Watching Scientific Interests Grow Over Time

by Fatima Husain

Illustration by Yuko Okabe

published February 5, 2016

Yellow petals surprise the curious amidst the sea of 

Kentucky Blue. My family doesn’t quite understand why I stare out of the windows sometimes and plan my future gardens as they try to plan my future. There, I’ll have a greenhouse, on the side a raised bed, next to that, tomatoes, and maybe, marigolds. I’ll consider the dynamics of the light and the air, how it brushes softly across budding leaves and fertile soils. They find my plans peculiar and rather abnormal. At what point will I become serious about planning my future, my career, my love, my family, and maybe even my retirement? 


Sweet Pea

I tried once to teach my sister, my sweet pea, how to grow sweet peas. I chose sweet peas because the seeds germinate quickly—four days in regular seed starter! She thought it took too long, so she gave up. I nurtured the plants as long as I could, moving them to bigger pots, watering them only when they wilted, but they never produced the pods I longed to see. I continued my gardening binges alone, bothered by my mother calling me inside all the time to eat, bothered by my father calling me inside to study, and bothered by my sister calling me inside to play with her. 

I do not remember how exactly I discovered my interest in gardening, and did not realize until years later that it marked the beginning of my journey into Earth science. My parents often expressed their confusion as to why I hid away in the garage, bent over my collection of seeds, mapping out my gardens. I understood something they did not, that the idea of nurturing something that nurtures you isn’t unnatural—it makes sense. We owe it to the plants and we owe it to ourselves. I remember my parents crawling over the rocks (rocks, yes, instead of mulch) in our garden, planting tulips, daylilies, and roses all around when we moved into our new home. My parents clearly didn’t understand the rabbits and deer of the area: my mother and father planted the perfect midnight snacks. They only thought the flowers would look beautiful. I thought so too. 

Frustrated by Iowa’s finest mammals, I began to concoct different non-toxic mixtures to repel the hungry, ransacking my mother’s spice drawer and stash of onions. I would arrive to school early each morning, just to use the computers in the library to scour online gardening blogs and journals for tried-and-tested methods of natural pest deterrence. An avid member of The Home Depot Garden Club, I would submit questions to the Home Depot gardening blogs, hoping the gardening experts could help me with my woes. Garlic! Pepper! Onion skins! Sneezes later, I took to spraying a vile concoction of animal urine and garlic all over the plants, allowing them to grow rather than be digested. The spray repelled, all right, and the garden thrived as I watched it from the window longingly. 


Things Fall Apart

By the time I was 12, my mother finally acknowledged my obsession with hydroponics, and appeased my pleas for pipes and pumps with a miniature hydroponic apparatus. The little Aerogarden promised to grow plants with water and nutrients—no soil! The roots hid underneath the bubbling water, and sprigs of basil, mint, and cilantro reached out towards the lights above. I grew herbs, but I really wanted to grow cherry tomatoes. In a different life, perhaps. The water circulating around the roots supported drosophila, our favorite fruit flies, so I couldn’t use the herbs I grew. The relationship was too one-sided—I gave and gave, and the system gave to the flies. A betrayal of sorts. My mother watched me change out the water religiously, pruning the herbs, coaxing them to recognize the wonderful life they had. One day, when I came home to check on my plants, I found an empty space atop the counter where the Aerogarden once sat. My mother quietly threw out the water and herbs and returned it, perhaps out of mercy. The hydroponics interest did not last long, though I still think of the idea from time to time. Maybe if I tried something else. 

It only made sense that next I carry around daffodil and paperwhite bulbs in my backpack as I trotted around Central Academy, offering to grow flowers in gloomy classrooms with just water! The proudest moment: the English teacher held up the flower in the pebble filled vase for the class to see—look, only with water! I beamed, and the other students turned back to reading Things Fall Apart

When the flowers stopped blooming, they started rotting. I learned my lesson. I drained them, and stashed away my pebble-filled vases for use another time. Maybe with tulips. No one missed the plants, and my once-supportive teacher didn’t even notice their absence. 


A Dear Friend 

My best friend from across the street invited me to swim in her pool. As I floated in the water while she talked about Katy Perry, I noticed the yellow snapdragons blooming besides the pink roses on the patio. I watched the colors switch from pink to yellow to yellow to pink to bud to bloom to bloom to bud. Mrs. Winifred Drislane shuffled out of her basement room in her nightgown and slippers and came to pick off the old blooms—so that the plant saves its energy for the new flowers. I saw the hydrangea shrubs by the siding, and wondered about the pH of the soil, and if my neighbors ever tried manipulating the pH to reveal brilliant blues or pretty pinks. Mrs. Drislane would know. 

And so Mrs. Drislane, nearly 75 at the time, and I became close: an unlikely friendship. Soon, I found that I went across the street to my best friend’s house to learn flower arrangement in the basement, read word after word on how to plant the lettuce in the victory garden, and how to start African violets with just a leaf! We bought each other plants, and she promised to give me her irises. It was delightful. 

Every evening I’d meet with her, she’d send me home with a small bouquet of flowers from her garden, which she’d closely watch me arrange, critiquing me with every cut and placement. I’d discuss passages from Crockett’s writings with her. I memorized the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, and inquired how far I could push the limits with my seed selections. We considered starting more roses from cuttings, and concluded that we did not have the time or materials to do so. Again, in another life. 

Now, years later, I still make a point to visit my dear friend when I can, always bringing her a new plant and a recent gardening anecdote. I regularly stay an hour or two more than I initially plan. She often inquires about my schooling, my cooking habits, my explorations of New England. I tell her about how I study the Earth now, and how I now crawl over rocks like my parents once did. An important difference, I tell her: in this case, I know what I am doing. 



Recently, I completed a portion of The King’s Trail in Kona, Hawai’i. My studies in geology allowed me to appreciate the formations I saw, but what truly piqued my interest were the little ferns that sprung up in the midst of such desolation. My sister, still not interested in plants, complained each time I carefully climbed down cracks in the lava rock to get a closer look at the ferns. The lava, which destroyed all growth for miles and miles, now provided shelter to life, giving it shade, holding moisture, and protecting it from curious humans

like me.    

On our last day in Hawai’i, my family stopped by an ice cream shop. In the corner of the shop, the store sold ‘Hawaiian’ plants, though I knew none of them were truly native to the islands. I dreamed of buying the whole rack of tubers, bulbs, and seeds, and yearningly eyed the Ti plant. When my parents asked me what I wanted, I told them the truth, and they frowned. I settled for Kona coffee ice cream, and as I licked, I thought of my gardens once again. 

My gardens will provide shelter to life, and will provide shelter to me. When you discover an interest, nurture it, and it will nurture you. 


FATIMA HUSAIN B’17 now often carries rocks in her backpack.