I’ve spent the afternoon running around my small yard in central Denver, taking photos of every green living thing I can see.
I squeal through a half-open window to my roommate, who is also working from home and probably wondering what I’m up to, that I’ve just made a thrilling discovery: a smartphone app that classifies plants right down to the species, at the tap of a digital camera shutter. Many are out suffering and sacrificing in the fight against the novel coronavirus, but my perspective is one of staying home and refocusing my figurative lens on life in a smaller bubble. The adjustment has made the patch of urban grass I live on begin to feel like an entire wilderness.
My app tells me there is a pristine Picea pungens, or blue spruce just outside my door. Who knew? Embarrassingly, at age 27 I didn’t, so now I feel as though I’m more or less living in a National Forest. It’s felt this way, surprisingly, ever since I began working and doing just about everything else from home. Relocating every few hours from the back patio to the bedroom to the kitchen table has become a version of adventure.
Sitting out in the last few days’ much appreciated sunshine, I’ve been amazed at the variety of my backyard’s ecosystem for the first time in the two years since moving in. As the summer trips I’d planned to Banff National Park and Tblisi, Georgia, have unraveled one by one, the four distinct tree species I can see from my work perch are a new kind of tour.
Next to the spruce there is a quaking aspen, followed by a fragrant lilac and what I just learned is a sapling red maple. This is now my personal, lopsided ark where I can be found (hopefully) surviving the next who-knows-how-long. I count one cypress, one honeylocust, two cottonwoods, three squirrels, and too many dandelions. I even have chives from last year’s vegetable garden which are green again, and the brittle remnants of an herb I never pulled up before winter. Though white and leafless, my smartphone app still identifies this immediately as sweet basil.
Thrilled by all of this now, I remember lessons in taxonomy that bored me so much in middle school: examining the edge or clustering pattern of a leaf in order to catalog it (why?). We learned that each type of perimeter– serrated, entire, or lobed– evolved over billions of years when that feature was advantageous in its habitat. Not unlike the spiky surface of a coronavirus, which allows it to penetrate human cells and copy itself. That which is able to continue existing will continue to exist: that’s the heart of what I remember from biology class.
I am learning to value every last inch of the slice of life I occupy, and it actually feels bigger than before. Like many, I’m also enjoying many more spacious, attentive phone conversations with relatives and spontaneous catch-ups with old friends. I pass the time watching favorite celebrities livestream a Saturday night making any old banana bread recipe or putting on a show at their home piano, more out of their goodwill or boredom than to promote anything.
I’ve experienced a welcome opportunity to untangle my self-esteem from the need to buy new things: no one will see the spring wardrobe update or home decor refresh that I don’t need, and never have. At the same time I’ve become harrowingly aware of how dependent I am on these same external systems for daily sustenance. Empty shelves at the grocery store have a way of making you wonder how long you could survive on homegrown chives and sweet basil.
Besides being microscopically tiny, the coronavirus isn’t considered a life form in the plant or animal kingdoms. So as much as I’d like to, I can’t use my new app to see whether it’s made its way to my backyard or inside the house. For now I’ll stick to cataloging the greenery and hoping that the faintest itch in my throat is just from the box elder that’s beginning to flower outside.