Outside Lagunitas Grocery

"Be Prepared" by Vera Brosgol is a graphic novel about her experiences at a Russian sleepaway camp in the Connecticut wilderness. It's a funny and honest book, well worth reading, but my favorite part isn't the story itself, it’s the author's note which is prefaced with the quote, "This book is a true story. And also made up."

To help the young reader understand how she put the book together, Brosgol provides a letter that she wrote from camp as evidence, points out how she went back to interview people, identifies which characters are real and fake, and explains why she chose to compress time, leave details out, and more.

Reading the story and then immediately reading the note is an enlightening experience, a glimpse into how the roots of the story were formed, how it grew, and why. It makes you feel like a whole world has bloomed inside the book, simultaneously out of place and completely natural.

* * *

The late 90s white rusty tour van had been driven cross country several times, shuttling indie rock royalty from Buffalo to San Diego and everywhere in between for years. When it was finally decommissioned the hastily made plywood shelving purpose built for loud rock bands was torn out. The driver, who had piloted the ship day and night for years through every terrain, discovered in a rusted out hole in the side of the van a small, leafy, scared looking plant, with bright green leaves, its roots growing in a small pile of dirt. It was protected only by the thin outer wall, but survived nonetheless.

* * *

Every year in my garden I plant one of my favorite species, Tropaeolum majus, in two small terra cotta pots on either side of the front steps to our house. Despite being called Nasturtium, this plant is not actually a member of the genus Nasturtium, the name of which means "Nose Twister" thanks to its peppery oils and the sinus clearing effect it has when eaten. Members of the Nasturtium family are more commonly known as cresses, like the delicious watercress, which tastes like a thousand arugula leaves shoved into a tiny package and doused with compounds that leave your nose in knots.

Recognized by its characteristic orange, yellow and white edible flowers, what is less commonly known about Nasturtium is that you can also eat the leaves, which are just as beautiful. In fact I find the leaves to be the plant’s most attractive quality — while lots of plants, even delicious ones, have striking flowers, the shape of the individual Nasturtium leaf is singular and mesmerizing.

There are dozens of classified leaf shapes and types, and Nasturtium leaves are known as peltate because of the way that the stem of the leaf connects in only one place on its underside, giving the appearance of a small shield, the literal translation of peltate from the Greek.

Another peltate with an exotic expression like a lotus flower is the Nelumbo nucifera, also known as a water lily, which I've observed with curiosity in local Washington. D.C parks and on the stairs of a sacred temple in Thailand. In both places, they appear as curious apparitions. I get the urge to jump off my bike while it rides on its own down the dirt road as I plunge into the brackish, green coated water to investigate where the water ends and the plant begins. The bottom of a river is under the water, and underwater is not the land. The banks of the river see sunlight for part of the day but spend most of their lives underwater. Are they the ground? What do you need to make something grow?

Plants grow where they can.

* * *

In the Mosel region of Germany, Riesling grape vines are cultivated on the steepest, rockiest, most dangerous to tend cliffs in the world. In winemaking it’s believed that you want the vine to struggle just enough: too easy to produce fruit will make wine that is too much of a good thing. Too much sunshine and too much sugar. Too much alcohol and no refinement. On the other hand when the vine struggles too much, though it may produce fruit, it will speak too much of stress instead of the land itself.

* * *

I met a man today in Lagunitas who appeared to have grown out of his chair like a flower born on a mountainside rock, impossible yet somehow flourishing.

“I’ve tried to kill myself more ways than you can count,” he says, “running until my brain ran out of oxygen, that didn’t work. Jumping into the ocean naked every day and floating, hoping to be swept out to sea, that didn’t work. Guess it wasn't meant to be.”

He lights another bowl of citrusy smelling weed, drains a Modello, closes his eyes, and leans back in his chair with a smile.

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