Weeds by Chelsea Biondolillo
We are excited to publish the three winners of CRAFT’s inaugural Hybrid Writing Contest. We hope our readers will agree that these pieces exemplify the potential of form, particularly form that challenges traditional ideas about genre, to open space for possibility and radical wonder.
In our first-place winner, “Weeds,” personal essay meets visual collage in a stunning meditation on memory, grief, and the potential for the natural world to heal. Chelsea Biondolillo weaves text and image, mimicking a field guide to common weeds, to tell the story of taking possession of her grandmother’s home following her death from Alzheimer’s. The text itself is a written collage of Biondolillo’s meditations, plant research, and scraps of her grandmother’s journals, while the visual collage is composed of both found and original images. “Now the house is my burden and my refuge, and some days it feels like an anchor, and some days, like concrete shoes. Is this what home is supposed to feel like?” Thus the essay itself becomes a field guide to the exhausting, often frustrating process of healing a natural landscape while also healing from grief and intergenerational wounds. The gorgeous disorder of Biondolillo’s collages mirrors the writer’s efforts to untangle and create something beautiful, new, and forward-facing—not only from her garden, but also from the family legacy and tangled past that the garden represents. In her author’s note, Biondolillo writes that the process of collage both revealed and filled gaps in the narrative. This observation epitomizes the function and potential of hybridity. Content informs form; form reveals content. —CRAFT
Today is a day when I hate my house, I hate it for all the things it will never be. For ceilings that are too high for lights in one room and too low for lights in another. For the weeds. For the crooked fucking garage. For the piles of shit everywhere inside and out. For the tall stalks sprouting like chin hairs on the edge of my yard. Already! In January! Clover, thistle, blackberry, dandelion. Today is the kind of day when I think, no wonder they didn’t give a shit about the house. No wonder they let it fall to ruin. It must’ve been a daily reminder for my grandmother of all the nice things and comforts she’d never have.
This is what watching weeds take over does to a person.
Red deadnettle, birdsfoot deervetch, panicled willowherb, selfheal, Queen Anne’s lace.
Weeds and wildflowers have taken over my grandmother’s old garden beds. The house and grounds are now mine, and so each spring I labor to tend them. Tansy is pulled, as are dandelions and scotch broom (even though my grandmother liked its bright yellow long-lived flowers), but I ignore the tiny trefoils and many of the moon-pennies. I watch sprouts carefully—furred rosettes could be bull thistle or remnants from her Oriental poppy garden.
Every year I say I’m going to keep a journal about the comings and goings in the yard: the birds, wildflowers, the tide of weeds, so I can predict better next year when I can work and when I can rest. My grandmother wrote down every bird she saw in the last half of the eighties. In 1977, she wrote down every wildflower she photographed.
Meadow hawkweed, wooly lamb’s ear, kittentails, slender speedwell, perennial candytuft.
I carve out small, ordered spaces—smaller than my grandmother’s, because I know perhaps better than her the narrow limits of my motivation—and plant tulips, roses, dahlias. They guard against the stubborn encroachment of the ghosts of her fickle attention.
The blackberry brambles take over in just one season of neglect. They have engulfed over half the yard in the past and so my summer’s work becomes preventing it from happening again, instead of making progress on the beautiful space I can see in my mind’s eye. I spend the sunny days bailing out a boat that’s taking on water in the form of invasive vines, forbs, and shrubs.
During the first full summer that I lived here, I was cutting at the blackberry canes that grew around the spot where I wanted to build an office. I chopped at them in a rage. I wasn’t mad at blackberry, but blackberry bore the brunt of my anger. In a moment that replays often in my mind, the very tip of my pruning shears nicked the fragile armor of a small black garter snake that had been lying coiled around a berry stem. I had seen the snake moments before. I had tried to usher it to safety. But it came back, from behind me, to the place it thought would be safe.
If I’d been more careful, more considerate. If I’d had more compassion for myself and the blackberries…. I scold myself over the rerun.
The snake writhed in the weeds, twisted over and upon the place I’d cut it. My heart hammered imagining how I might staunch my own bleeding with no hands no arms only trunk trunk trunk to tail. It was no thicker than a finger and had every right to hide in the blackberries I cut back each year. I cut them, because the alternative is to be taken over by them. Because I want to imagine order here. Because order suggests that my hands know what they’re doing, that the garden, its roses, its peonies, its dahlias are growing as designed.
But order calls for cruelty that pink peony heads belie.
The brambles, shorn. The tansy stalks, toppled and burned. Over and over when I walk by the spot, I see the snake, still on the path, the pink crescent of its meat attracting flies.
Hairy bittercress, forget-me-not, bull thistle, groundsel, creeping woodsorrel, leafy spurge.
I find evidence of the ambitious ideas my grandmother had for her yard in photo albums, left moldering in the garage, full of pink-tinged Kodacolors—a disordered atlas of local flowers. Her journals note days when she drove an hour round trip on her lunch break to photograph fairy lanterns or lousewort. She wrote, “I really just want to go everywhere & see everything.” And, “Planted seeds: Gypsophila, Delphinium, Geum, Columbine.”
That particular entry doesn’t say if the Geum she planted was Prairie Smoke or Yellow avens, with its prickly seed pod. So, the avens that pops up in the woods with their little yellow blooms and stunted crowns (they look like they need more light) could be weeds or the remnants of her labors. There’s no telling and this nags at me. My former therapist suggested that I think about the beauty of a place that is perfect the way it is. I know she isn’t talking about my yard, but still, I cannot imagine that. The weeds aren’t me, but they look like what the worst part of me does to what I want. Buying this place, and cleaning it up, making a home of it, a garden of it, I imagined, would calm something unsoothable in me, like being here did when I was a child. That’s a lot to put on an old, dirty house and overgrown yard.
My grandmother didn’t go into the woods, that I remember, and so any flowers growing there would have arrived by chance or luck, rather than intent. Avens seeds are designed to catch on fur, so they could have been walked here on the leg of raccoon, deer, bobcat, coyote, or bear—all of which used to walk through often. Now I only see deer and hear coyotes in the woods at night, hunting rabbits and house cats. I try to imagine my woods being perfect the way they are: but there are old tires and bedsprings and propane tanks piled in their depths, and berry vines so strong they are pulling down crooked trees. Very little thrives in there except for plants that don’t belong. It feels like a kind of violence, not to do whatever I can to make it better. But, in the rational voice of my former therapist, I remind myself that plants aren’t violent. They just grow toward the light.
Other days, in my grandmother’s journals, the days the weeds exploited, are marked only by “Slept all afternoon,” or “Stayed home in bed all day,” scrawled across the middle of the page. Weeds, unlike peonies and other fragile things, thrive on neglect.
All it takes is letting one thistle go to seed and you end up with one hundred thistles the next year. There is no rest. I can’t see a middle ground with them. It’s all thistles or none, which maybe indicates a lack of imagination on my part.
Toothwort, shining crane’s bill, ghostberry, silver dollars, charlock, mouse-ear cress, bedstraw.
I can’t remember what her rose garden looked like, it’s been gone so long. Or the sound of her voice. A lot about living here reminds me of what’s been lost. But sometimes, in summer, the backyard hums and rustles and chirps like it used to. Grasshoppers, thrushes, and wrens. The smell of dry grass and ripe berries. The cool damp of the ferns I’d find when I crawled through the brambles with my grandfather’s shears, lopping my way into small clearings in the woods. Then, my hide seemed impervious to the thorns—it is still that same there out there.
Mayweed, nipplewort, hedgehog dogtail, enchanter’s nightshade, yellow rocket.
The last journal my grandmother kept was a small datebook. In it, she wrote names, over and over. Her mind was clouded by Alzheimer’s and she filled this book with the names of her family members and friends from school. First with birthdays noted and grouped by family (my mother, my sister, my stepfather, and me in one, my cousin’s family in another), then as her condition deteriorated, jittering cursive, or squiggly block letters listing out the names by letter. All the Ls and then all the Bs on one page, the Ds and Ss on another. I didn’t visit her then. The last time I saw her was in 2013. I was trying to get a job on the opposite side of the country and everyone said she wouldn’t even know who I was. But I can see, in the pages, how she was trying so hard to remember. Who was Bertram, I wonder? Or Leila?
It’s so fucking difficult, knowing she died here, alone but for one son and his wife, in a rat-infested house with rainwater dripping down in every room, and over and over the pen in her hand writhing as she wrote and rewrote our names. It is a stone I carry, along with the knowledge that, no matter what I do to this house or yard, it can’t make any of that better. To know I can’t weed or garden away the pain of her last days makes it hard on the hottest days to even try.
Now the house is my burden and my refuge, and some days it feels like an anchor, and some days, like concrete shoes. Is this what home is supposed to feel like?
A partial list of gone things: The trees that came down in the latest ice storm, the bear and bobcat that came through as recently as last year, but not once since the houses behind me went up, my grandparents and the shape and nature of their care for me, a difficult, sad child. But the spaces they’ve left behind are quickly filled by other things: wild roses, St. John’s Wort, rabbits, quail, and me. I concede: all things come and go. Even sadness and grief.
I hear the voice of my former therapist say triumphantly: “And weeds!” But she’s wrong. They are only ever coming. Even when I can’t see them, there are taproots and seedpods twisting just under my feet, waiting for their chance.
Despite my own schedules and pills and plans, I, too, know days drowned in torpor, as my grandmother’s once were. In summer, when my fire to prune and dig has burned through its fuel, I cut stems of my best intentions—rose, dahlia, lupine—for a small vase on the dining table to remind me of my effort, of the journey, and I walk the backwoods, with an eye out for any remnant of hers: larkspurs and prairie smoke, trillium and lilac.
Bitter dock, dove’s-tail, gorse, scarlet pimpernel, cankerwort, corn spurry, marguerite.
There, wherever the waist-high ragwort and spindly trees thin to clearings, seas of arcing blackberry canes roil above reefs of fern, their wild, unripe green berries bright and triumphant in the weak sun.
CHELSEA BIONDOLILLO is the author of The Skinned Bird and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. Her essays have been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing, How We Talk to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, and elsewhere. Her collages have been shown in Washington and Oregon as a member of the PNW Collage Collective and anthologized in Transitional Moments by the Arizona Collage Collective & Kolaj Institute. She has a BFA from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. You can find her on Twitter @c_biondolillo.