“What I am trying to tell you is that I am not an easy going gardener and there are people who say they enjoy it and they are liars, I’m certain of it.” — Alexis Bonogofsky, “Planting Potatoes in a Pandemic” in East of Billings
We Skyped with an old friend this afternoon, a journalist I’ve known for over 20 years. She lives in Vienna, where we first met, and was just sent to Rome for work. The sight of heavy old wooden furniture in the hotel room brought back a moment’s whiff of when we lived in Vienna and did things in Europe and health care didn’t require scrimping and food was good even though we were poor.
My 13-year-old, who’s taking an online Minecraft architecture class, talked with our friend about characteristics of Roman architecture, and after he left I said, “You know, we keep talking here about how lucky we are to just be able to get out into nature any time we need, but there’s something to be said for being around those old buildings and reminding yourself of the struggle and plagues and politics that humans have survived for thousands of years.”
She reminded me of a piece of reporting she’d done from Rome back in the spring, when she’d been sending dispatches from Barcelona and Rome during the first horrific surges of virus, saying something similar: these buildings remember people who have endured much and a reminder that life continues. (I will try to find the link.) And I told her of a piece in Sapiens last spring about anthropological research on Venice’s quarantine islands and their role in its response to the Black Death 700 years ago.
Ars longa, vita brevis
We talked about hugging, about children’s loneliness, and about research she’d read that certain receptors in human shoulders responded to the touch of a hug but also to lying down on the earth.
Est quaedam flere voluptas
And I told her that we’d built a garden during lockdown and she said that was wonderful, we could lie down in it, and I said, no, it’s pretty much a vast carpet of vicious, spiky thistles. I don’t love gardening much—I’m more of a hunter-gatherer than an agriculturalist—but making that fenced-in soil hospitable to plants other than knapweed and thistle has now become a mission that might take years.
That seems like a good metaphor—for something.
Longissimus dies cito conditur