Cactus Blossoms, photograph by Suzanne Cottrell

Messaging Plants

As I rolled to the side to stand up, a giant Croton leaf landed on my head. It wasn’t a tender green leaf; it was naturally aged in burnt orange and caramel brown hues, with many prominent veins and a few jagged edges. I handled it cautiously, thinking it might crumble or break. But no, this leaf had aged with dignity, fully intact, with several distinct holes perforating the whole, yet sturdy enough for close scrutiny.


I rose from a mat on the floor of the Nature Center, where I was attending a retreat hosted by a human potential practitioner. We had just individually snorted a liquidized Amazonian wonder plant called nicotiana rustica, a tobacco-based medicinal used in ceremonies by indigenous peoples. The proceedings, directed by our guide, were as familiar to me as the Electric Kool Aid Acid Tests of Ken Kesey in the 1960s, when you were “either on the bus or off the bus.” On the potentially sinister side, indulging in this experiment also resembled the cyanide-laced, Flavor-Aid, suicide-in-camaraderie induced by Jim Jones at Jonestown a decade after Kesey. I had to decide for myself what this invitation to partake was meant to be, and I decided it was worth the risk. So, of course, I was one of the first to line up for the intake. I was determined to make this nicotiana hit more akin to visions of my favorite flower, the vibrant blue Morning Glory, than to the shadowy purplish “Deadly Belladonna,” touted in horror movies.

Our guru poured the mahogany-colored liquid he had extracted into my left hand, and I took several deep snorts, some of the nicotiana leaking into my throat, bringing to mind the cocaine-laced-with-quinine that, once in my youth, I had ingested to bad effect. I noticed that when people spilled or leaked the nicotiana liquid, it looked like blood, but it tasted strongly of nicotine. Lying back down on my mat, I noted the coughing and clearing of throats all around.

When the burn had cooled, I relaxed and stared up at the overhead fan-and-light contraption, which I imagined to be a beautiful flower, its center a guiding light surrounded by spinning blades resembling petals. According to the leader, I was about to receive a message from the nicotiana and I was game for the exchange. 

Seemingly on cue, outside the Nature Center, which was open on all four sides, strong gusts of wind whirled and thrashed the branches of the tall surrounding jungle vegetation. I asked the nicotiana and the surrounding plants to send me a message, and very quickly two messages came through.

The first message was, “That guy is crazy.” I suppressed a grin, as I understood this to mean not crazy like Charles Manson or anything evil, but more like Tim Leary in a white tunic blessing our acid tabs at a “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” event. Or like Allen Ginsberg chanting in Golden Gate Park at the great Human Be-In of January, 1967: both ritualistically weird to the uninitiated, but familiar and good if you were all in.

The second message that came to me was a paraphrased Woodstock refrain, “You’ve got to get back to the garden.” I knew that message was about me in the 1960s, when my life was filled with flower power, love, peace, and hope. And I  realized that’s the way to get out of that political- or Covid-induced feeling of having fallen through the looking glass with no escape. And that’s how, with clear vision, we can defeat nihilism. I got up from the mat and took my Croton leaf along to remind myself to carry on persisting and aging with dignity and strength. 


Author's Comment

Like its tidal rivers, New York City perpetually surges and flows with a diversity of people, places, and experiences. My life has been defined by travel and activism. I like my music gritty and soulful, and there is always a song in my head and a pen in my hand, whether I’m delivering medical supplies to Cuba or trekking the mountain jungles of Laos to converse with Buddhist monks in training.


Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities
by Judy Wells
Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities is a vibrant memoir of travel poems centering on Judy Wells’ appreciation of well-known European painters, architects, writers, and musicians associated with great European cities. Her poems explore artists in France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Spain, from Van Gogh, Chagall, Matisse, and Balzac in Paris, to Velázquez and Goya in Madrid, and Gaudí in Barcelona. Wells interweaves her own personal life into her poems, which illustrate her creative responses to her travels at different times—from young adult in France to older woman confronting aging in Barcelona. Her poetry encompasses various poetic styles—lyric, narrative, and surprisingly for a book on European travels, haiku. Night at the Musée d’Orsay   If the curators knew I, a moth, was in the Van Gogh room they’d be shocked! But what do they expect— I love light and I’m particularly attracted to a painting of stars—globs of light reflected in a river.   I’ve sat on top of these yellow blobs and survived though I can feel the heat of these stars right through the paint. Light bulbs are cold by comparison though I’m not singed by Van Gogh. I’m transformed and waves of ecstasy wander through my wings.   I rest on Van Gogh’s stars all night. In the morning I flit to a cottage and settle on a deep blue iris. The tourists think I’m part of the painting. I laugh. I’m just a moth with grand taste. Available from Amazon,, and


Reared in Eastern Kentucky near the Licking River, Karen Beatty served as a Peace Corps Thailand Volunteer in the 1960s. She trained as a trauma-informed counselor for veterans, firefighters, and police officers. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Snowy Egret, and Books Ireland, and she was recently featured in Mud Season Review. Karen’s first novel, Dodging Prayers and Bullets, will be published in summer 2023.

Suzanne Cottrell writes poetry, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction. She’s the author of three poetry chapbooks: Gifts of the Seasons, Autumn and Winter & Spring and Summer, and Scarred Resilience, as well as a hybrid book, Nature Calls Outside My Window, A Collection of Poems and Stories. She is an outdoor enthusiast and retired teacher, who enjoys reading, hiking, gardening, photography, and Pilates. Go to ArtsMart to purchase her work.


  1. what a neat piece. The writing pulled me in immediately and there were so many beautiful phrases – naturally aged – burnt orange and caramel brown, ; suicide in camaraderie – lol – whirled and thrashed. Such descriptive and poetic writing. an so funny. I enjoyed reading this! Congrats !

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