LoFi Girl is playing on YouTube. The sky is orange, the lights circling the football stadium turn on. I should be home by now, but I’ve got one last thing to do.
Devil’s ivy occupies the four corners of my classroom. Its name nods at its resilience because it is nearly impossible to kill. Though I do see a slice of brown on three heart-shaped leaves, a memory of when it first hung near the AC.
I’m not good at growing things. My tomato plants always wither and brown. One of the apples became quarter-sized until it shriveled and died, and the guava, fig, and pomegranate lost the few flowers they had.
It’s my fault. I like the idea of plants, but it’s hard to maintain a routine. I forget to water, rarely prune or fertilize. In a spur of guilt, I’ll drown them. The English ivy that used to hang in my classroom suffered such a fate.
But I’ve always talked to them, my most consistent care.
I walk my horses to the pasture each day and take the long way back up the drive. Western white pines tower twenty feet above me. A dozen or so of the two hundred spread around the property are even taller than that. Why so many? This property once housed a Christmas tree farm. I touch their silky needles and greet them as I pass.
I talk to the oak that’s sprouted between two young redwood trees. The roses I planted and forgot to water are still alive. I say goodbye to them when I leave for work in the morning. They’re now tall enough to escape the rabbits, thank goodness, because I never did build a fence.
A long time ago, I heard a story about plants and their response to music. Classical was their preferred genre. They don’t like harsh sounds. But that doesn’t mean they are quiet. We just can’t hear their voices, which are as high as a whistle for a dog.
They warn each other about the presence of herbivores and frugivores. They share news about the weather. They do this by sending chemical signals through the network of fungi that intersect their roots.
When I walk barefoot through my grass, can the earth hear my worries?
When I touch the crawling vines’ leaves, can they hear my dreams?
My therapist kept suggesting meditation to help me stay present in my body, but my body is not yet a safe place for me. As a survivor of complex trauma, staying present in a silent room is the hardest thing for me to do. It’s much easier to sit among nature.
Perhaps I feel safe because—with elk and deer and boar and flowers and hills and snakes and horses—my body is not alone.
I’ve spent the past year on a writing sabbatical. I could look out my office window and see nothing but trees. When I returned to my classroom in town, I felt the absence of green immediately.
That’s when I bought the devil’s ivy.
I need to water them only once a week, a schedule I’ve been able to keep. I also clean their leaves and talk to them. Sometimes I even sing—
My way into meditating.
And now, the ivy’s leaves are perky, and the stems have grown quite long. Correct watering has had a thing to do with it, of course, but I know they’re also answering me.
I attended a panel at the 2023 AWP conference titled: “Writing the Body as Landscape: How We See and Imagine Ourselves as Wilderness.” The discussion centered on how to connect our bodies to the land, our responsibility to the land, and how to speak to the land.
One of our panelists told us frankly: “Just go talk to a tree.”
So, I continue to speak quietly— kindly—to the trees. I talk to my ivy.
“You are beautiful,” I say. “Look how strong and healthy you are. I’m happy you’re growing well.”
Some years ago, I had a sophomore who challenged me quite often. He could be cruelly sarcastic and was highly intelligent, so we had a few tough conversations the first month he became my student.
Then I found out some traumatic experiences lay in his past, and it changed the way I approached him. Though I held him to the same standards and expectations as all my other students, I shaped my words toward him differently.
When he acted out, I would say, “You are loved; you are kind; you are strong.”
At first, he scoffed and rolled his eyes, denying he was any of those things. After three years of having him as a student, though, he finally laughed and accepted my words. I’d sometimes still get a “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” but I could see something had changed.
And when he graduated, he told me, “Thank you. I now understand why you always said what you did.”
Many things, like therapy, writing, reading, and exercise, have helped support my journey of taking care of myself, but I’ve only recently begun to speak kindly to myself.
Now, I wonder—
Am I speaking to child-me when I say these words?
Can I rewrite the story I have of myself?
Can I, like my ivy, not only survive but thrive?
The sun sets. I can’t stay in my classroom any longer. I’ve still got a long drive through a long, winding road. Mountains press on all sides of it and that always makes the journey feel more personal and insistent.
But before I close the door, I say:
You are loved. You are kind. You are strong.
Ashley Russ is an American writer and educator residing in California. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Antioch’s Lunch Ticket, Sweet Jane Magazine, UC Riverside’s Mosaic Art and Literary Journal, and in Endurance News. You can find her work at https://ashleydruss.com | Twitter @TheWritingRuss. | Instagram: @ashleyrusswriter | Bluesky: @ashleyruss