MY HOMETOWN of Bellingham, Washington, is a last corner of the continental United States, a final chew of land before the long drink of the Pacific. We’re bound to the west by water, to the east by mountain, and twenty miles to the north, by Canada. It’s a place of beauty that’s a bit prickly in its heart. Our water numbs and the beaches are stone and pebble. The mountain—Mount Baker, or Kulshan to the Native people whose unceded land we live on—is volcanic. Striking out in most directions is an act defined by the necessity of turning back.
Heading south down our Chuckanut Drive, fossil leaves and ferns from the Eocene peel off the banks of shale that line the roadside. Sometimes I pull over on the steep roadside to pick them up. They remind me that we always live with the possibility of becoming something that peels.
As a neurodiverse person, I can find the totality of the world overwhelming, though I love it still. I’m bipolar and my mind is generally a rushed and fermenting place. When experiencing psychosis, I experience the world in a way that is intimate and unique to me. I’ve heard radiators speak and seen my walls tremble. And I’ve learned to respect how absolutely the world and its many provocations sink into me. Imagine seeing all that you can see—everything, horizon to horizon—and needing to know it all, share joy with it all, grieve with it all. So although nature is one of my great loves, I live much of that love in the small piece of earth I call my own. Here I can hold the wonders of growth and maturation and the great profusion of life familiarly, a drinkable beauty. Though I might sometimes dial down my consciousness, I have no desire to tune my mental state to anyone else’s station. I value the way I experience life. My Twitter handle is Madwoman Out of the Attic, a reference to the locked-away Bertha Mason of Jane Eyre. I embrace the term mad.
Our psychiatry’s diagnostic manuals and hundreds of categories of “disorders” treat a chunk of what happens in my mind as a symptom to eradicate. After a lifetime of evaluations, overmedication, and outright abuse, I reject the model of my mind as ill. Call me mad, in the common sense of the term, about my madness.
In these knocks of color and shape, quick changes of design and purpose—a stinking spadix here, a squished cherry tree there—my garden resembles my mind.
Our property is five thousand square feet, about seventy feet by seventy feet, or just a bit above Bellingham’s minimum lot size. It jostles into its footage our small house. Nevertheless, I keep the whole place almost comically overplanted. Two mini-cherry trees in the back, hovering over kale and blueberries. Raspberries, strawberries, and raised beds of greens and tomatoes, sage and sorrel, wherever I can stash them.
When I ran out of space in the yard proper, I planted small fruit trees between the street and the sidewalk—a peach tree so unproductive the ratio of peaches to kids who smash them on the sidewalk always ends with kids all, fruit zero. I don’t begrudge them. The mash they make feeds my birds and insects. We have a small apple tree that doesn’t bear but helps the other pollinate—that one heavy with Honeycrisps.
My spouse, Bruce, once recalled that his late mother’s White Shoulders perfume smelled like lilies and so I planted three: two pink, one white. I also planted for him the reeking, fly-pollinated voodoo lily. It shares its look and its Amorphophallus genus (the name means “badly formed penis,” a visual of its long purple spadix) with the Sumatran corpse flower. The Corpse Flower was the title of one of his books of poetry. I grow many other flowering plants because I love the language of them, their fanciful names like the foxglove and toadflax. There’s rosemary, the herb of remembrance, and the flip side of it, rue. These become part of my dialogue with the natural world, even as the human world often struggles to make sense of me.
My partners in all this are ground-nesting bees. Their holes appear on the front walkway every spring, dirt thrown out haphazardly as they burrow down. When I first moved here, I thought they were just very sloppy ants. Now the bees crawl up and down my hands while I’m weeding or picking berries. I’m quite sure that, like the black-capped chickadees who sit and watch from the forsythia, they know me. Our hummingbirds know me too. A female rufous hovers near, her blur-self a few inches from my face almost thoughtfully, eyes two bright pencil points. I imagine she sees me as reasonably likable, but quite the plodder.
In these knocks of color and shape, quick changes of design and purpose—a stinking spadix here, a squished cherry tree there—my garden resembles my mind. I have never had one thought at a time. I’ve never encountered anything that didn’t enter deeply into my imagination. That nourishing can be said of my garden matters to me here. The place feeds me and those I love in ways both literal and figurative. Its meaning gives me another voice. A small stealth unsilencing.
The time I saw the walls trembling, I heard a bird tell me, persist persist. This wasn’t figurative. The bird, a robin, spoke. Her advice was excellent. I’ve followed it.
Susanne Paola Antonetta is the author of The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here, Make Me a Mother, and A Mind Apart. Her new book, The Devil’s Castle, is forthcoming. She has been awarded an American Book Award and edits the Bellingham Review.