Why gardening matters

Self-isolating after a bout of Covid-19, the actor Tom Hollander reflects on the pandemic and our relationship with nature.

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Dear Lord, wake me up when this is over. Wake me up in the new age and let me learn the rules then. Tens of thousands dead, millions unemployed and the generation that parented me carried away gasping for breath. Just let me sleep and wake me up for the new normal. Or take me back to a noisy restaurant in February. That bygone age.

I had the virus. For two weeks I lay sweating, limbs aching, head splitting, skin burning, just able to walk up a flight of stairs before lying down again, unable to take a deep breath. But I didn’t end up in hospital. And since then I’ve been recuperating in a barn at the end of a long lane. Away from it all. I am very lucky. And I think I’m OK, except every couple of weeks I experience little shadowy reprisals of exhaustion and breathlessness and I have to lie down. And I succumb to anxiety and the apprehension that nothing will ever be the same again. Our lives will be separated into before, and after, the pandemic.

But for the most part, without prospect of any work for months, and in between the horror of the news bulletins and the pantomime of the daily briefings, I have been enjoying the calm of daily walks through fields and have been counting my blessings in the eerie stillness of this suspended world. I know the virus has divided society ruthlessly along lines of wealth and ethnicity. If the worst that happens to me is that I come through this with a slightly reduced lung capacity and chronic fatigue syndrome, I’ll be getting off lightly.

While other people struggle to save lives, or livelihoods, or to home-school their children, and others are being abused, or lonely, or grieving, or any of the myriad versions of existence that are not as fortunate as mine; while they struggle, I have been sitting in a country garden listening to the birdsong, planning my weekly shop and indulging my hypochondria. And in my fool’s paradise I have had the time to consider what and whom I really care about. Mostly whom. Old friends and family. And I have concluded that much of my life has been consumed with fripperies and indulgences of one sort or another. With noise and activity and adrenalin and restlessness and nonsense. Very fun, but perhaps a little wasteful. So, now I have time to tend my garden, real and figurative, and to reflect.

I am not alone, I realise. There are other affluent, or at least not immediately impoverished people, who find themselves with an embarrassment of free time, guiltily enjoying the extended holiday gifted to them by Covid-19, before the future quite takes shape.

But the real beneficiary of the pandemic has been, as we know, the natural world. Albeit temporarily. A drop in carbon emissions beyond the wildest dreams of Naomi Klein. Lord, can that be part of the new normal? Is that too much to ask? Before we restart the economy and resume our kamikaze ride to destruction, am I allowed a silent and entirely hypocritical cheer at the death of air travel, or at least its hospitalisation. That plucky little coronavirus hitched a ride on the planes and then grounded them all. And grounded us too.

And gave us a glimpse, perhaps a preview, as you look up into a clear sky and breathe as deep as you are able, of what the world might be like, if lived less elsewhere and more where you find yourself. Less free but less profligate. Perhaps a newly fashionable old-fashioned restraint. An enthusiasm for considering what’s just under your feet.

And in this mood on my walks, I have been trying to learn the names of the wild flowers. Taught to me by my housebound father, by text. He’s been telling them to me all my life, but this time I think they might be going in.

Stitchwort, yellow archangel, speedwell, cowslip, mallow, bird's-foot trefoil. Garlic mustard, cuckoo flower, wild pea or vetch…

If there is a plan, is that what the pandemic was for? To stop us in our tracks. To slap us hard in the face and force sobriety. Those ten years left that we hear so much about.

In the meantime, Lord, I’m in my garden learning the names of flowers, counting the people I love and reminding myself to let them know.

This piece was originally published in Selwyn, the magazine of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

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