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Natural Phenomena

What is that smell?

In late July, the greater Des Moines community fell in love with a flower, a stinky flower. The unbelievable Titum arum (aka the Corpse Flower) thriving under the tender care of curatorial horticulturist Derek Carwood at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden defied expectations and settled in to bloom several years ahead of schedule. En masse people visited, people watched the live feed, people talked all over town about the advent of the bloom’s arrival.

Having watched the live feed with (now) Ninety-Three, having thought I would be out of town during the twenty-four hours or so when the plant was actually in bloom, having woken up one morning to discover that I had the time to zip downtown and see the plant for myself on the very day that it finally burst (okay, unfurled achingly slowly) into bloom, and having the opportunity to smell it for myself, I, too, fell in love. I went to see it twice.

The first visit I dropped Fifteen at Driver’s Ed and went solo. With extended hours, the Botanical Garden was open at seven that morning. By a little after eight, the parking lot was already busy. I bounced in with a crowd stopping through on their way to work, camp, and a hot summer day.

I had seen the flower that morning on the live feed and very beautiful pictures of it on Facebook trumpeting its arrival. As I followed the winding path through gorgeous banana trees and fantastic blooms, like everyone else I had eyes only for the whimsically named Carrion My Wayward Son, Carrie for short. My first glimpse, I confess, was slightly disappointing. Set down below the grade, it looked small and lost in the other foliage—hard to distinguish from the rest of the lush garden. But as the path wound around and we edged closer, I could see that the plant was indeed every bit as remarkable in person as it was on camera, made more so by the undeniable odor.

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Carrie in full & stinky bloom

The plant’s flowering structure looks nothing like the plant, a tree-like stem with small leaves at the top. When it gets ready to bloom, an enormous heavy bulb sends up what’s called the inflorescence, a stem of sorts that spouts flowers revealed for just a short time when the gorgeous outer spathe—green on the outside—finally unfurls revealing its lush purple lining. In the wild, these can be nine feet in diameter. Whatever the size, it’s a stunning and unusual sight; but what everyone was talking about was the smell: “Like raw chicken gone off,” said one lady, nailing it. “Like a mouse died,” said another. I saw children walking in, wrinkling their noses and covering them with their shirt collars before they got close enough to actually smell the thing.

It was not, however, overpowering. In my experience the Corpse Flower earns its stinky reputation, but it’s not horrid. At least under the great glass dome of the botanical center where thousands of plants filter the air, Carrie’s wasn’t a fresh smell, but it was a naturally rotten one. Carpet glue, fresh tar, and garbage trucks in the hot summer sun all smell far worse to me.

My “I saw Titum arum” sticker granted me repeat admission, so when I picked up Fifteen from her class, I asked her if she’d like to see Carrie. “Sure,” she said merrily. “Let’s go see the smelly flower.”

In August the whole nation fell in love with the solar eclipse, making elaborate plans to witness totality in a path that striped the country. Fifteen, Eighteen and I took the day, making our pilgrimage south to find ourselves in Plattsburg, MO, where the eclipse viewing party in the town’s City Park offered free parking on a wet, muddy field. We arrived in time to don our glasses and check in with the sun, watching the curved shadow block progressively more and more of the sun even as the show dipped in and out of the clouds. We ate our snacks and marveled at the size of the gathering, so many people lured out of their Monday routines to experience the lining up of our brightest star directly behind our moon. At totality, the cloud cover was significant and we weren’t treated to the corona or the diamond ring, but we experienced darkness at just past one in the afternoon, darkness that fell from west to east and light that returned along the same unreasoned path.

Witnessing the eclipse, we decided, was an intellectual exercise. We had to keep talking about how it was the sun that looked like a waning then waxing moon. But when darkness fell it was straight-up cool. Our biology knew it wasn’t normal. And we weren’t the only ones. As we navigated the winding side roads home, seeking paths at a remove from the intense traffic, we marveled at how the cows were all lying down, pointed in the direction where the sun had disappeared.

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Darkness an hour past noon.

In September a smell we did not love moved into our garage. It wasn’t Carrie, but it could have been, about as strong and about as dead smelling. At first I thought it was something in the garbage (“broccoli,” opined Fifteen), so I moved the bin outside. But the smell continued, occasionally ebbing, but getting really pronounced when the afternoon sun warmed the garage.

“I’m afraid we have something dead in here,” I said one afternoon as we arrived home and were greeting by a particularly strong waft of rot.

“Ewwww,” said Fifteen, racing inside.

Baking soda in open containers seemed to help. Cooler temps arrived and the smell abated some. Eventually, and fortunately, the smell became significantly less intense—more of an occasional waft than a full-on assault. Only lately did I find her, a small bunny that had for whatever reason crawled between a fold-up table and a stack of flooring to die. There was very little left of her, but cleaning up the remains was unpleasant work. After, I cried in the shower.

I could float some theories but the truth is, I’m not certain why bunny’s death has hit me so hard. Several days post clean-up I’m still oddly searching for what became a not unfamiliar smell in the garage when I arrive home. Bunny is gone, the eclipse is over, Carrie’s fifteen minutes have ended. And with their collective departures, the summer of 2017 is waning. As sad as Bunny’s death makes me feel, the great eclipse escape and Carrie’s bloom made me so happy. As a collection, they are reminders to me that as we walk on this earth, it is vital to be astonished.

The new moon launches at 12:29am CT 9.20.17, and with this post I’m a wee bit closer to being back on track here at overneathitall. Thanks, as ever, for being astonished along the journey with me. Namaste & big love, Rxo

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Unca Paul

For this blog there is no question; there are memories …

“It’s hot in here,” Eleven–Twelve-in-Four-Days mentions as we get into the car after an errand on one of the first really warm days in May.

“Yes,” I reply, waiting to turn the key and feeling the heat soak deep into my joints, “isn’t it wonderful?”

“Naoooow,” she draws out and shifts the vowel sounds, “let’s go, Mama, start the car!”

I welcome the heat, but we are off and running as usual, so I rev the engine and turn up the A/C.

I love getting into a sun-baked car, I always have, but never more than after my Uncle Paul stopped by for a visit on his way from a consulting gig in Florida. Uncle Paul, my father’s younger brother, was a doctor and a research scientist specializing in the heating and cooling of our bodies. He literally wrote the book on human calorimeters, the machine by which we can measure how the human body heats and cools and burns energy. He invented a space suit that doesn’t require pressurization and is still undergoing development and applied the technology to cool people living with MS. He conducted research in sleep studies, changing the understanding of how we sleep and why.

The army put Uncle Paul through med school, and after he finished his tour of duty and associated research stints, he and his bride settled in Yellow Springs, OH, where they raised their family and Paul opened his lab, Webb Associates, in 1959. They welcomed me to their home there, putting me up on my many long drives between Iowa and the East Coast, their house just about the half-way point.

In the mid-eighties Uncle Paul closed his lab to travel and work and teach worldwide, and my mother fearlessly picked up the table and chairs from the lab and drove our ancient pickup to my college apartment in Virginia. The chairs didn’t match each other, but they were designed for a work group to sit together for some time, and I hosted many wonderful dinner parties where people gathered around my table and lingered in those chairs.

The warm car information arrived with him after one of his consulting trips. I collected Uncle Paul from the airport, a DC stop-over on his way to the next gig. His tall frame folded neatly into the passenger seat, he told me about the work he had been doing.

An hour north of Tampa, FL, there’s a state park where natural springs feed a pool so deep no one has ever been to the bottom. In the forties, an enterprising mayor submerged a theater six feet below the surface so that dry viewers could watch a live mermaid show. The mermaids would swim through the water reaching out for oxygen hoses, performing their stories for captivated audiences. When my Uncle Paul was called in to consult, this unusual roadside attraction was having a terrible time keeping its mermaids healthy. Four or five shows a day left them bitterly chilled and since performances need performers, the management hoped my uncle could offer them a solution.

He told me about interviewing one of the mermaids who said that the best moment of her day came after her shift when she got to her car that had been parked all day in the hot Florida sun. She would open the door as quickly as she could, hop in, and then slam the door to trap the heat. In the warmth of her car she would begin to reverse the deep-seated chill of working for hours under water.

Paul’s solution for the management was to build the mermaids a between-show hot tub such that the performers could bring their body temperatures back to normal. When I asked him if they would take his advice he shrugged, “I hope so.”

If there is anything I associate with my Uncle Paul, it’s warmth. He was the Uncle who came and took my college self to dinner at the fanciest French restaurant in Maryland, La MIche, complimenting me for dipping my bread in my wine. He was the Uncle who came to Spain during my father’s sabbatical there, and together we celebrated his fiftieth birthday. He was the Uncle who found me in the very back row of the chapel at my grandmother’s funeral and brought me to the front with the rest of the family I had never met. He was the Uncle who could belt out a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan in a beautiful voice he honed all the way to the end of his life.

When I was very little, before I understood even a bit of the radical, intellectual mind of my Uncle, whom I called Unca, I used to sit on his lap and examine the moles and skin tags he had on his forehead. He never admonished me or even gently lifted me down; instead, he issued a kind of low chuckle that made his whole body shake. Sometime later he would have those blemishes removed, and while it might truly have improved his appearance not to mention eased a health risk for a man who spent several hours outdoors gardening and playing tennis each summer day, I missed them immensely.

Unca Paul Now, under the full June moon, I miss
Uncle Paul. I don’t know if he ever aspired
to go to the moon himself, but he certainly
intended for his space suit to make
traveling the universe easier. Each time I
saw him on earth, his warmth and big spirit
made my life easier, better. I am grateful to
have had him in this world.

 In loving memory, Rxo

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