Backyard Politics Sheltering in Place in My Backyard Garden
This period of social isolation is, I’ve told my child, an act of love for others. We are, whether we want to admit it or not, part of a herd.
This is Backyard Politics, a column by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee that sees the world through the lens of urban farming and agriculture.
In my bleakest moments, I have looked to my garden for solace, for hope, for evidence of growth when my own life felt stuck.
There were heartbroken mornings where, out of decades of habit, my body reached for a body that was no longer residing next to me. There were frantic days when I raced to the grocery store to buy food with money that I knew would no longer be there the next day, in the joint bank account I shared with my estranged husband. There were the utter broken moments when I sat weeping on the curb, having just watched my child scream through the car window for me, the two of us separated for the weekend in the name of joint custody—my child sawed in half, as if she were a pizza, by the court system.
Right now, many of us are trying to get home, or else already stuck in our homes. As I write this, the San Francisco Bay Area has announced a shelter-in-place order that will last until at least April 7, 2020. Trying to stay safe. To stay healthy. We are readying ourselves for an invisible virus, keeping ourselves healthy so that others stay healthy, too. This period of social isolation is, I’ve told my child, an act of love for others. We are, whether we want to admit it or not, part of a herd.
And a garden, as I have learned in mine, is complex and relationship-based. The plants within have relationships with each other. Nothing grows under magnolias, which are allelopathic, producing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants. Lettuce depletes the soil of nitrogen, while beans add nitrogen to the soil. They love to be planted near corn and radishes, but do not do well near onions. And so on. It is an LSAT question. But a solvable one.
Plants persevere. This past year, I took a full-time office job, leaving me time only to do cursory chores; to water, maybe to fertilize. I had no time to prune or to weed. My backyard farm is wild with growth—vines crawling on walkways, rose bushes overgrown with rose hips, and lush weeds in the planting areas. It can be discouraging to see, especially if your goal is a well-manicured garden. And while I need to cut back some vines, what I see in the growth is rich and fertile soil, the payoff from years of remediating the topsoil .
Over the years, my garden has gone from the ornamental garden it once was to the wild thing it is today. It is largely edible, but there are exceptions: A rockrose bush grows in a crack between tiles. It has proven so beautiful, I’ve allowed it to grow. This rockrose has proven so resilient, so tough, it would persist even if I didn’t let it.
I have learned to keep persevering. When my husband left me, when my finances were in complete ruin, I kept telling myself salvation might come. But it would only matter if I were there to greet it. Sometimes, it was a matter of persevering from hour to hour, sometimes month to month. At one point, I had the luxury of living year to year.
In the early days, I measured time by the progress of the garden. I was taking care of an infant and each hour resembled the previous, each day manspreading into the next: feed, burp, diaper change, pat to sleep. Repeat. But the garden changed daily. There was always a glorious spring day in which it felt like all the leaves on the maple tree unfurled instantaneously—the tree going from naked in the morning to feathered by nightfall.
In my most anxiety-ridden moments, too, I walked down to the garden. I pulled the weeds that choked the plants and stole nutrition. I imagined each weed a despicable roadblock or toxic person in my life, a challenge to be excised. The things that he said to demean me or hurt me, weeded and tossed.
The coronavirus has us all filled with uncertainty and fear. We’re all in it together, trying to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by staying home and avoiding social contact. The reactions to social isolation vary: extreme introverts (like me) keep doing what we do and proceed with ongoing social distancing; others are experiencing restlessness and deep unease and panic attacks.
We are, whether we want to admit it or not, part of a herd.
Most of us are concerned for the world’s wellbeing. My own brother is dismayed by the cancellation of sports (all of them, one by one—I received texts from him: first the NBA, then the NCAA, then the Euro 2020 soccer championship—until there was none). They are his sole hobby, so what can he do now that sports are gone? He has since texted me news about his dogs and a picture of a gallon of ice cream that he consumed in one sitting. Now, during a pandemic, we have a lot more in common.
How can we be by ourselves? How can we be with ourselves?
For decades, I had a deep fear of being alone. The idea of sitting with myself, with no one near me, made my skin crawl. I get it. The reality of it made me claw the walls. I got a taste of it at a writing residency; it felt like I was staring into a deep and dark maw, a mirror of my emptiness without another. At the time, my biggest fear in life was that my husband would leave me. Then my husband left me. And I was alone.
During social isolation, out of necessity, we turn inward. We are getting to know ourselves. We still reach for bodies that are no longer there. But then we reach for ourselves.
When he left, I spent weeks weeping. I also started a backyard farm, if only so I could weep outdoors. Back then, too, I wanted to see something grow to contrast the sinking feeling inside my stomach.
I am in social isolation for the duration and have procured my fair share of pantry staples. My immigrant parents raised me, to a fault, to be prepared for emergencies. One of the dark programs in my brain has been activated. When the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place was announced, I was mostly prepared. I have made a checklist for “next time”—because what else is trauma, other than thinking something bad that happened could happen again?
Like so many in this country with privilege, I’m now working from home. I visit my backyard garden during ten-minute breaks between writing assets and meetings, digging and planting and investigating. Appreciating the details of each plant.
I walk the garden frequently. I have overwintered swiss chard, the leaves profuse and ribbed with red and yellow and magenta stems and veins. The broccoli is fruiting. The citrus bears both flowers and fruit—mandarins and lemons. The stone fruit, too, is in full bloom, a cascade of pinks and white, covenants to be fulfilled in summer. One of my trees, a lime tree, is blooming for the first time; I’ve waited four years for this lime tree to fruit. And this year, there will be limes.
Everything is either unfurling or about to unfurl. The blackberry buds are about to release too. When they do, there will be bees that collect the nectar and I will have blackberry honey. There is great tension, just as there is tension in the world. But in my garden, there are promises to bloom.
Circumstances are evolving. The coronavirus reached the United States as early as January. This year, we were supposed to go about business as normal. But this is how disaster evolves. One minute we think we’re fine, and then we are not.
One minute, a marriage is on one side of the line, even if it’s a millimeter from imploding. And then it is destroyed.
The shelves of big box stores are stripped down to their bare shelves—stripped of hand sanitizers and toilet paper, medications like Tylenol, Advil, and cough medicine. The rice and beans sold out. The canned soup sold out, too, with just the Campbell’s Soup signs, as if the shelf had been delivered and unwrapped.
The Korean store stood stocked. And then it, too, was depleted.
Would there be anything left? I felt helpless.
The other day, I grabbed packets of seeds—carrots, radishes, and lettuces—and walked outside. I planted most of my summer vegetable seeds in February, where they’re sprouting and growing in a greenhouse. I planted radish seeds in the rain. Whatever happens, fourteen days from then, we’ll have radishes. The greenhouse is filled with seed starts: tomatoes and corn and squash and cucumbers, readying for the warmer months to come.
My neighbor called me in a panic asking how we’ll find fresh vegetables should Armageddon come. I told her to come on over if she needs some sustenance.
I’ve begun planting more starts with my remaining seeds—this time, to give away to those who want and need them. I have been harvesting honey for over a week; there are gallons of honey stacked on my kitchen counters. And I have walked jars of honey to my neighbors, offering them sweetness in these times.
In the stores, people are serious. At least in Berkeley, they are courteous. In my garden, there is peace and hope. I like to share it, the shelter of my garden.
I like to share it, the shelter of my garden.
After planting radish, I decided to make kimchi. I had all the ingredients except scallions, so I walked outside, gathered some from my backyard to put in the pickle. It made me feel like I could make it. That we will make it.
A garden isn’t the sole solution. In fact, I’ve learned firsthand that it’s basically impossible to grow in my backyard enough sustenance for my family. There’s simply not enough land. I’ve planted rice in a bucket; at the end of each season, we might (in a good year) harvest a handful of rice, equal to one serving. Another year, I made a commitment to grow Korean greens for a restaurant. It didn’t work out. When growing becomes high-stakes like that, it becomes emotionally fraught. It stressed me out.
But my backyard farm is a supplement. It is a support. May you all have the support you need to get through this. A place to roam. Something to make you mitigate helplessness.
In my garden, too, is a clematis vine that is blossoming. It curls along the handrails put in place long ago by an aged homeowner, which now looks like a wedding chuppah bedecked by a florist’s cream white blooms, star-shaped and exploding, the stamens like sparks. It has not blossomed in the six years since its planting. I had thought that it would never bloom, that I’d done something wrong. But it now has so many flowers, the leaves look like accessories. Almost all clematis is poisonous and inedible. Still, in my garden, beauty has value.
So pick the way you want to spend your time as we wade the landscape of COVID-19 spread. It need not be useful. It need not be practical. But I hope it is beautiful and brings you comfort and gratification in the days and weeks to come.
As I walk the garden, I think of you. Know that things are growing. You are not helpless.