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Runaway Roses and Defiant Skellytums: Thoughts on plants, gardens, horticulture and botany in the Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold

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Now the gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends - truly knows - that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there yet can be a garden so that all who see it say, "Well, you have favorable conditions here. Everything grows for you." Everything grows for everybody. Everything dies for everybody, too.

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. It sounds very well to garden a "natural way." You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners.
--Henry Mitchell

I begin with this, one of my favorite quotes from one of my other favorite writers, in part as a response to a review of Komarr I read long ago on Amazon.com, which irked me then and still irks me just as much on rediscovery. An excerpt:

I must be one of the readers who doesn't get the "subtler" aspects of Ms. Bujold's lastest novel. And I don't care too. I've enjoyed all of Mile's books because of his strength, humor, tenacity, intelligence and ability to overcome overwhelming odds.

Now that he growing up, he's shrinking. He's not as sure of himself. He's not as intelligence. And his love interest are going downhill in a big way.

A GARDENER!!! Not just a gardener, but a garderner who didn't have the strength to leave a bad marriage and get her son well. This is the woman for MILES!!!! Oh my god. I can't imagine a more weak character. I can't imagine someone less likely to be a love interest for Miles.

I can forgive her her hobbies(gardening). But to not have the strength to go against her husband to get her only son cured is a weakness that a Mile's love interest would NEVER have.

Putting aside the misunderstanding of Barrayaran culture and Ekaterin's character and choices (not to mention the grammar and spelling), I believe the response "A GARDENER!!!" is not an uncommon one for those who've enjoyed the series up to this point and do not welcome the domestication of Miles Vorkosigan in any form, let alone by someone who plays with dirt and leaves for fun and wants to do it for a living. My knee-jerk "Well, why the hell NOT a gardener?", even when coupled with the wise words of Mr. Mitchell, doesn't do much to explain the essential courage and defiance of Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson, a defiance which (I admit) needs some cultivating and fertilization after struggling to grow in the dry earth of her first marriage.

I want to write about more than Ekaterin, however, and in the course of exploring how gardening and botany are treated in the whole series, I hope to develop some context for why the choice of Miles's mate was the right one.

Let's start with the Firsters, shall we? From "The Mountains of Mourning":

The fifty thousand Firsters from Earth had only meant to be the spearhead of Barrayar's colonization. Then, through a gravitational anomaly, the worm-hole jump through which the colonists had come shifted closed, irrevocably and without warning. The terraforming that had begun, so careful and controlled in the beginning, collapsed along with everything else. Imported Earth plant and animal species had escaped everywhere to run wild, as the humans turned their attention to the most urgent problems of survival.

Terraforming was not covered in my Master Gardener class, but given Miles's description in Memory of "the old low-tech way" -- "burning off another hillside of poisonous native scrub prior to treating the soil with organic waste of Earth-DNA origin" -- I can guess what a maddening one-step-ahead-of-disaster process it must have been. Presumably the colonists would initially have used something less dangerous than fire to destroy the native plant life, and something faster than organic wastes alone to convert the soil to support Earth-origin plants. The realization that the wormhole had closed, however must have spurred the need to stave off famine. Domestic animals (probably brought in embryonic form for the most part) would have been grown as soon as possible to provide meat, milk, and, as soon as fuel for machinery gave out, transportation and plow-pulling. Only a limited amount of food for those animals would have been available out of stores, so grains had to be grown, on fields that were dependent (as soon as chemicals and bacterial inoculants ran out) on the animals' (and humans') own wastes to render them fertile. (Dependency that even led to a war over horse manure, as mentioned in A Civil Campaign.) Food for humans had to be grown as well. No edible (to Earthers) plants preexisted on Barrayar as far as we know (we have five-year-old Gregor's word in Barrayar that "the horses ate these ones" (of the native plants he tries to feed them) but this may be unreliable; we don't know if the gum-leaf (more a drug than a food) chewed by hill people is native or not) and no native animal life exists larger than "bugs."

(This makes the native Barrayaran botany rather interesting in terms of reproductive strategies. Assuming that Barrayaran plants develop seeds (and/or spores, in any case something similar to Earth plant reproductive units), they are probably mostly dependent on wind for distribution, or on some "device" developed by the plants for projecting away from the parent. Distribution via the digestive tract of an animal, or by carrying on the fur, would not be available; running or tidal water is of limited use. (What, for that matter, was Barrayaran water like in terms of natural mineral additives? What's the chemical basis of the plant life? Presumably less dependent on nitrogen, by the color, but one can only guess. One can be excessively analytic, as well.) The native "bugs" could be pollinators; they could equally well not be, if that doesn't suit their strategy, in which case wind pollination becomes essential, again assuming this part of reproduction works the same way as it does on Earth. A system based entirely on vegetative propagation is also a possibility.)

In any case, I imagine the first decades were a desperate struggle for survival for the colonists, very much centered on agriculture. Everything the Firsters grew must have been part of that first shipment; we can only guess at much of it. Grains, vegetables and fruits, certainly. Probably herbs: there's the pot of basil story, after all, imported like the plant but not likely to last without the reference understood. (There's a reference to "native herbs" used to stuff sleeping pallets in "The Mountains of Mourning" (to which Miles devoutly hopes he is not allergic) but I believe no references to cooking with them. One (the analytic "one" again) does wonder about spices like pepper native to hotter regions -- how spread out were the Firsters? What climate zones exist on Barrayar?) Trees: maple trees have colonized the Dendarii hills, and some of the trees described in Vorbarr Sultana and other locations seem to be older than the reopening of the wormhole seventy years before Miles's birth. Brillberries, whatever they are. The grape vines at Vorkosigan Surleau are presumably an old growth. But not everything they brought was practical: witness the river of roses Miles comes across on his way to Silvy Vale. Like colonists in initially inhospitable places on Earth, the Firsters also brought seeds for plants that would provide them nothing but beauty. (And rosehips, not to be disdained but probably not the primary point of value.)

"We are all here by accident. Like the roses." The roses aren't on Barrayar by accident, but they are in the Dendarii hills by accident, escapees from gardens. Escapees from Earth, as well: non-native invasive plants, we'd call them. Nearly as hardy and aggressive as the triply-cursed multiflora rose that infests fields in the corner of Earth I'm native to, and the horticultural community is vigilant in its opposition to such invaders for good reason. They take over. They strangle the native flora and kill it off, and create monocultures, except where battling it out with other invasives (Multiflora Rose versus Japanese Honeysuckle! Like Godzilla and the Swamp Monster, but with thorns and tendrils and pretty smells!).

Barrayar is an ethically easy colony, as far as the human versus almost-human side of things goes. No native intelligent species to conquer and enslave, not even any large animals to domesticate. Just lots of plants. For Miles, the choice is easy: "If it was alive and covered the ground who cared where it came from?" He admits that "Biologists still mourned the mass extinctions of native species that had followed the erosions and droughts and floods" (erosion would be a natural result of careless terraforming of hills; the latter two perhaps indicate a degree of climatic change as well), but he doesn't care much. Barrayar, to him, is the human-influenced part of the planet, the part to which he is allergic only in non-physical ways.

(Here I go again: why the allergens, I wonder? Miles isn't the only one: no one calls a plant "love-lies-itching" if they haven't found out the hard way. Contact irritants are usually a mechanism developed by plants to keep themselves from being eaten, and though Barrayaran bugs probably chew on the native flora, their immunologic responses might well be quite different than those of Earth mammals. Though I don't know enough about this to say whether the human itching is just a reaction to a totally foreign suite of chemicals: inedible isn't often the same thing as untouchable, but it can be.)

It took me a long time to notice the word "mourned" in that above quoted sentence, an interesting use in the context of the story "The Mountains of Mourning." The Firsters and their descendants destroyed native plants and didn't bother to mourn them; they couldn't afford to. It is stretching a point to say that most current Barrayarans treat the native flora as the inhabitants of Silvy Vale were told by Miles to treat Mara Mattulich (no rights, no contact, no mourning); perhaps it's less of a stretch to consider that a more forward-looking attitude treats them like Raina Csurik: something of which at least an honorable memory should be preserved, something to spur people into taking more care and thought before destruction.

(Something like Ekaterin's garden, perhaps.)

During the centuries of the Time of Isolation, then, the new Barrayarans (animal and plant) are battling it out with the native ecology. It is, at least, a battle conducted outdoors and in breathable air. What's going on elsewhere? On Athos, they are farming, after some degree of terraforming, and raising domestic animals and birds (presumably of both sexes, at least the chickens, or else they couldn't have bred a wild population). They plant oak trees for Ethan's flyer to crash into; no word on native vegetation. On Beta Colony, they don't terraform the desert, or at least not much; they build underground and then later above in bubble-like habitats, and must grow all or most of their food indoors. The Komarrans live the same way, but have long-term terraforming goals; their air won't be breathable until those goals are complete. Escobar seems to have breathable air, as does Jackson's Whole; little word on agriculture or plant life, except that on the latter a slimy lichen grows on the south side of everything (Mark in Mirror Dance), and that growers on the former disdained Enrique's hungry bugs and their output. Sergyar-to-be, as yet undiscovered, has a multifaceted ecology much more diverse than that of Barrayar (and more deadly).

The Cetagandans, or at least those of the upper ranks, would shudder to be called farmers or gardeners, although those must exist somewhere on the planets (even the haut must eat, and the basic genetic material for those blue roses and black orchids has to come from somewhere). The ghem play with plants and animals, turning them into something new, not very differently from the way breeders do now if at a more sophisticated level; sometimes they step over a line that flexes depending on the observer's point of view. Ivan draws the line at the kitten tree, though for all he knows there's as much animal DNA in the rose that runs away from its owner and climbs up his leg. (I find it amusing that Bujold chose a rose here, considering the "runaway" roses discussed earlier.) The haut play with humans in the same way creating a much faster evolution than that which must be happening at a more natural pace on the other planets.

Plants grow in space as well. In Falling Free Leo Graf meets Claire and Silver as they're working in the greenhouse on the Cay Habitat. Here's the setup:

A plexiplastic grow tube three meters long was braced in place, and they floated along its length carefully transplanting tiny seedlings from a germination box into a spiral series of holes along the tube, one plant per hole, fixing them in place with flexible sealant around each tender stalk. The roots would grow inward, becoming a tangled mat to absorb the nutritive hydroponic mist pumped through the tube, and the leaves and stems would bush out in the sunlight and eventually bear whatever fruit was their genetic destiny. In this place, probably apples with antlers, thought Leo in mild hysteria, or potatoes with eyes that really winked at you.

The last part sounds rather Cetagandan. I suspect the Cetagandans would think the quaddies gauche; they'd probably get into the potatoes, as long as the eyes could be different colors and transmit sexual signals, and the tubers could be made into vodka that made you not sure if it was really winking at you.

How the quaddies are growing their food two hundred years later on Graf Station, we never find out (given the view from Ekaterin's eyes that I personally think would have made Diplomatic Immunity a better book, we would have), but presumably it's by much the same method. Description of horticulture on Kline Station in Ethan of Athos is brief: they grow algae for gas exchange, and newts to eat the excess algae, and hydroponic carrots (and presumably all their other vegetable food; the newts are turned into vat protein for people to eat as well).

Throughout the books a distinction is made between the more "natural" environment of Barrayar and the artificial contrivances of worlds and space stations in which people must live entirely indoors. This comes across most clearly in The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, and Komarr. At the end of The Vor Game, which takes place largely in space habitats, Gregor (eating pastries with Miles in the gardens designed by his grandfather, Ezar) sees Barrayar after his absence from it "with new eyes":

"Space stations are really boring, y'know? All those corridors," he commented, staring out past a fountain, eye following a curving brick path that dove into a riot of flowers. "I stopped seeing how beautiful Barrayar was, looking at it every day. Had to forget to remember. Strange."

Mark's perspective as Barrayaran newcomer in Mirror Dance is somewhat more informed and nuanced:

He had to admit, there was something primevally restful about the woods, with its patterns of sun and shade, tall Earth trees and native and imported brush creating an illusion of endless privacy. One could imagine that the whole planet was such a people-less wilderness, if one didn't know anything about terraforming.

Barrayar may be beautiful in its botanical wealth ("all true wealth is biological" does not refer only to human DNA), but it is not natural: less so than the most cultivated and arranged of Earth gardens. However, "nature" is a flexible concept, and may be stretched to include introduced species (we forget all the time that some common species are not native to the continents and countries we live in, e.g. earthworms in North America), and Barrayar, especially in its more marginal areas, is perhaps creating a new ecology out of the new and the old. In places where agriculture is irrelevant, like Kyril Island, humans have moved in without bothering to terraform. In others, like Vorbarr Sultana, the environment is entirely that of an Earth city. The Dendarii hills seem to be an amalgam of the two, terraformed just enough for humans to support themselves, and no more; nothing done for the sake of aesthetics, only survival.

Barrayar is also contrasted to other worlds in the context of Miles's struggle for identity. For a time, Miles (in his Admiral Naismith persona) seems to have rejected Barrayar to the same degree that it has rejected him; eventually he comes back to a more accepting home and takes up a position of responsibility. By the time Komarr takes place, his choice of home has been made; it takes his relationship with Ekaterin to root him in it. She is Barrayaran, and Vor, to her bones, and far less at home in the interior arcologies of Komarr than space-acclimated Miles (or his former girlfriend, space-bred Elli Quinn).

The association between Ekaterin's stifling marriage and her new home is made explicitly:

...it was all indoors here on Komarr, really. She hadn't felt wind in her hair for nearly a year. She felt an odd twinge of identification with the transplanted ecology outside, slowly starving for light and heat, suffocating in a toxic atmosphere...

"Starving" and "suffocating" refer to Komarr after the solar mirror accident; otherwise, the arcologies are self-sufficient, effective ecological systems. After Barrayar, however, they do strike Ekaterin (and the reader) as unnatural or artificial. The Komarrans champion this difference, as discussed by Ekaterin and Miles:

"This horizon is so crowded and cluttered, compared to home. I'm afraid I find these sealed arcologies a touch claustrophobic."

"And where is home, for you?" He turned to watch her.

"South Continent. Vandeville."

"So you grew up around terraforming."

"The Komarrans would say, that wasn't terraforming, that was just soil conditioning." He chuckled along with her, at her deadpan rendition of Komarran techno-snobbery.

However, even with the repairs to the solar mirror paid for, their terraforming goals may never be achieved, or may not be effective for other reasons:

"It's very pretty," said Ekaterin, "but the maintenance cost is terrific. Urban forestry is a full-time specialty here. Everything's consciously created, the woods, the rocks, the weeds, everything."

"World-in-a-box," murmured Vorkosigan, gazing out over the reflecting sheet. "Some assembly required."

"Some Serifosans think of their park system as a promise for the future, ecology in the bank," she went on, "but others, I suspect, don't know the difference between their little parks and real forests. I sometimes wonder if, by the time the atmosphere is breathable, the Komarrans' great-grandchildren will all be such agoraphobes, they won't even venture out in it."

What's afflicting Ekaterin in this book is an emotional parallel to agoraphobia: fear of open spaces, of emerging from a claustrophobic, rule-infested interior habitat back into the open air. Miles, no matter what his errors throughout the courtship, does consistently offer her more and broader space: a planet, he says easily. This begins as early as his poking into her garden design program files:

The virtual garden program was supposed to help prevent time-consuming and costly design mistakes. But when all the garden you could have was what you could pack in your luggage, he supposed it could be a hobby in its own right. It was certainly neater, tidier, and easier than the real thing. So... why did he guess she found it approximately as satisfying as looking at a holovid of dinner instead of eating it?

He thinks even then of offering her the garden space next to Vorkosigan House to design, and follows through in A Civil Campaign (not without disastrous misunderstandings). But their earliest conversation on the subject of plants and claustrophobia comes before that:

He stopped before the skellytum, squatting in its pot like some bright red alien Buddha, tendrils raised in a pose of placid supplication. "I have to ask," he said plaintively, "what is this thing?"

"It's a bonsai'd skellytum."

"Really! That's a--I didn't know you could do that to a skellytum. They're usually five meters tall. And a really ugly brown."

"I had a great aunt, on my father's side, who loved gardening. I used to help her when I was a girl. She was very much a crusty old frontier woman, very Vor--she'd come to the South Continent right after the Cetagandan War. Survived a succession of husbands, survived... well, everything. I inherited the skellytum from her. It's the only plant I brought to Komarr from Barrayar. It's over seventy years old."

"Good God."

"It's the complete tree, fully functional."

"And--ha!--short."

The last lines explicitly associate the skellytum with Miles, an association reinforced by its later fall off the balcony, disintegration and regrowing (parallel to Miles's death and resurrection in Mirror Dance? The comparison to a needle grenade to the chest is made in the text), and eventual replanting on Barrayar to grow to its full height in its natural (well, fairly natural) environment. But it is also associated with Ekaterin, her heritage as a tough survivor, her own regrowth and gaining of assurance. Later, it takes on a symbolic association with their relationship: its planting just before the horrible dinner party in A Civil Campaign, its near death from first underwatering and then overwatering as Miles tries to take care of it alone, its survival to be a gift to the people of Barrayar and a belonging of Vorkosigan House. In some sense it is also a symbol of the entire Barrayaran Vor heritage as expressed in this couple: rather an excessive burden for one plant, and an interesting one for this particular plant considering that it is a native and not an import, and was only saved from being terraformed out of existence because Ekaterin's great aunt liked it. They are Barrayar in one sense; it is Barrayar in another, but the two are inextricably linked.

(Side point of curiosity: native to the South Continent? Miles is familiar with skellytums in their natural habitat, apparently (he knows what they look like, unbonsai'd). From the description of a water-conserving barrel, it sounds cactus-like, or like some sort of succulent, and meant to survive in low-rainfall areas. And yet it does eventually live in the garden next to Vorkosigan House; we have Cordelia's evidence that the climate is moist in Vorbarr Sultana, and it's also cold in the winters. There's no indication that Barrayar has significantly different flora in different regions -- Miles seems to recognize all the plants Ekaterin uses in her garden design -- though I would think a number of climate zones with varying flora would exist. But Miles is pretty well-traveled, so perhaps he's picked up the information when away from his home ground.)

Miles's interest in plants has been limited to the practical -- such as identifying those he's allergic to -- and he doesn't have the personality of a gardener. Defiance he has in plenty, but not much patience; he's still treating life like he did those seeds he planted as a child in back of Vorkosigan House and dug up twice a day to see if they'd sprouted. He will probably never care for botany unless it takes on strategic importance in a case. But he's not devoid of an eye for beauty. He's always defined natural beauty as Earth-like -- landscapes of imported trees and flowers; horses; elegant cool brunettes -- but there was Taura, decidedly not an Earth woman in appearance, and yet beautiful. Barrayaran plant life is a degree more foreign to him than a wolf-like super-soldier (you can't talk to it, comfort it, hold it), and he's had a lifetime of conditioning against it, but he realizes the beauty of Ekaterin's garden design quickly and without snap negative judgments.

And it does sound beautiful, in both its first incarnation as a computer program and its later one as an actual garden. An eye for design is mostly what we see of Ekaterin's gardening skills, though she also expresses interest in the scientific side of horticulture and seems to understand the therapeutic benefits of weeding, as well as the nurturing techniques involved in coaxing a plant back to life from root cuttings. (I'd like to see her peel off the gloves and really get dirty, but perhaps that's just me.) It is interesting that her design ability expresses itself more fully in the creation of a garden of Barrayaran plants than in one of Earth plants, at least in Miles's opinion; he finds the water garden he views first on the computer "tentative" and only enough to pique his curiosity. She has apparently created a pleasant garden for her aunt and uncle at their house in Vorbarr Sultana, but no one finds it excitingly beautiful, and although her clothing always looks right, put together according to good principles of design, it is modest in the extreme. It's the Barrayaran garden that's extraordinary, and then the Glorious Butter Bug. She makes beauty out of what nearly everyone else considers ugly and deserving of rejection: it's worth noting that at times those descriptors have been applied to Miles.

It is also worth noting that the Barrayaran garden and the butter bug are opposites; the first is a preservation and commemoration of the native flora and the second is a way to destroy it. Service to technological advancement, to strong tradition, and to one's own heart's desire can each produce contradictory results. I don't think Ekaterin would argue with the need to clear more land for agriculture, however, no matter how much she wants to see the beauty of the plants original to Barrayar explored, preserved and celebrated. Change is inevitable, on the planetary scale as well as the personal, and her attitudes are framed by her upbringing, her Earth ancestry, and her practicality. If Miles were able to give her a continent to work with rather than a garden, would she decide to leave it in its natural state, redesign it into an artistic rendition of what "natural Barrayar" means to her, or turn it over to growing buckwheat and beetroot and factories and universities? I suspect she'd do the last, with corners set aside for parks. And I don't think this is just a matter of service trumping individual interests. She's a gardener; she prefers to create rather than simply admire. She doesn't let nature have its way; she defies it, coolly and with reserve as she defies her enemies and Miles's. She rearranges to suit her desires, selects what works for her, and sprays herbicide on the rest. Gardening isn't just defiant; it's aggressive.

It's also sometimes tragic, and no matter how much I'd like to see the skellytum, symbol of Miles and Ekaterin's marriage, grow to its full five meters in its new home, it would also be interesting to see it lost, to accident or disease, and to find out how Ekaterin reacts. Probably with an oversocialized "Drat," a buried sob, and an immediate revised plan: a new skellytum, some other plant she'd been longing to try but hadn't had the space, a maple tree as the beginning of a new concept altogether. One thing she wouldn't do is treat the plant as a symbol; that's a luxury of writers and literary critics, and one gardeners can't afford. Plants die; you just go on.

The contradiction of death as tragedy and opportunity mirrors the contradiction of creation (of gardens, of anything beautiful) as both expansive and restrictive. Ekaterin creates beauty from what others shun, and makes them see it too; she does it by careful choice, and rejection of the extraneous and unsuitable. She quizzes Miles on what he wants from the garden in A Civil Campaign:

"Do you want an illusion of a natural space, Barrayar before it was touched by man, with the water seeming like rocks and a creek, a slice of backcountry in the city -- or something more in the nature of a metaphor, with the Barrayaran plants in the interstices of these strong human lines -- probably in concrete. You can do really wonderful things with water and concrete."

"Which is better?"

"It's not a question of better. It's a question of what you are trying to say."

"I hadn't thought of it as a political statement. I'd thought of it as a gift."

"If it's your garden, it will be seen as a political statement whether you intended it or not."

Note that "illusion of a natural space." Ekaterin will never simply recreate nature in a garden design; she will reimagine it, make it appropriate for conditions, make the design say more about nature than it would if not consciously designed, and also more about Miles and his politics. She does the same thing with herself, the creation of her own self-presentation: never completely unrestricted, but learning to be expansive within the barriers of her society. Being Vor means there are things she can't or won't do -- just as she can't grow plants outside of their zone of hardiness or in soil with the wrong chemistry, and as she can't throw them into a garden in any random fashion without a sense of where they best fit -- but within those guidelines she will find unique and surprising ways to grow and develop, as long as her buds aren't clipped off by well-meaning but inept helpers.

In Komarr, Miles and Ekaterin discuss the Vorthys household as a metaphorical greenhouse:

"Mm. But surely there is a qualitative difference between, um, a greenhouse and a cryochamber. Both provide shelter, but the first promotes growth, while the second merely, um..." He seemed to have become a little tangled in his metaphor.

"Retards decay?" Ekaterin politely tried to help unwind him.

"Just so." His brief grin again. "Anyway, I'm pretty sure the Professors are a human greenhouse. All those students--they're used to people growing up and moving on. They regard it as normal. I'd think you'd like it there."

This metaphor has, on and off, troubled me. A greenhouse does promote growth, certainly. But its main purpose is protection; it's meant to keep plants alive that would not survive on their own, either because they are young and not yet hardened to outdoor conditions (or because outdoor conditions are still too cold for early-started plants), in which case they will be moved outside when ready to survive on their own, or because they belong somewhere else and can't survive in local outdoor conditions, in which case they will always live in the greenhouse, and often grow slowly and in confined space. The Professors, accustomed to "people growing up and moving on," are a temporary greenhouse, which could benefit Ekaterin as she grows toward independence. But the metaphor is clearly meant to extend to a comparison of the "cryochamber" of marriage with Tien and the "greenhouse" of a new romance with Miles. Perhaps Tien was more of a greenhouse keeper (in the permanent greenhouse sense) than the maintainer of a cryochamber; he did provide food and shelter and an inept attempt at protection, while keeping Ekaterin's roots bundled into a small pot, just as she did with the bonsai'd skellytum in the giant greenhouse of Serifosa. But although Miles wants Ekaterin to grow, it's hard to say whether he's simply planting her in a larger greenhouse or putting her out into the garden to survive in harsher outdoor conditions. I hope it's the latter; I don't think we have enough information yet to be sure.

Perhaps the metaphor is easier to untangle if neither Miles nor Tien is the gardener or the facility, but instead they are fellow plants. (Although since plants make no decisions about their own care, the analogy is bound to collapse soon.) Tien is a diseased plant, not happy in any soil, unable to grow successfully either in a greenhouse or out, but casting a shadow with his large, yellowing leaves, keeping Ekaterin stunted as well. Miles is short but vigorous, often transplanted but now getting his roots into the soil of a permanent spot in the garden. He wants to offer newly-planted Ekaterin a windbreak; does he stop her stem from snapping or stop it gaining strength to stand on its own? Does she outgrow him? Does the wind shift direction? (The wind perhaps consists of external plot devices, like Richars Vorrutyer.)

I was uneasy with the development of the Miles/Ekaterin relationship in Diplomatic Immunity, and perhaps this was not only because Ekaterin's most significant actions in the book were offstage and wenever saw events from her point of view, but also because the story returned us to the interior, claustrophobic habitats that we' d last encountered in Komarr. As I said before, the series has all along presented the contrast between the outdoor, "natural" environment of Barrayar (and, to some extent, Athos and even Sergyar) and the artificiality of other environments, but until Komarr this contrast was not judgmental, and even there only in the parallel between the closed bubble of Serifosa and the suffocation of Ekaterin's marriage. The Komarrans' technological solutions to life on an otherwise deadly planet are presented without negative comment except as metaphor. The Barrayarans are not "better" because they grew up with breathable air and terraformed landscapes; the restrictions and rules that keep societies like Beta Colony and Kline Station functioning are derided, but no more than Barrayar's warlike tendencies. Cordelia and other Betans provide wise and appropriately dry commentary throughout the books. Elli's inability to accept the "dirtball" Barrayar makes sense in the context of her background, and it is integral to her character that she doesn't feel the need to be planted in that dirt and grow there. Terrence Cee, coming to live on Athos, is able to say to Ethan, "Your garden sounds just fine to me." Others, like Taura, Bel, and the quaddies, find perfectly good homes in space; Elena needs to be there, away from Barrayar, to come to maturity. And the Cetagandans provide a warning that it's possible to carry "All true wealth is biological" too far.

I would have liked to see how Graf Station does horticulture, though. And despite the beauty of the Barrayaran garden full of snow and ice for the wedding in "Winterfair Gifts," I'd like to see it again in the growing season. Plants have provided metaphors, images and plot devices throughout this series, and they ought to make themselves evident again before the series ends. It is right that Leo Graf first discovers quaddie fertility in a greenhouse, that Ensign Dubauer is a botanist, that Aral's favorite shirt has flowers on it, that the Cetagandan Imperial residence is called the Celestial Garden, that the Durona women have flower names, that Mark collects the fallen petals from Kareen's hair, that Tien tries to kill a plant and doesn't quite succeed, and that Miles rescues it and encourages Ekaterin to grow it again and that it is the heart of her gift to him.

It would be fifteen years or more before it would grow to fill the space allotted for it, but what of that? Vorkosigans had held this ground for two hundred years. Chances were good Vorkosigans would still be there to see it in its maturity. Continuity. With continuity like that, you could grow a real garden. Or a real family...

And it's right that Miles married a gardener.