Garden of renewal is here, even as we cope with social distancing

By Sylvia Keesmaat

Sylvia Keesmaat, who lives on an off-grid solar-powered farm in Cameron, has a diploma in Permaculture Design and a doctorate in Biblical Studies. Every summer she and her husband welcome interns to their farm to learn about resilient gardening and farming, and sustainable living. Sylvia is also an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at the Toronto School of Theology, with a focus on agrarian and anti-imperial readings of the biblical text.

It would be easy to imagine that everything is the same as I head outside to do the morning chores. The ducks aren’t really concerned about staying clean and washing their hands. The cats do some washing, but they keep licking their paws first, so I’m not sure that counts.

The chickens are blissfully unaware of pandemics and the need for physical distancing, although a couple of them keep running away from the rooster.

Sylvia Keesmaat, writer-at-large.

On the one hand everything has changed. All of our daily routines, our normal interactions with neighbours and colleagues, and, for many of us, our income—all have ground to a halt. On the other hand, all around us the world is unfolding as it does every spring. The snow is melting, creating puddling and creeks and vernal pools everywhere. The robins are singing again, the woodpeckers are tapping away on the side of my log house, and shoots are beginning to reach for the sun in sheltered corners.

Even as the whole economic engine of our country, all the buying and selling, all the rushing about, all the control we thought we had, just stops, the natural world continues on as if nothing has changed. Or, in some places, we could say, it continues on with more freedom, now that ships aren’t muddying the waters in canals, and people aren’t filling every urban corner.

There is a saying in the gardening community that goes like this: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.” Now, it might not be clear what this means at first blush, but the gist of it is this: any problem can also be seen as a possibility. So what if we were to try this thought experiment. Rather than viewing social isolation as a problem, what if we were to try to imagine what opportunities it creates, especially in the spring.

You see, here in Kawartha Lakes we have a unique opportunity this year to do something that our screen-focused, career-driven, shopping-for-leisure culture makes difficult: this year we can watch the spring unfold.

Begin with water: go outside and see where the puddles are and where the water is running. Is there a way you can direct it? Can you make a little canal and change its course? Remember how you used to do this when you were a kid? Learn how the water lives and moves in your place.

Check out the birds next. Pick up some birdseed and a simple bird feeder, or have them delivered (supermarkets, hardware stores and farm supply stores are all open and all have birdseed). Put some feed out and begin to watch. Try to find out what the birds are, or have your children make up names for them. (For instance, rose-breasted grosbeaks are “vampire birds” at our house). Pay attention to each bird’s behaviour and different quirks. Learn how the birds live in your place.

Now walk around your backyard, or if you live in an apartment, go for a walk. Look at the ground. Is anything coming up? Do any of the trees or bushes have buds on them? Do you know what they are? Which ones look ready to burst? Which ones will flower first, and which ones will leaf out later? Learn how the plants come to life in your place.

Are any insects coming to the blossoms? What are they? See if you can learn their names. Order a field guide online to give you a hand or a copy of Drew Monkman’s Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas. Or check out one of the many identification apps for plants or insects. Learn how insects make their homes in your place.

Now that you have time, call that friend of yours who is a gardener. Ask what vegetables are easy to grow and which seeds you should be planting on your windowsill. The hardware stores have a good supply of seeds and soil and pots. Ask your friend when you can start planting outside (hint: beets and spinach can go in very soon). Learn the satisfaction of harvesting from your own balcony or back yard.

Don’t forget about the importance of flowers both for insects and for yourself. Did you know that there are charts that show which plants have leaves broad enough and soft enough to use as toilet paper? Maybe these are some of the plants you want to grow.

A lot has been written over the last number of years about nature deficit disorder—that anxiety and depression felt by both young and old when they are no longer connected to, and in regular relationship with, the natural world.

Here in Kawartha Lakes, we are uniquely suited to follow the rules of social isolation while at the same time immersing ourselves in the natural world. In so doing, we just might realize that some of the healing we need when faced with the anxiety and fear of a crisis can be found in the plants and creatures that live in our own back yards.

Maybe we will re-discover what the poets have written about for centuries: that healing can always be found in the spring.

1 Comment

  1. Glenda Morris says:

    Thank you Sylvia for this message and the advice. We can all benefit from your reminder that here in the Kawarthas we are very priveleged to have the opportunities we have to observe natural cycles and to renew our natural curiosity. I will toss some more peanuts out the back door and watch the blue jays make their dives ahead of the squirrels.

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