Ferns in Santa Barbara


This maidenhair fern is flourishing in our apartment.  It’s a first for me, having success with a fern.  But all of our houseplants are happy. The light is diffused by the curtains and it shines all day through the glass doors of the dining area.

Whenever I water my plants, I’m reminded of my brief employment as a worker in a commercial greenhouse in Santa Barbara.  It’s amazing that the manager even hired me, because all the other workers there were Latinos.  He assigned me to the Boston ferns.


The greenhouse itself was huge.  The ferns were propagated on one end.  At the other end were the more delicate tropical plants, like African violets.  Massive fans at either end cooled the building.  Despite the constant wind, the greenhouse was hot and humid.

Only women worked in the ferns.  We moved among long  raised boxes of soil with racks of hanging ferns overhead.  The process, as I remember it, was to remove baby ferns from the mature hanging plants and put them in the beds below.  When the babies grew large enough, we transferred them to small plastic pots.  Eventually, those ferns were ready to be put into a hanging pot.

I liked working with the ferns.  It was often quiet, although Spanish erupted and flew around in bursts.  The women were cheery and kind.  They taught me what to do.  I learned their names, but not much else.  Today, were I in the same job, I would have asked more questions and learned more Spanish.   At that time, I was in my twenties and the boundaries of my world were more self-involved and limited.

After a few weeks, we were joined by another white woman.  She had a couple of kids and was struggling to provide for them.  Cindy had a wry sense of humor.  She kept me entertained.  I enjoyed working with her until she started pushing her religion on me.  Cindy was Christian.  She seemed to feel it was her duty to convert me.  Things weren’t so amusing after that.

One afternoon, an official-looking van parked outside the greenhouse.  Two of the male workers were taken away by the I.N.S.  The women huddled together and whispered. I didn’t know much about illegal immigrants.  The event confused me more than anything else.  Of course, the majority of the greenhouse workers were probably illegal.

A couple of months into the job, the other workers and I began to suffer from sore throats and headaches.  It wasn’t difficult to connect these symptoms to the pesticides being sprayed at the other end of the greenhouse.


I complained to the manager.  “The chemicals are making us sick.  Can’t you spray after hours?”

“You only smell the additives they put in.  It’s not harmful,” he answered.

But I could see the skull and crossbones and read the instructions on the bottles.  I could see the special masks worn by the men who sprayed the plants.

A couple of days later, I was “let go.”


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