Botany in Popular Culture: Close It Quietly by Frankie Cosmos

Frankie Cosmos – the stage name for Greta Kline and also the name of her band – is not a new thing but was new to me in 2019. Their music is classified broadly as indie rock or indie pop, and could easily be placed in a number of subgenres. I, however, consider it punk. The songs are short, emotionally raw, unconventionally structured, simply arranged, and independently produced. That’s punk enough for me. Their most recent album, Close It Quietly, is easily my top pick for best album of 2019. The reason I’m saying this here on a blog about plants is because plants are featured in some of the lyrics. But it’s more than that really.

Quite often plants find their way into the lyrics of songs. They are, after all, great subject matter for all kinds of art. The special thing to me about the lyrics of Close It Quietly isn’t so much that plants get mentioned, but the sentiments that surround the references and the lessons learned from them. It may just be personal bias, but to me the plant references are more than just cursory. They come from a place of connection and personal relationship. Plants have things to teach us, and when we are open to it – which is often during challenging times in our lives – we can hear their lessons.

Trees receive the bulk of the plant references on this album. Like the song “Trunk of a Tree,” for example, in which Greta sings, “You’re the trunk of a tree / silent, filled with clarity.” That’s no surprise though. As David George Haskell writes in his book, The Songs of Trees, “To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.” There is great wisdom in trees. Confiding in or consulting with them can help bring clarity to a moment or feeling. This doesn’t have to mean anything weird – just being among trees and observing them in a reflective way will do the trick.

What follows is a list of some of the songs on Close It Quietly along with their plant references and some thoughts about them.

“41st”

This song is pretty fitting for the start of a new year, with the first line asking, “Does anyone wanna hear the 40 songs I wrote this year?” Looking back, maybe it was a crummy year. Perhaps you weren’t treated well, or maybe someone in your life didn’t turn out to be who you thought they were. There may be some comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one going through such things. Glancing up at the trees, Greta sings, “I look at the branches and hold a mirror up / They’re looking at me and say, ‘You don’t have a comb, do ya?'” The tangled branches of trees speak of past difficulties. As it turns out, we all have challenges that we’re trying to move past.

“A Joke”

We often find ourselves under pressures to be or act a certain way – to conform to some standard that was decided by someone else. Timelines created by other people direct our lives and tell us how or where we should be at a certain age or point in life. But, as Greta notes, “Flowers don’t grow in an organized way. Why should I?” It’s okay to be yourself, and there is no rush to become someone or something else.

“Rings (on a Tree)”

Sometimes we have to walk away from relationships, particularly when those relationships are not good for us. It’s never easy, but perhaps you’ll come to the realization that “it was wrong, so wrong / to try to hold on to a fallen tree / one that wouldn’t even look at me” or one that wasn’t “holding arms out lovingly.” It doesn’t mean that person wasn’t or still isn’t meaningful to you in some way. It’s just that it’s time to move on.

“This Swirling”

In our worst moments we are “like a dandelion,” and “just a little bit of breath blows [us] apart.” Our lives feel as chaotic as the swirling of a dandelion fluff tumbling through the air. However, a closer look reveals that a dandelion seed in flight is actually more stable than we originally thought. Perhaps we can take some comfort in that.

More Botany in Popular Culture

Botany in Popular Culture: Saga of the Swamp Thing

From the swamps of Louisiana comes a fictional character that is entirely composed of vegetation, has the appearance of a monster, and the consciousness of a human. He is called the Swamp Thing. Created by Len Wien and Bernie Wrightson, the Swamp Thing made his first appearance in the ninety-second issue of House of Secrets in 1971. He was then given his own series, which after 19 issues was handed off to up and coming author, Alan Moore.

Moore was an established comic book writer in the United Kingdom, but this was his first time writing for an American imprint. The work Moore did on Swamp Thing left a lasting impact on the comic book industry and helped establish Moore as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time. While Moore wrote more than fifty issues of The Saga of the Swamp Thing, I am narrowing this post down to the first volume, which compiles issues 20 – 27.

SwampFix

When Moore inherited the character, the Swamp Thing was thought to be (and also thought himself to be) the vegetable form of Alec Holland, a scientist who blew himself up while experimenting with a bio-restorative formula he was developing. Because Moore had some plot lines to dispense of before he began his own telling of the story, it only made sense to have the Swamp Thing killed off in the first issue so that he could reveal who or what he really was.

The beginning of issue #21 finds Dr. Jason Woodrue examining the Swamp Thing’s corpse. Woodrue is a villian that goes by the name Floronic Man and is himself a plant-human hybrid. The men who killed the Swamp Thing got Woodrue out of jail so that he could help them do an autopsy. During the autopsy, Woodrue makes a startling discovery: “We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland! A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.” In the explosion, Holland’s body was completely incinerated, but due to the help of the bio-restorative formula that followed Holland into the swamp, the swamp plants fashioned themselves into a new creature with the form of a man and the consciousness of Holland.

swamp thing 1

The bio-restorative formula is key because it allows the Swamp Thing to regenerate. Woodrue knows this and takes advantage of it. He moves the Swamp Thing’s resting body back to the swamp. Conveniently he finds Abby Cable there, one of the Swamp Thing’s good friends. Woodrue informs her that the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland, news that is difficult for her to take. As the Swamp Thing awakens, he must also come to terms with the fact that he is not who he thought he was. Meanwhile, Woodrue/Floronic Man harvests and eats a tuberous growth protruding from the Swamp Thing, which enhances his powers to control plant life.

swamp thing 2

Floronic Man is upset with animal life, particularly humans for the collective destruction that they have caused plant life. He is determined to take revenge for the harm that has been done to “The Green.” He causes plants to grow up rapidly and consume buildings and cars and wrap around humans to kill them. Amidst his mayhem he explains his vision of “another green world, as there was at the beginning, before the beasts crawled up out of the oceans. Those long, green centuries where no bird sang, where no dog barked. Where there was no noise! Where there was no screaming meat!!”

The Justice League is called in, but there isn’t much they can do. This is a job for the Swamp Thing who, while wandering through the swamp coming to grips with his new identity, senses trouble in The Green. He then realizes that Floronic Man must be involved, at which point he arrives on the scene and gives Floronic Man a good beating and a stern talking to.

Floronic Man is obsessed with the idea of plants taking over and destroying all other life. He has clearly gone mad, threatening to make the plants “pour out oxygen” so that “all the animals will die.” He is convinced that only plants will remain and that “it’s the only way to save the planet from those creatures.” The Swamp Thing rhetorically asks, “And what will change the oxygen back into the gasses that we need to survive when the men and animals are dead?” That seems to shut Floronic Man up. Schooled by logic, he slowly loses control of the plant life he had recruited to do his dirty work, at which point the Justice League swoops in and picks him up. The Swamp Thing retreats back to the swamp, embracing his new identity – elated to be alive and feeling at home in the swamp.

The final three “chapters” of the book are focused more on Abby. The Swamp Thing is around, and he definitely shows up for some fight scenes, but Moore seems to be working on developing Abby’s character. After all, she and the Swamp Thing have a future together. In one fight scene, a demon rips the Swamp Thing’s arm off. At which point, the Swamp Thing nonchalantly picks up his arm, reattaches it, and resumes fighting the demon.

swamp thing 3

Throughout the book, Moore’s writing and storytelling is exceptional. A brief recap such as this cannot do the book justice. Moore’s prose must be read to be truly appreciated. The Swamp Thing is a fairly minor character in the comic book world, and one of the very few that brings botany to the forefront. Thanks to Moore and the artists that worked with him, Saga of the Swamp Thing gives this great character the exposure and legacy it deserves.

For more authoritative reviews, check out the following links:

Botany in Popular Culture: Black Orchid

Black Orchid coverBlack Orchid is a minor character in the DC Comics universe. She is a superhero with a troubled past, and although she first began appearing in comic books in 1973, her origin was a mystery until 1988 when Neil Gaiman wrote his 3 part mini-series entitled, Black Orchid, revealing that she was a plant-human hybrid created by Dr. Philip Sylvain after combining the DNA of Susan Linden-Thorne with the DNA of an epiphytic orchid.

Curiously, in order to reveal Black Orchid’s origins, Gaiman has the namesake of his series killed off within the first few pages. A master of disguise, Black Orchid is following her standard modus operandi of impersonating someone in order to infiltrate enemy headquarters. In this case she is pretending to be a secretary in Lex Luthor’s employ. While sitting in on a board meeting in which the activities of Luthor’s crime ring are being discussed, her secret identity is revealed, which leads to her being tied to a chair and shot through the head. The bullet doesn’t kill her though since invulnerability to bullets is one of her superpowers (along with flight, super strength, shape shifting, and others). However, the building is also set on fire, and ultimately all that is left of Black Orchid at the end of the night are some charred plant remains.

The story can’t end there though, so as Black Orchid goes up in flames, two of her clones emerge from flower buds in Dr. Sylvain’s greenhouse. They aren’t sure what they are at first. They have some of Susan’s memories but don’t know what to make of them. One of them is a child called Suzy, and the other is an adult who eventually gets the name Flora Black. They find their way to Dr. Sylvain who tells them the story of how they and the original Black Orchid came to be.

Dr. Philip Sylvain tells the Black Orchid clones about how he

Dr. Philip Sylvain tells the Black Orchid clones about his childhood with Susan Linden.

Susan was Dr. Sylvain’s childhood friend. They spent lots of time in the garden together learning about plants and growing things. But Susan was abused regularly by her father and eventually ran away as a teenager. Dr. Sylvain didn’t see her for many years, and in the meantime grew up and became a botanist. At university, Dr. Sylvain studied with Jason Woodrue, Pamela Isley, and Alex Holland, each of whom went on to become plant-human hybrids of some sort (Floronic Man, Poison Ivy, and Swamp Thing respectively). Dr. Sylvain had ambitions of making “people of plants” as part of a plan to save a dying earth. His ambitions remained a dream until Susan returned.

Dr. Sylvain's friends from university who later became plant-hybrid heroes and villians.

Dr. Sylvain’s friends from university who later became notorious plant-human hybrids.

Susan was running away again – this time from her abusive husband, Carl Thorne, who worked for Lex Luthor as an arms dealer. Thorne was in trouble with the law and was ultimately put on trial for his crimes. Susan came to Dr. Sylvain seeking refuge. She was set to testify against her husband, but before she could do that, Thorne killed her. Dr. Sylvain then used Susan’s DNA to create the crime fighting, superhero, Black Orchid.

Coincidentally, as the original Black Orchid is being killed and the two new Black Orchids are emerging, Thorne is finishing his prison sentence and being released. He first goes to Luthor to try and get his job back, but is turned away. Next he goes to Dr. Sylvain’s house where he discovers the newly emerged Black Orchids. He alerts Luthor, who sends a team to hunt down the “super-purple-flower women” and bring them back to the lab for “examination and dissection.” The rest of the series details the Black Orchids’ mission to make sense of who they are and what their purpose in life is while simultaneously contending with Luthor’s men (and Thorne) who are out to get them. Flora Black meets with Batman, Poison Ivy, and Swamp Thing along the way, filling in her origin story and gaining instruction and insight about her future as a superhero.

Gaiman is a popular, prolific, and well-respected author; however, this is the first of his books that I have read. I was impressed by his storytelling and appreciated the departure from the typical superhero vs. villain narrative. Dave McKean did the artwork for this series, which was an excellent decision as his work is also quite atypical for the genre. His illustrations gave the book a mystical feel as the panels altered from standard storytelling sequences to abstract, fantasy pieces.

This Black Orchid storyline continued for several issues after Gaiman’s three part mini-series without Gaiman as the author. Flora Black was eventually killed off. A new version of the Black Orchid character currently appears in the ongoing Justice League Dark series.

Alba Garcia (aka Black Orchid), a member of Justice League Dark

Alba Garcia (aka Black Orchid), a member of Justice League Dark

You can read more about Black Orchid on her Wikipedia and Comic Vine pages.