Survival Skills

A short story
by Jean Ryan

I want to come back as a plant. A life above and a life below. No thinking, just finding. Water, food, light.


Maybe not a redwood; that’s a long, long life. A sunflower might be fun. One sturdy stalk zooming skyward, pushing fuzzy heart-shaped leaves, and then the grand finale: a giant yellow flower brimming with seeds. The ending an offering, a promise kept. Half a year on earth and not a single wasted moment.


My brother doesn’t drive anymore. When he rides with me I find myself driving more cautiously: hands on the wheel at ten and two, eyes scanning left and right. Every block or so he glances up, then jerks his head back down. His hands, jammed in his lap, rub against each other constantly. He is trying. A few months ago he couldn’t get into a car. Couldn’t even say the word.


An accident, that’s what most people think. No. Nothing happened―at least nothing we’re likely to understand. There he was driving to work, normal as you and me, when somewhere in his brain a pair of neurons fired and doubt was born. Had he hit someone?


He checked the mirrors, turned around, circled several times. Nothing in the road, but he couldn’t be sure. He may never be sure again.


Locomotion. That’s our problem. If we stayed in one place we could grow unerringly, drinking the rain, absorbing the sun, pulling in food with our feet.


With a brain you get options, illusions, second guesses, mistakes. One trifling incident slips into that gray jelly and just like that you’re hardwired for trouble. Everything is a matter of association and interpretation; the margin of error is incalculable. The fact that we can’t see the forest for the trees doesn’t make much sense, considering what we have to work with: The human brain is so disproportionately large that as infants we can’t hold our heads up.  


The reason we need a brain that big? Language. Our crowning achievement. We are word wizards. Not only can we learn any number of words, we know how to string them together so that we may comfort or seduce, cajole or deride, inspire or coerce, inform or inflame.


Doubletalk. Slander. Fine print. Filibuster. Language may be getting the better of us.


Wendy Mack, my nearest neighbor on this lake, has given up the spoken word. No one around here has heard her speak since the day her daughter died, two years ago this June, of a rampant staph infection. She lost her mind, people said, snapped like a twig.


Aside from Wendy’s silence, she seems normal enough to me. Sometimes she brings me cuttings from her garden, sometimes a basket of tomatoes. I just nod and smile and take them from her, figuring that if she’s not talking, she’s not keen on listening either, at least not to words. Every so often I walk across the tall grass that separates our houses, and we sit in the wicker chairs on her porch and watch the setting sun turn the lake to copper, and listen to the crickets and leopard frogs, the occasional jumping trout, the buzz of a dragonfly. Lift away language and you hear all kinds of things.


Kris, my daughter, has no patience for Wendy.  “What is she trying to prove?” she asked me last week. “What’s the point? It’s like she’s trying to punish someone.”


“Who knows?” I said. “Maybe she’s punishing God by not using the gifts she was given.” You’ll not believe this but Wendy used to be a motivational speaker. She lectured all over the country and wrote four books—two of them bestsellers―on how to rouse yourself. I have an autographed copy of her first book, Yes You Can!


Oddly enough, on the opposite shore of this lake, in a yellow house directly across from mine, lives a man who speaks volumes. His name is John Dalrymple and he used to teach Chaucer and Shakespeare at Northeastern University. I’ve always been impressed with his prodigious vocabulary, which he still happily exercises, though his sentences are now indecipherable. Several months ago John fell out of his hayloft and smacked the side of his head on a horse stall. When you ask him how his wife is doing, he is likely to say something along these lines: “Oh yes, the more the better. One day soon. Biscuits with blackberry jam.” I have no idea if he understands the words that flow out of him, but he seems remarkably at peace.


Plants communicate with exquisite subtlety. If a tree on the African plain is being ravaged by antelopes, it will send a chemical signal to its neighboring relatives. Instantaneously these other trees will begin manufacturing more tannins, just enough to render them toxic to the herbivores, who, in their own canny way, will seek an alternate food source.


In response to beetle attacks, a conifer will release wads of resin, embalming the marauders. If ground ivy loses its shade, it quickly gets to work toughening and thickening its leaves.


Whatever happens—floods, droughts, bugs, beasts―plants are always making corrections, becoming the best they can be.


“Why do you think you hit someone?” I asked my brother.


“I saw a shadow.”


“Maybe it was a road sign, or a passing bird.”


Eric shook his head firmly. “I felt a bump under the tires.”


“Probably just a pot hole or a frost-heave.”


“No. It didn’t feel like that. It was more than that.”


“But you went back and nothing was there, right?”


He didn’t answer, just glared at the floor, his mouth set in a grim line. I had no idea at that point just how often we would have this exchange, or how much time he would start to spend on these frenzied searches.  That Eric never saw any bodies in the road did little to reassure him. Maybe, he reasoned, the victim had crawled away. Maybe another motorist had stopped and picked him up. Maybe an ambulance had already come. Was that a siren in the distance?


Dysperceptions are what they are called: sights and sounds the brain creates to confirm its greatest fears.


Field dodder cannot afford doubt. A leafless, thread-like vine, unable to make its own food, it snakes through garden beds, ambushing the innocent. With no energy to spare, dodder must be swift in finding a proximate host in adequate health. The wrong choice, a moment’s lag, and the vine perishes.


And yet dodder is next to impossible to kill. “Devil’s Hair,” gardeners call it. Yank out the thin yellow strands and the smallest remnants persist. And forget about saving the strangled host—a prize dahlia, say; the poor thing is already gone.


In college I had a roommate who was afraid of wind. Breezy days would turn her wide-eyed and quiet. Gusty days she took Valium and stayed indoors. Gale force winds would chase her under the covers, where she hugged her knees and moaned and cried. Naturally, I couldn’t use the fan I had brought from home and had to keep it out of sight.


There is a word for the fear of wind. Ancraophobia. In fact there are names for nearly any phobia you can think of: otters, garlic, knees. There is a fear of beautiful women. There is even a fear of sunshine.


What a comfort for the afflicted, to see their illness respected with a name. I’m glad that someone is keeping up the list.


Orchids! Over 25,000 species in the wild and each one fabulous simply because it manages to exist.


The quickest route to extinction is cross-pollination; to avoid this threat, each orchid variety seduces a particular insect, bird or butterfly, offering up whatever scents or shapes or colors the creature craves. An orchid pollinated by a hummingbird is likely to have red tubular flowers filled with nectar, while an orchid fertilized by carrion beetles comes in shades of brown and smells like rotting meat.


Imagine being that sure of yourself: Sweet or stinking, you claim the right to be here.


We spook too easily, a throwback to the time we were prey. Nowadays this hair-trigger alarm is more trouble than benefit, but there it still is anyway, lodged deep within the brain, steeped in ancestral memories.


The truth is, our noggins are still evolving. We can’t help it that we see a stick and think: snake! Three thousand years ago the brain’s hemispheres were not even integrated; one side “spoke” and the other side listened. Which goes a long way toward explaining all those oracles and talking gods.


My brother began calling hospitals to ask if any accident victims had been admitted. When he started phoning the highway patrol, several times a day, he wound up in a rehab center outside of Boston where he stayed three months in a sage green room, eating nutritious meals and learning ways to calm himself. Because his fears began behind the wheel, that’s where they launched his lessons. “Car,” he wrote, over and over, filling pages of a legal pad; then he had to say the word, then he had to look at pictures of cars, then he had to carry the pictures in his pocket, and so on. Believe me, it’s been a long journey to the passenger seat; I couldn’t be more proud of him.


Bull’s Horn Acacia is a tree in South America that sports giant hollow curving thorns. Attracted to these formidable thorns are stinging ants that drill their way inside and take up residence. If a branch is disturbed—typically by destructive leaf-cutter ants―the stinging ants will race out of the thorns and sting the attackers to death. In return for this service, the tree provides its defenders with shelter, nectar and, as if not forgetting anything, tiny protoplasm-rich nodules that ensure complete nutrition.


If we ever saw the big picture; if our minds could accommodate, even for a split second, the terrible balance of life on this planet, we would surely be frightened out of our wits.


No way are we ready for custodianship.


So, plants. No brain, no fear. Just the urge to grow. The right to be here. I’d love to come back as a lilac, but a stinking orchid would be okay too.


Copyright © 2010 Jean Ryan
Photo © Mailthepic,
Originally published in Foundling Review June 2010


Jean writes:
"Having worked at a nursery for the past eight years, I've had ample time to witness, and envy, the grace inherent in the plant world. While we blunder through our human lives, plagued with questions, stalled by indecision, plants steadily assert themselves, taking just what they need and giving more than they take.  For even a moment or two, I would like to possess that certainty."

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, now lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, the Massachusetts Review and the Summerset Review. She has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her email address is:

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gerrie Beck. September 17, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Thank you for this wonderfully written, emotional piece. I enjoyed it greatly. I love your voice, as well as the theme of words vs. non-words. I am a writer too and as a writer, we could not live without them. I lived in Northern California for 20 years, but now live in Virginia, but California is a great place to write. I look forward to reading more.


Jean Ryan September 21, 2010 at 5:50 am

Thank you, Gerrie

I appreciate your taking the time to write this. I have another story, “The Side Bar,” archived in the Summerset Review, Winter 2010, which you might enjoy.

Do you have something online you can share?



Loretta Sylvestre October 8, 2010 at 9:08 pm

So beautifully done! As someone who admittedly loves words, I enjoyed the way you both used them artfully and put them in their place. I learned a few things, too. Good things. Thanks.


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