For a week now, I’ve been forced indoors, like all my West Coast peers, to escape the toxic, acidic smog that has blanketed our region. Today’s air quality index (AQI) numbers have lightened up but are still in the red danger zone.
But I can tell just by the way my plants are carrying themselves that the pollution is lifting, at least a little bit.
There are also more birds out, frolicking in the bird baths to rinse their wings of grit.
And even while today’s sky remains white in overcast, the solar-powered bubblers in the bird baths are actually working.
These are all good signs.
The most garden work I’ve been able to do outside in the last week has been limited to 10 minutes with a hose set to jet spray, literally power washing the grime off my raised beds (and refilling said bird baths). This, while wearing double masks. Then, I come back inside and take a shower to rinse my eyes, cleanse my lungs, and wash the thin slick of grime from my skin.
It’s crazy, but the wildfire closest to where I live is in Sumner, WA—almost 70 miles away. The smoke we’re dealing with isn’t from local burns, but from the ashes of fires across three states, fanned by brutal winds on Labor Day.
So what’s a gardener to do? Well, this gardener sowed other kinds of seeds indoors.
We do, in fact, reap what we sow
My outside raised beds are going like gangbusters this year, and it has been a lifesaver for my mental health. But not in the way I had expected.
Going outside to do yardwork and vegetable/herb gardening presumes a respite from social media. And that would be true; if I go into Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram at all while outside, it’s to post new pictures of my green lovelies.
But—and I go against my doctor’s advice for seeking brain rest by doing it—I listen to podcasts. Lots and lots of them.
And even the nonpolitical ones get my change agent blood circulating. How?
Stories—whether they are dramatic, comedic, or tragic—are narratives of human nature. There isn’t a good story out there that doesn’t dig into conflict that’s universal. And it’s these universal conflicts that inspire me to be a better human, a better ally, a better advocate, a better neighbor, a better parent, a better friend.
When I talk about sowing seeds indoors, I’m not talking about Jiffy pots, grow lights, and heat mats. I’m talking about germinating political ideas that correspond with my desire to see change in the world.
Even the garden is a political space
When I don’t listen to podcasts or music while gardening—yes, sometimes I prefer the sounds of birds!—I’m still surrounded by metaphors that link gardening with the human experience.
Sowing, germinating, fertilizing, pruning, harvesting, seedsaving, composting: these are tasks we do as political beings. So I’m constantly reminded that these simple acts I perform on sunny afternoons are really, in a sense, revolutionary.
No, I’m no hero, and it’s not my revolution. But the act of growing your own food, or flowers, or herbs, or anything, really, is an act of hope. And there has never been a more pressing time in my history on this planet for the cultivation of hope.
How to cultivate hope, even if you don’t have a garden
Gardening is my go-to task for so many reasons:
I love putting my hands in the soil, I love the smell of tomato plant foliage, I love the color green, I love the miracle of planting a tiny seed that turns into a giant plant, I love the kitchen harvests that follow.
Gardening, for me, is my way to live my best life—even during these most trying times. I care for my garden like I care for my children, my friends, my manuscripts.
Some days I’m Mama Bear, some days I’m letting go of the leash, some days I’m throwing out tough questions or, in some cases, fielding them. All in the name of perseverance.
You don’t have to garden to cultivate hope.
- You can write poems.
- You can cook from scratch and put food by.
- You can paint or draw what’s in your soul.
- You can commune with your fur friends.
- You can surround yourself in laughter from books, television, stand-up comedy recordings, and films.
- You can listen to uplifting music.
- You can meditate on gratitudes.
- You can talk to friends on the phone or through online meetups or texts (even if only to commiserate, which is its own kind of hope building, because it denies isolation a chance at a psychic foothold).
- You can do what my husband does: DIY home improvement (his beautiful shed is almost complete!).
- You can dance (with, or without, music).
What is the thing you love to do most? Sleeping? Reading? Walking with friends? Baking? Working on a project? Taking a class?
Do that thing. With intention. Think about how it feeds your soul, how it allows you to live your best life. Any effort you make, however small and personal, is an act of cultivating hope for a new and better future.
The best laid plans o’ mice and men
It’s not been a great time, feeling imprisoned in my home without even the option of going outside due to dangerous smog.
The pandemic hasn’t been tough for me because I already work from home and have enough outdoor space to not feel claustrophobic.
That changed for me this week. I found myself stress eating for the first time since the pandemic began. I put unearned value on a Sunday morning football game. I scrolled through Twitter hell in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. These are not normal behaviors for me.
But things do, and will, change. For instance, it looks like Saturday will be the first of the coming safe air days, if forecasts for rain and wind on Thursday and Friday are accurate.
That’s okay. I have hope. You see, the stress eating has left me craving vegetables, the Seahawks won, I gained 400 new Twitter followers, and I also made up for all that lost sleep.
These, too, are suggestions that hope is around me—around all of us, truly—everywhere we choose to look. But we have to look.
With open minds.
For instance, dill seed heads may look like weeds, but they’re the reason my pickles taste so good this year. It’s all in how you look at it, right?
You can find hope even in the tiniest nooks and crannies: the jungle-dense undercarriage of tomato plants, the flight paths of wild birds returning to the feeders, the new growth exploding on plants in spite of the smog, the newly fallen leaves which will feed next year’s trees, the fresh heads of bright new zinnias and marigolds peeking out from behind the pepper plant leaves.
I may feel utterly despondent about the state of our union (in the US) given the sobering realities of a contentious election, a new flu season, surges in COVID-19, and the abrupt end to summer caused by new weather formed from natural disasters.
And I do. The news is reliably depressing these days.