15 years ago today the site Amateur Bot-ann-ist emerged. It’s been quite a journey. From being a home gardener and plant enthusiast who was unable to move much due to hereditary angioedema and physical injuries—to today. I’m now a professional horticulturist working nearly full-time with two jobs, speaking engagements, a few clients, and I somehow find the time to care for my own collection of plants.
The voice and the tone have not changed a lot around here. I’m still the same snarky young-at-heart woman, but I’ve come a long way and have learned so much.
Part of me had wanted to say something special, to talk about what I’ve learned year by year, but I’m too tired after having gone to Corvallis and back to give a presentation about houseplants.
It was such a great weekend.
So raise a glass to this effort today if you can, think a kind thought, and know that I’m going to keep using this site to write about gardening, plants, and chronic illness.
Yes, blogging is not as popular as it once was back in the day. Most folks I know who started out with me have stopped. It’s not easy to spend so much time creating posts, and in the end, life matters more.
I enjoy writing, and I do have ideas, but this effort uses up a lot of my time and energy. I’ll keep at it again in 2023. I’m on track to have posted weekly this year, and I hope to do so again in the months to come.
Call me crazy, but I just like spending time here in this space.
(Featured photo of me at the top is courtesy of Loree Bohl aka Danger Garden. Thanks friend.)
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is still about the origins of the name of my site. The simple answer is that the blog is named Amateur Bot-Ann-ist because I’m ACTUALLY an amateur at botany. To other folks in the horticulture industry this is obvious from my posts, but it seems that online media has confused readers about what we plant people do. As for my site name, there is actually a longer and thoroughly unrelated explanation for the name as well. I want to publicly talk about that.
This site will be 15 years old next December. This sounds old by American standards. Maybe like I’ve done a lot, but some years I’ve written very little, while during others I was more active. I feel like I’ve been running in circles online recently though. Maybe it’s the pandemic, and folks being at home trying to seek more “passive income” but I feel like more and more content is marketing and I’ve always wanted to do more when I communicate. I can’t just keep posting lightweight easy pieces to crank out content on here. If I want to get back on track with these promised weekly posts, it’s time to cross that bridge now. More plants to come, I promise, but first, I want to take you on a little ride.
When I started Amateur Bot-Ann-ist in 2007 I was older than folks likely know, and for the first time, I’m going to tell my whole story. Oddly, in so doing, it will also answer truthfully how and why I entered into horticulture. This too is something I’m asked about a lot, but I’ve not yet told the whole truth there either. I’m tired of being ashamed though. I’m getting too old for that. And this is my #MeToo moment.
If you’re the type of reader who is going to say to yourself, “What on Earth does this have to do with gardening?” Step away now. I, for one, am driven to garden because of my own very personal reasons, and I know for a fact now that I am NOT alone. This is a post for others like me, for others who know, love, and support people like me, and for others who just care about gardening and what drives some of us hard-core folks. I want to help, connect, and inspire others to grow. Folks who know my story already know that I mean that metaphorically, but I mean it when it comes to plants too.
I was about 33 years old when I started this blog. I had been mostly financially supported since I was 18 by my loving parents. It had taken me 9 years to complete my undergraduate degree. At the end of my time at PSU I was interviewing at different schools for combined MA and PhD programs in art history and critical theory, so, what was going on that I’ve been so timid to reveal publicly?
Well, to begin with, I was sexually assaulted as a 15-year-old teen by a stranger from another Catholic school who plotted to lure and rape me to get back at another member of his baseball team. I lost my virginity during this sexual assault and that’s because the young man I had dated had said in the locker room that we’d broken up because I didn’t want to have sex. Enter the privileged spoiled rich kid quarterback and his friends. He raped me on the floor of his little sister’s bedroom. I believe she was away at horse camp.
Support after a rape in 1990 for a teen was not what it is now. We have come a long way. I didn’t receive any therapy, and I became a more troubled and rebellious child as time passed. Let’s just say that I continued to fall for the wrong people, was assaulted and choked by a classmate I dated, a teacher at my school called me a liar when I tried to ask him for help, girls called me a slut, and my family life suffered. The downward spiral is a real thing if support is unavailable. I had none for several years.
My grades suffered and I struggled at my private school but I was admitted to Lewis & Clark College and was there for just over a year thanks to the sales from my book Ancient Forests and Western Man. Published by our family publishing company, of course I felt severe imposter syndrome, but I honestly started college fully intending to study plants, biology, ecology, and to become a researcher, educator and writer. Many great people helped me while I was there, and for years afterwards, I felt like a great disappointment to them. I was being mentored to become one of the new PNW nature writers and one day I just disappeared. I was filled with shame. So much shame.
I had high hopes and had tried to begin this new adult life on the right foot. Emotionally though, I stumbled and crashed. I became a college dropout and sought more help. I was unable to read, to write, and thanks to friends I’d met, I started to painted and became artistic for the first time in my life. There were a few good relationships during those years, but mostly I had loving friends who accepted me as the mess that I was. I kind of clung to the Portland music scene, drank and partied. I helped to edit books for our family business so that I could have insurance, but it was honestly the most horrible time of my life and I often contemplated ending it. I loved my little nieces too much to do so though, and they were incredible bright spots in my life.
Doctors diagnosed me as schizophrenic and later schizoaffective. Somewhere in-between those life experiences thought I was drugged, raped, and left to die in my apartment where I lived alone. I had met one of these two young men at work and I thought of him as a work acquaintance and another friend had told me he would never hurt a fly. We had planned to rent movies one Saturday night and when he showed up with a friend I should have known something was wrong.
The rapists slipped me a date rape drug without realizing I was on many psychiatric medications. I was dragged into my room, onto my own bed, like a dead animal and I had all of my clothing torn off. After the coworker raped me for however many minutes I began to have a severe seizure. To say that one separates from their bodies during and after this sort of thing happens is an understatement. He urged his friend to rape me too, obviously so he’d be incriminated, and this was while I was shaking and flopping around like a fish. The other refused and suddenly had a change of heart as he was beginning to fear they may have possibly been in the process of murdering me.
The second said to the first, “Should we call 911?”
“No, I’ve seen this happen before, she’ll be ok. Let’s leave the door open though so someone can find her.”
Football playing fraternity brothers from Oregon State University raped me and left me for dead. #MeToo
Life became more complicated and painful for a few years after that, and I can promise you, I really dislike football.
My parents were able to support me financially, but they were not prepared to meet my emotional needs. Life continued to be rough for years. I was accused of asking for it. I was toxic. I was shamed by other women. I was shunned by good people for being a failure. I was self-destructive. I drank way too much. I cut myself a lot. I was told I would never be normal again. But all through this, somehow, I told myself, they were all wrong. I wanted to change. I had a difficult time working, so I returned to college, but the second time around I was at Portland State University. My best friend during those years had me move in with him, and the plan worked. My life started to very slowly stabilize. We lived in a large basement apartment, with friends upstairs, and we had a large private garden we shared.
I fought hard to get back to where I had started, and while it took over 2 decades, here we are. I didn’t study science or plants in college because I did not feel well enough to do so, or maybe even innocent enough. The edginess of literature and art made me feel safe, and the people there were kind to me, and I learned to be kind to myself. At each new home though, each rental, I had plants, or a garden. In times when I needed peace and quiet and calm, I entered the garden and came back centered. Portland has many gardens and I visited them often.
What helped to heal me was love and support. In addition to many amazing friends, I had a romantic partner who kept me at arms length for well over a decade because I wasn’t safe enough for him to really trust any more, but he didn’t want to be one of the people to give up on me, and he stayed with me until it was time to say goodbye. I had the most amazing therapists. My intelligence helped to lead my emotions. I set goals. I specialized in the study of schizophrenic language in modern texts, and I went from being diagnosed as schizo-affective to being a young woman who’d suffered a mental break with extreme PTSD caused by severe trauma.
Nevertheless, at that point of success, I still felt like an outsider around others, and I tried to avoid talking about my past. Even now it is not always easy for me to connect with others. Not everyone understands and can empathize with what I have lived through.
In 2002, just as life improved, and once I’d gone through the withdrawals from the psychiatric medications, I started to have strange physical issues. It took several years to find help, and eventually, just before I started this blog, I was diagnosed and began to work with the team of physicians that still helps me today. We are not certain, but it’s quite likely that some of the psychiatric symptoms I experienced had been caused by swelling in my brain. That’s a whole other long story, but we know I had issues with that since I had some language issues as well that improved with treatment.
So, this blog was started at the point in my life after I’d been diagnosed, and during the time when I was in the process of mourning once again the life I didn’t have that I’d wanted badly. To be honest, I never gave up on wanting to work with plants, botany, horticulture, science, anything. I just was not healthy enough to do any of it and had to sit in my house for a few years because of the primary immunodeficiency and mast cell disorders. Oh the irony to love the outdoors but you can’t go outside!
So, like others on the internet, I made up a name and title and I began to pretend to be an expert beginner at something I actually knew more about than I let on. I picked amateur SPECIFICALLY to not stand out. I didn’t want people to ask me about my past, my training, my education. Just remembering losing my ability to write and speak well in addition to everything else was just too much.
The good news here though is that I was able to become a horticulturist. I feel a lot more like an expert after all of this time. In the nearly 15 years since, I think anyone who knows me knows that I have worked twice as hard just to catch up. I am always talking about this with my friends. What can I do next to do better? How do I improve my skills? What should I practice more?
I’m proud of who I am now, of my profession, and of what I have been through. I ended up right where I needed to be and even though my route was not easy, I feel a bit like a bad ass. I’m a survivor and if anyone is rooting (ugh!) for those itty bitty little innocent seedlings out there, it’s me. I’m their plant mamma and I aim to protect them. You might even have one of my babies in your home or garden. I’m not a conventional mother, but I’m an unconventional one, and I love that.
The other tough question I encounter is when a well-educated person confronts me in a haughty and arrogant manner asking my about my formal education with plants. Here’s the hard truth that I’ve discovered. You may want something, you may study something, you may become an armchair expert even, but there are others who will have a natural aptitude and that’s the way it can be in horticulture too. I’m not saying that a formal education is a bad idea. I’m slowly working on an Associates Degree, but with college loan bills on my back that have mounted to a rather considerable amount, I can only take courses with scholarship money and when I feel well enough to do so. What you do with your work is what matters and others will know and your skills will show.
I became a Seedstress though thanks to my friend Sean Hogan at Cistus Nursery. After my divorce started in 2012, and after I was prescribed pills that dramatically lowered my swelling, I was exploring nurseries, getting out more, meeting lots of different people, and I could explore the potential of actually working towards a career for the first time in ages. Sean saw the potential and he saw my aptitude with seed propagation and wild collection. He talked to me about the activity I’d quietly been enjoying at home for a decade or more and it was amazing to be seen. Through him, I met others like myself, and over the years I’ve been blessed to have met some of the most amazing mentors. Horticulturists learn so much from one another. That teamwork and quiet is what I craved for so long.
It took time for me to feel like I really fit in and I still have plant badges to earn. It is all hard work in various weather conditions and it is not easy for me medically, but I’m passionate about it.
I often whined to Sean and would say I was confused about why I was there in the group and he joked with me that I fit in like a delicate rare plant that needed a bit of glass and protection. I was surrounded by others who passionately observed and nurtured plants. I have to say, he nailed it. I’ve felt safe and happy for years now. I worked on getting healthier and have a more balanced medication and exercise routine for the osteoarthritis I’ve developed. This has all helped me with my second nursery job which came about a bit later.
And guess what, field botany with a botanist is coming up too.