Palmerston North, Aotearoa New Zealand, January 2022
1) Unable to move.
2) Based firmly on something.
3) Having a good understanding of what is important in life.
25 March 2020. A state of emergency is declared at lunchtime. Aotearoa New Zealand is going into lockdown at 11.59 pm tonight.
For more than a year, I’ve been planning a trip home to England to research my uncle’s World War Two air force history. But I’ve been grounded – Covid-19 means there’s no chance of getting away from Manawatū for a while.
I’ve already been isolating at home alone for 10 days with bronchitis, so a workmate drops off my computer equipment from the office, and we chat briefly across the driveway. When she’s gone, I dial in to an online meeting. My teammates talk about the impending lockdown.
“There’s been no flour and pasta for a while,” one says.
I used the last of my flour last week, and am too sick to go to the shops.
“I haven’t been to the supermarket for 10 days,” I tell her. “Looks like I’m going to have to forage for acorns to make flour.”
Yesterday a colleague left a couple of pastries on my doorstep, but I didn’t want to sit around at home eating junk food and feeling sorry for myself, so I dropped them at the community pantry, the pātaka kai, which has recently been built near my place. Pātaka kai is a grassroots movement to stop food waste and encourage sharing among neighbours to build communities. Its slogan is “Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi / With your basket and my basket we will sustain the people”. Now I wonder if I should have hung on to the pastries. The Get Ready Get Thru earthquake-preparation leaflet has been sitting on my desk for almost a year. Every now and then, I’d look at it and think, I really should do that. I flick through it now, and amongst all the information on how to prepare for an earthquake are a couple of lines saying it’s a good idea to have two weeks’ food supply, in case of a pandemic. We were all looking in the wrong direction. My emergency food stocks comprise 12 individual Christmas puddings and five jars of artichoke paste from Reduced to Clear. I’m usually more organised, but I’d cleared out my freezer in preparation for my trip home.
My best friend Karen messages me from England: “Went to Sainsburys… hardly any tinned products… but apparently no one likes tinned tapioca… BUT I DO! I win!” I tell Karen about the flour, and she says that large amounts of flour can spontaneously combust, and maybe the hoarders will blow themselves up.
At lunchtime I make a polenta cake, no flour required. Then a friend rings – she’s on her way back from Wairarapa after a last visit to her best mate before lockdown. She’s found 5kg-bags of flour in a wholesaler’s. Would I like some? She drops the flour off at my place later that afternoon, and we talk through the glass barrier then wave goodbye to each other for the last time for a month.
I wake to silence at 6.30am. I open the windows and hear a faint hum of traffic but nothing like the usual roar. I make a pot of tea – two English breakfast, one Earl Grey. I hesitate as I put the third teabag in – should I start rationing the tea? I decide I don’t need to scrimp, and I make my usual strong brew. I take a cup of tea back to bed and check messages on my phone. Someone has sent me a photo of a sign in an English bookshop window: “Please note: the post-apocalyptical fiction section has been moved to Current Affairs.”
After an hour of emails and phone calls, I get up and go out to the school field behind my house for some fresh air. I crunch over acorns; I don’t need to use them for flour now.
The day passes slowly.
After work, I go back out to the field and sit under a tree to watch the sunset. A cricket chirps. Blackbirds chink and squabble. As the light fades, I spot a man in a dark jacket walking round the track. I get up and go back into my garden, where I feel safer, but hang over the gate, waiting for him to pass.
“Hi.” I wave. He looks at me and says nothing. I wave again. “Hello.”
“Hello,’ he says. A cold wind blows across the field from the west, and I go back inside.
To avoid aimless drifting, I set a routine. Start work early, and at morning tea time, take a wheezy walk on the field. I’m having technology problems and can’t face calling the helpdesk for the third time, so go for another walk at lunchtime. The streets are busy with people walking, jogging and cycling. I walk the half kilometre to Memorial Park. The park is dedicated to those who served in the armed forces, and to workers who have died or been injured at work. Rosemary grows along the edge of the path, for remembrance. The public toilet is painted with a World War Two-themed mural: tea ration coupons form the background to women painting stocking seams on their legs.
My phone beeps. Karen tells me she’s bought four packets of loose-leaf tea so she can have pots of tea while working from home. “My total treat.”
At the outbreak of World War Two, Britain imported most of its food. Destroying food convoys has always been an effective war strategy, and the Nazis immediately targeted shipments coming from Britain’s colonies. The country was physically isolated. The British Government introduced rationing in 1940 to ensure everybody got enough to eat. Sugar, butter, meat, tea, margarine, cooking fat, cheese and jam all went “on the ration”. Not wasting food was crucial for the war effort. Rationing was also designed to stop profiteering through inflated prices. In Aotearoa New Zealand, petrol was rationed as soon as World War Two was declared; food restrictions began in 1942, with sugar the first item on the list. New Zealand didn’t have the food shortages that Britain suffered: the rationing policy was designed to create a surplus that could be sold to the Allies. Later, tea was restricted to 60g a week – enough for three cups a day. I get through that much before breakfast.
The mural also depicts two glamorous 1940s women in uniform, and a purple banner saying JOIN THE WOMEN’S LAND ARMY. The Women’s Land Army was created in Britain in 1917 to provide a rural workforce while men were at war. It was resurrected at the outbreak of World War Two. The land girls, as they were known, were allowed extra rations. I have a postcard from the Imperial War Museum in London on my notice board at home: “For a healthy, happy job, join the Women’s Land Army”. A pretty young woman stands smiling out over a field of crops, pitchfork in hand; she wears the Land Army uniform of khaki jumper – sleeves rolled up, ready for work – and brown work trousers with her tiny waist cinched in with a belt. In 1941, the New Zealand Women’s Land Corps was formed to replace Kiwi men who’d gone to war.
While I’m waiting for my tea to brew this morning, I put flour, yeast, water and sugar into the breadmaker and set it off. Three hours later, the bread machine beeps the rhythm of Beethoven’s Vth Symphony. Da da da daaa. Da da da daa. Da da da daa. V in Morse code. V for victory. I take the steaming loaf out of the machine, cut off the crust and spread it with butter. Beside the breadmaker is a poster from the Imperial War Museum which says, “Victory is in the kitchen”.
It’s exceptionally mild, so I take the bread outside and sit in the sun. Looking at my overgrown garden, I reflect that victory might be in the garden as well as the kitchen. Britain’s Dig for Victory scheme encouraged people to grow their own food, in gardens, allotments and even areas of public parks that were dug up for the purpose. Fruit and vegetables weren’t rationed, but anything imported – particularly bananas and oranges – was in short supply. Some civilians kept chickens and animals. Gardens were even built in bomb craters. The abundant, round gardens, some filled with flowers as well as food, were used as a propaganda tool by the Government, to represent the British people’s resilience. Home-grown vegetables nourished the body, while flowers sustained the mind.
My friend Helen once said, every garden is a victory garden. I’d started gardening enthusiastically when I moved into this place seven years ago, but much of what I’d spent hours planting and sowing hadn’t grown in the tired, hard clay. Last year, I was away a lot over summer, and hadn’t bothered with the veggie garden at all. Now it’s overgrown, colonised by oxalis, couch grass, and buttercups running riot. Parsley and borage self-seed promiscuously.
I finish my lunch, then grab a fork from the garage and spear it into the soil. Or try to. The ground is like rock. No wonder plants struggled to grow in here. How on earth did the weeds do it? I put the hose on the garden, and leave it running. At the back of the garden, by the compost pile, is the worm farm whose substrate I’d been planning to use on the garden when I got around to it. Now I tip the dark soil out: the worm poo is compacted into a solid lump that I break up with gloved hands. Shiny red tiger worms wriggle through the soil. I carefully pick the worms out and put them back in their farm, then sift through the compost heap looking for something to feed them. The compost smells like dark chocolate. I pick out and bin small pieces of plastic that stud the pile: those annoying little stickers from fruit skins; bits of food packaging that blow over the fence from the school field in the prevailing westerly; and tea bags (I read recently that they contain plastic). I find corn husks, apple cores, eggshells and banana skins, which I put in the worm farm, before topping it off with newspaper and pouring in some water.
In half an hour, the garden is wet, and I sink my hands into the soil, extracting stones and pulling out weeds. As I work the soil, the light drone of traffic disappears from my consciousness and I only hear the birds. The soil is full of stones, which I throw into a bucket. Pointed oxalis bulbs with little clusters of bulblets, like buried bombs, wait to create carnage amongst the neat rows of basil and spinach I’d hoped for. Tough mint roots snake through the ground, popping up leaves covered in rust pustules. I pull out as much as I can, then rake over the soil before loading the beds with compost. I find some old blue lupin seeds in my seed tin, and sprinkle them over the brown tilth. A green crop, to keep the weeds down and the nutrients in.
Then I build a new bed, laying down cardboard and newspaper over a rectangle of lawn. The paper is open at the gardening page, which quotes a report from the UN:
“Generating three centimetres of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said. If you look after your bit of dirt you may have something to leave to your children that will have more value than gold.”
I pile compost and the remnants of the worm farm on to the paper, then sow seeds that have been languishing in the tin: kale, broccoli, spring onions, peas and red-flowered broad beans. A new sheet. Finally, I fling an old net curtain over the bed to keep the birds off.
I wake to a message from Karen. She’s bought seeds, although she hates vegetables and doesn’t like gardening. Celery, parsley and lettuces. Cress, for egg and cress sandwiches. And a Jif lemon, in case she gets scurvy. I tell her I’m wondering if this virus presents an opportunity to change things dramatically. People work from home so there’s less traffic. Shops are closed so we buy less. More appreciation of food. Stronger communities. More gardening. Less globalisation, more localisation. We can’t travel so there are fewer flights.
Despite this, I’m afraid that less flying means not being able to go to England to see my family, or Karen. It’s hypocritical to expect other people not to travel while doing it myself. I don’t know what to do with that fear or hypocrisy, so it remains unspoken.
I read the news. Media both here and in the UK report that people are panic-buying seeds, plants and gardening equipment. There’s much talk of victory gardens – others are thinking the same way as me. People are speculating about an eight- or even 12-week lockdown. A colleague posts in Microsoft Teams that he’s also digging a victory garden and is converting the front lawn into a vegetable bed:
“Food in five weeks. Fresh fruit and produce is going to be ‘a thing’ pretty soon, if growers aren’t allowed to go out and bring the current crop in.”
On the far side of the school field is a small vegetable garden. I wander through it, looking at the plants: cabbages going to seed, straggly thyme, parsley, onions topped with pompom flowers. Lots of weeds. I liberate a small cabbage and a few sprigs of thyme, slightly guiltily, hoping the kids would be happy that someone is using their produce. I think my colleague is right about fresh produce becoming “a thing”, and I’m still too sick to go to the supermarket. I return to the school garden in the afternoon with my trowel. I clear the weeds, sow two rows of broad beans, and sprinkle on the last of the lupin seeds as a cover crop.
When we were growing up, Dad grew most of our vegetables. Mum tells me that after he died, leaving her with four teenagers to feed, she remembers looking at cabbages in the supermarket. They were more than she could afford, and she thought, “I don’t know if we’re going to get through this.”
I just couldn’t bear for the cabbages from the school plot to be wasted.
Today I go to the field and talk, from a distance, to a man who turns out to be the school caretaker. I tell him about the vegetable garden, and he says he’ll tell the headmistress that a kind neighbour took care of it during lockdown.
“It’s looked after by the Green Team,” he says. “They’ll be really pleased!”
I feel less guilty about the cabbage and thyme.
Signs along the school wall spell out “TEAM: Teamwork. Excellence. Action. Manaakitanga. We take care of each other.”
Back home, I look out from my window over the garden. Autumn is often seen as the beginning of the end of the year. But it can also be the start of something. As I drink my tea, I decide this patch of earth isn’t such a bad place to be grounded after all.
Miriam Sharland is a writer and editor based in Palmerston North, Aotearoa New Zealand. She has worked in book, magazine, newspaper and digital publishing in New Zealand and the UK for more than 30 years. She recently started writing creative nonfiction, and has almost finished an ecobiographic memoir for her Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short-short story ‘Falling to Earth’ was highly commended in the 2018 Manawatū Writers Festival. Miriam is a keen cyclist and gardener.