I looked back the other day at something I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic. The piece seems naive, ill informed, and overly optimistic. But the basic thesis remains true — there were silver linings to the Covid lockdown, even if they were outweighed by the costs and suffering.
For me, spending so much time at home and in the yard caused me to appreciate both places in a deeper way than before.
Whether it was the spiders inside the house or the bees and rats outside it, I paid closer attention to minutiae, the small comings and goings in my immediate environment. I was entertained, even fascinated sometimes.
Which flowers attracted the most bees?
Which plants were easiest to grow?
Exactly what type of hawk lived at the top of the pine tree?
How long would it take for someone to cart away an old bike I left on the curb?
When I slowed down enough, everything became interesting, even stuff others might consider crushingly boring or trivial.
A friend once told me, regarding my somewhat ascetic nature, ‘You’d be good in prison.’
I think I would!
Not in relation to violence and assault. I’d be bad at that. But down time? Being alone in my cell? No problem.
There’s an excellent episode of the Ear Hustle podcast. It’s about a San Quentin prisoner known among inmates for his interest in animals. Any insect or small creature which is found indoors or on the yard is brought to him, especially if the creature is injured. The guy keeps it, cares for it, feeds it, rehabilitates it.
This prisoner has developed very deep knowledge about small animals. And he has found a way to make his own life bearable, even in difficult circumstances. Caring for grasshoppers, beetles, cockroaches, birds, mice — it gives his life meaning.
But back to me!
It wasn’t just the pandemic which caused my new appreciation for home and yard. There were other factors. My kids left for college, so I had more time on my hands. And in the last few months of my dog’s life, he and I slept outside each night in the backyard. During that time, I got to know the yard in a way I hadn’t before. I learned which animals come out at night and at what time; how temperature and humidity vary from late night to early morning; what sorts of noises float over the fence at 3am from the sidewalk and street. I learned there are owls in the neighborhood.
The reason I tell you all this: I was on the other side of my fence yesterday raking leaves. I looked down the curb to the corner, where the storm drain is always blocked with leaves, dirt, and trash. Being a ‘hands dirty’ type, I thought, No problem, I’ll do it myself.
I kneeled down and started clearing the blockage. The closer I looked, I realized the drain was packed with dirt.
Black, wet, foul-smelling dirt, and some monster-size earthworms.
Now when I said I’m a hands-dirty type, I should have specified — I’m on the extreme end.
Unclogging a toilet, for instance, doesn’t bother me in the least, even if it’s someone else’s … you know, mess. Indeed, if the practice weren’t frowned upon by spouse, neighbors, civic authorities, and basically all sane people, I would consider transporting that clogged mess right to the backyard to use as fertilizer.
True, I am less enthusiastic about the idea now that I’ve read about a parasite-riddled soldier who defected from North Korea to South Korea. His parasites were attributed to the increased use of ‘night soil’ as fertilizer in impoverished North Korea. (I didn’t know what it was either.)
When I came face to face yesterday with all the black, wet, nasty-smelling storm-drain dirt, I thought, Hmm. Night soil?
I thought, The garden!
Because that’s the other place I came to love during the pandemic. I grow vegetables, flowers, even a cannabis plant or two. Regarding cannabis, my thinking was, It’s legal now. I’m a grown-up, sort of. Let’s see if it really does grow like a weed.
Anyway, I was stunned how much dirt I was able to shovel out of the storm drain. I filled two of the large containers which I usually use for leaves.
Yes, the dirt contained branches, leaves, and bits of trash, but not much. And that stuff was easy to separate.
The dirt was on the wet, gooey side at first, but I solved that by mixing in some of the dry, lifeless, powdery dirt which had been underserving my backyard plants for months. The resulting mix of sewer dirt and dried out, anemic backyard dirt came out just perfect.
The weirdly appealing smell reminded me of the scene in Ozark this season when a hipster from Chicago visits a poppy farm in Missouri. He kneels down and takes a big, deep whiff of the dirt. His appreciation is nuanced and intense, that of a connoisseur.
I felt something like that while looking at all the soil I’d recovered, remixed, and repurposed. And all while doing a civic service! Cleaning out a storm drain!
Point of clarification, mainly for my wife — this was a stormwater drain, not a sewage line. This was garden-variety dirt and debris, not actual shit.
Digging out a storm drain wouldn’t have occurred to me before the pandemic. But in two years of lockdown I learned that even mundane things can be engrossing, just as the nursing of tiny, wounded animals is for the San Quentin prisoner. I realized I don’t have to go to Yosemite or a national park to enjoy nature. Indeed, until the pandemic I don’t think I realized how much I enjoy nature. I mean, previously I enjoyed nature when I was supposed to. I enjoyed it at the beach or in the mountains. But I didn’t appreciate it just walking around, going about my day, sitting outside.
It goes without saying that the above thoughts betray a ton of privilege. I’m lucky not to have to work a stressful or low-paying job, or indeed any job at all. So, for those readers thinking, ‘Sure, dude, I’d be happy too. If I didn’t have to work,’ I hear you. I don’t like you, but I hear you.
Okay, I still like you. And you have a valid point (though it may also be pointed out that some people don’t actually enjoy retirement).
I find that my unemployed self — which was already unemployed before the pandemic, by the way — is actually happier now due to staying at home, caring for bees, relocating spiders, working in the garden, digging out a storm drain, attempting house repairs myself.
I prefer this to the old life of driving around town, running errands, making plans with people, eating out, shopping for groceries, going to the hardware store for stuff I didn’t need, sitting in traffic, going to the doctor or dentist, sitting in more traffic.
Speaking of doctors, I took better care of my body during the pandemic. I thought, let’s see if I can push the next visit to the doctor or dentist two or three years out, instead of one. Let’s see if I can take extra good care of my teeth and not break my foot or — as I did while playing ice hockey a few years ago — tear a bicep.
Ice hockey. That was a Covid casualty. I don’t think I’ll go back to it now, especially since I’m still trying to eke out another six months before any medical appointments. Hockey increases the risk of doctor visits.
Not playing the sport anymore is a bummer, I guess. But I don’t miss the 40 minutes driving across town. Nor do I miss the late-night times for games, nor how bad I sucked at the sport.
I do count hockey as a loss. But I count all the other stuff as a big win, especially the pleasant realization that I’m capable of being happy doing almost nothing at all. In fact, I kind of prefer it.
I remember taking a personality test when I was still in grade school, just for the fun of it. The results showed ‘forestry’ as a good career for me.
I scoffed at that.
Forestry! Shows how much this test knows. I’m gonna do something a hell of a lot fancier and more important than forestry!
But today forestry strikes me as more important and likely more rewarding than most of the jobs I did take.
Not that I’m putting in an application for forestry jobs. Home life suits me fine.