A Sneak Peek at Gertude's Gorgeous Garden
by Steve Neal, 3.24am May 10th 2021
This past weekend I was fortunate enough to take part in the pre-opening of Gertrude Gelfort’s Gorgeous Garden, originally set to open this upcoming Saturday on Oceania Avenue. A date that she has since pushed back after our visit. I received a personal tour around the premises along with seven others - an expansive city block full of natural wonders.
For those that don’t know her, Gertude is as affable as one gets. A tiny woman fortunate to hit five foot with perfect posture, with a mess of grey curls that she constantly wipes away from the wide frames that magnify her brown eyes into cartoonish proportions. When our group arrived, she offered us drinks and snacks for the hour-long tour.
At the entrance, a wooden pathway splits in three directions around a stone fountain, the posed bear atop spouting water in a delicate trickle. The forward path took us through the North American section where we passed under low-hanging willows, Spanish moss-encrusted cypresses, and gargantuan oaks. Accented by clusters of irises, orchids, and dahlias. Butterflies and bees populated the vibrant sights while local cardinals and goldfinches fluttered around feeders.
Down the path to the right, we walked through a stone archway into the European section of the Garden. Victorian style streetlights lined the cobblestone paths. Parts resembled towering forests of pines, while a field of multicolored tulips bloomed around another corner. A miniature trip through Europe’s numerous sights and smells.
To the left, a massive greenhouse filled our view. A structure that Gertrude claimed she had custom made for the Garden. Heat battered us as we walked inside, stepping into a wall of humid air, suffocating in its density. Tight dirt paths lined by domed LED lights winded through dense growth. Walking palms and palla trees covered in epiphytes hid bustling streams and miniature waterfalls that collected into pools teeming with giant water lilies. Bright flowers dragged the eye in every direction: Bromeliads, orchids, and passion fruit flowers dazzled us with their vibrancy.
Once we exited the greenhouse, Gertrude beamed as she talked about the grand finale awaiting us at the back of the property. What she told us was the Toxic Trail - a name she couldn’t help but repeat with pride.
A mesh net covered the entire exhibit to keep the local wildlife from ingesting or spreading the plants. A brick wall topped with black iron teeth demarcated the area. Before entering, she required all of us to don a face mask, stating that many of the plants in the exhibit produced spores that could result in hallucinogenic effects in the best-case scenario and death at worst. With all of us wearing the mask, Gertrude led us inside through an innocuous walk down clearly defined brick paths surrounded by waist-high metal railings on all sides. She narrated the entire walk, explaining every plant and its level of danger to us. Some of the flowers looked innocent: foxgloves, English broom, angel’s trumpets, and autumn crocus please the eye, their threat only apparent once explained. Others are more aggressively unpleasant: pitcher plants, sundews, and snake lilies all look as uninviting as they should.
At the back of the trail, Gertrude stopped our tour in front of a concrete building. An undecorated, unattractive square construction. A stark contrast to the rest of the expansive theming and decor. She gave us a spiel outside, detailing the nature of what awaited us inside. A newly found species of plant, accidentally uncovered during an unrelated expedition into the jungles of Bolivia. A discovery that resulted in multiple fatalities, only two survivors returning to the States after their encounter with it. People that Gertrude interviewed extensively to understand the nature of the plant and its location. One of the survivors was barely comprehensible and of little use, but the other provided details after a full month of back-and-forth communication. Gertrude flaunted the expenses spent on locating and transporting not only the plant, but its surroundings to Bear Creek, bringing an entire portion of Bolivia back to our town. She told us, multiple times, how safe the transportation was, free of any casualties to her staff. A myriad of security measures taken to ensure the safety of her staff. I assumed it was all a show. A way for her to add to the sense of wonder and trepidation, but she paused with her hand on the doorknob.
“Please, look away if instructed. Do not look at it for longer than five seconds. Do not believe what you see. Follow me.”
The change in her tone, from ever-jovial to stern, changed my opinion on what awaited us. I let the crowd pass by me, content to stand at the back and peer beyond shoulders and heads.
Inside the room, we crowded onto a carpeted floor. Aside from the door, walls of windows surrounded us. Impenetrable foliage and mounds of wet dirt pressed against the glass and covered the view on the sides. Tangles of vines twitched around fenestrated leaves the size of a human torso. What looked like a writhing, interconnected, living forest floor; a singular organism searching for something with its limited movement. In front of us, Gertrude stood next to the blinds, pulled down to cover the main pane of glass.
“Is everyone ready? You get five seconds. If you start feeling weak or nauseous, please look away.”
The group rumbled with excited affirmations. Eagerness at its pinnacle, everyone champing at the bit to see a world exclusive. Gertrude yanked down on the cord and revealed the pane of glass. I saw it for less than a second: a spiraled lotus flower the size of a small camper van, prismatic petals lured my gaze inward toward the pistil. An abyssal rainbow awaited me. Shades of black and darkness I’d never considered possible, like oil sheening on water. Its form warped into a haze, only the vague shapes of waving petals remained as darkness spread outward, swallowing my sight. Somehow flat yet infinite, massive and minute.
Only when Gertrude closed the blinds did I notice my body pushed up against those in front of me, my subconscious willing me forward, entranced by the impossible configuration I’d laid eyes on. A man near the front row started screaming, the high-pitched shrieking of a newborn incapable of expressing their pain and contempt. A woman started mumbling to herself about faces, calling them melted and conjoined as she trembled on the spot. Everyone seemed trapped in a stupor, confused by what they’d seen. By their faces, most seemed disgusted or on the verge of collapsing, but I wanted more. To explore the infinite and understand the contained vastness and all its impossibilities. I was not the only person in the room drawn to its indelible sights. A man closest to Gertrude hopped forward and attempted to pull the drawstring to reveal the plant again. Gertrude threw herself in front of the man while a few others apprehended him. He thrashed under their weight, screaming about the city inside the shadows.
After the group managed to drag him outside, the man regained his composure, unaware of the trouble he’d caused or his obsession with the plant. Gertrude reminded us that the tour of the Garden had now concluded. She escorted us to the entrance, chatting the whole way, as graceful and courteous as before, like nothing happened. She wished us all well at the front gate, hugging each person like we were parting family members. Truly an unforgettable experience hosted by a wonderful woman.
Suffice it to say I would recommend everyone in town visit the Gertrude’s Gorgeous Garden on opening day, whenever that may be. If the Toxic Trail doesn’t sound to your liking, the rest of the Garden is a wonderment to behold on its own, well worth the price of admission to see the collection she has amassed. Those daring enough to walk amongst the hazardous plant life will do so next to me.
Since the tour, I can’t forget the finale. Every shadow in my life has darkened, when I close my eyes it’s as if another layer shuts behind them, plunging me into a false imitation of the plant’s depths. I will tell you that five seconds isn’t enough. There are answers inside of it, ones we’ve yet to even comprehend the question to, ones I hope you’ll all join me in finding.