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Thursday
Jun292017

Meeting Barbara

She didn’t really smell that bad. 

Most of the time, Barbara lives in a greenhouse closed to the public, visited only by employees at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. But every few years, when she’s getting ready to bloom, she’s moved inside the Victorian glass house, seated in a place of prominence and surrounded by a protective arc of ferns. The word goes out: Come see! Come smell!

Barbara | Photograph by Laura Lynn BrownBarbara is a corpse flower, a species famous for both the rotting-meat odor of its single bloom and the years between those blooms (usually five to ten, but in 2016 the one at the New York Botanical Garden bloomed for the first time since 1939).  Barbara has a big “brother,” Romero, named for George Romero, the Pittsburgher who created Night of the Living Dead and other iconic zombie films. She’s named after a line in the film: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

Romero was blooming last year the week I moved to Pittsburgh. I was intrigued, but busy unpacking and settling in. This year when an email from Phipps announced, “They’re coming to SNIFF you, Barbara,” I decided to go. It was an excuse to run away from home. 

The first time I ran away from home, it was because I was mad. About what? I don’t know. It was impulsive. I didn’t plan a destination or pack snacks. I just announced, with all the power of an indignant five-year-old, that I’d had enough and I was leaving. My back was to the front door, and my mother was upstairs, at the top of the steps. 

In the conversation I thought I was controlling, she would ask me what was wrong, beg me to stay. But she went off script. She said she was sorry I felt that way, and asked me to pause so she could take a good look at me. She needed to memorize what I was wearing so she could describe me to the police for the missing persons report. 

I managed to keep my scowl and stifle the giggle that was trying to break through. I walked around the block, slowly. Whatever was mad in me dissolved on the walk, step by face-saving step. 

I’ve told that story many times, recalled it so much that what I remember is a copy of a copy of a copy of the original. Now when I picture the scene in my mind, strangely, it’s from the top of the stairs, looking down at my small blue-clad self. 

Once we have the keys to our own cars and a bit of discretionary income, it’s easy to run away from home. Maybe the mounds of laundry and dirty dishes have become oppressive. Maybe there’s a window of opportunity between a deadline met and the next one not yet looming. Maybe we haven’t gone out in two days except to pick up the paper or check the mail. Maybe it’s an unspecified restlessness, a dissatisfaction with what we have, where we are, or with who we are. It was probably some combination of those the day I went to the conservatory. 

I never know what my favorite part of a visit to Phipps is going to be. Last fall I had my sights and scents set on the orchid room, with its array of colors and textures and sheer oddness of plant life. But the best part of that visit, which still brings vestiges of giddiness when I think about it, was getting to play a Theremin (check that off the bucket list!), part of a temporary exhibit in a room that I usually skip. 

Flowering Maple | Photograph by Laura Lynn BrownAnother time I looked forward to the misty Stove Room, with its tropical plants, tunnel, and butterflies flitting around. Yet the dry austerity of the Desert Room (another room I skip sometimes) felt strangely like home, meeting and embracing something long unwatered within me. 

Before I got to Barbara the flower that day, I met Barbara the ticket-taker, whose job is also to orient visitors, especially first-timers, to the serpentine path through the exhibit rooms, and to answer any questions we might have. I had one: “Is this your normal job, or are you here today because you’re also a Barbara?” 

Maybe both, she said with the facial and vocal twinkles that mark someone skilled in the hospitality and efficiency of having a human moment with hundreds of strangers every day. 

Barbara the corpse flower was clearly the main attraction. A local news reporter and cameraman came to do a story; a young woman selfie-videoed her own segment for a local attractions website. Another Phipps employee stood nearby, answering questions, shifting into tour-giver volume and patter whenever a group formed. One of the helpful pieces of information she gave over and over: In the center of the room, we were actually upwind of Barbara. To smell her full glory, we’d have to go around behind the palms. 


Context is everything. If I walked into my kitchen and caught a whiff of rotten garbage, I’d bag up the trash and take it out. But in that room, that morning, walking into an area of stink was like finding a geocache or being coached toward a hidden Easter basket. There, the olfactory receptors said. Warmer, warmer … bingo! 

Kousa Dogwood | Photograph by Laura Lynn BrownI’ve smelled a corpse flower (with gratitude that it was Barbara, with a more modest smell than her larger cousin). Cross that off the bucket list, too. 

Yet my favorite part of that visit was discovering a part of Phipps I’d somehow missed on all previous visits: the outdoor Japanese Courtyard Garden. The path meandered among full-size and bonsai trees, flowering shrubs, tall grasses and rocks that had been kept stationary on their trip from Seven Springs, Pa., so as not to disturb the mosses and lichens growing on them. A small artificial brook flowed over stones, humming to itself. A bench set back from the path offered the perfect place to sit, to stop, to hide, to be silent and let the flowing water speak.

I say “running away from home,” making it sound childish. There probably are times when we are escaping responsibility when we run off to the woods, or the mall, or the ballpark.  But I think we are also going for something missing. Need milk? Go to the grocery. Need a mirror for your own inner dryness, or a reminder that some things can survive a long time, and even bloom, with long spells of dormancy? Go where the plants are.  

That five-year-old who walked it off was onto something (as was the mother who let her go, knowing she’d be back). I still do that. Sometimes for a block or so, I’ll look mostly at the pavement. Then a heart-shaped broken piece of cement catches my eye, or weeds flourishing through a grate where tree used to be, or the peachfuzz of summer grass on a cobblestone street. 

The eyes and spirit both lift. The botanical garden of my neighborhood comes into focus. This neighbor has planted purple coneflower. Another has freshened the planters at the top of the steps with variegated petunias. And last Sunday, when I walked home from church a new way, I discovered a courtyard behind the church next door to my apartment building, with weatherworn benches and a contemplative ring of hostas and unkempt grass.  

The next time I run away to Phipps Conservatory, I’ll go with a yen for the Japanese garden. I’ll probably be surprised by joy at something else. And all of these clippings of memory become part of what sustains me when I return to the desk, or the dishes, or the caregiving. They help me to be more like the better Barbara, cheerful and helpful no matter what or who comes my way.  


Laura Lynn Brown lives, works, and walks in Pittsburgh, Pa., where she returned last year after 25 years in Arkansas. Lately she writes occasionally at Notes From an Urban Cabin and Tweetspeak PoetryIn the fall she will teach an online workshop in writing about food.

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