Buried Nitrogen: A Metanarrative About Peonies (And Chatbots)

By Sandra K. Barnidge

The week of Christmas, the temperature dropped to a low I’d never felt before in central Alabama. It hit near single digits with a clear sky, the kind of cold I grew up with in Wisconsin and thought I’d left behind when I moved south.

There’s a name for what happened here: Winter Storm Elliot. A bomb cyclone. A historic extratropical event that our semi-tender Zone 8a plants weren’t well adapted to handle.

The day after the hardest of the hard-freeze nights, I bundled up and made a quick sprint around the yard. I glanced at the trees, the shrubs, the azaleas out front, the Sago palm by the driveway, the wild roses in the back. And everything, right then, right at that moment under the new morning sun, looked … fine. Totally fine. Leaves that had been green the day before were still verdant. The blossoms on the azaleas remained pink and full.

I had an uneasy feeling as I pulled the front door closed behind me and shrugged off my coat. But on the surface, all seemed okay.


This column was going to be about chatbots and azaleas. When I first sketched it out, I’d planned to transition from the anecdote about the hard freeze in my garden to a treatise on the dangers of ChatGPT, the new A.I. model that everyone from middle-schoolers to cable-news anchors is suddenly using to generate long swaths of uncannily good text from basic prompts.

My metaphor was simple: the hard freeze in my garden was a devastating event that, for a few short days, didn’t reveal the true extent of its damage. But by New Years, the result was obvious and catastrophic. The azalea blooms shriveled into black ooze. The Sago palm turned yellow and crisp. The branches on the rosebushes went bare.

So, too, will be the affect of ChatGPT on the creative industry, I’d planned to write. The reckless public launch of the model in late November is already on course to rapidly turn so many crucial, if unglamorous, income streams into azalea ooze. Proofreading, copywriting, translating (perhaps even outlining or generating entire first drafts)—so much of this work will be done by A.I. models within a few short years, or possibly even months. And where exactly will that leave us, the tender human writers who somehow still need to make a living?

Yes, I was certain this column was going to be about chatbots and azaleas. But then a different, even harder freeze hit me, and the draft I’d been nurturing about the bots turned brittle and snapped in half.

Last week, my agent dropped me because my book didn’t sell. And with that, the manuscript on submission has been stopped in its tracks, along with the steady heartbeat of my confidence as a writer.


I hadn’t planned to mention Michael Martone in this column since I name-dropped him in the last one. But here he is again, because he happened to send me a Christmas card right after the hard freeze, the weather-related one named Elliot. And on the card he wrote about peonies, those fussy northern flowers that wilt disastrously in heat. They’re tough to grow around here, obviously, but Martone is nothing if not a man of hope. “Their crowns love a good freeze,” he said in the card.

He has no idea how closely I’ve clung to that precious little fact these past few days.

My agent dropped me, and for a few minutes/hours/days, it seemed on the surface of my skin like things were still okay. But it’s time now to assess the damage: two years of drafting and several before that of reading and thinking and playing with ideas—a manuscript I’d thought was mature enough to withstand anything has, for now, crumpled to the ground.


Here is where I was going to paint the silver lining to my over-extended metaphor about the chatbots. I was going to tell you that azaleas are cold-hardy to much lower temperatures than Elliott. They’ll be back in the spring, as vibrant as ever.

I was going to tell you, too, about the creeping jasmine and English ivy and Mondo grasses, which have shriveled into much smaller versions of themselves, but each still has life yet, underground, in their roots and their rhizomes. I was going to offer hope in the form of the Sago palm, which will quickly start to unfurl new, green fronds once I cut off all the dead ones.

There will be permanent losses, in both the garden and our profession. I won’t know the extent of the former until the solid warmth of March, while the latter may take slightly longer. Some of the deaths will surprise us, I’m sure. Some will be very painful. But the wounds to kudzu and poison ivy and fresh ideas and textual accuracy probably won’t be fatal, and skill-species like these may even flourish in the aftermath of the die-back.

Instead of all that, though, I’ll tell you this.

I live in USDA Hardiness Zone 8a, but I’m native to Zone 5. When I was growing up, my mother planted peonies on the sunny side of our house. I never thought much of them, if I’m being honest. They were covered in ants whenever they bloomed, which made getting too close unappealing to my bug-averse child self. But they flourished despite my indifference, and I remember a point in time when their crowns were as high as I was tall.

There is a takeaway here about endurance and the importance of rooting one’s creative passion deep in the soil, where it will be protected from the harsh weather of the surface.

There is a takeaway here about growth in the aftermath of stress. There is another about the limitations of takeaways to explain the painfulness of trying to monetize one’s heartwork.

There will be another agent, eventually.

There will be unusually big peonies in Alabama this spring.

Before we know it, there will be chatbots writing advice columns about writing—though I suspect those computer-generated columns will overlook the connection to azaleas. And they definitely won’t know about the peonies.

Read Sandra’s other work here at Reckon:

Buried Nitrogen: The Parable of the Persimmon
Buried Nitrogen: The Tragedy of the Brussel Sprout
Fiction: River Dolls

Sandra K. Barnidge

Sandra K. Barnidge is an Alabama-based writer with a passion for small towns and overlooked places. Her fiction leans speculative and has appeared in Barren, Nimrod, The Fiddlehead, Reckon Review, Reservoir Ridge, and elsewhere. sandrabarnidge.com