Well, there goes another month. November is flying out the same way it flew in–quickly. The door is opened to December and time shows no signs of stopping. Which, I’ll happily point out, is a good thing! Although some slowing might be nice.
Here in the US we are bracing for another wave of Covid19. And although I’m sick of it all already, as I presume many of you are, it’s here and happening. In a previous post, I mentioned I wrote an essay about the early days of the pandemic that was published in an anthology: TAF Stays Home.
Since I think a lot of us are staying home as much as possible, and many of us are now under stronger restrictions, I thought I’d share my essay. The title is Nesting and that’s exactly how it felt for me during March, April, May especially. I also spent a lot of time outside, which I always do. That wasn’t out of the ordinary for me. But somehow the world seemed different and quieter and more manageable. But for the full story, read on. To quote a good friend that I miss dearly: “Thanks so much for coming by today. I’m so happy that you did.” (RIP Pauline)
February was relatively normal. I spent the last days of the month and the first few days of March at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. My first writer’s residency was colored with worry from the beginning. The night before I arrived, my older sister was admitted to the hospital with symptoms that suggested either heart problems or stroke. There was also vague news of something called a novel coronavirus happening somewhere else in the world. It didn’t seem too serious, I reasoned, or certainly, our officials would have shared more information. I vowed not to check the news while I was away. When I received an email from a friend asking how my relatives in Italy were doing, I broke my vow. Things suddenly began to look more grim. A feeling of nagging anxiety nibbled away at my attention. I had very little focus left for the writing I had spent months planning to accomplish while there. Fortunately for me, the VCCA is located on top of a mountain, some say magical, surrounded by beautiful pastoral landscape. If I couldn’t write, I would take to the wooded trails to revive my weary heart and stoke my imagination. I’ve always counted on nature for solace, and she has never let me down.
When I arrive home, the news becomes more dire as we learn about the global implications of this coronavirus. The word pandemic is tossed around in daily conversation. I know what an historical pandemic is, but what is a pandemic here? And what does it mean for humans now?
I start my research by consulting Merriam-Webster online.
Pandemic: from Greek pandēmos of all the people; pan- all, and dēmos people.
All people. All people everywhere are affected by this novel coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, each of is are affected in our own unique ways. Much depends on where we live and our financial and community resources. It would be misleading to say I have personally suffered through this disorienting time. But I grieve for the suffering of others. I feel their pain on a visceral level. We are early in the disease’s progression and I understand anything could happen at any time. For now, I’m grateful to have a garden. For three decades, I’ve worked hard to transform a backyard into a habitat where I’m surrounded by beauty and cradled by Mother Nature. This less-than-half-acre property is a sanctuary for me. A place of retreat. A nest, if you will.
An ornithological call and response wakens me every morning at 6 am: cardinals, Carolina wrens, and titmice. The mourning doves punctuate verses with their soulful coo-coo-coooo, and towhees provide the shrill coda. Every evening, white-throated sparrows call me out to the pergola swing to listen to their day-fading-to-dusk chorale. Sitting atop fenceposts, heads tilted back in fervor despite darkening skies, they belt harmonies that soothe frayed nerves and prophesy the promise of the coming morrow. Are the tweets and chirps louder this year, I wonder? Are more birds coming to my garden to sing, feed, and raise a family? On a sunny April afternoon, I count fourteen species within a few moments. Am I paying more attention, or is nature filling in the space and silences the coronavirus pandemic created in my daily life?
I watch as bluebirds prepare a nest in the bluebird box. Some weeks later, I observe Momma and Poppa bluebird taking turns feeding fragile, pink-skinned, bald baby birds minute pieces of insects and worms scavenged from around my garden. The fledglings eventually fly to independence while I’m not looking. I find tiny blue-etched feathers lying near the frog pond, but I must trust all three made it safely to the skies and are faring well. I must have faith to survive these days.
The squirrels in my backyard seem to have unquestionable faith. They build a nest, called a drey, in an old oak tree hollowed out by a lightning strike years ago. They spent the last days of 2019 stuffing leaves and twigs into the slender gash. I look up, waiting for the day babies will emerge. A red-tailed hawk waits, too, on a nearby limb, and I recall a favorite poem from U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo: “Who would believe the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival those who were never meant to survive.”
In mid-March, I accidentally uncover newborn bunnies snuggling in a grass-lined nest under a viburnum. I tuck them back in and some days later see hungry baby bunnies eating irises, painted ferns, and my most-treasured plant, a dainty pink anemonella that sways in the spring wind under tall oaks, or used to. How can I mind? The bunnies are doing what they need to do to survive. Same as the mice who scurry under the bird feeders, once the cardinals cease their twilight prayers. Tiny claws scratch over pebbles as they, too, forage for the seeded remains of the day.
I cannot help but notice the world has suddenly become the peaceable kingdom. Reports from around the globe echo what I am witnessing in my neighborhood. There are more birds, rabbits, and squirrels dashing around my community. Neighbors report coyote sightings. “More than usual!” they shout from the sidewalk as we safely self-distance. We decide it’s the reduced number of cars on the road. Less traffic means fewer car horns and alarms piercing the air. The frequency of police and fire sirens also decreases. I still have to contend with the whirr of lawnmowers and leaf blowers, but other than that, my already-quiet neighborhood is quieter than any other time.
Every day the death toll rises. With each evening’s press conference, I grow wearier and more frustrated. Every morning I walk out my back door and through my garden to open the double-wide gate. I offer passersby a view into my hortus conclusus. I built my enclosed garden years ago, even before I discovered I was an extreme introvert. And yet, I want to be neighborly, so I made the openings extra wide to allow for a peek inside. Who knows if the heavenly scented clematis, alien-looking aroids, and multihued paeonies will perhaps create a spark of joy or grant a sense of hope to others as much as they do me?
I’m a writer, and regardless of what is going on, I have deadlines to meet. Although there are days when I cannot think one coherent thought, I know I will survive these strange times much better If I can conjure up some semblance of normalcy. But what is normal now? And what will normal be moving forward? On good days, I put pen to paper and try to create stories that will sustain us. Or, at the very least, sustain me.
I’ve tended this plot for the last thirty years and, without question, my garden has never looked this beautiful or healthy. Even though I didn’t get to shop at the nurseries this spring, I nurtured existing plants by giving them layers of well-aged compost and shredded leaf mulch. They rewarded me with incredible growth. Spring is symbolic of growth and new life, so it is disorienting to hear about thousands of deaths and read obituaries that go on page after page after page. It is difficult to play in my garden when others are suffering on a scale that overwhelms the mind and emotions.
When I need to reset my mental equilibrium, I walk the brick labyrinth in my backyard. I breathe in and out as I make the pilgrimage from outer to inner and back out again. I whisper prayers for my family, my friends, and all people. All people everywhere enduring this pandemic. Taking tiny steps around each curve, I search my heart for the joy that seems to have disappeared. Anxiety and worry may mask joyfulness temporarily, but I know it’s there, albeit below the surface. Like sunshine covered by grey clouds, joy always appears in time. Hope is another feeling that ultimately emerges after a dark night. Signs of joy and hope shine through our shared experiences: colorful paper hearts taped to windows, stuffed bears placed where children walking by can see them, families writing messages of optimism in sidewalk chalk, stories of normal folks performing great acts of kindness.
What other stories will come out of this time? There will be stories of loss, grief, and fear, for sure. But there will also be tales of courage, optimism, and hope. The stories are still being written while I sit here on my porch swing and listen as birds deliver morning sermons and sing evening vespers. And like always, I continue to find comfort and peace in my garden. When the news becomes too much to bear and the world is too much with me, I drop to my knees and blend in with the green, pink, red, and lavender that surrounds me. And dig my hands into the cool, brown earth.
Cheryl Capaldo Traylor is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about nature, gardening, and the environment for several regional publications in North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University with a Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. She writes about place, belonging, and our human connection to landscape at www.GivingVoicetoMyAstonishment.com.