We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden
Back to the Garden
Nadja B. Cech
True confession, I’ve been dreaming about an apocalypse for years now. Not the death and destruction part, of course, but the “back to nature part”, like sewing clothes out of animal hides and growing my own corn. The apocalypse dreams were my best defense against the impending existential crisis that threatened to crash in on me as I sat furiously typing on my laptop in cramped airplane seats or crappy airport restaurants, while in transit to scientific meetings in London, San Diego, or Hong Kong. Crawling into unfamiliar beds in a range of seedy or nice hotel rooms, I would often pause to contemplate an alternate reality, where sunshine and birdsong replaced fluorescent lights and emails. I was like the man in the Chinese fable who rescues a magic fish and is granted an illustrious palace, only to end up longing for his little shack by the sea.
I lived in a shack once. A child of hippie parents, I grew up wild and barefoot, herding goats and exploring the forest and helping my father grow vegetables. I had a pet peacock and swam naked in a muddy pond full of biting catfish. I fought my way into this middle-class existence, from community college to university to graduate school. Yet I never fully relinquished my hippie roots, and thankfully, about 10 years ago, I found my way back, on a small plot of land that runs along the railroad tracks North of Downtown Greensboro, to Dunleath Community Garden.
In our garden plot, my family and I grow herbs, heirloom tomatoes, bumper crops of cucumbers, and a few watermelons that seem perpetually doomed to stay green. It’s a mystery to me how generations before us survived on produce from their gardens. Apocalypse dreams aside, I am aware of the more practical reality that if economic collapse plunged us into an agrarian society, the garden would postpone my family’s inevitable starvation by approximately 2.5 days.
“Cucumbers for dinner again Mom?”
“Yes, but tonight we shall have them flavored with this delicious thyme.”
It’s a fact that I will never feed my family from my little garden plot. As it turns out, though, in the current crisis, the garden is our salvation nonetheless.
Before corona, gardening was a solitary activity, me and the bumblebees and an occasional garden snake. Digging at the tangled roots of relentless bermuda grass or moving mulch around in my blue steel wheelbarrow was a silent meditation, a contemplative space in which hours could go by unnoticed as I slowed my pulse to the humming of the cicadas.
Since the coronavirus shutdown, I’ve had a lot of company at Dunleath. Plots that sat fallow for years have been adopted by my neighbors who, like countless people around the globe, are suddenly moved to try growing their own vegetables, often for the first time.
From a safe 6-foot distance, I instruct 9-year-old Chloé, who lives down the street, how to plant peas, burying each one just about the same depth as the seed itself. Chloé and her Mom and sister have adopted a garden plot as part of their new homeschool curriculum.
“They have to be watered every day if you want them to sprout,” I tell Chloe as we carefully pack the soil around the seeds, “Do you think you can do that?” She nods her head solemnly, and indeed I often see her thereafter, parking her bicycle and dragging the heavy hose around to her family’s plot. Chloe is one of many gardeners that I am getting to know, an elderly woman who seeks the solace of her garden to cope with her husband’s Parkinson’s disease, a 25-year-old information technologist who needs a break from playing videogames, a Bangladeshi couple who show up every evening in cloth masks to cultivate a certain type of pumpkins that aren’t available in local grocery stores. All of us live within just a few blocks of each other, but until coronavirus forced us all out into the garden, we had never even met.
One of the hardest parts of this shutdown is being suddenly cut off from the students in my research group. We are used to interacting almost daily, the laboratories and halls of Sullivan Building echoing with our woes and triumphs. Now our conversations take place in the artificially sterile environment of zoom, or over email. So much for my dreams of an email-free post-apocalyptic world; there’s more of it than ever. As the perfect antidote, I invite my students to join me for weekend gardening days, in groups of just one or two. They emerge with faces pale from too much time in front of screens, and hair grown wild and unruly, and it is all I can do not to throw my arms around them in my joy to behold them under the clear light of day. Adjusting to this new normal is awkward at first; we dance around each other at a distance, collecting tools, planning for the afternoon’s work. Soon, though, the shared toil of hoe in soil brings us together, in conversation that springs easily from companionable silence.
I mostly like to garden by planting seeds directly in the soil of my garden bed. At first, this planting from seed seems maddeningly slow. The seedlings stay small while they solidify their tenuous hold on the earth, their spindly stems and tiny leaves invisible until you squat down in the garden path and get your eye right up close. By contrast, transplanted potted vegetables start out much larger, but they often suffer from their abrupt change of surroundings and stand in suspended animation like shriveled, gangly aliens, neither growing nor dying. The plants that start from seeds are like the tortoise, slow from the start but with roots and leaves perfectly suited for the very soil and air into which they sprouted. Without the need to overcome the shock of being transplanted, they eventually overtake their hare-like transplanted counterparts.
In my pre-corona life, I was perpetually suffering from transplant shock. Now that I’ve stopped moving, I can at last adjust to the conditions around me and begin to grow again. It’s a Groundhog Day scenario whereby I have the opportunity at last to perfect one 24-hour period, making mistakes, but awakening each day with a chance to try again. Unlike Bill Murray, though, I have my seedlings to prevent me from going mad. I inspect them each morning and am relieved to find new leaves. They remind me that each day is, in fact, a little different.
My husband Gavin, reading this piece, shares a philosophical insight in his signature thoughtful way.
“The Greek translation of apocalypse is revelation,” he says, “Not an end of the world but a revealing of something.”
This shared experience of unsettling change, with all its beauty and tragedy, is without doubt the mother of many revelations. How will they shape our individual and collective futures? When the busyness sets in again, I hope we will still make time to dig our fingers into cold brown dirt and feel the sun on our faces. Perhaps we’ll find our way together, back to the garden.