Elena Ferrante: ‘ I dedicate myself to plants. Is it because I am afraid of them? ‘

Plants are captives, yet they extend, twisting, sneak their style in

I love plants. Maybe even more than animals, more than cats, which I adore. I like everything about plants, but I always feel as though I know nothing. I buy them at the nursery, I distribute them on balconies and in every room, I plant them in the ground in the garden. I learn their names, including the scientific ones, and I write off in a notebook how much to water them, when to give them hormones, whether they need a lot of sun or a little.

And not only that: I analyze the types of soil, the time for pruning and the methodology used. I worry about late freezes as if they were earthquakes or tidal waves.

I take such care of my plants that I become fond of them. I check them continuously, I feel the clay with my thumbs to see if it’s still damp or dry. Out of love for them, I tolerate the unpleasant smell of organic fertilisers and the crowds of flies. I patiently rescue foliages assaulted by parasites. And when I realise that one is mortally ill, I discover that I love it more than all the others and turn to trusted experts to find out what to do.

But while I have taught myself so much, I continue to think I am shamefully ignorant and that my ignorance will be punished. I feel that plants are alive, very alive, and yet prisoners. They can’t move, they can’t seek shelter, they can’t escape clippers, hatchets, finds. They inspire pity and so I feel they are designated victims- an emblem, perhaps, of all the victims on this planet.

But a precisely opposite impression is grafted on to my sense of pity. Their expansion worries me. They are captives and yet they widen, spin, sneak their style in, breach the stone. Their roots grow deeper and deeper; they try to send them elsewhere. Maybe it’s that contrast that disorients me; they have in themselves a blind force-out that doesn’t fit with their cheerful colourings, their please odors. At the first opportunity, they manage to get back everything that was taken from them, dissolving the shapes that we have imposed by domesticating them.

At the movies, on television, images of burning forests cause me as much suffering- I feel the life that’s evaporating, hissing, writhing amid the flames- as the speeded-up images of tree sap, that like a cancer slides past every possible obstacle, frighten me.

At days I suspect that I devote myself to plants in this way because I’m afraid of them. But then I should admit I’ve assigned to vegetation a symbolism that applies to any form of life. We appreciate it, we love it- until, exploding the boundaries that our authority has defined, it overflows.

* Translated by Ann Goldstein

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