The Strawberry Flower
Roses are related to strawberries. A strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) isn't technically a berry, it's a receptable and has its fruits on the surface. They are called achenes, each a small, one seeded fruit with a hard covering that doesn't dehisce when ripe. I find that fascinating and wondered for ages how the plant supplied the achene with its nutrition. Strawberries stop ripening when they're picked. No point picking them early. They are also related to peaches, apricots, plums, so many fruits. The proof is in their flowers. A single rose flower looks like a plum flower, like a strawberry flower and any other flower in the rosaceae family. Flowers are important in botany. It is with the flowers that species are determined. Male parts and female, it's fascinating. I'd like to be able to tell you I'm not a geek. Something happened when I was thirteen. It was important and my whole life was bound up in it.
Linnaeus was interested in erotica. One of the cleverest people ever, he worked out how to classify plants, put them into their kingdom, division, class, order, family, tribe, genus, species, variety and cultivar. Before him, lots of plants had more than one name, or one name could refer to many plants. It has changed a little over time but now we know what we're talking about and the value of erotica.
My proud possession is a pocket knife I've had almost all my life, an expensive one I paid a small fortune for when I was fourteen and keep honed to exquisite sharpness. I saved for it for a couple of years. The best Sheffield steel, I left it on the roof a few years ago and searched for it endlessly until I found it a year later. I grafted a lot of trees with it, and roses, all sorts of things. My take rate was good, ninety percent with peaches on almonds. For a while I was tempted to do it professionally, travel the world grafting. People do it. I figured I was too slow though. My rate was about a hundred a day if the sap was running. Not good enough. The technique is actually called budding. Sometimes I do whip grafting and whip and tongue grafting but not often. I don't like hurting trees and try to keep it simple.
From the age of thirteen I became serious. I rapidly read botany and gardening books. My library of books became huge, thousands of them. There wasn't enough space in my room to keep them so I put them in the ceiling, all catalogued so I knew where they were. They were valuable to me. Our house was wonderfully insulated with my books. When I ran out of space in the ceiling, I filled up the rest of my room with stacks of books, one on top of the other, from floor to ceiling. They were jammed against each other and soon all the floor space was taken. I created a tunnel through them from the doorway to my bed. There was another tunnel to my wardrobe. Mum and Dad weren't as thin as me and they couldn't get to my bed. I found some wooden planks and was able to use them to stack books above my bed. I loved my bed, it was special being surrounded by books. My Dad used to say not to be surprised if an old Pharaoh emerges from my room because it was a lot like the guts of an Egyptian pyramid.
Other people went to concerts, saw Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs or Lobby Loyde and His Coloured Balls or Captain Matchbox and his Whoopee Band. I never kept up with it. I went to open gardens, botanic parks and nurseries instead. I loved the smell and ambience of hot houses. They were beautiful and busy, I could feel the growth of things in them. People recognised me. They'd say hello and I'd pump them for information. I learned to love ferns. Their life cycle was amazingly different. The sexual union took place after the spore had grown into a small prothali. I loved watching the sperm swim around with my microscope. I also learned about orchids and pseudo pollination. The word orchid is Greek for testicle, like avocado is Mayan for testicle. One can't be a prude when interested in botany. The words hymen and sperm among others frequently crop up.
I kept my microscope in a cupboard in the shed, along with all the tools and chemicals I needed for my experiments. I had a camera that did macro and kept records of everything I did with it. Often I needed to use dyes that would show up on film when the pictures were taken. I researched the elasticity of the structure of plants at first. Then I examined hybrid plants trying to figure out what characteristics of the parent plants were kept and what were lost. Strawberries are hybridised.
When I was fourteen a lady offered me a job working in her garden for two hours every week. I was energetic and didn't need two hours for what she wanted. She insisted though and we worked together, weeding and doing what was needed. Slowly, I started doing other things for her. I put in a glade of ferns. I wanted it to be Polypodium formosum but we couldn't afford them and chose the Welsh polypody instead. She wanted good fruit trees. I visited people I knew who had good ones and got branches from their trees to graft her seedling apricots with. She was fascinated I could do it and told a lot of people, I know because I got a lot of job offers. I had no idea about money and she helped me with that. She told me what to charge and to quote for jobs, not work to be paid by the hour. I was quick, too quick to be paid by the hour.
My school work suffered. I wasn't interested. My head was too busy with botany, trying to solve the problem. I suffered from mathrheumatics, always failed it. Why does one plus one always add to two? I had no idea. One might be smaller than the other, why are they equal? It seemed stupid to me. History could have been interesting but they never talked about Linnaeus and so many more interesting people. Instead they talked about people having their heads hacked off. There's no fun in that and nothing beautiful, only misery. I would have been interested in geography but they didn't talk a lot about climates or soil types. I thought it a wasted opportunity.
I did Latin and excelled. I knew a lot of the words before I started and Mrs. Andrews was thrilled until one day I asked what a hymen was. The Principal wasn't amused either. Latin helped my botanical interest. Lycopus virginicus is also known as Gypsywort. I knew it was funny but didn't know why for a long time. I continued my study of Latin at home. I had a bigger vocabulary than Mrs. Andrews but none of the conjunctions and things like that. I was there to learn. There were secrets to unlock and one in particular. I didn't have enough time to devote to it.
I started researching meristems, bought nutrient agar to feed them and started growing ferns. It took a while to figure it out. The nutrient had to be agitated so it would be oxygenated and the little flecks of tissue would be able to thrive. I knew I needed something that would vibrate attached to the container. I asked around. Innocent me took the advice. Aged fifteen, I entered a sex shop and asked for a vibrator. The lady was trying not to laugh, I could tell, as I told her what I wanted it for and why. Because I was underage she sold me one that had the banana looking part of it removed. I was happy. I had a twenty percent success rate using it, much better than the zero I'd had previously.
I failed school. Dismally. My parents were disappointed. They sent me to psychologists. The first one I didn't like at all. The second inculcated herself into my life fairly quickly. It surprised me because I don't make friends easily. The first psychologist thought I was stupid and carefully pronounced words for me so I might understand. She wanted to test my IQ to see how stupid I was but I didn't cooperate. I had no interest in the subject matter. The second started talking about botany and soon she opened up my world and was able to peer in.
I learned later she was astonished. She wanted to know my IQ and it took her some time to find tests that were appropriate to my interests. When she found them I scored high enough that she was shocked. She never told me what the score was but she told my parents. They were shocked too and wondered where it could have come from. I didn't care. It was only a number and meant little to me. Was it made up of big ones or little ones? Besides, I was keeping a bigger secret from her. I was hunting for the answer and my determination was all consuming. I became aware of autism. It was never talked about in front of me but I caught snippets of conversation and the word was frequently used. I never looked it up though, it wasn't botany and I wasn't interested.
Mrs. Austin, my gardening lady, was wonderful to me. She gave me a part of her back yard to use for my meristemming and laughed when she saw the vibrator I was using. I had no idea what other use it could have. When she asked what they sold in sex shops I remember telling her that some people must be born without a sex and they could pick one up there. She laughed and laughed some more. What I said must have been very funny.
She helped me with the gardening round we'd established. One day she asked if I ever listened to the gardening segment on the radio. It was my favourite thing to listen to. When she asked if I'd like to see it being done I was enthusiastic. She talked to my parents and one Saturday morning, with me dressed up, I went in with her. I watched, amazed by it all and tried to connect faces to voices.
Then they started talking about me and I was lead in to talk to them. Mrs. Austin came with me. I was asked about myself and had no idea what to say. Mrs. Austin took over. She suggested I answer some gardening questions for the listeners. The first question was about pansies and I gave a brief history of the pansey (Thompson and Gambier) and answered the question. Then a listener wanted to know about a lemon tree and I went into it giving the history of the tree and what would help it. Next, I had a question about passionfruit. Lerps came into the conversation. I identified the species and said how I found them enjoyably edible, scrape them off the leaf and put them on the tongue for an instant zing of sugar.
I kept answering questions and the man who had been answering them was very quiet. I was worried I'd made a mess of it and wished he'd start talking. There were lights flashing in the studio and I was so nervous. The presenter was worried because I had trouble staying in the chair. She asked what gardening I was doing and I told her about my meristems. Eventually it ended and we said goodbye. It was interesting but frightening too. A lady suggested I be taken to the toilet first next time. Mrs. Austin laughed and said I was always like that. On our way home I almost told her about my research, it had gone well beyond a search. Mostly it was about strawberries. There had to be an explanation hidden in the structure of a strawberry plant.
My gardening round was getting bigger and Mrs. Austin managed the appointments for me. I had no idea about how to do that. She also managed the money and opened a bank account for me. She had no children of her own and borrowed me. Apparently my reputation was gathering. People wanted me to work for them.
One day the usual gardening expert on the radio was sick and they asked whether I could do it. She organised it with my parents and without telling me what was happening exactly we went to the radio station. I knew Mrs. Austin was trying to keep me calm as I waited. Then we were ushered in and I was greeted with a lovely hello. I started answering questions. After a while I looked up and looking back at me through the big window in the wall were lots of eyes, belonging to people who worked at the radio station. Mrs. Austin said later that most people on the radio sat down at the table, not many walked back and forth around the table as they were answering questions. Certainly, no one else would have been under the table. The lady who was presenting the show kept asking me what the botanical names of all the plants mentioned were and how they got those names. Luckily, I got them right.
Next day at school it was strange. I wasn't on my own during breaks. The others wanted to know all about what I did at the radio station and how I knew all that stuff. It was strange and embarrassing. I had no idea what to say and rapidly made my way to the library where there were rules of silence. In class it was funny, somehow I had more respect, I wasn't the dummy any more but what I was clearly hadn't been worked out because I still had mathrheumatics and everything else. I hated school. It was meaningless. I was still failing miserably. School wasn't answering my questions.
I was seventeen, soon eighteen and I'd had enough of it intruding into my life. I thought it was a waste of time repeating another year. The Principal talked to me about it and while he didn't say anything I think he agreed. I knew he'd miss me because I did the gardening and had transformed the playground into an oasis. With me out of school I could add to my gardening round. I could also do the research into meristems I'd been meaning to do. I was trying to measure cellular elasticity.
Mrs. Austin had other ideas. She thought I could excel as a garden designer, like a modern Capability Brown. She talked to my parents about it and we worked it out that I was to employ her to drive me around and make me comfortable with it. She would also be my secretary who would write on the plans after I'd drawn them up. People always told me to relax but I found it difficult, l hadn't laxed yet so how could I relax?
My parents thought they'd encourage Mrs. Austin by showing her my room. She was stunned. She stood looking at the small tunnel set into the wall of books for some time before she started to laugh. My Dad asked if she'd like to see the ceiling space. She climbed the ladder, switched on the torch and saw the wall of books that extended to fill the entire ceiling space. When she got down she was almost hysterical. She went back to my room and asked if she could crawl through the tunnel. I didn't think she'd be able to and said, "Yes." She surprised me. After I asked her to be careful with the books she took off her shoes and crawled through the tunnel to my bed. She was amazed and laughed a lot. When she emerged from my room my parents were still there, waiting.
"What an experience!" she told them. "I've never seen anything like it." They confirmed they hadn't either. She wanted to know if I'd read them all and my Mum said, "Every word. He's been a big reader since he was thirteen." Mrs. Austin laughed again. She couldn't stop laughing. "I asked him once if he reads and he said, "A little." Talk about understatement!"
I was lucky to have the books.
My garden designing went reasonably well, I thought, but Mrs. Austin was concerned. She could see how I was a little agitated with people in my face. I wasn't my normal, happy self, apparently. So, she worked on the garden round and increased the amount of money I received. It seemed every moment of my life was occupied by either sleep, work, research or school. Eventually school was squeezed out by the others. I quit. I needed more time for my research. It was driving me mad and the longer I left it the more elusive it seemed to become. I had to know whether I was looking for a fantasy or reality.
The Principal came to my classroom and stood before the class to wish me well. I had never known him to do that before. I hid behind my desk. He thanked me for the school's new garden and the theory of it. I blushed. He told us that while I was by no means scholastic, I had excelled in my subjects and he told us about Einstein, daVinci, Michaelangelo, Newton, Tesla, Jefferson, Mozart, Gates and Jobs among many others who were similar to me. They all had Aspergers. I was shocked. I had no idea and knew nothing of it.
At the end of my last day of school they all wanted to say goodbye. I got so many hugs. It was the nicest they'd ever been to me and though they were trying to be generous I recoiled each time I was drawn into a hug. I guess they would have wanted me to stay if I'd been a football hero but I was none of that. It was plainly obvious it was my time to leave and let them figure out who would be on the bottom of the class in every subject but Latin.
My last day disturbed me. The anxiety of leaving had been more than enough but what the Principal had labelled me as was a shock and it shook me up when everyone wanted to hug me. I'd never had that happen before.
Mrs. Austin was very helpful. She said she knew about Aspergers. Everyone knew but me and it didn't make me any less. It was only a label and I was beautiful with or without it. It didn't matter. She started teaching me how to drive her car next day and added a few new gardens to the list. She also said there was more radio work. It was truly frightening and if it hadn't been for her I'd have gone back to school, but she smiled serenely and I was more at ease.
I almost always dealt with ladies at the gardens I attended. They always seemed to know what they wanted and had no problems with asking me about things. They seemed to know when to ask and when to leave me alone. At almost every garden I was given a drink, either juice or lemonade and some food. They were very kind. I often did difficult work too. Hedges were always a problem to get cut. No one wanted to cut them. I didn't mind. When Mrs. Austin found out about me cutting hedges she increased the amount I should be paid to do them. She always talked things over with my parents. They were supportive.
My school results were less than satisfactory for my parents. Especially after I was thirteen. They said my eccentricities seemed to go into overdrive then. My inability to socialise made it worse. They felt intimidated by my botany and gardening knowledge though they had a special kind of pride about it too. They were extremely proud of my radio performances and had recorded every one. I hoped the radio work would help my research. Someone out there must know. Why would I be the only one? I was becoming desperate, trying to find what the images I held in my mind were. I couldn't tell anyone about it and knew it had to be a secret, but I didn't know why.
I was considered difficult and when Mrs. Austin came into our lives my parents were extremely grateful. It would be dishonest to say they loved me. They loved some things I did though. I was a massive responsibility who needed elastic sided boots because I couldn't tie my shoe laces and so many things like that. For other people my obvious deficiencies were amusing but for them they were extremely frustrating and disappointing. It was like a glass wall had been placed between us when I was thirteen.
I tried, so hard, but never figured it out. I would have loved to. I desperately wanted to. When I had the laces in my hands I folded the ends down like they showed me and suddenly the circles I'd created seemed to move, a spinning movement and then they seemed to go together, I guess one on top of the other and I'd lost a bloody circle and couldn't find it again and the hole I'd made for one circle to go into was missing. It was so difficult. Just to be normal would be wonderful. The world is for people who are normal, not people like me. It is us who extend the boundaries for everyone to enjoy.
People also looked at my hair. My parents refused to comb it for me figuring that I'd work it out for myself. I never did but desperately wanted to. I always started the part on the left side at the front. Then it would go diagonally over my head to end on the right side. I hated it. It seemed so straight as I did it. I'd have given anything to be "normal".
My eighteenth birthday party was an embarrassment. I had no one to invite apart from Mrs. Austin. It was like an assault to my parent's pride. In the end all the people on my gardening round were invited, all women who basically came to see what circumstances produced such an oddity as me. I wished I knew. They stood around my parents and asked them about me. Mrs. Austin invited people from the radio station but none could come. She kept me company as I opened a container of meristems and divided them. I'd been neglecting my research, I simply didn't have enough time.