“The Biosphere,” as most of us call it, is a highly-oxidized, gray Dodge Aspen, proudly manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation in 1977, and driven by Arboretum Lead Groundskeeper Becky Noth.
Becky isn’t proud of it, but neither is she ashamed. It is what it is and that’s what makes it special. Its condition is the direct result of balancing her love for plants with the reality of working two jobs and taking care of an ill spouse. Combined, they leave her little time to rein in the inevitable chaos that results. It’s a good thing, then, that nature is a big fan of chaos. Diversity, complexity, and a tangled web of intermingling components are at play here, all piled high on the red vinyl upholstery of The Biosphere. This vehicle stands proudly as a monument to what we should all be promoting, or at least thinking about.
The car isn’t really a complete biosphere; it’s more of a desert biome, lacking only the life-giving water that brings all deserts to life. Rusted but sturdy metal, closed windows, and bags of every kind stuffed to capacity keep thousands of seeds and seed pods warm, dry, and secure inside. Each accumulated stem, leaf, pod, branch, flower, and root in the Biosphere is bone dry and bleached to the color of standing corn in December. And because no water is ever added, the contents have the potential to remain that way, perhaps for decades, within the confines of what would otherwise be a decent greenhouse environment.
The Biosphere has not evolved over the years to be just a sedan full of dormant, desert ecology, it also serves to fuel the hopes and aspirations of an individual who has surrounded herself with a botanical world that she has every intention of eventually processing, planting, or transforming into something beautiful. Nothing in the Biosphere is arranged; rather, it’s pre-arranged, like a future marriage, but without all the monogamy and long-term commitment. “Someday, I’ll get to it,” she says.
Naysayers have unfairly judged this vehicle by its outward appearance and its contents, sometimes citing its poor resale value, or worse, labeling it as abandoned or a candidate for spontaneous combustion. What they don’t realize is that by bringing nature’s handiwork and its products with her wherever she goes, Becky has created a mobile metaphor for the rest us. Sure, there are some issues with finding room for human passengers, but any car can carry people.
My feelings for this car are like the ones I have for my parents who live a few thousand miles away — I don’t see them that often, but it’s still comforting to know that they’re there. When Becky told me that she was considering cleaning out the Biosphere, I felt a nostalgic lump form in my throat that nearly brought me to tears. “You can’t,” I said. “Not now. Not ever.” Its familiar presence has always had a steadying influence on me. The Biosphere is an iconoclast on wheels. A reservoir of good intentions. While most of us export the natural and unnatural world from our cars, the Biosphere is a net importer, and Becky is content to allow it to be the vacuum that nature abhors.
As with any historic event, my professional reaction to the dismantling of the Biosphere was to grab my camera and document everything in its original, undefiled state. On the sun-split, red vinyl dashboard, there were Aloe and Iris pods for a future dried plant arrangement, an empty apple sauce container filled with basil seeds, several Brachychiton pods, a small bundle of dried plantain flowers, and a Tupperware container half full of day-old orange peels.
The passenger and rear seats were piled high with black plastic plant trays, pots, paper bags full of seeds, thorny branches, dried Penstemon flower stalks with seed pods still attached, feathers, red chili pods, amaranth flowers wrapped in newspaper, a foam minnow bucket, drift wood, and a dried ocotillo branch that she never got around to rooting, “Whatever is on top is the newest,” she explains. With a shovel and ten minutes of work, there was nothing on the passenger seat and floor that couldn’t be shifted to allow a non-discriminating passenger a few square feet to squeeze in. I would be proud to sit there.
An automobile isn’t just about alloy wheels, leather, and German engineering – though these things help – and it isn’t only about getting from point A to point B as quickly, or as efficiently, as possible. There are higher ideals at work in the Biosphere, like love, hard work, and respect, powered by the raw materials of optimism and hope. If it becomes just another car with comfortable seating for five, the Arboretum will have lost far more than a fire hazard. It will have lost part of its soul.