It Stinks


First Person

The corpse flower’s indifferent, cosmic energy.


A still from the New York Botanical Garden’s live stream of the corpse flower in bloom.

As I strolled through the midmorning dumpster efflorescence of the west Bronx, I thought to myself, Summertime in the city is a contact high. It has less to do with sun and heat; it’s the sweet-sour reek of parboiling garbage that signals the height of the season is here. I breathed in summer as I skipped past wide, still puddles left by Friday’s A.M. showers.

North of Fordham’s campus, I joined a long line of people buying tickets at the entrance to the New York Botanical Garden. I’d been waiting for days, watching the YouTube live stream, assiduously refreshing the NYBG Twitter feed when, finally, it happened—on Thursday night, the Garden’s nine-year-old corpse flower, its Amorphophallus titanum, started blooming. It was the first specimen of this famously gorgeous-yet-also-rank-as-hell flower to bloom in the Garden since July 7, 1939. That day, in a “tribute to the salubrious climate of the Bronx,” the Amorphophallus titanum was proclaimed official borough flower, a distinction it held until 2000. 

The giant, malodorous species isn’t native to the Bronx, of course. It’s found in the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra, and it is very, very difficult to cultivate outside of its natural habitat. The corpse flower requires much water and fertilization in growing to full size: twelve feet in height and five feet in diameter. Mature, it looks like an upturned bell with an enormous baguette sticking out of its center. Amorphophallus titanum is Greek for “giant, misshapen penis,” but “corpse flower” is the literal translation from the Indonesian. Even under the best of conditions, it takes at least six years to bloom. Only a handful of conservatories around the world have been able to get one to do that. The Garden had been nurturing this particular specimen since 2007.

Conspicuously absent from the Garden’s main grounds was the stench of summer. This was the first thing I noticed upon entering. This, more than the wide lawns mowed into patterns and the golden light straining through leaves—this olfactory lacuna was what made the place a true walled garden, something outside of the city and its temporality. I felt as if I had been given a cracker to clear my palate between courses.

Apparently, many other New Yorkers were just as eager to get a whiff of Amorphophallus titanum. The line outside the Haupt Conservatory within the NYBG snaked around a ribboned lane and then wrapped around a hedgerow. I slid in behind a man in a Spider-Man T-shirt, his wife, and their friend, who loped forward on her crutches only when the gap in front of her exceeded four feet. A black guy in a boonie hat that read JUSTICE OR ELSE queued behind me. An employee walked by, letting us know that the wait would be about twenty-five minutes. The selection of visitors was better than the DMV and on par with the jury-duty holding tank re: representativeness. People tried to get out of the sun by huddling beneath the dripping branches of deciduous trees.

A few spaces ahead of me, a Bronx accent shunted its way to prominence. It was emanating from an older fellow, sterling-eyed, who had a rock-hard drinker’s gut and thin, wet lips the color of his face. He wore bright-orange Asics and a yellow golf shirt out of which rolled gray chest hair voluminous practically to the point of making an obscene gesture against the underside of his chin.

“It’s not even a flower, ya doof!” he was saying to the British man behind him. “I read about it last night. It’s a bunch of flowers inside it, underneath the big thing, the spiky dick-looking thing. The spadix, they call it.”

The British man smiled nervously.

“It just looks like a big flower.”

Around him, some practical dads bandoliered with ziplock baggies of healthy snacks leaned in. A clutch of Great Neck moms wearing disproportionately cool circular sunglasses did likewise.

The Bronx guy said, “It’s called a corm, the thing underground. This thing, it looks like a big potato plant, okay, and it weighs like two hundred pounds. This thing, every year, it sends out a plant—it’s like a periscope, this plant—and this plant soaks up energy, sends it back to the corm. Then the plant dies. This thing does the same thing every year until it’s got enough energy to bloom, okay? Which is what we’re about to see. The bloom.”

A startlingly beautiful Korean man wearing a tank top featuring a Pepsi logo into which the word JESUS had been interpolated—he asked, “But why does it smell so bad?”

“It smells like a dead body so the things that feed on a dead body come to it, okay? Instead of bees, it’s flies and beetles and shit that do the pollinating.”

He looked very pleased with himself as his audience went, “Huh!” He rolled his minor silver dookie-rope chain between his thumb and forefinger.

Our anticipation rose in direct proportion to our nearness to the conservatory cupola. We could see now that its panels were streaked with a sea-green scum. We could see that Garden employees were letting people in five at a time.

“The spiky dick-looking thing in the middle even heats up,” the Bronx guy went on. “Like it’s some kind of broadcast tower or something. For the stink. So the beetles and shit come for the stink, and think, Hey, yo, this thing’s as hot as a dead body over here, which we got a lot of, it being the Bronx over here!”

We inched toward the door. The Bronx guy went long on a rant about his borough, lamenting its decline. A breeze shook fat dollops of warm rain onto us. Next to the conservatory, three lanes of Maclaren strollers stood vacant, calling to my mind shots of cars abandoned on the highway in post-apocalypse movies. My phone chimed; Facebook had sent me an e-mail alerting me to the fact that “corpse flower” was trending on Facebook. Then, grimaces spread—the Bronx guy was caught in a racist eddy about the heathen Chinese!

The Garden employees let him and his audience through but stopped me at the door. Behind me, a teenager with a big diamond in each earlobe said to his buddy, “Dog, I don’t know if I’m ready for this!” A few minutes later, they waved me in.

Before I saw it, I smelled it: musty at first, but with depth, presence. The smell was such that it activated another sense, seemed to inflate inside my mouth. Within it, hot like a filament, was a hint of latex. Redolent of, say, gloves that had been used to locate and remove an abscess, gloves which were then locked in the trunk of a car in a Quonset hut in the low desert. And there, surrounded by palms in a still black pool speckled with tawny vegetable chaff, stood the corpse flower.

I tend not to go in for flowers—growing up, the hibiscus in my Miami yard was always covered in fire ants—but this thing was truly striking. It appeared to have come from another land, a lost world. An island and not an isle, for ardent individualists in heavy sweaters come from isles, but gigantism comes from sweaty, verdant islands. It appeared to have come from a macro-biome located somewhere in the King Kong latitudes—a monstrous-big place that puts ours in perspective.

The corpse flower was so vivid it looked waxy; so waxy it looked hyperreal, as if it had been constructed in a practical-effects studio. Its bell-shaped spathe had ribbed sides and a frilled edge. It was colored a light green that graded to cream. Inside the petal-like cylinder: a bluish-crimson the color of undercooked meat, a hue meant to confuse insects into mistaking it for exposed, rotting flesh. Rising out of the bell of the spathe was the spike of the spadex, yellow and at least six feet tall.

In time, I watched the people, gathered three-deep in a crescent around the flower’s pool. What they all did, once they’d taken their Instagram shots, was stand back, cross their arms, grin lopsidedly, maybe nod their head a little bit. A redheaded child in a sundress climbed the lip of the pool. I asked her what she thought it smelled like. “Dad’s socks!” she said. One older woman started to cry. I wondered, Why? Why this reaction?

The Romantics would’ve said that this woman was receiving power and fullness from somewhere outside her autonomous reason. She’d opened her rational mind to something deeper—the Nature out of which it springs—and, voila, waterworks. Maybe so. But this plant wasn’t the picture of sublimity like waves crashing against a cliff face. Its majesty came coupled with its blucky smell. To me, the corpse flower represented an idea a step beyond that of the Romantics. In short, the corpse flower put me in mind of the late poet Robinson Jeffers.

Jeffers’s guiding philosophy was called “inhumanism.” It was a kind of kissing cousin to Romanticism in that Jeffers, like the Romantics, believed a great current ran through the cosmos, energizing everything. But Jeffers did them one better, called this current “God.” His was a pantheistic deity who was the universe itself, whose whole raison d’être was a kind of cosmic narcissism, i.e., this God was here to see and feel and glorify itself through itself, in the life cycles of us and everything else in the known world. And for as awesome as we humans might be, we were (in the grand scheme of this God) in no way qualitatively superior to anything else. In the grand scheme of this God, we weren’t even that important. In these “innumerable swirls of innumerable stars,” our planet Earth was just “a particle of dust by a sand-grain sun, lost in a nameless cove of the shores of a continent.”

Raptor seizing rat, single cell subsuming same, black hole Hoover-ing up adjacent galaxy—the living wholeness of it was, to Jeffers, as beautiful as it was indifferent. “The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself,” he wrote. “The heart-breaking beauty / will remain when there is no heart to break for it.”

This is of course a religious way of thinking, looking, perceiving. To Jeffers’s mind, it was insane that man could gaze upon “the vast life and inexhaustible beauty beyond humanity” and not tremble with gratitude. To Jeffers’s mind, we needed to adore this world simply because adoration of the whole spawned humility, and our humility in the face of boundless creation was the only path to sanity. If we adored this world, and downplayed our importance in it, we would never again misapprehend the real reality:

There is but one God, and the earth is his prophet.
The beauty of things is the face of God: worship it;
Give your hearts to it; labor to be like it.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this big, gross plant was stirring up a similar dust-to-dust sense memory in some if not most people here. However unconsciously. This plant, which within thirty-six hours would whither and collapse and which thousands of people were dropping everything to come behold—it did what Jeffers said capital-N Nature does. It enabled “a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the trans-human magnificence.”

Eventually, an employee ushered me toward the rear door. Back there, on my way out, downwind from the front entrance, I really got a whiff of the thing. It smelled like an air horn sounds. Like cosmological smelling salt. It smelled like the best poetry, that which helps a man “reclaim substance and sense, and physical and psychological reality.”

I reentered the bright garden, and the noisome city beyond.

Kent Russell is the author of I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.