I paid a quick visit to New York City this week to pick up the mail, clothes and some prescriptions. And when I say quick I mean quick. Fifteen minutes from the time we rolled up to our apartment, collected the things we needed, and headed back upstate.
However, it was enough time to accrue a parking ticket. I’m thinking of it as my small contribution to the city’s survival.
The city felt different, certainly, but not apocalyptic. There were fewer people on the streets but the streets weren’t empty by any means. Perhaps half as many people as on a normal day. Probably more than on a national holiday such as Thanksgiving. Certainly more, a lot more, than on Christmas.
The exception was Central Park which was filled with people as we drove past on a weekday noon. I experienced a pang of sadness that I wouldn’t be able to take my normal run around the reservoir, especially during these few days when hundred-year-old cherry trees, a gift from Japan, bloom along the reservoir’s edge. When they drop their petals they form a delicate pink carpet.
The sensation was reminiscent of when I left the city after 9/11. I realize how fortunate my family and I are to have a place to flee to. But that gratitude is tinged with regret and even guilt. It feels like I’m abandoning the city where I grew up and the trees I played under as a child.
The mail, medications, and clothes weren’t the only things I picked up. One of my main concerns was that if I didn’t rescue them our plants would die. These are not especially big or beautiful specimens. One is a tiny orchid a friend of our daughter’s gave us a couple of years ago as a thank you gift for letting her stay at our apartment. A second is a temperamental fern that needs to be watered frequently. Finally, there’s an ivy plant that I took from my parents’ apartment when we surrendered it almost a year ago.
Calling it a plant is probably to shower it with excessive praise. It consisted of a single leaf. But after repotting it and adding some Miracle Grow it sprouted a second one. And as I deposited it in a shopping bag on Wednesday I noticed that a third leaf is on the way.
I found it interesting that I was considerably worried about the plants’ survival when there seem much bigger things to be worried about. But when you’re surrounded by catastrophic wall-to-wall news it’s the little things that keep you sane.
And they’re not actually little things. They’re big things in disguise. That new, unfurling ivy leaf serves as a metaphor for nature’s grace. My hunch is that people are filling Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn not just for the fresh air or because it gives them an activity when most of the city is shut down but because the park takes them out of themselves, connects them to something larger then themselves, distracts them from their fears and puts things in perspective that’s hard to find in the midst of a panic.
I’ve been coping with the crisis by undergoing intensive therapy. The therapy consists of heading out to our pond with our dog Wallie and a pair of heavy-duty pruning loppers. I’ve been cutting down the sumac that sprouted since our older daughter’s wedding ceremony was held at the pond last June.
It amused me to think that while I’m terrified of contagion chances are I’ll come down with a killer case of poison ivy first. And nobody seems concerned about deer ticks for the moment.
Once that landscaping challenge was accomplished – with Wallie mucking around the pond’s edge and a pair of mallards looking on in evident consternation – the next day I donned a pair of waders and proceeded to cut back the bushes that were growing in the shallows.
What I’ve discovered is that I’m probably slightly more attuned to the nuances of nature than I would be under normal circumstances. The current crisis has made us realize, rubbed our noses in how fragile and precarious life is. Speaking only for myself, I notice these things more when I’m down than when I’m up.
But it also makes you more attuned to beauty. The tiny ripples on the surface of the pond caused by living creatures, escaping winter’s grip and stirring hidden in the leaf bed. Or the almost imperceptible brightening of a goldfinch’s body as it begins its metamorphosis from drab brown to brilliant yellow.
We can’t count on much these days. The news seems to change from hour to hour, little of it good. But there is some good news on the horizon. I can predict it with 100% confidence. Spring is coming. The birds already feel it. Soon the grass will grow – the wild chives are already pushing through the soil -- the trees will turn their characteristic optimistic shade of early spring green, and the warmth will beckon us outdoors to turn our faces to the sun.
I may even move my city plants outdoors. They could probably use some exercise, too.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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