Arts·Pandemic Diaries

Lessons from my 'Apocalypse Garden': How the pandemic has forced me to plant seeds of hope

Author Catherine Hernandez had no idea she would end up learning life lessons from her plants.

Author Catherine Hernandez had no idea she would end up learning life lessons from her plants

Apocalypse Garden. (Catherine Hernandez)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

It began as a joke.

Last year, I was neck-deep in writing my second novel, Crosshairs, which is about the rise of fascism following environmental and financial devastation only a few years into the future. Taking place right here in Canada, the fascist regime targets those deemed as Others (the racialized, elderly, disabled and LGBTQ2S) and sends them into forced labour. As a brown queer femme with chronic illness, writing the novel was a triggering process to say the least. Between penning chapters, I would walk the shoreline of the lake near my home in Scarborough and sob at the uncertain future.

In true Scorpio fashion, I started what I called an Apocalypse Garden. My follies in trying to grow veggie plants indoors became a lighthearted joke I could tell myself. Isn't it funny that it would take me six months to grow my family a salad? Isn't it hilarious that all I can grow is mould on the surface of the soil? How ironic is it that the stress caused from trying to grow my own organic food is making me eat non-organic Doritos? I documented the comedy of errors on social media, making a mockery of this suburban girl failing at farming. By November, I began to refer to my Apocalypse Garden in the past tense.

Then the pandemic happened.

Like many authors, when the chaos began (or rather, when we were no longer given the privilege to ignore the chaos any longer), I could barely write. I invested many hours into staring at the wall and crying. I wept at the thought of people dying alone while suffering the symptoms of this relentless virus. I wept at the thought of all the working-class poor picking up the slack to keep the upper class safe in their homes. I wept at the collapse of this big capitalist lie we've been telling ourselves that our work is worth money and the more money we have the more worthy we are.

Apocalypse Garden. (Catherine Hernandez)

The only thing that kept me present was the thought of reviving my Apocalypse Garden — only this time, I had to take it seriously. This wasn't going to be some cute post on Instagram. A disruption in the supply chain due to the lack of safety given to farm workers, store clerks and delivery staff is a very real possibility, and the slow nature of growing food meant I had to act fast. I researched urban gardening. I invested in two cubic yards of soil and compost. My family moved a total of 6000 lbs of earth into various bins in preparation for over 100 seedlings I pray every day will make it to transplantation after the last frost date. I also have two bins of worm compost in the garage.

While I knew my actions would feed my family, I had no idea how it would affect my artistic practice. Here are some lessons I have learned from these plants.

Fail brilliantly.

I use this phrase often with my theatre students, encouraging them to shed their fears and venture into the unknown of the story they want to tell. The more discomfort they feel, the more likely they are heading into fruitful territory. Watching a goddamn cabbage and turnip seedling thrive then die within a day, I give myself time to grieve, time to learn what I did wrong, time to try something new. I am quickly learning that cabbages and turnips are not my strong suit and that's okay. The seedlings that are meant to make it will make it; I will learn a lot; I will do better next growing season because I was brave enough to try.

Don't force things.

While eating her breakfast, my teenage daughter said nonchalantly, "Mom, stop micromanaging your seedlings." I realized that staring did not make them grow any stronger. In fact, the more I stared at them, the more likely it was that I was going to overwater them. Same goes for artistic practice. There is no amount of forcing yourself to create that will make the art emerge any faster. And you'd better believe that forced art is not going to be good art. What you will create is a biproduct of fear, not the truth.

Rethink wealth.

Growing my Apocalypse Garden is helping me rethink how wealthy I am in skills and food. It's helping me feel good about the prospect of sharing this wealth with my community members by inspiring them to garden and by distributing surplus supplies among us.

Apocalypse Garden. (Catherine Hernandez)

Capitalism tells us that our worth is in our productivity. So as artists, in this new terrifying reality, when we realize there may be a chance we cannot create for the purposes of money, we have to shift our thinking toward the idea of creating for truth, for story. This chapter in history is challenging us to re-centre what was supposed to be centred all along: the whispers of the universe, the breath of our ancestors.

In centring truth, with my hands tired from gardening, I wrote the following. May it sow the seeds of hope in your own journey.

I must fight all that capitalism has taught my body.

When I feel the urge to hoard, I encourage myself to share.

When I feel the urge to turn away from those in need, I encourage myself to have compassion.

When I feel scared about money, I encourage myself to seek new ways of exchange, to grow a garden, to grow a community.

When I feel worthless, I self-care by giving myself pleasure, by feeding myself, by connecting with people I love.

When I am overwhelmed by loneliness, I remember that I came into this world alone and will leave it alone. I have been self-sufficient from the moment I took my first breath. This is my chance to be with myself — to feel the magic of my own possibility.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Catherine Hernandez is the artistic director of b current performing arts, author of Scarborough the novel, and screenwriter of Scarborough the film. Her second novel, Crosshairs, is out September 1st.

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