I once interviewed for a job at a local florist in Maine. I was overconfident: despite never having attempted more than a child’s improvised bouquet for my mother, I envisioned long summer evenings selecting the most fragrant roses and spears of fern so sharp they’d put an eye out, all while chatting up little old ladies and brides-to-be. So it was with great disappointment that I regarded the bouquet I created when asked to demonstrate my ability in front of my interviewer: a mishmash of carnations, baby’s breath, and scraggly ferns wilted by my sweaty hands, its entire foliage standing a good three inches above the lip of the vase. I was not called back.
It wasn’t totally unreasonable for me to think I should have been a florist. My earliest memories are of my mother and I wandering the refrigerated aisles of White’s Flowers in our hometown, breathing in the perfumed air as she carefully selected Easter Lilies for the Christmas centerpiece. I would watch her in front of the sink snipping stems and testing out arrangements, sneaking my fingers into the soft, saturated florist’s foam. I remember looking over her shoulder as she opened her flower press with its dozens of plywood layers, the removal of each one revealing delicate, paper-thin summer memories in faded pastel. And she always kept a garden which, despite being almost entirely in shade, she still enticed to bloom in a riot of bleeding hearts, lily of the valley, columbine, and snapdragon.
But my mother is not a florist — she’s a therapist, the daughter of a Detroit cop and a homemaker. She put herself through graduate school and now directs a children’s mental health hospital for the State of New York. And despite how I might look now, I was not born a boy. For the first 20 years of my life, including all of my childhood, I was a girl.
Floral symbolism hasn’t fared well in the digital age, when anyone can go on Wikipedia and declare the meaning of a Camellia. Flowers have been symbolically overdetermined to the point of meaning nothing. In all of Twitter’s many emojis there are just 8 flower specific symbols: Hibiscus, Sunflower, Rose, wilted flower, Tulip, the generic and redundant “Blossom”, the Cherry blossom, and a bouquet of indeterminate blooms that looks like it came straight from 1-800-FLOWERS. With an abundance of visual data, only the immediately recognizable flowers have been singled out for meaning — the rest with their subtle differences in number of stamens, different types of branching stems, hues and ephemeral seasons fade into an indiscernible mass of foliage.
To my mother, it’s those tiny differences that communicate a flower’s significance, that indicate it’s time to break out the field guide. This is a book with a few pages of color illustrations slipped in among hundreds of line drawings, each approximating the difference between hundreds of plants with startling precision. Sibley, Audubon, Peterson — the names of these guides reflect a history of men with a hand in naming and describing nature.
Most guides rely on the branching logic of the dichotomous key. To identify the species of a flower, for example, you respond to a series of either/or choices, and follow your path through the branches depending on your answers: Are you in Montana or Massachusetts? Are you standing in a puddle or a desert? Does the flower have four petals or eight? Woody or herbaceous stems?
Dichotomous keys are addicting in their crescendo of more and more specificity, building to the climax of positive identification. Their binary logic is soothing in the abundance of answers for every little detail. They’re scripted, predictable, and they rarely stray off course into, say, indigenous knowledge wiped out by European colonists. Sometimes I think it’s this reassuring false positivity about flowers that makes them such a fertile means of communication for my mother and I. No matter how strained the conversation gets between me and my mother, we’re still able to communicate by sending pictures of flowers. When I ruptured our longstanding mother-daughter contract by coming out as transgender at 21, the pictures still came. Like a Victorian courtship transposed to the 21st century, my email inbox is full of flowers, sometimes grainy, sometimes out of focus. It’s easy to see how the simplicity of answering a number of yes or no questions to arrive at a positive identification can be appealing. These are things you can hold in your hand, smell, admire, things that others have labored for a long time to correctly categorize. Things, most importantly, that won’t stand up and say “actually, I’m something else” without your consent.
In his history of the sciences, Foucault describes the shift that took place leading up to the Classical period when traditional, holistic ways of understanding plants and animals were abandoned by botanists in favor of a systematic method for identifying and classifying the natural world. Linnaeus and his predecessors, in laying the groundwork for the biological sciences, reduced botany to math; they wanted to find a way that any educated man could use the tools they created to identify a plant with absolute certainty. This meant leveling the playing field. Foucault writes that before the 17th century and the professionalization of botany, “what distinguished the various species of birds, for instance, was not the differences that existed between them but the fact that this one hunted its food at night, that another lived on the water, that yet another fed on living flesh.” An animal was known by recognizing distinctive facts about it, not for what it was lacking. But as Linnaeus sought to identify the entire natural world, it grew more important to systematize and find a way to distinguish an animal from one another based on “what the others are not.”
In this way, animals and plants became only so many parts that could be isolated and analyzed to produce a positive classification. An ideologically pure dichotomous key would never ask the same question twice. It relies on simple yes/no answers and careful attention to detail to ensure that ground already covered is not rehashed, assuming there is nothing more to reveal about an organism from the number of leaves or angle of the stems. The answers a dichotomous key delivers are terminal: you end up with either this or that, and if it’s not one or the other then you’ve answered incorrectly and need to retreat a few steps and begin again. Perhaps the swampy marsh is really more of a bog. In a different light, the petals are more mauve than pink. New answers propel you down new paths to new destinations.
That action, the moving back and forth along the axis, is both liberating and rigid. On the one hand it’s a process of elimination that relies on objectivity, and a shared vocabulary of color, ecosystem, and biology. But you can never leave the tree. You can’t move from step 2 to step 34. You can’t be all the steps at once. That’s asking too much. The logic of the key dictates that answering one question at a time is most efficient, and that no question will ever be answered both/and. But I both want children of my own one day and am horrified by the idea of pregnancy. I identify as both gay and transgender. I both feel sorry for my mother that she’s not queer, and envy her normality.
When I was very young I would sit in my mother’s bed and read gardening books, our bodies close under the blanket, the warmth, the intimacy magnified by the turning of pages to reveal high-gloss photos of English gardens and roses almost pornographic in their depth of color and light within the petals. Maybe she was actually reading the text, absorbing information, but I was too young to care about the words. I soaked those pictures in through my skin, tying them to the presence and smell of her body in a visceral way. That type of closeness necessarily fades between parents and children. But as the years march on I’ve watched us fall slow motion into the trap of defining the other by our differences: I am no longer a woman; I am not a daughter; I don’t want to have periods, give birth, have breasts; my mother is not a man, she’s not queer or trans. I spent my early twenties shedding all significant secondary characteristics that would have identified as female, things like curves and smooth skin, a high-pitched voice, jewelry, dresses, things that are superficial but nonetheless form a culturally accepted basis of what a woman looks like— traits and features that I inherited from my mother. At the same time, she was entering the trenches of middle age and menopause, losing against her will some of these characteristics that signified womanhood. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how painful it must have been for her to watch our bodies passing like two ships in the night in a silent exchange of body parts and hormones.
Most of the time my mother’s emailed pictures of flowers are accompanied by simple captions describing or naming the plant pictured. “My yellow trillium” or “blue gentian” are commonly all that’s written in accompaniment. Occasionally a picture of a flower will show up without comment. These are not pictures attached to long newsy emails written leisurely. They are images snapped while on a walk, as if she were pointing to the side of a trail and saying look there, twinflowers, my favorite. Not to be outdone, I reply with my own snapshots of flowers encountered on hikes or runs, asking her to confirm their identities.
These pictures are safe. They allow us to be “in touch” without really speaking about anything important. There’s a sense now when we get together for holidays and share recipes or financial advice or complete a crossword puzzle together, that neither of us really knows who the other one is. To a certain extent, I know it’s like this for all parents and children. It’s impossible to really know who the other is outside of your relationship with them. We all have hidden depths. We all tend to define one another on our failure to match up to the idea of who we’re expected to be.
But the traditional narrative of being transgender and choosing to transition also plays a role here. In an effort to gain more legitimacy from the medical community, and from the public at large, being transgender has been portrayed as a mere reversal, a retracing of steps up the dichotomous key and simply opting for a different branch. This means my decision was an irreversible move along the branched path of a dichotomous key, one that determines rigid roles for daughter and sons based on preconceived and antiquated gender norms that my mother has never fit into herself.
If I profess to have conflicting thoughts about my own depths of gender, if I can pick and choose what I want from women and men, then I have to accept that she has always done the same, perhaps with much more skill and confidence than me. Throughout my childhood, I believed her to be a kind of god with the best feminine and masculine qualities, who could move mountains and quivering bureaucrats with the force of her willpower, who bent the entrenched interests of the state of New York so that her patients could save a little more money, a little more of their sanity in a broken system, and yet she did it all with blonde highlights and big necklaces. Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that she adopted many of these feminine qualities in order to compensate for her brusqueness, to cloak in unassuming femininity her ambition. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout the course of my transition, it’s that there’s no point in doing this if I simply have to choose another set of rules to follow.
One summer when I was very young we found a flower on the beach that defied all classification. It was a single yellow bloom at least three feet tall growing right out of the rocky Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, where we go every summer, and it must have caught our eye from far away. I remember marveling with my mother, maybe even with the rest of the family, at its leathery leaves covered in a thick protective down of little hairs, its stem as thick as a man’s thumb at the base, and its resemblance to some sort of alien dandelion, and yet it was far more remarkable than that domesticated weed. My mother remembers this flower, too. It made an impression because for a long time we didn’t know what it was. None of the books and keys helped us out, and this was before the internet exploded into our lives. We took pictures, my mother took a small piece for her flower press, anticipating that eventually she’d figure out its name.
Recently I was flipping back through my mother’s binders of pressed flowers and there was the alien yellow flower, pressed and flattened, stuck beneath a sheet of plastic and labeled in her cursive. The species name doesn’t stick in my mind, though; what I remember most vividly was its total foreignness, its inability to be categorized. It held us rapt with its grotesque qualities, with the whole of its oversized, coarse, hairy body attached precariously and without apology to the point where sea met land.