COVID-19: We can mow our backyards, or even just tend the flowers in our windowsill Image Credit: Getty Images/Purestock

I’ve spent the spring and summer becoming a verified Lawn Dad: the sort of person who fills their time fine-tuning sprinkler patterns and surveying their handiwork each morning with a cup of coffee in hand.

I spent a May afternoon hacking away an ancient juniper, an entire day pruning an unruly lilac. Piles of bark were spread. A patio was redone. An entire deck was sanded and re-stained.

These DIY activities are at once meditative and deeply fulfilling. I start a thing, I work at it and I get the catharsis of finishing it.

During the pandemic, so much of his daily life was tied to the computer — but coming outside, spending an hour on his hands and knees pulling weeds, made him feel like he was adding value to the world, like his body was. I get it: I’m haunted by the invasive wild rose in my backyard. But battling feels like something I can handle

- Anne Helen Petersen

In past years, my time was so packed that I’d only wedge in a few, mandatory days for maintenance. But this year, the pandemic has allowed my days and weeks and months to pool together into an undifferentiated mass.

I don’t want to eat at a restaurant, even though they’re open here in Montana. I don’t feel like buying stuff. But I still have all this self-optimising energy, and, because I can work from home, a fierce desire to do something other than stare at my computer all day. So I go to the backyard. And then I go to the hardware store.

I’m not alone

The Home Depot recently announced record quarterly profits. And unlike most businesses, home improvement stores haven’t had decreases in foot traffic during the pandemic.

Americans are so used to — and spending, and bettering themselves — and that energy has to go somewhere: like into the spaces we’ve been forced to inhabit for the past six months.

So I asked my Twitter feed: who else has spent quarantine slowly transforming into a Lawn Dad? I heard from hundreds of people — one of whom was Javi Zubizarreta, who lives in South Bend, Indiana, where he’s devoted himself to his garden.

He planted specific flowers to attract wildlife, and put out bird feeders for the first time in his life. “It’s incredible, to be that person that’s like, oh, here’s the chickadees!,” he said. “For me, it’s a reminder that life is continuing, even if yours isn’t.”

“I planted eight hydrangeas,” Zubizarreta told me. “But then we had this freak cold snap, and it nearly wiped them all out. They were these shrivelled brown nubs of nothing. My emotions around the pandemic became so tightly tied up in these plants.”

Life was tied to the computer

During the pandemic, so much of his daily life was tied to the computer — but coming outside, spending an hour on his hands and knees pulling weeds, made him feel like he was adding value to the world, like his body was. I get it: I’m haunted by the invasive wild rose in my backyard. But battling feels like something I can handle.

I also talked to Jesse Ziter, who wakes up every morning in Windsor, Ontario, and puts in some quality time with his pressure washer. “In these times, you have to make a lot of choices, and it’s not clear what the best decisions, or the best practices are,” he told me.

“Should I have lunch in my parents’ backyard? How do I design a course online? It’s hard emotional work. So I like committing myself to a process that has binary outcomes. It’s either cleaned or uncleaned. The decision is razor sharp, and you can’t really do it incorrectly.”

Pressure washing feels like a different type of work, a different orientation of his mind. He likes the feeling of owning a very small piece of his city, and keeping it clean and intact. His favourite thing he’s pressure washed so far: the public sidewalk in front of his home.

Quinn Perry recently bought a 900-square-foot farmhouse in Boise, Idaho. She and her fiance had planned to elope this summer to Portugal — and when the pandemic cancelled those plans, they ended up with a pile of refund money. They transformed a dilapidated garage into a studio.

They put in a patio. And they built an elaborate cedar fence, which has become the conversation point of the neighbourhood.

Perry works for the Idaho School Boards Association, and her life has been non-stop chaos since March. But the DIY has provided a respite: “In political advocacy, it’s very hard to see a visible product you’ve created,” she said.

Love to hang outside

“But with this, I have results, and they’re complimented! We love to hang outside, because whenever we do, someone stops to say,. And I’m like, ‘Thank you, I know, it is a damn nice fence.’ “

Part of the pleasure of DIY is doing something for your own space. But part of it, too, is talking to other people — your family, your partner, your neighbourhood — about it.

So many other pandemic conversations are exhausting. But not this one: “Here’s a good oil to use on that fence and, “Can I copy it?

For all its pleasures, DIY obsession can also feel like a turn inward: a way of focusing on private space for private use.

I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the privilege of being able to move, back in 2017, to a place where I could afford a place with a backyard — and, once here, with having the job security to spend money on things like tomato cages and electric sanders.

When my vegetables wither on the vine, or succumb to bugs or moths or lack of drainage, I tell myself: I realise I’m desperate for a space where I can safely fail. But that, too, feels like a privilege.

Making DIY impulse benefit others

One solution: figuring out how to make some of that DIY impulse benefit others, however imperfectly. For Nev Turon, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with their two small children, DIY projects have been oriented around cultivating a space that’s luscious and inviting — to their own family, but, eventually, to others as well.

Turon has made a practice of setting up water stations in the front yard, and maintaining a small “free box” of surplus items. They’re working on an idea for a little free pantry, but currently lack the carpentry skills.

The real goal, however, is an outdoor shower in the backyard, available to anyone who needs it. There’s already a makeshift one, but Turon wants to create a space, accessible from the outside, with a privacy curtain and enough space so a person can safely bring their possessions in with them.

It’s going to take time, and skills and resources Turon doesn’t yet have. But it feels good to work in that direction.

“There’s a lot of ways to be houseless,” Turon said. “And there’s about to be a lot more houseless people. I want to be here in a way that acknowledges that the land wasn’t mine to buy in the first place — and in a way that is distributive, because I’ve been lucky.”

What does distributive DIY look like? Projects like Turon’s — but also maintaining public lands and parks, and paying the taxes and electing the politicians that work to keep them public.

It looks like funding and participating in community gardens, and boxes of free zucchini on the stoop, and organisations that salvage and resell building materials at deep discounts.

Pleasure of watching something grow

It’s understanding that the pleasure of watching something grow, or learning a skill, or just sitting outside shouldn’t be contingent upon one’s income level. It means understanding community as a whole collection of people “doing it yourself” — but for each other’s greater good.

The pandemic has a way of constantly reminding us that our lives are deeply intertwined. But it also shrinks our daily existences into small, isolating little worlds.

Every day presents a new way to feel helpless, a new wrinkle of loneliness. We can’t counter the current risks of the outside world on our own. But we can find agency, even comfort, in their smallness.

We can mow our backyards, or even just tend the flowers in our windowsill, and ready them for a time when we can share them — and ourselves — again.

Anne Helen Petersen writes the newsletter Culture Study

— New York Times News Service