A garden walk between love and hate

Originally performed at Tuesday Funk, September 1, 2020

This is a story about the power of love and nurturing during hard times. It’s also a story about hate, and how sometimes hate is transformative, sometimes liberating.

I know that in these divisive times. talking about embracing hate doesn’t feel constructive, but please bear with me, I think I’ve got something going here.

But before I get into the hate part, let me take you back a bit to the nurturing bit. Like a lot of people, I took up gardening as a hobby during this past spring under lockdown. It was honestly a hobby that I’ve been putting off for several years: I have plants and I’ve barely kept them alive in the past but what I thought was the lack of a green thumb actually had more to do with lack of time. I travel a lot for my job so the time it takes to plant, and water and nurturing seedlings into healthy plants, I usually spent vegging out in front of the TV after a flight.

While lockdown surely sucks, the upside of it is being grounded and stuck in my apartment gave me time to commit to gardening. It started out simple enough, with a tomato plant and a pepper plant that I got from an online plant shop called Bloomscape, and a few herbs  – basil, cilantro, mint, lavender – from another online place called Back at the Roots. (This isn’t an ad, by the way, I’m bringing them up to make a point a bit later.) Things started out simple enough for me and the nascent gardener life, but as someone with a low-key addictive and generally hyper-fixated personality, things pretty quickly spun out of control.

I got really excited about my herbs but I’m impatient. Luckily. Back at the Roots sells micro greens, which are ready to harvest in 7-10 days. While tending to my tomato and pepper plants and harvesting a few rounds of micro greens, I got even more excited about basil. Luckily a local shop called City Grange, sold an edible plant grab bag (with accompanying Zoom Class) with a fuckton of basil, stuff I had no clue existed like cinnamon basil and African basil, and new to me herbs like marjoram and nasturtium, and herbs I love but no clue how they actually grew, like lemongrass. Then, after cooking with my delicious herbs, I got excited about mocktails. (Herbs make for delicious mocktails, everyone. Muddle that shit  get some simple syrups and go to town.)

You know what goes great in mocktails? Fruit. Luckily an online shop called Bushel and Berry had a sale on blueberry bushes. I also experimented with kale and lettuce, in the early part of the summer, but quickly learned two things, one: it’s pretty hard to grow greens from seeds, and two, heat makes things  pretty touch and go for lettuce, I had no clue what bolting was before this summer, but my lettuce did a LOT of that. Bolting, for the gardening uninformed, is when a crop starts to prematurely flower and seed, which often makes the leaves bitter and inedible. Again, all of this was new to me, but you live and you learn.

All of this is a very long way of bringing this story back to hate – and to my mortal enemy, a squirrel that spends a lot time harassing me and stealing the fruits of my labor  on the back porch. I refuse to give that little asshole the dignity of a name, so That Squirrel will have to do. This little fucker has been harassing me, taunting me, disrespecting me for a couple of years now. I’ve been at the same apartment for the past 3 years and working remotely for that same amount of time, and That Squirrel has been a pain my ass since I got here. How do I know it’s the same squirrel? I just KNOW.

In previous years his tactics were more discrete. he’d chatter at my window, run underfoot as I take out the garbage. When he really wanted to be an asshole, he’d tear at packages left out on the back porch.

Then, later this summer, the little asshole got cocky, When I got my blueberry plant I’d see that beady-eyed little jerk sniffing around the ripening berries and attempting to snatch a few. To make things worse, he was pretty fearless, yelling at him, spraying water at him, throwing things at him did very little to phase him, he’d just stare at me as if *I* had inconvenienced *his* day. And it only got worse, with him creeping around my pepper and tomato plants, sometimes right in full view! I often work on my back porch and one morning I saw THAT SQUIRREL creeping down the stairs to come at my blueberries in the side of my screen and it took everything for me to throw my laptop at him.

It all came to a head with my tomato plant, the plant that I had been nurturing for since April was finally starting to bear fruit in the heat of summer. I watched and watered  – and finally had  a few tomatoes ready to ripen. There was one particular tomato I watched over with interest as I watched it grow plump and red, I was so excited to enjoy my delicious harvest, especially as a first time patio gardener. I planned to eat it for lunch, sliced, with some mozzarella and basil from my garden. Something told me the night before I planned to eat it to just go ahead and take it in, the squirrel had not been around lately – and they don’t like tomatoes anyway, right? So I went to sleep with the goal of picking my prized tomato the next morning.

But alas, like Mr McGregor in the Peter Rabbit books, I was thwarted. I woke up the next day to do my morning watering and found my prize tomato MISSING. That squirrel STOLE MY TOMATO.  And to add insult to injury, the little jerk took two bites out of it at beats, and abandoned it on the top of one of the deck beams, prominently displayed as if to taunt me, like Ed Stark’s head on a pike in Game of Thrones. l was pissed the entire weekend, and clearly seeing as though I wrote an entire essay about it, I can’t let it go. I quickly learned, as a newbie gardener, that this kind of brazen squirrel theft is par for the course when it comes to gardening. A friend on Instagram welcomed me into the ranks of true gardener after I announced my beef with the backyard squirrel.

But I will admit a lot of the drama of this moment was more about having the comfort of IMG_20200821_112429595something low-stakes to obsess over. Even as I luxuriate in my petty backyard rodent  battle, I know all of this is my own response to  the trauma of this moment.

My gardening fixation came at a time where I have virtually watched friends grieve their loved ones, watch helpless as friends fall ill, recover, and some NOT recover.  Of seeing my family virtually and not being able to hug or comfort them. I tended and cooed over my plants while reconciling what it means to live in a failed state during a global pandemic, doing the best I can, while trying to comfort and be of help while living through the trauma  of surviving an administration with no plans but for citizens to fend for ourselves at best, or die at worst.

The backyard squirrel is, honestly, an amusing distraction while struggling with my own grief and anger about the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless other Black Americans in cities across the country. Feeling the pain and helplessness of living through a pandemic that has disproportionately stolen black lives and caused disproportionate unemployment and economic catastrophe for Black people and other people of color.

Feeling helpless and small against those fears, having an enemy that  I *could* fight, or at the very least, yell at, is the kind of mundane conflict I need. Hating him, shouting at him, spraying things at him, makes me feel normal, makes me feel safe, makes me feel sane. Even though I’m not. These times aren’t normal or safe, and I definitely don’t feel sane. But to be honest I feel guilty that I have the relative privilege to be so invested in something as unremarkable as my back porch garden. I have the security of a full time job where I work from home, my loved ones are safe, even if I can only see some of them at a distance.

But having this escape, the small victories and frustrations of watching plants grow and protecting them from the local vermin, is something to keeps me focused and centered and makes me feel human. No matter what the next few months may bring – and I fear they will bring a lot that I’m not ready for –  having a space where my biggest troubles can be solved with peppermint oil and chicken wire is the balm my soul needs, and is so grateful for.

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