17 January, 2020
I BUY A BASIL plant for the summer. The plant had stood alone, perched on a barren shelf at Trader Joe’s—lush, a tempting canopy cloud of green. I do not expect it to last the summer, not weeks of leading hiking and camping trips for middle-schoolers throughout the High Sierras of California. But my heart had leapt so involuntarily when I first spotted it, sparkling from a recent watering, blooming happily below a tray of yellowing mangos, that I couldn’t resist. I didn’t care if the basil eventually died. It was my first time leading children into the wilderness, and I had spent the previous day on the plane to San Francisco, journaling frantically.
What does it mean to be a good leader? What is most important to embody? I want my kids to love the world, to see how beauty and connections thrum in the air, soil, and water—I want my kids to love each other.
I wanted badly to do it right, the leading of the next generation, and seeing the basil with its leaves so large and tight together, made me think of my mother taking a pot of basil from the windowsill above our kitchen sink. Pinch the top leaves gently, she had said to me, her shoulder-length dark hair falling across her cheek as she brought the basil down to my eye-level. Right at the stem. My young fingers fumbling along the tender stalks. There, yes. A curling leaf snapping off between my thumb and forefinger. It’s good to take the leaves, she said, standing up and carefully placing the pot back on the sill. It promotes healthy growth.
In the grocery aisle, bright visions swarm—gathering around the basil every morning with the kids, watching them pour a gentle stream of water from their Nalgenes, teaching them to pinch the minuscule flowers, helping them pluck a few choice leaves to dazzle our spaghetti night. We care for this plant, I imagine proclaiming to a cluster of entranced 11-year-olds, all who had fought valiantly for the privilege of watering the basil. And in return, it takes care of us. I imagine connecting the lesson to how our group would care for one other on the trail when we were all we had for miles and to our responsibility to the earth—with its glacial lakes, red-rooted sequoias, billions of squirming microbes dying and birthing and eating each other in thick fertile soil— which gave us life and breath, so freely.
“Sure,” my co-leader Lewis says, blue eyes amused. He has tight brown-gold curls and reminds me vaguely of a bear. “Why not?” I cup the basil with two hands, the warmth of the knotted roots soaking through the thin plastic pot. On the ride back to our hotel, I hold it on my lap for fear it will get crushed.
A four-thousand-year-old herb with a golden lineage tracing back to India, Egypt, and China settles on the vibrating dash of our fifteen-passenger white van as we drive shouting children through the California dust. Ociumum basilicum—sweet basil, a member of the great mint family, famed for its extensive culinary uses, and twisted in its own tempestuous, clashing mythology. In a lengthy introduction to the basil literature within different cultures, Basil: An Herb Society of America Guide proclaims: “In terms of legend and symbolism, basil has been both loved and feared. Its associations include love and hate, danger and protection, life and death.”
On our first night near the summit of Mt. Diablo, I hold the basil up to the cluster of kids waiting in headlamps around the picnic table for their dessert. This was after an eternal, exhausting evening. After a dimpled Boy-Scout of a kid told me that he was Knife-Certified (by whom? I should have asked) and proceeded to stab his palm five-minutes into cutting red peppers. After a quiet boy with neat blonde hair hid among vines of poison oak. After a swarm of raccoons covered our food cooler and their leader—a scraggly fellow with glinting green eyes—crawled menacingly towards the children and Lewis gave everyone permission to throw rocks to keep him at bay. After a dinner in pitch darkness. After a tiny girl from the Hamptons taught me to star-spin—wheeling in circles upon circles and falling to gaze at careening specks in the sky.
“This is our Power Object,” I say to the kids, extending the basil like an offering. Its leaves flutter darkly, a picture of health. “It’s incredible because whoever’s holding Basil has the floor to speak. The person with Basil has our full respect, our full attention. Everyone here has important things to say.”
The kids murmur, giggle, peering at the strange, shadowy faces of each other. I pass Basil to the girl next to me so that we can start sharing our Highs and Lows of the day. It is difficult for the kids to control their excitement, their nerves—laughter breaks, shouts pointing out new raccoons creeping in the trees.
“Hey,” Lewis says in his gentle voice. “Who has Basil now? Who are we listening to?”
Their eyes turn, searching.
Dioscorides, a Greek physician whose classical botanical works were referenced for over sixteen centuries, warned that too much basil can “dulleth the sight…and is of hard digestion,” but John Gerad—who became one of the most prevalent English botanists in the 1500s—applauded basil as a remedy for melancholy.
A kid, sobbing of homesickness, hugs her knees under the pines while the other kids spread mayonnaise on turkey sandwiches. She doesn’t eat for the first day and a half, takes small bites of plain yogurt, throws up in the bathroom while I rub her back. On our afternoon hike to a waterfall, she lags. Another taller girl—known for the stuffed otter she packed inside her sleeping bag—falls in step beside her. “I was sad too, at the airport,” the taller girl says softly. “I didn’t want to let go of my mom.” That night, the homesick kid holds Basil, a borrowed stuffed otter tucked into her lap, and says to the group: “I want to thank my new friend for making me feel at home.”
For a few blissful days, we leave Basil outside on sunny stumps while we go hiking. But in the Yosemite, we return to tragedy—Basil torn and bitten, clawed to pieces, a handful of straggling leaves remaining of his once full canopy. After that, we put Basil in the bear box whenever we leave camp—long times of darkness, squeezed in stale metal-air between our cooler and the trash bag from breakfast. I take him out as soon as we return and place him in the sunniest patch I can find, but the evening light is never enough. I glare at every fat squirrel who dares to sniff around our picnic table.
An herbalist named Chrysippus wrote of basil’s heady, intoxicating scent in pre-206 B.C.E.: “Ocimum exists only to drive men insane.”
In the moments when Lewis and I are looking away, when we are unloading bags from the trailer, boiling water, setting up tents, our wildest kid leaps on the quiet boy infected with poison oak and punches him in the jaw. Lights the hand-sanitizer that he squirted into his cupped palm on fire. Catches Knife-Certified dimpled kid in a chokehold. “Tap out,” wild kid says through gritted teeth. “Tap out!” His arm bulges around Knife-Certified kid’s neck. Knife-Certified’s face is turning red.
“Never! I’ll never surrender!” he sputters. He sees us running toward them.
‘You’re in charge of Basil,’ I say to the girl sitting behind the passenger seat. Basil is on the floor by her feet. She nods without looking at Basil and ten minutes through the drive, swings her legs enthusiastically—Basil flies and flops all over the van floor. Soil spilling, Basil limp and pathetic as a runover animal, a green goldfish out of his bowl.
“No worries, no worries,” I say to the unconcerned girl, scooping up the soil as if every second is frantic and precious. “No worries, we’ll fix him.” She nods, looks back to the friendship bracelet tied to her water bottle.
It was strongly believed in Ancient Greece and Rome that basil would only grow well under conditions of verbal abuse. During planting season, sowers would swear at the seeds.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, giving sweet basil conveyed your best wishes. In Crete, people placed basil plants where they needed protection from the devil.
‘I don’t think you understand,’ I say, treading the clear water of Lake Tahoe, craning my neck to gaze up at the twelve kids frowning down at me from a tall rock jutting out over the lake. They want to jump from the rock into hip-deep water, and I can hear the ankles snapping, shins jutting. ‘It is my job to keep you safe.’
A boy, tall and gangly, falls off his bike and breaks his front tooth in half, scrapes running down his legs. Blood on his chin. “Don’t send me home,” he begs. First words out of his mouth. “I want to finish.” Finish biking hundreds of miles along the winding wildflower coast, steep hills rolling up to mountains, golden grass tumbling near tight drops, the ocean always roaring wetly below. I don’t want to leave either, ever. I want to curl up in the long grass until I feel like a rabbit or a mountain lion, until I cannot remember who I love. We put the shattered tooth in a Ziploc bag, and when the grey-haired dentist with the German accent tells us that the fragments aren’t needed and that the boy is fine to keep riding, I offer to throw the bag away. The skinny boy grabs my arm, grins skeletally in relief. “No, I want to keep it.”
“Basil has bugs in him.” Lewis shows me the tiny critters, grey and crawling around the thinning stalks. Tiny holes in the remaining leaves. “And a mold problem.” Baby-blue mold, pale and fine and furry, tenderly covering the damp soil. It’s almost cute—Basil hosting other life.
I wish I would have known that a French doctor named Hilarius in the 1500s claimed that basil caused the “spontaneous generation of scorpions” and could prompt scorpions to grow in the brain. After I had made an urgent announcement that Basil was too weak to give any more of his leaves, a punk kid looked me dead in the eye, plucked the biggest curled leaf, and put it in his mouth. I wish I could have told him that his brain would soon fester with nests of scorpions.
When did it become more than basil?
It triggers a vulnerability, some hope deep inside of me, memories of past basil plants I cannot hold back. The basil that I had bought in Dublin to spice up the loneliness of my single room while I was studying abroad. I woke each morning to the basil outlined in the faint sun from the tiny window that faced the bricks of the Guinness Factory. It was the first time that I was cooking for myself—I bought exotic, real-adult foods like avocados with pride— and I used the basil sparingly in my consistent meals of chewy angel hair pasta.
The basil that I bought the August of my senior year at a farmer’s market, the North Carolina air hot and humid, oaks and dogwoods sweltering. I put the pot on the windowsill of my first-floor room in between a row of books. My first love of four years, a boy with dark hair and long eyelashes, adored the basil. Before he would leave my room in the morning, he would often walk over to the windowsill and bring the plant close to his face, as if he was kissing it.
“Basil reminds me of my mother,” he would say. “She made the best pizza when we were little.” When I broke up with him after graduation, I couldn’t look at basil without thinking of him, of his mother’s hands kneading dough to feed a young son.
Then the basil of Italy, only a few months back, growing in a thick bush in the terrace garden. I did not have to care for it because it grew so well. When rain swept through in curtains, bright red poppies sprouted around it like hearts, like lips. In the evenings, I would go down to the garden with a beautiful girl whose black curls sprung like ringing bells in the wind, and we would pick basil leaves to crush for pesto. We kissed for the first time in an old stone room where the fattoria stored their lemon trees in winter. We painted a poem in rainbow colors on the white wall—there are enough ballrooms in you to dance with anyone you’ll ever love.
“They say nothing lasts forever,” Ocean Vuong writes in his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. “But they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.” I’m reading Ocean’s novel on the shore, and Lewis stretches out above me on a bone-white tree trunk, tanning his already golden skin. His curls shine when drenched in salt-water.
In parts of Italy, sweet basil is thought to influence attraction, and some call it “bacia-nicola”—or “kiss me Nicholas.” A basil pot on a windowsill is meant to signal a lover.
Sometimes, it seems that Lewis’ body is mine, and mine is his. When I move to take down tents, he moves to clean dishes. I don’t have to look to know he is crouching with the kids around a map, showing them the blue lines of the rivers, the steepness of the slopes. He shaves the side of my head, fingers slow and careful, while I sit in the bright sun on the edge of a cliff, watching pale moths flutter to flowers.
The thoughtless way we share. He hands me his sandwich; I give him my coffee. We pass toothpaste and deodorant back and forth. He buys two different flavors of ice teas and stands in front of me, pouring tea from bottle to bottle, until the swirl of black and lemon is smooth and perfect. When the kids ask questions that we can’t answer, we repeat: “Lewis and I are going to talk about it” or “Jackie and I are going to talk about it,” until they roll their eyes. After the kids are asleep, we sit together on the ground, exhausted, and look up at the stars over the dark pines.
I forget what it is like to feel alone.
I wish that he had a girlfriend or someone he was hooking up with, so that our possibilities could continue to be nothing more than they are at this moment—I am his friend, his partner, his co-leader. I want to always stand by him, to have this easy, unquestionable loyalty remain unquestionable. If I remain his friend, I will never have to leave him.
Do you want to go grocery shopping, he says softly, our cheeks touching. We’re in between trips and without kids, huddled behind a stack of driftwood. We had walked miles down the beach in the wind, eyelashes crusted with salt. We had been thinking of buying bananas for dinner, chips and salsa, anything we didn’t have to cook. Not really, I say. Me either, he says. In the kiss, I feel grains of sand. Our lips don’t match quite right at first, and I don’t mind at all, I want his skin so badly.
The Herb Society Guide: “In his seventeenth-century herbal, Parkinson claimed basil could be used to ‘procure a cheerful and merry heart.’”
Frosty, fog-drenched beaches. Lewis and I eat fresh strawberries and chase seagulls. We build a boat out of sand and sit inside it together, looking out at the waves, squealing when the water splashes over the prow—it seems as if we are deep out at sea. We arm-wrestle on the floor of our hostel, play cards, sleep huddled under a dark bridge, under an orange moon.
He laughs once, while we’re in the tent. Whenever we’re kissing, he says, you get this look on your face. So contemplative. Like you’re torn, you’re thinking so much.
I cover my face with my hands, instinctively.
How to tell him— a boy who can lay on the shore and naturally think of nothing, like an ancient monk who has spent years perfecting the art of giving into oblivion, of losing the self to the feel of warm pebbles pressing into the back—that my thoughts haven’t been this still in years? That in this summer brimming with Band-Aids, snow-capped peaks, and massive unfolding paper maps, I haven’t had the energy to tear into my doubts about the future and life-purpose and so I have been entirely happy?
Until there aren’t any children around and I realize—I want him. And the wanting brings my shivering, hibernating self to life—it stumbles out of its cave and into the sun, blinking, turning, confused, questions whirling around it like a swarm of crows. How far do I go? What do I give? Am I allowed to need him? Will this hurt?
The thing I most want to tell him and don’t: Lewis, if you’re happy, I’m happy.
Basil, linked to sprouting at the foot of Christ’s cross and determining chastity, is said to “wither in the hands of the impure.”
Stay alive, I think, picking off yellow, fragile leaves. Lewis’ hands in my hair, my hands pulling up his shirt. We are in each other’s arms, sun setting over white swirling water, seals diving in frothy surf. Stay alive.
The real thing I most want to tell him, that I am most afraid to tell him: I like you so much that the like slips into deep tenderness, slips into an aching desire to have your cheek against mine, slips into love like a seal swimming through underwater crevices.
Where is the narrative? Where is the thread? An invisible needle driving through us all, the first ten kids, the last twelve, Lewis and I. Basil trembling on the van dashboard, down to a scattering of ragged leaves, passed around our dessert circle every night from small hand to small hand. Sandy coast paths lined with crimson columbines, fountain-like harebells, clusters of smoky mariposas. The Knife-Certified kid muttering, “The bus doesn’t stop in your neighborhood,” as a pigtailed girl talks about how much she adores her butler. We climb jagged ridges, up and up, kids following like ducklings until we can go no further. A baby bear trundling off the trail, kids oohing. Snowdrifts up to our waist. Days of burning blue water under a rising moon, strings of seaweed dripping off rock walls as I press myself against the bottom of a cliff, waves lapping my numb toes, huddled in a concave that the ocean tides and I managed to find. Lewis wades around the corner after a few minutes, a flowery faded pink towel draped around his neck. We stand close, flattening ourselves against the seaweed hanging like tinsel, as the tides rise higher.
Somehow, through everything, Basil survives the summer, straggly leaves thrusting, the blue mold and grey bugs vanished.
But in the chaos of packing and cleaning, it isn’t till we’re flying back to Massachusetts that I realize we left Basil alone in the Holiday Inn parking lot, tucked under a small tree. Part of me thinks—better that we forgot him. Better that we didn’t deliberately choose to leave him behind. Better that the decision of abandonment was made for us, that we didn’t have to watch him while he died.
And then the other part of me hopes—Basil is free. He is wild. Unlocked from bear boxes, he grows unstoppable in the fresh air, in shifting sunlight and shadows, untamable by human hands. He is bursting into bloom, sending green tendrils and baby scorpions racing through the parking lot, wrecking love among the hotel staff, unbeholden to the end of summer.