Floating Garden

Mary LaChapelle, 2015 Fiction Prize Winner
| Fiction

She grew a berry patch in honor of her own mother and grandmother and a few flowers, “barely domesticated,” were her words. She wrote me about learning to tap the sugar maple trees in their forest, about walking among them to check on the slow gathering of their sap. This is something I have not yet seen.

I like how it now says on my passport that I work for a non-governmental organization. I travel from country to country, some still called by other names on last year’s map. I study the composition of soils, the habits of seasons, and my method for cultivation is to use only what is naturally available—goat dung, swamp grass. If you develop the intuition for cultivation, as long you have water, you can always devise a recipe for soil.

Once, an elder in a tribe took me into the forest and showed me, hidden under a bed of undergrowth, a deep bog. It was the richest mud I had ever seen: there may well have been woolly mammoths at the bottom of it, and our primate ancestors, and beneath that, fish-birds, and insects with the organs of males and females both. There are adaptive mutations we cannot even imagine.

The old man told me he’d remembered the place in a dream. We brought the whole tribe there and carried home bog mud in baskets on our backs. We plowed up the barren dust in our plot with hoes, and then with our feet we kneaded the mud into the dry dust; we turned the dust into soil, so dark, so primordial, it steamed between our toes.

Mary LaChapelle is author of House of Heroes and Other Stories and recipient of the Katherine Anne Porter, PEN/Nelson Algren and Whiting Foundation Awards, as well as fellowships from NYFA, Hedgebrook, Edward Albee and Bush foundations. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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