Act: Inspiration

Early Spring Notes: Life in the Garden During a Risky Time

March 25, 2020

There’s a glory of snowdrops in the backyard, glowing in the sun. One recent, warm day that included some sunshine, rare in this part of the world at this season, I strolled out in the afternoon and started cutting back last year’s stalks, as I do every year. Spring cleanup is always a messy process, what with stacking small bundles of stalks in various places, adding some to the compost heap, and dropping others to gradually add organic material to the soil. Seasonal rhythms are a little different when gardening with mostly native plants, while attempting to be in sync with the needs of birds and pollinators. As I work, I think the usual spring thoughts. The vernal equinox arrived with no fanfare among all the pandemic pandemonium and it’s cheering to know that we’ve crossed the threshold to longer, light-filled days.

Right now, stuck at home, unable to go to work, nearly everything closed due to the coronavirus, I am grateful to have a garden, to have a place that’s safe and out-of-doors, a place where, moreover, I can stand and talk safely with my next door neighbor ten or fifteen feet away.

She, a young doctor, mother of two small children, tells me dire stories: of sick people, lack of sleep, updates every half hour, depletion of masks and other supplies, and so on. I tell her I’m home until early April, and she says, “If you can go back then.” We agree that it’s scary and the worst is yet to come. If this eminently qualified, sensible person is scared, having directly experienced the difficulties caused by the US lack of preparedness as she cares for patients while attempting not to bring the virus home to her family and is worried about outcomes, why should I or anyone disbelieve or downplay the seriousness of the situation? Who knows what will happen?

Yet the sun pours down, the plants are stirring, the birds singing despite the presence of the slim, muscular Cooper’s hawk lurking high in a nearby tree. Actually the hawk is singing, too, a sort of high-pitched, scolding, dry ack-ack-ack that is its nearest approach to melody, reflective, perhaps, of its apparently querulous temperament. Is it well fed, for the moment? Do the local cardinals and robins, sparrows, house finches, woodpeckers, and chickadees feel somewhat safe, so long as it vocalizes without moving?  All of us below know how fast and with what agility it can hurtle through trees and bushes. Not for the Cooper’s hawk the lazy circles of the stocky red-tailed hawk riding thermals above woods and fields. As we humans chat, the baby smiles at me, having stared for long moments to see if she remembers me from the fall, or is a new person to experience. The boy messes with his soccer ball and then manages to pick up, only to hit himself with, a large stick that fell from their maple tree during some winter storm. He runs mewling to his mother and clings to her leg. She gently pats his head.

The birds don’t know what is happening with us humans, how chancy our lives are. They must get on with their own singing, foraging and reproducing in accordance with their natures. Nor do the plants. Northern Illinois is in the anticipatory pause before the mad rush of full-on growing season. Soon the air will be full of the hunger cries of nestlings, the trees will be covered in soft green leaves and the ground will rapidly disappear under a flush of stems and leaves you can almost see growing. Predators are always, inevitably present. Last September I watched a praying mantis hunt honey bees among the autumn pink blooms in a patch of Japanese anemone. After a blindingly fast pounce, she meditatively ate each bee head first before proceeding on to the thorax and abdomen, gaining sustenance for her own autumnal work of laying eggs before winter. Now I’ve found two oothecas, or egg cases, one nestled in the fork of two corky bur oak twigs, another clinging to a dry beebalm stalk, both resembling stuck-on, dingy globs of spray-on insulation that glitter slightly in the sun, though incredibly easy to overlook. But predators face their own dangers, and few young mantises will survive the spring.

The hawk family moved in some years after the local crow population was decimated by West Nile virus and found a good living in my leafy neighborhood. Cardinals became more frequent late summer visitors when I started growing milkweed for the monarchs; large numbers of red-orange milkweed beetles showed up from who-knows-where to feed on the plants, which, it has turned out, the cardinals enjoy hunting. I’ve seen the adults demonstrating their skills to somewhat gawky adolescents. Just last summer, a small group of crows recolonized, and proceeded to mob one of the hawks, chasing it tree to tree, raising a rowdy ruckus, clearing a space for their own clan. Always the push and pull, the expansions, disturbances, and retrenchments that define a state of dynamic equilibrium, however temporary.

How will we humans adapt to this massive disturbance this spring and summer? It will be interesting and mostly not joyous to live through. Many inhabitants of modern, well-off societies have somehow, for years, been able to pretend that humans make the rules, all is well, and we will be safe. Such pretense is a luxury the animals never have enjoyed. Hard planetary boundaries and fraught ecosystem requirements do exist. Yet love exists too, and everywhere, amidst the imperatives of risk and survival.  My neighbor’s son has learned lessons about both motherly patience and the qualities of wood as expressed in tree branches. My husband is building me a cold frame, something he never had time for before, that soon will be sheltering seedlings. The buds are near bursting. I’m pretty sure that a certain species of mining bees will appear as usual, just as the chokeberry blossoms first open to display pollen-laden anthers, and they’ll be able to provision their nests. The bumblebees, hummingbirds and butterflies will show up. Then, as the days grow shorter, the robins most probably will be feeding ripe chokeberries to their lately fledged offspring. I’m looking forward to these things.

Adiran Ayres Fisher

Adrian Ayres Fisher

Adrian Ayres Fisher serves as a volunteer steward of a small forest preserve on the banks of the Des Plaines River in Illinois. As programs co-chair of West Cook Wild Ones, she educates about and promotes native-plant gardening and biodiversity. She writes and speaks on a range of nature-related topics from a Midwestern point of view. Her home is in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago and she blogs at Ecological Gardening.

Tags: carbon gardening, connection with nature, coronavirus