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.

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