North Dakota Quarterly is proudly based at the University of North Dakota. As a result, this time of year, we invariably start to think about teaching and how the things we do, both in and outside the classroom shape the lives of people around us. As I hunkered down by the fire to prepare my own classes, I kept thinking back to an essay by Serrana Laure in the the most recent issue: “Teach a Girl to Make a Fire.”
This essay is not about classroom teaching, but it offers a gentle inspiration for everyone worried that maybe they don’t make a difference.
As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.
Teach a Girl to Make a Fire
Marc loved to grow tomatoes; many of my earliest memories are of him in the greenhouse. Yes, I call him Marc, not Dad, Papa, or Daddy. None of these names ever seemed right for him. Over the years, many people have asked me why, and I have come up with an answer which seems mostly right, though it is largely an oversimplification—I always called him Marc because that is who he was: a friendly figure, an equal, someone to be addressed with familiarity, but also, specificity. My mother has always been Mom: nurturer, stabilizer, challenger, and so inseparable from her role as my mother—which perhaps she hates, but I can’t assume that without asking. Marc was always more of a suggester, an encourager, a hands-off cultivator. He was never particularly fond of rules—following nor enforcing—and his parenting style was much like his gardening style. He coaxed me into adulthood by demonstrating, nurturing, giving plenty of warmth, and redirecting sometimes—suggesting, but never forcing.
It’s true that Marc could be sarcastic and sometimes mean without meaning to. Often in his attempt to be hands-off, he could be too hands-off: when he taught me to drive standard, he just put me on a hill and let me burn out the clutch until I figured it out. Now I can drive any vehicle you put me in, so there must have been some method to his madness. As I am writing this now, though, and looking at their respective titles on the page next to each other, it occurs to me that perhaps my naming of them is as simple as the fact that when I began to speak, I loved the alliteration of Marc and Mom when said in close proximity. I loved the shape of “M” in my mouth. Perhaps my meditation on the meaning of their naming has been an examination of a cultural construct forced upon me as I grew and nothing more. Perhaps none of it means anything at all.
But I digress. When I close my eyes, I can still see Marc through the arched sheet plastic doorway of the PVC pipe greenhouse, wearing a beret and pruning the heirlooms, plants that were much taller than my seven- or eight-year-old self. In the summer we ate mostly tomatoes. I remember the drying racks spread in the sun, the jars of preserves. I remember the salads upon salads upon salads we ate all summer long, so as not to waste a single bite. I ate tomatoes like apples, sometimes with a dash of salt, occasionally a drizzle of olive oil, though no dressing was ever necessary. Their natural sweetness was more than delicious enough. I watched Marc trim and smoke, standing in the conjured humidity of the greenhouse, pouring more than water into his plants; I could see love pouring into them, too. I read somewhere that sunflowers turn their faces to each other when there is no sun. Upon further research, I have debunked this lovely but false assertion. Still, the sentiment resonates: plants have a consciousness which humans cannot even begin to understand. If we did understand it, perhaps we could learn from them. Watching Marc in his greenhouses, I saw firsthand the ways in which the plants you love can love you back—their gift of abundant fruit was proof enough of this. Both my parents love their plants and though I left the country life and chose to lay down my roots in the vast hardness of New York City, I inherited their love of growing things. I even tried to illegally grow tomatoes on my fire escape, and though I failed—the super grunted in his thick Russian accent that it was a fire hazard and I would be fined—I felt connected to Marc as I pruned. Now, I pour this urge to grow things into my houseplants instead.
My houseplants sit, lined up along the v-shaped corner of my two windowsills, stretching south. The morning sun eases through the tall windows, gilding everything in warmth. Light filters through the citronella’s pale green, six pronged leaves, covered in a delicate layer of velvet. I love the way the oils cling to me long after I have stopped touching it—peppery, lemony. I love this plant the most because Marc gave it to me. I examine my oxalis; she is happy today. I love watching her move as the sun arcs across the sky—tiny violet flowers poised on the precipice of bloom. She furls and unfurls her purple leaves daily; crepuscular butterflies. Sometimes, I simply sit and watch, to see if my eyes can catch the movement.
The other plants in my windows are succulents that stretch spiky tendrils down and back up again in a swoop, reaching for the sun. They multiply faster than I can repot them. If I counted each individual offshoot, I think I must have twenty. I am amazed by the way succulents sprout a new plant from just one leaf. Every time a leaf falls off, I simply stick it in dirt and bam, I have a new plant. I wonder how succulents evolved this way; wouldn’t it be incredible if other species could reproduce like this? Oh man, I lost a finger. Just stick it in the ground and grow me a new arm. I could use an upgrade anyway. I am an amateur botanist, new to the secrets of plants. I watch them, smell them, and appreciate them for bringing nature into my city habitat.
Today, I am deep in the forest, somewhere in Ohio. My oxalis sits on the dashboard of the rental car. The citronella in its wine-crate planter box rests in the driver’s seat, succulents crowded into the same crate in the front seat. This is temporary, I keep telling them. My husband (soon to be ex, but I don’t know this yet) stands by the fire, which I somehow succeeded to get burning with wet wood. We are in these woods in early spring because, laid off and uninsured, we have fled New York City in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are driving across the country, back to my former home in New Mexico. Though I am in these woods far from either of my homes, Marc is with me. The blazing fire is his doing; he taught me to make things burn, just as he taught me—inadvertently—to make things grow. I stare into the fire and contemplate whether or not it is hot enough to cook on yet. Because we fled so quickly, our cooking situation is haphazard at best. We do not have a stove, only a cast-iron pan and a fire, but you can make surprisingly good food this way if you know how to do it. I have propped the sticks just so, to balance the pan over the coals. I lay the pan ever so gently on top of them and pour in the stew, which I lovingly made and froze to take on this trip with us. We joke about the apocalypse, though it doesn’t feel so much like a joke these days, and I can’t help but wonder how we would fare if this really was the end of the world. I snap a photo to send to my friends with the caption: I’m telling you, you want me on your apocalypse team. In the real apocalypse, I think I would make it about a month, but once I would have to start hunting, it would all go to shit. That’s the problem with being raised by pacifist hippies: they teach you to nurture, but not to kill. I need to find someone adept at ending life instead of creating it for my team, I think. I play with the knife Marc gave me and wonder whether or not I would be able to kill something with it if I had to. But these doomsday musings are nothing but a way to pass the time. This is not the end of the world: the buds on the trees are proof of that. The birds are still singing.
Though it feels ridiculous to have my houseplants in a car, they are a bit of home I am taking with me to the place I will be until all of this settles. I think of my people, still in the city, stacked on top of one another, and I miss them. I wish I could have packed them all into the car with me to start a colony on my land in the mountains. But not everyone has somewhere to run to, and not everyone can make a gourmet dinner with nothing but a wet wood campfire and a cast-iron pan.
I find myself remembering another road trip, years ago, with a boyfriend who is no longer that, on the back roads of Uruguay. We got stuck in the mud, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere. It was his fault. He convinced me that we did not need to get gas before we left the city. Or was it my fault for listening? In our desperate quest for gas, we ventured down a dirt road toward the only light for miles. We found a tiny store, not much more than a shack, with a lone teenage girl inside. She laughed when we asked for directions to the nearest gas station and was kind enough to give us some gas from a two-liter coke bottle. This will only get you to town if you keep going down this road, she cautioned in Portuguese-accented Spanish. You will not have enough if you go back the way you came. We continued on our way in a car that was all wrong for such a rural road and got stuck in the middle of a giant puddle. As we stood in the dark, surrounded by nothing but farmland, all I could think was, Marc would kill me. I don’t have a rope.
I know better now. Know better than to listen to some man just because I love him. I know now that I know things. And Marc taught me so many things by simply doing and then watching as I tried them for myself. Yes, I have a scar on my left middle finger from a hatchet, burns on my fingertips, and oil stains on my jeans. Yes, I hate rules. Yes, I have a mean, sarcastic streak, and I will never manage to make a manicure last longer than two days. But I can chop wood, pitch a tent, hard boil an egg, change a tire, make a fire, check my oil, barbeque an amazing steak, roll a fantastic joint, tell which way I am going and what time it is by looking at the sun, drive standard, wax a snowboard, plaster a wall, read a river, read a map, and grow my own food. The funny part is, he probably never even knew he taught me these things.
Now, a year after his passing, I am inclined to say that I don’t know what I will do without him, but that would be a lie. I do know what to do; he taught me.
Serrana Laure (she/her) has published work in The Hunger Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Prometheus Dreaming. She holds an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and teaches creative writing at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City.