Very soon, a year of a deadly pandemic, social isolation, job loss and political chaos will come to an end. The coronavirus will continue its rampage but seems destined to hit a wall around late spring. Life will return to normal, we are told.
But do we want to return to normal as normal was? For many, the slowdown had a sweet side. All that discarding — of unused clothing, papers and appliances — had a cleansing effect. The best decluttering, however, didn’t involve the removal of things but of activities, driving the clutter out of the hours and minutes of our days.
Many stressed and overscheduled Americans suddenly experienced the luxury of free time. Minutes not spent driving to and fro could be allocated to doing laundry in a relaxed way, not as the No. 5 multitask on a Saturday afternoon. Time not spent going away on weekends was used for cooking, woodworking, streaming movies, even reading.
Perhaps the most therapeutic use of this found time was for plant cultivation. Gardening met several pandemic needs. Pulling weeds and lifting heavy soil provided real exercise in an outside protected space, masks usually not required.
One didn’t need acres. A vegetable patch would do. And even apartment dwellers could engage with greenery through their house plants, watching new life grow on sunny windowsills. Some started composting indoors.
Importantly, connecting with the immense workings of nature provided a great distraction from the noise and stress of 2020 politics. There was comfort in watching the seasonal shifts operate independently, so obsessed we were with happenings in Washington.
Decluttering my podcast list, I weeded out some of the exhausting political programs and picked up a new one: “Let’s Argue About Plants.” Mocking political podcasts, it features two editors for Fine Gardening magazine raking over questionable cultivars and informing us that lavender has “issues.” Happily, none of this has anything to do with the survival of democracy.
In discussing her 2021 wish list, senior editor Danielle Sherry offered what she considers a controversial pick, a particular butterfly bush. “I’m going to get hate mail on this one,” she warns. Editor Steve Aitken then pretends to give out her home address.
One thing that keys off Steve is certain marketing names for plants. He strongly objects to “Mellow Yellow.” “No,” he says. “It’s Ogon spirea.”
The reason they don’t call it an Ogon, Steve speculates, is “it sounds like a villain from an ‘Avengers’ movie.” Danielle thinks it sounds more like a Norse god.
Danielle offers a “tragic story” about her “Lemon Wave,” a variegated hydrangea. One good year and then several “dead to the ground” years, she reports. “Fourth year, goodbye Lemon Wave.”
Steve interjects: “That doesn’t sound like the plant. It sounds like the gardener. Plants don’t do that. What would make a plant do that?” Danielle returns fire: “I heard similar things from other folk in the hydrangea breeding business.” It’s a winter problem.
Some 260 years ago, the French philosopher Voltaire wrote the story of Candide, a young innocent who, while traveling the world, suffered through a parade of disasters, among them, smallpox, earthquakes, starvation. At the end, he and the optimistic Professor Pangloss encounter an old Turkish man sitting under his orange tree.
The man had no idea that a local Mufti had just been strangled. He never bothered with the politics in Constantinople, he explained. His family just quietly worked their 20 acres.
Pangloss then muses for the thousandth time that bad things lead to good things. “All that is well,” Candide replies, “but let us cultivate our garden.”
Time to cultivate gardens was both a gift of and cure for 2020.