The urge to travel has always called me although it hasn’t been often that circumstances allowed me to answer. I have been fortunate enough to visit 25 states and 5 countries, but as a comedic actor once said, “Canada and Mexico don’t count because they’re attached.”
Compared to many people my age, that number is underwhelming. However, I feel fortunate that I have traveled at all and have had some life-altering experiences, giving me many wonderful memories. One such memory is of a trip my daughter and I took to Costa Rica in 2006. The entire time in that gentle country was a whirlwind of new sensory experiences – so much taken in so quickly, so little sleep in such a rapid 2-week adventure that I remember feeling like we were on the move from the time we woke each morning until bedtime. It was, and will most likely remain, my favorite travel experience. Not the easiest at all, but the most rewarding.
In fact, it was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest that I decided to pursue horticulture for the remainder of my working life. If you have visited a tropical rain or cloud forest and stood in awe at the intensity of heat, humidity, and deep shade that enveloped you, or stood at the edge of a tropical jungle and listened to the primal, unsettling sounds that seem to swallow you whole, then you will understand how small and vulnerable one human really is. It didn’t help that our guide held a large machete at the ready in case a snake dropped from a tree limb onto one of us. No snakes encountered, but we did hear the low, deep rumble of a distant jaguar’s growl – a sound I will never forget. A sound so palpable that it left us, each one, speechless.
But what impressed me most vividly was the plant life. Shades of green I had never before seen in person, reds and oranges so intense they appeared artificial, leaves large enough to make a cape or floor-length dress, and a subtle sweet fragrance that permeated the entire forest. It surrounded us, rose above and through the mist, and kept the still heavy heat from becoming oppressive. And it was during this trip that I came to appreciate the beauty of bamboo. I had one container of golden bamboo, Phyllostachys aurea, at home but nothing in the landscape. From our bus I saw huge groves of giant bamboo (probably the genus Chusquea) as we bumped along on partially paved roads. I found these enormous wind-driven stands of bamboo as impressive as any group of giant Sequoia or Pseudotsuga menziesii.
Once back home, and still under the influence of bamboo, I quit my job at the Poison Center and enrolled in the Horticulture program at Edmonds Community College. This was a surprisingly easy transition to make considering that I had been employed either full-time or ¾ time since age 18, with a 3-year break as a stay-at-home mom after the birth of my daughter. And it was during my second quarter in school that an opportunity arose that I just couldn’t pass up. The founder of the horticulture program, an extraordinary teacher, was in the process of thinning a large stand of Phyllostachys nigra, Black Bamboo, from his garden and offered small stands free to any student willing to help dig it out. “That’s a good job for my spouse!” I thought with much enthusiasm.
After committing my spouse (and me) to the job and agreeing upon a good time to stop by my instructor’s garden, we gathered some tools, donned our gardening clothes, and headed forth. Somehow, in all our enthusiasm to bring home this beautiful plant, we neglected to bring twine or rope with which to tie the bamboo to the top of the car. Not sure what we had been thinking – nothing practical, apparently – but when I saw the height of the plant I became worried. Not my spouse, though; he opened the back of the car (a hatchback) and said “No problem.” After much digging and some cutting of roots (mostly done my professor), they managed to get the root ball into the back of the car as far as possible. Then my professor said, “Did you bring a red flag?” My spouse and I looked at each other as if to say, “Well, did you?” Forgot that, too. Somehow we found something orange which we tied to the longest culm, and after a good visit, a glass of iced tea, and a tour of his beautiful garden, my spouse and I headed off down the road with our treasure – with the hatchback wide open and about 5 feet of bamboo extending from the car. Because we were traveling from northeast Seattle to northwest Seattle and over the many hills in between, I assumed that we would take back roads and drive at a slow speed. Nope. As soon as we turned onto a major road, I suggested taking another route. “Don’t worry, we’re fine”, was the response. No sooner did we get up to speed with the surrounding traffic then the bamboo started to bounce around, not unlike a large, happy dog running in circles in the back of a car on route to his favorite dog-park. “Let’s slow down”, I suggested.
‘We’re coming to a hill, and it’s a big one.” I said. “Maybe we should drive a little slower.”
“Nope, we’re good.”
“Oh no! Watch out for the pothole!”
“Don’t worry, we’re fine!”
At that point, I closed my eyes. It becomes rather noisy riding in a car with the rear wide open, going about 30 mph up a hill, dodging potholes, with a big, leafy plant flapping around in the back. Noisy and nerve-wracking. But a smitten gardener will do most anything for a prized plant. We crested the hill – the bamboo still with us – headed downhill and came to a corner. At that point, I reached around to the back and tried to hold onto the root ball as we swung around the curve and up another hill. “Damn”, I muttered as it bounced away from me. By this time all the culms were bouncing up and down and it reminded me of the time my spouse and I moved into our house. My brother had come by to help us move in. We had a full-size mattress to bring up the steps, up a long sidewalk, and up into the house. My brother decided that the most efficient way to get it into the house was for the three of us to carry the mattress on our heads, which we did, bouncing all the way up. It’s difficult to control something that bounces, slides, and flaps without having a secure way to hold on to it; and the mattress hit the lawn a few times before finally getting into the house.
I was sure the bamboo was going to hit the pavement before we could get it home, but as we turned off the road and into our alley I finally relaxed. We turned into our narrow driveway and, Thwack! The bamboo connected with the gate. Crash! Down went a garbage can, and we came to a stop.
“See, I told you we’d make it”, beamed my spouse.
Bamboo is a hardy plant, and I am very thankful for that. Ours is now a lush, full stand with shiny black culms and a canopy that creates graceful, lace-like shadows across the deck at sunset. I’ve learned it takes considerable trauma to get the best of a strong plant, and this bamboo surely ‘took it on the chin’. But with much love and care it has become an outstanding addition to our garden.
And as many times before, my spouse did know what he was doing.