Two weeks ago, I biked down to the allotment garden in Toronto where my wife and I have been tending a plot for the better part of twenty years. On the gate where I usually enter, I found a sign stating that the allotments were closed indefinitely, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s possible to examine the coronavirus and the effects it’s having on human society in any number of ways. I’m doing so through the one focused lens of gardening, which is an activity I’ve always associated most closely with the spring. It’s one of the activities that calls us outdoors year after year, but now, faced with the pandemic, we’re told we can’t go outside. We have to stay in. We must, in effect, go into hibernation precisely when the natural world in all its diversity is waking up and bursting into bloom. This is what I call the coronavirus conundrum: that to weather the pandemic, to flatten the curve, we must act in a way that violates one of the most basic tendencies of human nature.
Confronted by that sign, I couldn’t enter the garden. All I could do was peer through the locked metal gate at my plot. I could see the first green shoots of garlic poking through the soil. Behind the garlic stood a row of daffodils, the flowers still sheathed but fat and heavy, ready to blossom in another day or two.
From the trees outside the garden, I could hear spring birds singing—Robins, Song Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Grackles.
Something moved over the compost pile between the gate and my garden, moved and then held still. The year’s first Garter Snake, prodded into activity by the warmth of the sun.
Next, a flash of blue caught my eye. A Spring Azure butterfly looking for early flowers, coltsfoot or dandelions.
Not to exaggerate, but I could feel, through the soles of my feet, that the earth was in labor, and everything that that earth sustains—plants, birds, insects, and reptiles—was coming back to life. Blood was circulating, sap rising, and the emotional response to this reawakening—which has always been one of joy and anticipation—was struggling to express itself.
But at every point, fear of the coronavirus smothered this natural tendency to celebrate the arrival of spring. This year, April really is the cruellest month—we won’t be following T.S. Eliot’s Hyacinth Girl into the Hyacinth Garden, or any garden for that matter. Instead, we’re being told to lie dormant, to—in that horrible and hateful phrase—shelter in place. We must remain inside, between four walls, even as everything we love to see return beckons us to come out.
For the first time in twenty years, I won’t be able to watch the daffodils come into bloom. There’s something sacred—Van Gogh understood this—about the color yellow. After a long winter of greys and browns, the soul longs for, it insists upon, the yellow that you see in a forsythia bush or a meadowlark’s breast or a Dutch Master daffodil. The winter-weary soul drinks in yellow at every opportunity, and it’s a drinking that increases rather than slakes our thirst.
This year, I won’t be able to sink my hands into the cold, moist earth of the spring garden, to turn that earth for planting, and to see the worms and ants and beetles that shelter there.
I’ll miss the opportunity for unexpected pleasures of the kind I had one year when I uncovered a rabbit’s form in the straw I’d used to mulch the garden beds, a little nest that contained six practically hairless kits curled in on one another like chocolate bunnies in an Easter basket. Or of coming upon a Killdeer’s bargain-basement version of a nest with its beautifully patterned eggs.
Over the years, I’ve tried to garden by keeping in mind two literary maxims. The first, from Voltaire’s Candide, as pithy as they come: Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Which is to say, that in a world as violent and confusing as the one where we live, the only sane response is to tend your own garden.
The second from the first gardening book I ever bought, Crockett’s Victory Garden, which was published forty years ago to accompany James Underwood Crockett’s gardening show on PBS. As a guide to growing things, it’s filled with good advice and beautiful photos, but as an expression of pure love for the pleasure that gardens give to the people who cultivate them, the book achieves the status of a literary text.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Introduction the author wrote, which forms as fine a statement as any I know of basic gardening principles. I’m particularly fond of the final paragraph, where Crockett does his best to encourage the faint of heart, the worrywarts like me who fear that all their work will be I vain. “For all these people,” he says, “in fact for all gardeners, I recommend plain uncomplicated faith, or if faith is lacking, then elementary logic.” Then he continues:
There is no mystery about gardening, just the wondrous fact that seed time and harvest occur each year, generation after generation, wherever the soil is tilled. If gardeners do their part, they can confidently expect the miracle to continue as it has through all time.
Even in the face of the coronavirus, I stand ready to do my part. But this year, the act of faith that Jim Crockett recommended has doubled in significance. Not only must I believe that if I put a seed in the ground it will grow; I have to begin by hoping that at some point I’ll actually have the chance to put that seed into the soil that awaits it.