About a month ago, as everyone headed for the stores to stock up on essentials, my first stop was at Lowe’s to get compost and more seeds for my seed bank. If we were to get stuck inside, I could at least make sure my balcony garden provided an escape from reality, which was quickly morphing into an episode of Black Mirror.
I know it’s a privilege to be able to focus on escapes when many people are just trying to survive. Both my husband and I are able to work from the safety of our home and not worry about income. One of our kids is a grown-up, the other one is getting there and is more of an adult in spirit than anyone in our family, so we don’t have to juggle work with constantly entertaining them or helping with school work. Unlike many people who are now alone and isolated, I am quarantined with my family. What’s more, we are well prepared for being cooped up in close quarters after years of spending days, sometimes weeks in a row, within the confines of our tent or a backcountry cabin, with just the four of us for company.
There is one big difference, of course. All those trips, while lacking in human contact, came with the now unimaginable luxury of open space, constantly changing landscapes, endless expanses of lakes, forests and mountains where our explorations were bound only by our own limitations: the number of steps we were able to take or paddle strokes we could master. Over the past few weeks that infinite world has been reduced to a path along Etobicoke Creek not far from our home.
The loss of this unlimited access to nature is one of the hardest parts of the quarantine: nature is where I go for answers and I need answers now more than ever. So I hold on to that path along the creek – my Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth of pandemic. We walk the same route over and over again cherishing this opportunity to be able to get outside at all and have nearby this fairly uncrowded trail that offers regular glimpses of wildlife and where a simple zigzag can easily put us at a safe distance from other random walkers.
Returning to the same spots almost daily, I notice otherwise imperceptible changes. Swelling buds slowly cracking open their outer layers to allow the first peek of green. Drops of purple and blue scattered around like dribbles of paint left by a careless artist. Sunny heads of dandelions and coltsfoot pushing through last year’s leaves. I check on magnolia trees along the way, imagining pink petals quietly stretching inside their fuzzy homes, ready to burst through in all their grandeur.
I shower with sunlight and soak up drops of rain. I feel the bird song reverberate through the branches, as it picks up notes from the bubbling creek, gets carried away by a rushing wind, bounces off trees right into the core of my being. I can hear the juices running up tree trunks ready to bring this spring awakening to another level.
It’s hard to reconcile this joyful rebirth with the grief and loss that is our new normal right now. As we wait for the world to press play again, disoriented and confused, struggling to remember what day or month it is, nature keeps following its usual cycle.
I think of waiting. In a society of high speed travel, same day deliveries, fast food and overnight viral fame, waiting is often seen as a waste of time. Now all we can do is wait. We hold our collective breath to allow some of us to catch theirs, stretch out the fabric of time so it can catch those fighting for every last second of it.
Nature knows a thing or two about waiting. All through winter, the life slows down, trees shed leaves and stand still, seemingly doing nothing, many mammals go to sleep, all in the effort to conserve limited resources. And when the warmer weather arrives, the forest doesn’t just burst open. It unfurls slowly, with patient precision, pondering the right time for every bloom, every leaf to come out of its protective shell.
This is our time of pondering. No matter how much we want to rush back to normal, the “normal” with its roots in greed, selfishness and profits for the select few was hurting a lot of people. With our lives pared down to essentials, when we suddenly remembered how much we can make and fix with our own hands, this is our chance to decide how we can build a slower, more humane world, one that values lives of people and our non-human relatives. The world that is rooted in connections: to each other, to nature, to ourselves.
In no way I subscribe to a theory that the virus is nature’s, or God’s, way to teach us a lesson. The loss of life on any scale is a tragedy. But these exhausting and overwhelming few weeks that have felt like decades have put into sharp focus the many inequities that define our way of life while proving how closely connected we are in our local and global communities.
As I walk through a wooded patch, a hill adorned with a crisscross pattern of shadows cast by still mostly leaf-less trees, I remember that we used to think trees in the forest were competing for resources. Turns out a forest is a community where trees use the invisible wood wide web of fungi to communicate, share nutrients, feed their young and sickly neighbours.
We, too, are a forest where each individual depends on those around them. Over the past few weeks, we have demonstrated our limitless capacity for solidarity and our ingenuity in building connections. As physical distancing has become a staple of our vocabulary, we have found new ways to connect, share resources and support each other. These waves of caring and love travel across distances and obstacles, wash all around us, wrap us in a tight virtual hug and keep us afloat.
I know one day my hiking boots will have new trails to walk; my new paddle, now patiently waiting in the corner, will get the taste of water. There will be more opportunities to explore the infinite world out there. But for now the path along the creek means the entire world to me. And so does my garden.
So I drop seeds in pots and wait for tiny sprouts push through the soil. Every year, as I watch them slowly stretch up, blossom, bear fruit, I continue to be amazed by the fact that all of this – the leaves, the flowers, the fruit – were packed inside an almost invisible speck all along. But for this new life to develop, the seed’s shell had to be cracked, broken, discarded. We’ve ripped open the shell of our old lives. Now is the time to allow for new growth.