It’s taken a really lousy year to teach me how lucky I am. A good part of that luck comes from gardening, a participatory entertainment that even in a pandemic is available, plus it changes every day.

Even on those days when rain, snow, cold or wind keep us inside, my wife Nancy and I can look out the windows to watch, depending on the season, how the butterflies, birds, squirrels, chipmunks and other wildlife – as well as the wind, rain and snow – interact with the plants we have nurtured outside. It is a lot nicer than staring at a computer or phone screen – especially in the current political climate.

The gardens also help me forget, at least for a little while, the pandemic. COVID-19 has been the biggest news this year, intertwined with but, I think, topping the election. I’ve mentioned the pandemic in most of my columns since March 29.

I am growing tired of writing about it – though I appreciate more than ever that people seem to enjoy reading my column and that the newspaper is willing to pay me to write it. Writing gives me a connection to the outside world and a specific task, with a firm deadline, that I must complete every week. That keeps me grounded (forgive the pun).

The disease has also, of course, affected our personal lives. Since Mid-March, we’ve gone almost nowhere and almost nobody has come inside our house.

Our garden has always been a huge part of our lives, but this year we paid closer attention than usual. We pulled the weeds out when they were smaller, we enjoyed the flowers from the first sign of buds until the spent petals fell to the ground, and we savored their fragrance to the fullest. Nary a vegetable  snuck past its prime time for picking to a state of over-ripeness. And we ate some of those vegetables just about every day.

Cars, rather than walkers, circulate this year’s Gardens Aglow at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, to keep visitors safe. A visit there was the only outing for fun the Atwells have made since the pandemic began. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The one time since March that Nancy and I went anyplace together for pleasure, was garden-related. We drove to Boothbay to drive through Gardens Aglow, the light show at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Since by that time we’d put our home gardens to bed, the car trip and lights were especially enjoyable, though we never left the car. If you’re interested, the show continues until Jan. 2.

The vaccine will bring back a more normal time. We will always remember COVID-19, but as a historical fact, not a day-to-day reality. It will be like when I read in history books about the Spanish flu as a problem that occurred alongside the disaster that was World War I.

I am already looking ahead. I hope that beginning in April, when we will be able to work in our outdoor gardens again, I will bring the open eyes, mind and spirit that I brought to garden tasks this year, enjoying activities that I once considered onerous. Yes, mowing the lawn and getting rid of chickweed are tedious tasks, but they get me outside, improve the yard and help my physical fitness.

I also intend to be open to new things – or at least things different for me. Maybe I’ll add more flowering annuals instead of focusing on vegetables, perennials and shrubs, as I normally do. A couple of years ago, I accidentally discovered Tithonia, so maybe I’ll find other annuals I love.

John Prine

John Prine performing in June, 2019. He died of COVID-19 about a year later. Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File

Circling back to the beginning, our luck has gone well beyond gardening. Nancy continues to put up with me, and mostly seems to enjoy me, and I feel the same about her. Our family has been healthy, mentally and physically, and steadily employed.

So, I’ve been lucky, and thinking a lot about a line in a song by John Prine, one of my three favorite singers (the others are Zevon and Dylan, if you care), who died of COVID-19. “When I get to heaven I’m going to shake God’s hand, thank him for more blessings than one man can stand.”

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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