Archive for May, 2020

Living, reading and gardening in the time of coronavirus

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage:
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace, 1642

Amidst the suffering and uncertainty that have been abundantly revealed throughout the world, the coronavirus has forcefully encouraged many of us to be more reflective and to pursue simple pleasures. There is a multitude of paths to choose from. This article speaks of some of my pursuits.

Daily reading, walking, gardening, music and chess, as well as video calls with overseas friends, have sustained me these last months. Here is a chronicle of these contemplative activities.

Enjoy Nature. The amaryllis is blooming quite miraculously, with five astonishingly stunning flowers. The bulbs have been with me for years. Just let them keep their green leaves after they bloom to give vital energy for the following spring. In this year of crisis they allow us to celebrate an engaging Nature that many of us were too busy to notice before.

By January I had received my vegetable seeds in the post after joyfully perusing the informative seed catalogues. Is hope another name for a seed catalogue? For over 45 years my delight in finding a box filled with life has brought much anticipation, but particularly this winter. (Brian Creelman’s website seedsforfood.net is a great source of seeds from the Eastern Townships, and Clarke & Sons in Lennoxville is also excellent for your gardening needs.) I set up the ultraviolet lights and began preparing to sow the seeds in containers of various sizes. Ah, the joy of having soil on my hands again! Rejuvenation! A real ritual. Aubergines, peppers, parsley, parsnips, onions, leeks, basil for pesto, brussels sprouts, kale and many varieties of lettuce were in pots by the end of February. Each year I make a point of discovering a new vegetable, and okra is the ‘vegetable of the year’ for my garden this season. Last year it was the European broad bean. Swiss chard is to be sown in a few weeks. Spinach I will sow directly into the garden later this month. Each April I grow sweet peas so that the garden will be bathed in unsurpassed colour and fragrance. From my observations, I suspect that this spring will be warmer than last year’s, so the tomatoes and several squash varieties are next to be put into mini-greenhouses inside my house. They do not tolerate any hint of cold weather, so they are welcome guests indoors till June. I like growing a small pot of basil or thyme on the windowsill. These herbs are easy to grow and fun to watch. Sunflower seeds collected last October are now ready for sowing. Peas and especially watercress will be happy in the wetter part of the plot. Pole and bush beans love warm soil, so June 10 might be a good day for them to meet the earth, but I’ll consult the biodynamic calendar first. The garlic and tulips are already up, and I delight in seeing them grow a little more every day. I’d like to think that I won’t need to buy any more garlic, as I save some for planting each year. Many people, apprehensive about food availability, are discovering gardening. Indeed, this vast surge of enthusiasm means that seeds are selling out in many places. In this time of need, are our WWII ‘victory gardens’ returning?

Online chess with friends is a boon in these times and creates solidarity. We play each day and write short notes to each other. See chess.com to set up some free games, even if you haven’t played before. You can take lessons there.

I’m reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and each day one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I speak daily with my friend in Cornwall, UK, and we read out loud Richard Powers’ The Overstory.

It’s impossible to play music together over the internet, so a violinist and I record our respective parts and then play duets. Practising music every day is a wonderful meditation. This solitary music-making encourages the discovery of new compositions. I am a classically trained musician, but improvisation is a delight and a challenge for me.

Physical distancing while taking a brisk walk or cycling on park paths enables the house-weary to feel a breeze and observe that spring is emerging ever more rapidly. The sky is clearer and the air less polluted than it has been for two decades. Now is the time to ask ourselves what is really important. Our rush to procure ever more things has brought the human world to its knees, and now that we are there we can contemplate what truly makes us.

Coronavirus and ecological/climate breakdown are interconnected.

“For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter… Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?” – Charles Eisenstein charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation/

What can our future look like, now that the business-as-usual mode of living is currently broken? Have we now seen a glimpse of a more egalitarian future these last few weeks through a broken window? True, all economic groups can catch the virus, but people living from paycheque to paycheque will disagree that future universal health care is there for them. Will Medicare for All finally become a reality in the USA?

We have certainly witnessed some inspiring actions. In Britain, arms companies are making ventilators. Across the world, pollution levels are drastically lower. The UN secretary-general called for a global ceasefire. Italians are singing on their balconies, and people around the world are dancing online (tinyurl.com/stayed-home). A visit to the supermarket revealed that bakers-to-be had bought up all the yeast for that first loaf of bread they’d dreamed about creating.

The responses of governments towards the novel coronavirus in the first month certainly tell us what their priorities are. Protecting oil, coal and gas interests and the industries that rely upon them reflects the same mentality that led to the 2008 bank bailouts: big business safety nets are always chosen over people’s health and wellbeing. The right-wing ‘leaders’ of the US and Brazil continue to use delay and brazen lies to help large corporations instead of their own people.

There are many parallels and links between the coronavirus and the biodiversity/climate emergency. In the name of capitalism, humans have obliterated many of the world’s wild places, built roads through them, plundered irreplaceable forests for exotic woods, destroyed rivers through mining and pesticide use, set fire to pristine places to raise cattle and produce palm oil, captured wild animals for foreign markets and thereby brought new diseases within easy proximity. If governments had not allowed oil, coal and gas multinationals to contaminate huge undisturbed areas, the world’s inhabitants would not be suffering now. Industrial governments’ denial of the impact of the biodiversity/climate crisis on future generations has left their moral leadership in tatters.

With the coronavirus, however, these politicians have an immediate problem: it’s the older generations that keep them in place. The over-55s are the most likely demographic group to die from the virus; alienate them, and you’ve lost power. Certainly the UK and the US governments are risking this.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said recently: “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”

For many ‘leaders’, however, the destruction of nature is one big lucrative scheme that benefits themselves and their cronies. Courtney Howard, board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians, upon hearing that the Canadian government was planning a bailout of oil and gas multinationals, responded: “Oil and gas companies, lobbyists and the decision makers they have formed relationships with are counting on Canadians being too occupied coping with an ongoing health crisis to register that our country is considering a massive transfer of public funds to support the very industry most likely to cause the next health crisis.”

Capitalism’s deregulated markets have helped destroy nature and spread the virus, which is exactly what happened in Wuhan’s animal market. By putting capital first, China, the UK and the USA accelerated the spread of coronavirus, just as they have continued to speed up climate breakdown. Trudeau’s misguided financial package to oil companies will be a missed opportunity to put people first and create a just future for all Canadians.

Many climate and social activists are working to have people realize that the foolhardy gift of trillions of dollars given in the last month to big business should be invested in a safe climate, planetary health and a flourishing future for children. Please read thelancet.com/infographics/child-health

Thomas Homer-Dixon of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, wrote recently:
“Today’s emerging pandemic could help catalyze an urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities and sense of self and community. It could remind us of our common fate on a small, crowded planet with dwindling resources and fraying natural systems.” tinyurl.com/homerdixon-coronavirus-future