• Michael Wolf
  • My old college pal Pelargonium Tetragonum

I spent grade 13 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I tried to finesse my freshman science requirement by taking a class in horticulture. Not that I had any reason to think I’d do well at it. I grew up in an apartment, the child of people whose idea of communing with nature was pulling the cellophane off a head of lettuce. My dad would occasionally take us for rides in the country—that is, west of Morton Grove—and point out the cows as we whizzed by them. “Look, kids, cows,” he’d say, and then we’d go home. My mom once took me aside to show me some tiny gnatlike things buzzing around a potted plant she kept on a windowsill at home. Since we were 19 stories up and the windows didn’t open, she’d been wondering how they got there. Her solution was that they’d sort of effervesced out of the soil—life from dead matter—and this discovery was what she wanted to share with me. Mom wasn’t a stupid person. She held down a demanding job and was absolutely great at negotiating life. She just didn’t know that the theory of spontaneous generation was no longer considered cutting-edge science.

Anyway, horticulture didn’t seem to require much math, and since that consideration far outweighed my complete ignorance of the subject, I signed up.