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Gardening in the Time of Coronavirus

  • Finding solace in nature's restorative powers, Kailani Clarke ’20 planted a vegetable garden in the front
    Finding solace in nature's restorative powers, Kailani Clarke ’20 planted a vegetable garden in the front yard of her off-campus housing.
  • Kailani Clarke ’20 built this trellis with foraged bamboo, an invasive species that grows prolifically.
    Kailani Clarke ’20 built this trellis with foraged bamboo, an invasive species that grows prolifically.
April 22, 2020
Environmental studies major and Hodson Trust Scholar Kailani Clarke ’20 won this year’s William Warner Prize with this essay about coping with the grief and loss brought about by the novel coronavirus and the disruption of her final semester of college.

Content Warning: This work contains description of self-harm and mentions of suicidal ideation.

Desperate Times Call for Communion With Dirt

by Kailani Clarke ’20 

As I go to raise the pickaxe once more, I pause. The ferrous soil at my feet, wet and clumpy from last night’s rain, glints with displaced grass. My legs shake a little. Under a sun far too warm for this time of year, the plot of lawn has given its sod up slowly. I lean on the pick handle and take a moment to breathe.

My friends and I are building a garden. The front yard of our house has been scored by footfalls to and from the driveway, and with the blessing of our landlady, we are putting in a real path. The remaining lawn between it and the house has been designated for a pollinator plot, intermingled with greens, local herbs, and edible wild weeds. I have waited for months to complete this, and suddenly, I have the time. Anxiety gnaws anew in my chest as I remember why we are doing this now.

Coronavirus. COVID-19. The wheezing, feverish elephant in every room, everywhere.

In the span of a few short days, the bones of my world have broken. My final semester of college has been bisected, with the rest of classes going online. Graduation has been delayed. The western road trip my friends and I have planned for years is unlikely to happen. In less than two weeks, the future I have fought for over the span of four years has vaporized. I am not alone in this; countless school seniors have been devastated. Our pain pales beside that of the world at large. Thousands have died, and many others are sick. As always, the most vulnerable suffer the most. Small businesses have shuttered, rents have gone unpaid, and as the economy staggers, many people have fallen. Work in town is nonexistent, and several of my friends are struggling to get by. My parents are fairly secure and wonderfully supportive, but both of the jobs I had lined up after graduation are in jeopardy. This will be a lean time for us all.

So I am here, coaxing plants into the earth, because my body and my spirit need to eat.

I glance down at my left forearm as I work the dirt, and I notice that my scars have darkened. My oft-burned skin takes color quickly, and as the paleness of winter bronzes under the sun, the long furrows above my radius bone are turning purple. I look further down my arm to the top of my left hand, my right wrist, my left thumb. The marks are almost luminous. They will fade eventually, but for now they sprawl like blood splatter, a reminder of violence and fear. As a coyote gnaws off her own foot to escape a leg trap, I scored these marks into my skin with my fingernails. Some months or years old, they mutter their memories even now– panic over a statistics test, self-loathing during a conflict with friends, depression, anxiety, despair. Stains from the pollution on the shores of my mind. I do not hate them as I once did, but I still hate them.

We have spread loam and humus over the groundcloth. I rake the sable soil into an even layer, relishing in its richness. God, I love dirt. I cup some in my hands and drink in its scent, and for a moment the chronic dread clotting in my abdomen fades out. I take solace in the fact that as social structures around the world topple under the pandemic, spring is still flourishing. The sharp scent of manure swirls with the soft kiss of the season. The magnolias are blooming. There is no one on campus to see them, but I can still smell them, and the cherry blossoms glitter at the end of our street. The equinox nears. The circles of this world are moving. Thank the powers this sickness is happening in spring.

I retrieve the sprouts from the back stoop. Kale and arugula bob merrily in the wind, and the lavender, phlox and basil are flushed emerald and silver. I feel a rush of satisfaction at the fact that they are here; I have waited all winter for planting season, and produce is expensive and environmentally stressful. Few pleasures match those of a home harvest. I use the pick spike to pierce the groundcloth, then toss the red dirt below it with new soil. I move down the line in a sine wave, digging out slots for each sprout and pressing their silky root balls into the earth. I hope that they will take to this new way of life.

As I make homes for the plants, my thoughts begin to wander again, slide into the bad dream of the present. This still does not feel entirely real. Dread percolates up my brainstem and burns my mind– how long will this last how will we survive what will happen to us I miss my other friends I miss my classes I miss I miss I miss– I miss normality. A state of being that, despite my constant efforts to be mindful and grateful, held tiny aspects I had taken for granted. Before the pandemic, I was more content with myself and my place in the universe than I have been for a very long time. I was healing. I was happy. Then the virus came, like a hurricane that never stops.

I shake the darkness from my head and focus back on the plants. I ease the phlox into the ground, press the basil into the bed. The lavender is fragrant in my hands.

By the time we have finished, the sun is sliding low. My friends and I sit on the front stoop and let the calm tiredness of good work ease through us. My hands are caked in soil. The path looks beautiful, all pebbles and river rock my friend and I hauled out from behind his house. Behind it, the young garden seems to glow. Cardinals are chipping in the pines, and the venerable elm tree that exalts on our sidewalk is beginning to bud out at last.

Everywhere I turn there is stubborn, shameless beauty.

There was once a time when I could not see it. Depression is like cellophane over your senses. Though I could see all the miracles of nature and humanity that had once given me strength, I was not receptive to them. Though a student of environmental studies, a field rife with potential for crippling sadness, I had never struggled to find hope in this world until my junior and senior years in college. My despair poisoned any prospect of a beautiful future. Through diligent therapy, proper medication, and the support of my family and friends, I began to recover. Even with the world awash in horror right now, this is not the worst I have ever felt, so I breathe in the spring and the songs of the birds and the feeling of dirt between toes. I rub my back against the sunlight, and I smile.

They say you do not know what you have until you lose it. This is why gratitude is powerful. When I started healing, every morsel of existence the depression capitulated back to me was ten times sweeter on my soul. The world right now is grieving, and terrified, and desperate, just as I once was. I got better. Even this cannot last forever, and all things, even the long-lost good ones, come back.

I do not know when this storm will pass. I know that when we emerge, this world will be different. Perhaps we will come back more grateful, and more wise. Lack of traffic has rendered the water of the Venice canals clear for the first time in memory. Wild pigs and herds of deer are wandering through cities under lockdown. Nature will always take things back. She will even take us back, if we let her. Maybe this small apocalypse will teach us how to do so.

They do not talk about hope in school. They do not teach how it is the vital catalyst to any venture, the solvent to any sadness. There is no curriculum for how hope is a choice you must make every day, if you can. I have learned this myself, through hundreds of hard lessons, and dark days, and broken hearts, and bloody nails. I have fought for it tooth and claw. I refuse to surrender it now. It showed me how every bad thing that has ever happened to me happened for a reason. Even the seemingly senseless hurts that left me screaming at the sky for explanation revealed themselves in time. My logical mind takes this as a pattern, the most likely course of the next event. My heart chooses to have faith that somehow, all this pain has a purpose. A global pandemic that threatens everything beloved. Plastic in the ocean, the burning of continents, the dissolution of coral reefs. The razing of forests and the slaughter of species. Carbon highs. A climate crisis. A coyote caught in a leg trap.

I had to be so desperate I thought about dying to remind myself how much I love life. Maybe right now the world is going through such a trial by fire. Perhaps only a pandemic that forces isolation can remind humanity how much we need each other.

Perhaps the effects of the global climate crisis that threatens our very existence will remind us that we are not above this world, but part of it.

I choose to believe this. I choose to hope for better. I choose this every day rather than risk despair again. I know now that hope is a life requirement like oxygen and water. It is an act of rebellion against all who forsake fellow humans. It is a vote, an act, and a prayer for all the beauty this world could be. And we need it, now more than ever.

So on this day, as I sit on my stoop and fear for the future, I go quiet and look to the earth. I kneel by my new plants and bid they grow well. Then I go to the waste spaces on my deserted campus, where grounds are untended and buildings stand silent, and I walk. I rub the velvet leaves of henbit between my fingers. I run my palms over the smooth tendons of the beech tree. I crush the rich stems of chickweed and other wild edibles between my molars. The sun is going down, the sky is full of birds, and I am here, spinning wildly through the cosmos on the back of a beautiful world. The grass is growing, the plants coming up, and the dirt whispers with the call of growing things.

It is the call of what comes after. The call of what always comes back.

Last modified on May. 12th, 2020 at 7:21am by Marcia Landskroener.