During this disastrous global health crisis, we are all inclined to want to ’do something’ to help, or ameliorate others’ suffering, and so it feels perversely counterintuitive to self-sequester in our homes, and yet complying with that demand is the best thing we can all do for ourselves and one another to ‘flatten the curve’. Because I possess some fabric, elastic and sewing skills, my ability to make some masks to distribute to our health care workers in need of essential PPE has felt empowering during this time of fear and helplessness. I know others feel the same and share my tremendous gratitude to those who continue to provide truly essential services that sustain the well- being of our community.
We, my husband Andrew and I, live in a relatively rural town of 6500 people considered to be a community of the Connecticut shoreline. Our property comprises 5 acres of mixed woodland, wetland and cultivated land. We moved here from a one bedroom apartment in upper Manhattan, my home of 25 years, in 2007. For me, a native New Yorker, this was a big change and a significant lifestyle adjustment. For Andrew, a deracinated Englishman native to rural Yorkshire with deep roots in the traditions of farming, agriculture and horticulture, this was a shift that felt closer to home than NYC.
Our ‘country’ lifestyle makes adapting to the current “sheltering in place” restrictions far less onerous than it is for most people. This in itself should provide an element of relative comfort, but it doesn’t really. We worry about our loved ones, friends and family, many of whom live in the UK or in the greater NY area. This pandemic overwhelms ones’ thoughts, emotions and behaviors in ways that we’ve never before encountered.
We benefit from a measure of self-sufficiency but we are certainly not of the survivalist ilk. We are artists and designers. We design gardens and outdoor environments for a living, but our own ‘terrain’ has evolved as much, if not more than any of our clients. When we planned our landscape, we included two sizeable “kitchen gardens”, an herb garden, an orchard, and what we call the Fruit Garden in which we cultivate red and black currants, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, gooseberries which are enclosed by a living fence of espaliered apple and Asian pear trees. We preserve much of our produce, either by canning, freezing or fermenting. We do it because we can and we know where our food is coming from.
Grapevines artfully conceal a covered, outdoor ‘chicken run’ providing our feathered friends with cooling shade in the summer and us with the ingredients for jelly and wine. The chickens provide a plentiful supply of eggs, more than enough to share with others, and the bee hives produce more than enough honey for the bees and us. Wood stoves heat our house and we harvest wood from the property, spending many winter and autumn hours cutting, splitting and stacking fuel. It keeps our strength up.
When we do shop, usually once a month, for various dry goods, dairy, wine and beer, we purchase in bulk because we can. A fifty pound bag of bread flour lasts more than a month, and that’s with weekly bread baking; a twenty-five pound bag of all-purpose flour and a ten pound bag of semolina last considerably longer, as they are used for making pasta, and general baking. Not all, but quite a lot of dairy products get frozen in a five foot long chest freezer, along with casseroles, curries and quiches that I’ve gotten into the habit of making, marathon style, to avoid having to cook every day. We grow hedges of basil and I freeze quarts of pesto. It’s all good. All good; but what about those who can’t, who don’t have these options?
We have barely left the property for ten days or more. I went out once, last week, to drop off face masks I’ve made at a depot set-up at the Town Hall for distribution to health care workers. Andrew went to a client/ neighbor’s to prune the fruit trees in their orchard. We maintain extreme social distancing. We do not face the worry about food security or availability or the risk of being infected with the coronavirus multiple times a day like some of our city and suburban family and friends. My heart breaks for them; for the anxiety they are experiencing, the stress they are under.
Ordinarily, the stone pizza oven that we built several years ago is fired up for entertaining, as wood-fired stone ovens take a few hours to come up to the 900 F temperature needed to make proper pizza, and, although we have, in the past, fired it up, once or twice, for baking multiple loaves of bread at the same time, or smoking peppers for the pantry, now that we’re in sequestration it seems strange and lonely to think of using it without the bustling company of six or eight or ten friends. We’re not especially social, in fact, the reverse argument could be made, however, a similarly strange feeling of isolation and loneliness hangs like a shroud when we set a fire in the fire-pit. Gone is the spontaneous phone call to friends inviting them over for a glass of wine and a bonfire “because it’s a beautiful evening.” Yes, the two of us still light a blazing fire, and we’re mindful of how fortunate we are to enjoy such a primal pleasure, while our city friends and family isolate in claustrophobic incarceration in apartments too small, in a city shut down and too vast to appease them, where every outing to the grocery store or the laundromat or to walk the dog is fraught with the risk of viral infection.
Last week, Andrew cut back the berry canes and trained in the ones that will produce fruit this summer, while I sowed seeds for poppies and hollyhocks throughout the gardens. Today he pruned the fruit trees in the orchard and cut back some of the ornamental grasses. I took my daily 5 mile walk, tended to plants in the greenhouse, and then sewed some more face masks until I ran out of elastic for the earpieces. Tomorrow, perhaps, we will cut back the currant bushes, prune some of the roses, work-out the crop rotation plan for this coming season’s vegetable garden. There is no lack of things that need doing, and yet it is the uncertainty of what the near future holds and the awesome, invisible power that the Coronavirus-19 wields that disorients and renders the normal, seasonal activities and routines so, Oh ..I can’t find the words;… unroutine.
The very act of gardening is an expression of optimism, an act of faith. No one would plant a seed if they didn’t believe in the possibility of its reaching fruition. No one would utter a prayer if they didn’t believe it would reach the ears of God.