Georgia Hilmer: How did you start working with plants and what was your journey from there to here? Do you have early plant memories or encounters that have shaped your sensibility?
Rebecca McMackin: I don’t know what a typical pathway into horticulture is, but I definitely did not follow it. I was a pretty wild kid. I grew up essentially feral on a small farm in Connecticut. My first garden was when I was six and I planted celosia and carrots. I spent the next twenty-five years of my life running around like a crazy woman. I worked in fashion. I worked at the most renowned drag queen store in the New York City. I did a degree in political science that my father still describes as “very expensive therapy.” And somehow I ended up in British Columbia for a graduate degree in aquatic ecology. I imagined myself in a canoe for two years fishing and bird watching, which was not to be the case. I lost my long range vision running statistics and grading lab reports.
BUT, I hung out with a bunch of Canadian ecologists. And one day, as we were walking into the biology building, my friend Alley and I stopped to admire the cantaloupe-sized flowers on a Southern Magnolia planted by the entrance. I marveled at their beauty and Alley, who was an ichthyologist, but also a general naturalist, said super casually, “Ah Magnolia grandiflora. They’re native to your part of the continent.” And I. was. thunderstruck. I felt like she was reciting an incantation. And this is embarrassing to admit, but it was also the first time I realized that plants had stories. And names that sound like spells. And soon, of course, behavior and histories! I felt strongly that this was magical knowledge.
So my first thought was very much like Gollum: I wanted it. It was precious. I wanted to have as much of the knowledge as I could find. AND I wanted to be around the people who had it. So I became a gardener. And I found it a far better fit than academia because I realized that gardening was applied science. It had all the research, experimentation, biology, ecology, but there were no statistics and you got flowers.