Right outside the study in our house, there’s a pear tree. Technically, it’s our pear tree, although it was here when we bought the property and odds are it’ll be there when we leave, so I find it hard to put any notion of ownership on it, like somehow we’re a superset of it just because we can sign paperwork.
The pear tree is visible from the study window. In fact, when you look out one window it’s virtually impossible to miss. It’s like that window was built specifically to frame the tree - and again, given the relative age of the two, it’s entirely possible that this was the case.
Right now we’re in the middle of autumn. That means the tree is covered in pears, in various stages of ripeness. Some are still firm, some are bruised and fallen. At any one time, a couple are in that mythical half-hour of ripeness that each pear must go through at some point in its life. And because of this, the tree has become a social hub for the neighbourhood’s bird life. As well as the usual suspects (I think our resident blackbird family is on their fourth set of offspring this summer), I’ve spotted a couple of tūi dropping by, eating over-ripe pear (which I guess is like kōwhai nectar if you squint) and reminding the blackbirds that they aren’t the biggest kids on the block, as well as a bossy korimako who’s made a habit of sitting on our washing line and yelling at everyone right when I’m on a Zoom call.
Which is the other thing. This year, I’ve had a golden opportunity to see who hangs out in my pear tree, because like much of the world, we’re spending the month sheltering in place. I’ve plenty of chance to watch the birds hanging out in our backyard in between bouts of Zoom meetings, remote work, and yelling at our overtaxed national phone network, which was never meant to take five million people all streaming Netflix at once.
And between this - the frustration at suddenly not being able to go out, the paranoia with which we approach mundane tasks like going shopping, the loneliness of just not being able to visit people, the quiet moments we spend on evenings where we would normally have had people over - watching the pear tree has been something to focus on.
There’s plenty of people - myself included - for whom the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the lockdown. We may not be directly touched by the virus, only by its effects. And it’s easy to assume that becaue of this, the problems we have to deal with are somehow not as worthy.
In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell discusses ways in which we can try to resist the “attention economy” which we find ourselves mired in. Early in the book, she discusses the privilege of even being able to consider “disconnecting”:
I can go to the Rose Garden, stare into trees, and sit on hills all the time because I have a teaching job that only requires me to be on campus two days a week, not to mention a whole set of other privileges. It’s very possible to understand the practice of doing nothing solely as a self-indulgent luxury, the equivalent of taking a mental health day, if you’re lucky enough to work at a place that has those. But…just because this right is denied to many people doesn’t make it any less of a right or any less important.
Just because we have the privilege of being able to focus on our social disconnect right now, doesn’t mean it’s not important to deal with it however we see fit.