Under the Volcano

By Robin Chotzinoff

In the Colorado high country, a lot of winter happens in six months. By January of last year, desperate for a dose of green, I wandered through a plant store trying to select a product with which I have never had any patience before -- a houseplant. It took more than two hours. Finally, I emerged with a sultry harlot of a bougainvillea, curvaceous, serpentine, with papery yellow blossoms like tiny Chinese lanterns. Framed against the frozen landscape, it looked exotic. Exotic enough that I secretly named her Carlotta.

Then I got a bougainvillier-than-thou letter from my cousin Hillary, the Florida citrus farmer. She enclosed a snapshot of her plant, which had eaten a barn and two orange trees and was stalking her four year old. I put down the letter and looked at Carlotta. She seemed wan. Over the next four months, she sighed and dropped leaves. By the time I left for Hawaii, she looked uncommonly like a stick.

The Big Island was another shock. Bougainvillea grows there on the side of the road, like a big, Barbie-fluorescent weed. I saw 20-foot ferns shooting up out of recently deposited lava beds, along with a Dr. Seuss-looking plant whose spiky red flowers imitated the volcano itself. I walked pathways strewn with avocados the size of footballs that dissolved into the ground and sprouted as I watched. I dodged falling coconuts and got lost in a vast mango orchard no one had the energy to harvest, where the smell of rotten mango turning into mango moonshine made me slightly drunk. At the local shaved-ice stand I saw tomatoes rooted in a crumbling cinderblock wall. Nearby, I overheard the conversation of nervous ganja farmers whose product was almost too fertile -- its smell was a dead giveaway. Everything -- blossoms, fruit, smell, putrescence, abundance -- was BIG. I had always prided myself on growing the largest variety of everything, but in Hawaii, I felt inadequate and medium.

In the shade of one of Carlotta's very distant relatives, for instance, my four-month-old baby came stroller-to-stroller with a Hawaiian boy her age but nearly twice her size.

"Hey!" I said indignantly, "my baby weighed nine pounds at birth! How can yours be bigger?"

"He eats poi," his mother said.

Oh. Another thing I thought -- briefly -- of growing in Colorado.

It all sounds rather competitive and frantic, but it wasn't. Because everything in Hawaii grows all the time, the atmosphere is highly relaxed, even the weather. Once in a while the sky would open up and absently scatter rain. I would walk around in this rain without noticing I was wet, and 15 minutes later, under the tropic sun, not notice I was drying off. A Hawaiian pace is slow, I concluded, because what's the hurry? It's all there whenever you want it.

Naturally, home was a sharp contrast. After a two-week absence, I found weeds cruising through the tomatoes, which were blossoming and had exactly five days left in which to get pollinated. Hurry! Bring on the bees! Lettuce shot up and prepared to bolt. Quick! Choke down another salad! And then weed, weed, weed and cut, cut, cut those cutting flowers, because in another two months it will all disappear overnight with the first frost, and I'll be left with nothing but Carlotta -- but scratch that. Carlotta scorched to death while I was gone, fried by the alpine sun.

Here is where I intended to place my conclusion. I even had a snappy quote from William Langewiesche's Sahara Unveiled ready to insert: "The desert teaches by taking away." In other words, by living in a spare, unforgiving climate, as opposed to Hawaii's lush forever, I treasure green things more than people who live under towering bougainvillea and barely notice them.

That was the plan, but forget it. Instead, consider youth and bathing suits, and the combination they make. In Hawaii, I sat on the beach and thought about what could be done to my aging body to put it in that company. I am not so comfortable in my own skin that I don't sometimes long to blossom. Other people in my position have opted for drastic pruning jobs. But I live where I live, in the body I was born with, firmly rooted in my adopted state.

We work with what we have.

Robin Chotzinoff is the author of People with Dirty Hands (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

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