sixty-six, where it asks you whether a rachis is covered in white or silver fur or bare; to page 110, whether the edges of pinnules are saw-edged or smooth; back to page forty-five, whether the spore’s indusia are attached or unattached; and at last to the distant environs of page 201, on whether you’re standing somewhere rocky and arid or humid and lush. By deciding these details, you climb down the categories of family, genus, and species. Your goal is to arrive at the right page with the right botanical drawing. Here’s your fern. These are its habits, its ecology, and its growth range, its affinity for sunlight and shade.

I find forests daunting in their limitlessness, in their lush, dark complexity. Luckily, field guides make an easy story of the woods, build an orderly system of organization. Better yet, the creation of each guide is deeply personal, invariably involving many w-eird choices, making each edition its own maze. There are limitations, of course—the language of ferns changes slowly, and the ferns slower still—but every author is still free to group ferns however makes the most sense to them. I like these attempts to convey order, the concrete expression of how one’s brain perceives the world around them. My favorite is a Peterson Field Guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America, second edition. It’s kelly green, and heavier than it looks, but compact enough to slip into a coat pocket.

In New York in 2015, I had no woods and no ferns. I started to feel lopsided by how much I knew in theory and how little I knew in practice. I was confident in my understanding of how ferns worked and what they were called, but I still couldn’t tell the difference between what was fern and what wasn’t. Every abandoned lot and sidewalk crack presented problems I couldn’t solve.

In the hot, windless July of that year, I had been offered an opportunity to spend two weeks writing in Austerlitz, New York, a small town near the Massachusetts border. I was reluctant to leave my little apartment and my office job, but it was late summer and I thought that recognizing the ferns would be easy—how could it not, with how much I had learned? So I packed up my laptop and my Peterson guide and got on Metro-North.

In Austerlitz, when I wasn’t reading or writing in my studio, I’d spend hours on different trails, meandering through the woods in the autumn chill, tacking upward clearing by clearing, until I lost my breath and became intensely aware of the quick, hard pulse of blood under my wrist.

In the woods, I started to conceive of my body differently. I was aware of how it felt to be inside my body, locating the shape of myself from within. I felt the texture of pebbles or soft earth underfoot. On steep grades I learned to walk tall and transmit force through the column of my torso. My throat always stung the first half hour, but eventually I’d warm up and chase my thoughts and feelings in rhythm with the trail. I’d return to the studio sweaty and high off some magnificent idea or question I’d extracted from the woods.

I was so overwhelmed by the experience of being in the woods that I didn’t see any ferns at first. Nature was its own cosmos, wildly and ecstatically indifferent to my insistence on plucking out a single organism and memorizing its every facet. The green of summer slipping into ocher, the tangle of loam and brush underfoot, tiny insects weaving their way around sprays of flowers hanging from tree branches. There was no way to make a story. It wasn’t about that.

Eventually, the ferns found me. I’d carefully pick my way along the trail, examine one, find another nearby. They taught me their patterns and habitats. Soon I was able to notice them even in my periphery. Eventually, I began collecting fronds. In my writing studio, I laid them on the long table beneath a large window that stamped a rectangle of hard light onto the chipped oak planks of the floor.

In the barn, I sat down to identify the ferns, choosing a frond and opening my guide. It was easy to tell that its leaves were pinnatifid, that its rachis was bare, but it was impossible for me to compare its sorus with the images in the book and say whether it was round or kidney-shaped, or even whether the papery indusium was attached. Looking at the plant in front of me was like encountering a different creature entirely from the one I’d been studying so diligently in the books. The sori were mounded like roe. It was the real thing and I was distraught, realizing that, rather than confirming what I was so sure I knew, I was merely encountering it for the first time. There was nothing to do but keep encouraging myself to see.

After a few days, my desk was littered with a dozen dry and crumpled blades that I hadn’t managed to name, no matter how many trips I took through my field guide. My hands felt hot as I swept the detritus into the wastebasket near my desk. I came to Austerlitz believing that it would be simple, with all of the language I had acquired, to point to a plantlike fern and call it by its name. I felt ashamed to have thought I could simply arrive.

What is this life that I’m able to skim its surface and weave story upon story above what’s real? How is it that the stories can feel so true as to be impossible to distinguish from reality, from the feeling of air on skin, the smell of wet earth, the emotions following in real time, one after the other? All I’d wanted was to come to know life, to come to know ferns. But the glade in my mind shattered when I encountered them as they were.

When the sun began to honey in the late afternoon, I would leave the barn and return to the woods. I’d start by crossing the yellowing field of hay, to the gravel road flanked by a fern I suspected was Onoclea sensibilis, the sensitive fern. It was the only one I had reliably identified. It just looked so much like its picture: blue-green fronds that resembled a child’s painting of a fern. When held up to the light, its veins make a delicate mosaic.

Later, I would learn that Onoclea is native to both the Eastern Seaboard of the United States as well as the northeastern coast of China, an artifact of the early Tertiary, when land bridges between the continents allowed species to migrate. (Another relic of the circumboreal forest: Redwoods are native to coastal California and Hubei, China.) It made me sentimental to think of this fern in two parts of the world. I kept its doubled range like a secret, untouched by story, going down the road in the deepening blue dusk.

 

GHOSTS

I thought I saw my brother in Times Square. He was in a coffee shop, hanging on to the metal handle of the front door, screaming at people, haranguing. He wore baggy green cargo pants and an oversized blue T-shirt. His hair was long and dull. My body recognized his temples, the broad cheekbones of his face, the bulging eyes, and I was crying as I ran toward him, wondering how I would get him into a taxi, wondering how I would carry him home. How had he gotten here?

In my head I was speaking in Shanghainese and then I found myself saying the words out loud, my voice softened and higher in pitch. I begged him in our shared dialect—Big Brother, Big Brother, Big Brother—and as I approached I imagined him looking back at me, saying my name. But he didn’t hear me. I got close enough to see the sweat running down his cheek. I was still begging for him to hear me, trying to understand the words coming out of his own mouth. I reached for his arm, ready to tug on it like I had when I was small, when he felt safe. Still raging, he turned and stared at me from inside another man’s face, another man’s body. He studied me, genuinely curious, outdone. I apologized in English and fled, wiping my cheeks with my palms.

In actuality, Kang was still at home with our parents, recovering. After that encounter, time was again lost between us, but Mom told me he spent every day sleeping in a dark room. I expected heartbreaking news all the time—an assault charge, a violent thing with the police, a borrowed handgun, doorjambs and cypress trees. So I tried to stop thinking about him and then about my family at all.

One day, Mom called to tell me that my brother had bought a fish. His bathtub was now an aquarium, filled with plastic plants and flowers. He had done his research and bought the right kind of filter. She said the fish was beautiful, vivid red, and that it responded to my brother’s voice. She took care of it when he left the house for a few days, and when it heard her voice it would swim out from under its plastic leaf, knowing it would be fed. In the moments before it emerged, she feared it wouldn’t.

On the edge of the woods in Austerlitz I found a thick grove of ferns, seafoam green, the branching of their tips so intricate that they draped silkily across one another. A down of silver hairs grew from each leaf, and each blade stood upright like a fan wedged into the earth. There were hundreds growing in that clearing, rippling in the autumn wind. I crossed the meadow, hands among their sericin tips, and was overcome with the odor of sun-warmed earth. I thought of long days in the woods of Tennessee, of emerald shoots in the black topsoil of my mother’s garden.

I held a blade to my nose as I crossed the field back to the barn. A perfume of pure green—the hairy crispness of tomato plants, a high canopy in daylight. The feel of the yard on hands and knees, the bright thrill of dirt-red beetles, the terror of a black spider’s hourglass belly, white-and-yellow honeysuckle dressing a dirt path, the craggy opalescent pieces of quartz lodged in the earth’s red clay, run under an outdoor tap to see its facets sparkle in the light, the fireflies pulsing against the orange nylon of a tent wall. My brother helping me up a rocky incline, both of us in search of a waterfall, his palms ready beneath me.

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