House plants (or slow-moving pets, or Darwin is my gardener)

Michael Gollin
October 2015

The first frost sunset with fingernail new moon did not catch us unprepared. We had time to bring in the house plants before it got too cold. My favorite is a citrus tree I bought in Chinatown when I lived there in the 1980s. I used to stop by the florist sometimes on my way home from work, and one day I saw a cheerful plant with scented flowers and small green citrus fruits. I bought it for my loft apartment and each winter it blooms and fruits. It has been with us in Bowie the whole time. You can see where I pruned it decades ago.
My house plants are survivors.

In my office, colleagues praise my plants and tell me I have a green thumb. My response is that Darwin is my gardener. You don’t see my failures because they died and were removed. Dead twigs and leaves are pruned away. What’s left is green and healthy. Some were gifts. Some were cuttings. Some were rescued from trash. A few I bought. There’s a jade plant so big it is a shrub and a bushel-sized aloe vera, both of which have progeny around the office from cuttings. Everyone has a green thumb if you keep trying and occasionally learn from your mistakes. 

(Are house plants at the office “office plants”?)

Back at home, African violets are supposed to be temperamental. Not mine. It’s ten years old and gets no special treatment, but it still flowers throughout the year.

Snake plants can live a year behind the refrigerator according to a tale a friend told me. I haven’t tried that but I’ve never killed one.

I had a Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla)  that grew from three feet until it hit the ceiling. I tried a fancy technique of rooting the top but it failed and the tree stayed outside that winter and froze. I should get a new one.

For me, house plants are like slow-moving pets.

Galapagos Heptagram

Galapagos Heptagram
July 2013
Michael Gollin




Ruin and death rule the Galapagos.
Animal vegetable land surf and sky.
Life begets life as everything flows.
More will come, and all will die.



The Bishop’s ship drifted here
bound for Peru half a millennium ago.
Becalmed, dying of thirst, rowing away,
he reported to the Spanish King:
Abrupt, desolate, mysterious rocks
“as if God had rained stones.”
Raining stones is poetry.

At the beginning of time,
from void, star dust formed.
A molten ball then cooled and crusted.
Turbulent magma punched —
Punches —
holes to reach the sky,
volcanoes blast the earth’s inside out
hurling ash and lava,
gas and scoria, gargantuan amounts,
forming craggy masses above the sea,
not born, they explode,
cosmic stuff,
free of life and death.

But only for a moment.
Washed in restless currents of sea and wind,
the isles are immediately assaulted
in a slow concerted biological invasion,
begun a short five thousand millennia ago,
continuing today and on,



500 miles away, the continent swarms
with every phylum and order of life, survivors.
Reefs of fish swim here to feed and shelter
among the tumbled rocks,
Sea lions climb out to rest and mate.
Sea birds fly and find the fish,
with stowaway seeds concealed in their feathers.

In the sky, a solid mist of aerodynamic seeds
wafts for days above the humid ocean,
then, wet with Garuá mist, rains on cool volcanic rock.

Most cannot grow. But one succeeds,
in moistened ash.
A plant appears, then more.
Moss, lichen, cactus, and shrub,
vegetable colonists.

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Insects, too, hitch rides and die,
but one and more find how to live in the new land.

Andes snow melts and runs down to the coast as rivers,
with logs and rafts of twigs stuck together,
floating out to sea.
The current, slow and steady,
delivers the load to Galapagos in weeks.
Few, but some, reptiles and insects survive
and join the colony.
An iguana here and there,
a tortoise but no hare.

What strange profusions these creatures seem.
and different on each volcanic isle.
Forced to fit this harsh mold,
by death’s inevitable
curse and blessing,
natural selection:
Those that fit breed more,
the rest breed less
and vanish from these shores.
And so pass millions of years.
Optimal not perfect.



Why do they come?
Restless and alive,
living, dying or dead
or simply doing their job,
feeding the predator and scavenger.
Reaching day’s end for one,
enabling another day for the other.
It’s all about dinner.

Drifting, en route somewhere else,
carried by the currents.
Searching for a new home.
Equatorial sun and days, polar currents,
South American roots, but a South Pacific home.

Why do they come?
Chance, bad luck,
instinct, survival.

No melting pot for immigrant survivors,
this hardened lava and ash.
Species diverge and become unique
until each island flaunts
its own finch and lava lizard,
marine iguana and tortoise.

A simple basic plan –
live, adapt, survive, breed,
pass down your genes.
Incremental steps on an endless road
towards: more road,
more traveling, or more settling down.

Death and ruin in Galapagos,
for some it’s yes, for others no,
creation and rebirth,
easy come and easy go.

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Floreana Island

The Baroness kept her lovers guessing,
As neighbors died in mystery, secret.
A deep lava tube dark and wet.
Above, rusty ruins of a fish canning experiment, failed
And a barrel for a post office –
put in your cards and take out those
for where you’re going.
It’s still in use.

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Espanola/Hood Island

Black marine iguanas, mottled red
in ghastly cuddle puddles
by the score, but there lies one alone,
a sort of peace, bloated,
with eyes and tongue plucked out by a hawk.
Another one lies on the rocky beach,
eviscerated by a male hawk bringing food to its babies,
mortal Prometheus,
punished for bringing this
species here.

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South Plaza

A sea lion mummy rests on the rocky shore
not forever. Something or someone will scatter the
skull and bundle of white ribs and vertebrae wrapped in sea lion leather
open on the side for a view into the private life and death of that pup.
Brown piles of lingering mothers nursing pups
and barking while males lumber over the lava rocks,
polishing them on the way to the sea.

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North Seymour

Blue-footed boobies enjoy their courtship dance,
Left, slow, right, slow,
whistle and chatter, beak clatter.
White guano ring defines the nest.
Abandoned, with pieces of broken shell.
Where’s the rest?
Hatched or eaten?

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Female boobies are bigger than male boobies
but male beachmaster sea lions are bigger and tougher
than their mates, who carry a series of fertilized eggs in their wombs,
in case the males don’t find them.
The pups playing on the volcanic beach try to be like them.

Bleached sea lion bones, ribs, fin, and tail,
every beach a graveyard and nursery,
orgy, boudoir, toilet, and living room all in one.
The tuff pups frolic in the waves,
rushing and twisting at our masks,
big brown eyes stare me down,
then woosh past, a whisker away.
Flopped on beach, or flopped on rock
10 meters down, they are at home.
Why do they not fear us?

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Darwin came with FitzRoy’s Beagle,
In 1835.
He saw the variation and had a hunch
that natural selection could explain it all.
But he was busy chronicling barnacles and coral islands,
while Wallace wrote of evolution.
(I saw plant specimens Darwin collected.)
Then Darwin made his case
that fixed creation makes no sense.
Creation continues, today, right now.
Reproduction, variation, struggle for life,
natural selection, migration, isolation —
Life brings change,
change brings death and extinction
and new life.

Darwin expected a fight
from those who believe what they’re told,
he was right about that,
now the argument’s old.

Melville wrote of Las Encantadas in 1854,
the enchanted isles, bizarre even to him.
Sailors came from time to time,
some found water and wood.
Most exclaimed and left in disgust
at the inhospitable terrain.
They hoisted giant tortoises onto their ships,
livestock for later slaughter
200,000 over the centuries.

Settlers came again and more,
but most could not survive.
They died, or being crafty,
hitched a ride away again.

Convict, fisher, farmer, explorer —
To strangers’ eyes the sprawling land
might seem a paradise from afar.
But not when landed on the ashy shore.

The beginning of life
was in the Galapagos for many species.
Man, not so much.
Vonnegut had humans evolve into sea lions here
after the end of the world in war.
A fitting place to make a last stand.

People think it lacks creature comforts.
But there are comforts for the creatures.



25,000 Ecuadorans live on Santa Cruz.
At the fish market the sea lions and pelicans
enjoy the guts thrown their way.

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We live for seven days on a boat
that moves from island to island,
burning 250 gallons of diesel a day.
We refuel near the US Air Force base on Baltra,
as hundreds of boobies weave their way miles
around the harbor, plunging to seize the schooling fish.

We fortunate few come to see the famous place.
we are visitors,
but our captain said
“Make this boat your home this week.”
Why do we come? Curiosity, homage, adventure
by air, by sea but not by land.
I spotted over 50 species.

Why do we stay anywhere? Because we live.
We eat, play, nest, mate, rear young, explore. Survive.

Rome wasn’t built in a day
and neither was I.
The Galapagos wasn’t built in a week,
even a busy one.
But life begins anew each day
and ends again each night
until it doesn’t.
And so it goes for us all.
Rome was sacked
but took a long time to fall.
And it is still Rome,
the beautiful city of seven hills.

It’s all about dinner, said my friend,
all around the world.
Heinlein’s Stranger fed himself to his friends.
Al Capp’s Shmoos cooked themselves
to serve us a meal.
We raise animals and grains to feed ourselves.
We make the world our home.

Dillard wrote lyrically how soft life
and hard rocks shape each other in these islands.
So she understood the world:
“Everywhere freedom twines its way
around necessity.”

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Life brings change,
change brings death and new life.
We live we die
we leave our paths behind
and others walk beyond.

It all makes sense
if you dare
to go look at it all
and care.


On the Origin of Species

I finished reading Charles Darwin’s 1859 classic On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection and reproduce here the final paragraph, an exquisite summation of his study of life.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so constructed from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.