How Gardening Inspired “Cornflower”

by Victoria Navarra

Victoria Navarra is a passionate gardener whose skills, according to the author herself, do not exactly match her enthusiasm. Despite her botanical shortcomings, Navarra found enough symbolic inspiration in the art of gardening that spurred her to write her latest story for Analog, “Cornflower,” which appears in our [January/February issue, on sale now!]

I wrote this story for a speculative fiction workshop with Karen Thompson Walker. I was writing in the spring, and I was spending a great deal of time in my little garden. My tomato plants and bell peppers and jalapeños had all settled in, and my cucamelons, my new plant that year, were doing surprisingly well. My marigold seeds, which I had planted to assist my tomatoes, had mysteriously failed to do anything. Several gardening companies were mercilessly sending me catalogues, and I was gleefully folding down page corners for all the things that I probably should buy to make my garden flourish.

I’m an enthusiastic gardener, but I’m also not a very good gardener. I love plants. And I get bored. Which isn’t a fantastic combination. But I love Wendell Berry and Henry Thoreau and Annie Dillard, and I want to be a better and more attentive nurturer of the world around me. I grew up with gardens. My father always grew tomatoes and hot peppers. My mother grew roses and gardenias. And my grandfather had an enormous garden, with corn, grape vines, strawberries, peas, and a peach tree.

Gardening, especially farming, is hard. Much harder than it appears here (I took some writerly liberties. Forgive me, agriculture enthusiasts.) I’m just scraping the topsoil.

All of the gardens that I grew up with are gone. My grandfather died 20 years ago. My father died in 2020. Both houses belong to other people now, and the dirt that was so familiar to me is someone else’s grass. My mother has cancer and can’t garden like she used to. But she has a landscaper, and a yard guy, and when her hydrangeas and azaleas and crepe myrtles bloom, her yard is a splendor. I bought her an AeroGarden to keep inside, and the mini hydroponics machine is a marvel. Basil and parsley and thyme and mint and dill flourish in the water and nutrient solution better than some of my plants do in soil.

Part of gardening, though, is loss. I hate thinning plants or pinching off flowers. I’m always rooting for the plant, and even the culling that helps, hurts a little. But it’s a small violence that you have to get used to if you want to garden.  Wounds are unavoidable parts of life. And sometimes they’re necessary to help growth. But not all violences and wounds are as deliberate as thinning seedlings or pinching buds. Some are accidental. Sometimes the pepper plant just dies. Or sometimes you incorrectly water the new prickly pear cactus you just planted. Sometimes your new lawn guy assumes the sprouting bluebells are weeds and decimates them with his weed whacker. Every accidental loss is a different kind of suffering. 


I’m always rooting for the plant, and even the culling that helps, hurts a little. But it’s a small violence that you have to get used to if you want to garden.


I’m a little obsessed with the W.H. Auden poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and I find myself constantly returning to it. It’s about suffering and loss and constancy. Auden begins his poem, “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how well they understood/ It’s human position: how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The poem is about Pieter Brueghel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” In the painting, the tragedy of Icarus is relegated to a small splash and a foot sticking out of the water. The focus of the painting is on a plowman sowing a field, a shepherd with his flock, and ships sailing in the harbor. Tragedy takes place in the background. It’s incidental and ordinary. It’s as much a part of life as sowing crops or shipping goods or raising sheep.

But for all its mundanity, tragedy is still tragic. Suffering is still painful. We may not notice the splash of the fall today, we may be eating or opening a window, but tomorrow, we’ll be Daedalus weeping for his lost son. Tomorrow, we’ll be floundering in the water. When the suffering is ours, how do we continue eating and opening windows? How do we continue planting gardens after the gardens we used to know are gone?

One of the things that I feel like I don’t see enough of in science fiction (or most writing, actually) is the incidental and background nature of accidents. Space is dangerous. The known, just as much as the unknown, is dangerous. And yet, all our dangers in science fiction tend to be directly in the forefront of our stories. And in many ways, this is just good storytelling. But I wanted to try to tell a story where an accident is incidental—not the focus of the story, but still the hinge upon which the entire story turns.

Because what are we anyway, if not a collection of moments that become memory? Some of those moments, we make, but others are made for us. Sometimes we plant seeds and harvest more banana peppers than we can eat.  And sometimes the lawn guy weedwhacks our flowers into oblivion. Sometimes fortune favors us. Sometimes, it doesn’t. So, what do we do with our great harvests and lost gardens? What do we hold on to and carry with us? What gardens do we continue to plant?

How much does one moment really matter?


Victoria Navarra writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband, dog, two cats, and as many books and craft supplies as she can cram into their house. “Cornflower” is her second fiction publication. Her website is http://www.VictoriaNavarra.com.

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