Since shelter-in-place was instated in the Bay Area three weeks ago, I have found myself wandering aimlessly out to the fire-escape garden or to the one pictured above, just down below – innumerable times and at all hours – even when it’s past sundown, as the nighttime smells of the city have changed as much as the pace and pulse have (re: they are fresh and tinged with something vaguely wild and green that is now able to come to the fore as the exhaust from our cars and delivery trucks and airplanes has all but disappeared).
The Eschscholzia californica (California poppies) have been the first to bloom, which they invariably do mid-spring every year. And of course the first spring flowers of the year always attract the eye of those who are paying any attention. Only this year, the newest blooms of the Eschscholzia are proving to be a distraction of disproportionate proportions, continuously bringing me away from the computer, away from the apartment, and down to stare at them once again, like I probably already did an hour earlier.
On social media and in the news, we are reminded by many, many voices that the world is falling apart all around us. And then you go out into the garden, and, well, along with the poppies in mid-bloom, the hoverflies are returning, as are the solitary bees and honey bees, the carpenter bees, the bumble bees, the hummingbirds, and all sorts of other birds that are either staying or just migrating through. Other plants are hinting at what is to still come, their shapes bolting a bit upright, the ends of the stems showing the beginnings of what will become buds and then, ultimately, color, and life, and simultaneously will come all of the flying and feathered, crawling and ambling things that are attracted to both. In essence, these are predictions that we know will play out much as we expect, and they are predictions of things to look forward to, standing squarely in contrast to the innumerable predictions we read and hear about through the now 24-hour news cycle, the predictions of doom and disaster that sometimes come true but oftentimes do not.
The negativity bias that we all have within us is currently on overdrive, as here we are with a real and present danger microscopically and invisibly among us. And yet long before Coronavirus took center stage, our negativity bias had already been on a mild form of overdrive. Harkening back to our days of yore when we lived out in the wild and constantly had to watch our backs for fear of being eaten or perhaps clubbed to death by a protein-starved neighbor first and then eaten, the negativity bias is a cling-on that our tech-soaked world and all its proponents have capitalized on to no end. At the click of a button, we can now know about potential threats to us not just outside our window, but down the street, across the Bay, the ocean, two oceans – threats that are most certainly unfolding on other continents at all times and that have wound up on the screens immediately in front of us, in our living rooms.
And then I go downstairs to check up on what else might be showing signs of change in the garden, and I see that the Convolvulus cneorum has just started to bloom, its luminous silvery foliage reflecting light and its buds tinged a pale pinkish-red, all of which are the perfect foil and contrast to the Pelargonium crispum (lemon-scented geranium) and its yellow-green, ridged and multi-fingered leaves growing just behind it. A native solitary bee has already found the newly emerged Convolvulus flowers, no doubt attracted to both their color – white, with tinges of yellow and pink – and perhaps scent. And its appearance – and existence – all the more remarkable because I haven’t watered the plant since last April, when it was planted.
In fact, none of the plants in the garden are connected to an irrigation system, one that would give them a pleasant but drought-capacity-killling jolt of water at regular intervals throughout the year, regardless of season. If the plant shows no signs of drought stress, it doesn’t get watered. And for the past year, like I did in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis in 2012 and 2013, I have been monitoring how much water every plant in the landscape has gotten by gallon and how much rainfall we have received by inch. It’s a merging of science and design, but the science part is there only if you are interested, as the landscapes are not meant to read as science experiments; rather, they are supposed to be expressions of joy first and foremost and places in which to find a detail that means something to you and that you can then marvel over – a wash of lavender flowers covered in bees and accompanied by that distinct scent most of us seem to respond well to, the combination of orange and purple that is revealing itself now as the Eschscholzia, Bulbine frutescens, and Lavandula ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ come into bloom, a native plant you might have written off as weedy but now juxtaposed against a more familiar, more cultivated plant, and suddenly you see all the plants in a new light.
Of course, there was a time when even what we now perceive as pleasant, marvel-inspiring aspects of nature were themselves clear and present dangers for us. One apple tainted with a bacteria could kill you; a large predator roaming the nearby woods might be hungry at the same time that you wanted to explore those woods just a little; lovely salad greens and, later, an indomitable bout of dysentery. In fact the rigid lines of formal Renaissance gardens were in many ways a manifestation of that threat, presumably there to demonstrate power and control over nature but that were, below the surface, a manifestation of an unsaid anxiety and fear of what nature was really capable of.
And now that nature-induced anxiety has reared its ugly head once again, this time not as an invisible bacteria on an ages-old variety of apple but as an invisible virus that has a penchant for floating in the air we breathe and hanging out on the innumerable hard surfaces that have supposedly kept us well and protected, in charge of and separated from nature for a good part of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Before the time of Coronavirus, “no maintenance” or “low-maintenance” were oft-utttered requests of those wishing for a landscape upgrade or a new landscape altogether. While the explanation was that no one had time to garden anymore, “no time” is almost always synonymous with “not a priority,” and, indeed, landscape was simply not a priority for most Americans. At their core, these no-maintenance requests were borne out of a view that nature was something we did not need beyond its property-value-enhancing ways and something we were completely uninterested in. And this attitude squarely and succinctly revealed itself in the landscapes we created: seas of mulch with a few plants thrown in for a veneer of tidiness and green, a sleep-inducing combination of a demonstrated dominance over a nature and a decided disinterest in it.
Fast forward to now and nursery sales are at an all-time high, and nurseries are scaling back on advertising to quietly dissuade folks from coming in to shop, as the crowds have been making social distancing simply impossible. Apartment dwellers with no access to a plot of land of their own are turning to house plants for the first time, and people’s long-neglected gardens have never looked better.
To be clear, I’m not here to make yet one more prediction to add to the pile of what our post-Coronavirus lives might look like. The predictions of our time, which now come at the pace of water unleashed from a dam and that we find ourselves standing at the foot of despite our better judgment, seem to be so inextricably intertwined with their potential capacity to generate clicks and shares and thus have little to do with any useful guidance on how to proceed through troubled times. Instead, I can only offer up a prediction on what will most likely happen in the not-so-distant future regarding the natural world around us, which we are, despite how much we’ve tried to deny it, so inextricably a part of: the lavender will bloom, and so will the buckwheat, the Pelargonium, and the Clarkia. The bees and butterflies will come to dine on their nectar and pollen, and we can be out there any time to watch, observe, and marvel. The plants will need minimal water to get established and will ultimately be able to survive and thrive on rainfall alone. Observing these displays of color, the in-migration of all manner of wildlife, and the awesome capacity of mediterranean plants to thrive on almost no water while being visual powerhouses in the garden, we’ll feel better because we’ve seen the natural world unfold and carry on right before our eyes regardless of the headlines. Anything other than that is probably just mere conjecture.
John Kamp is a landscape and urban designer with Prairieform who has been designing, installing, collecting data from, and observing irrigation-free landscapes for the past 10 years. He is currently co-writing a book with James Rojas for Island Press on creative, hands-on ways of engaging the public in urban planning, landscape, and transportation projects.