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More than a year has gone by since COVID-19 upset our equilibrium and forced us to seek solace wherever we could find it. Then, as I do today, I found comfort in gardening.
Last March when the frost was still in the ground and the snow was sitting in shallow depressions and around the base of trees, I started my groundskeeping tasks. I began by picking up all the branches that had been torn off by winter storms and all the odds and ends that our dog Sadie had managed to get a hold of when our backs were turned: ripped up plastic bags and mangled containers. Old bones and toys hidden in late fall reappeared covered in mud. My favourite woollen hat, shredded into tiny pieces, lay scattered throughout the field. I filled the wheelbarrow. I worked outside until the sun set and I was chilled to the bone.
A general cleanup is my first garden task of the season, but last year I added other tasks and projects just so I could be outside. In the past, I would spend the early morning reading in bed but last year I was too restless. I got out of bed immediately, made coffee, switched on the computer and started reading the latest news on COVID-19. By midmorning, I was thoroughly exhausted – mentally and spiritually. It was time to head outdoors no matter what the weather was like.
Last April was an especially cold month. The north wind brought an Arctic chill to the air and the sky was dark and gloomy: a perfect time to clean up the woods surrounding the house. I cut down prickly ash and hacked away at vines that were thick as my wrist. Wild grape vines and Virginia creepers had wrapped themselves around young oaks and maples, crippling them. I spent hours liberating them, setting them free so that they could stand tall and grow. I ripped up the vines from the forest floor where they had anchored themselves around stumps and boulders. I dug out stubborn weeds and moved rocks. I was totally present, in the moment. Not once did I think about the pandemic. Gardening became my daily meditation practice.
The cold weather continued into May. I raked the leaves off the beds, replaced plants that didn’t survive the winter, dug up old beds and thinned out overcrowded plants. Spring bulbs popped up and brightened my day. They filled me with hope. I always plant them in the fall with the chant: I hope to see you next spring! Because I do think of my mortality, I also wonder whether I will be around to see them break out of the darkness and into the light. When I see the cheerful daffodils and graceful narcissus make their appearance, I feel fortunate to have made it through another winter.
Last May, the pandemic had cast a shadow over my joy. I wondered whether I would even be here to plant more bulbs in the fall! Would I see another spring? But tending a garden doesn’t just require physical labour, it also demands one’s attention. There’s no time to think about the devastation of COVID-19.
Every spring I fertilize the trees planted years ago by my then adolescent sons. They now stand tall and majestic. And every spring I plant a couple of more trees knowing that I may never see them reach their full height.
Last year, I inspected the trees for winter damage and consulted books and websites to determine when best to prune. Between late April to mid-May, I noticed tiny caterpillars on branches. The spindle trees were infested with drifts of webbing that on closer inspection revealed tiny larvae of the white satin moth. I worried about the damage and felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of infested trees and shrubs. But I’ve learned that caring for trees teaches one about faith and trust. The old adage, “And this too shall pass” rings true. Thirty years ago, the oaks and maples were stripped bare by gypsy moths but three years later, the moths were gone and the trees survived. In 20 years, the pandemic will be part of our collective history, and young children will remember the year they wore masks and stayed home from school.
During the winter, Sadie had destroyed the shrubs in the front beds. It is her nature, as a Great Pyrenees, to shred wood and her favourite toy is a thick branch. In the dead of winter when the woody stems of the Wigelia peek through the snow, she ripped off a branch and gnawed away happily. So I replaced the woody shrubs with perennials that will die back in the fall. I learned that I can’t change the behaviour of a dog that was bred over a thousand years ago to survive in solitude while guarding sheep high up in the mountains. They dig holes and bury things that they will need later on; it doesn’t matter that these holes are at the base of my plants or in the middle of the lawn. The garden has taught me patience and acceptance.
I worked hard all spring and into the early summer, but then came a drought and everything looked limp and dull. Our rain barrels quickly emptied and we were careful not to deplete the well. I watered all the new plantings and left the others to survive or perish. I thought about all those that are sick from COVID-19 in countries where medical care is minimal; where health providers must decide which patient they can help to survive and which ones they cannot.
But, to be honest I had grown weary of the daily news. When I slammed the computer shut, and fled outside, I thought of the oft-quoted line from Minnie Aumonier who wrote, “When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.”
It is March again, the snow is melting and I am planning my next garden, ordering seeds and designing new beds. But this spring is different: scientists have created a variety of vaccines and they are discovering which medicines best alleviate symptoms. Now, when I look at my garden, I’m grateful for the lessons it continues to teach me: one must have patience and hope. I will be vaccinated when the time is right and, just like my forest’s gypsy-moth infestation, this pandemic will pass leaving us more resilient, wiser and hopefully better prepared.
Angela Jouris Saxe lives in Tamworth, Ont.