Grief and Gardening: Index

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY, April 2021
Next Tuesday, September 20th, I will be the guest speaker for Green-Wood Cemetery’s Death Cafe. Next week is also Climate Week; the topic is “Grief and Gardening”, that title taken from the long-running series of blog posts here.

Listed below are my related blog posts, grouped by topic. For now, I’m omitting all the eulogies and remembrances for the deaths of family, friends, and pets.

Grief and Gardening: Ashes (Remembrance Day for Lost Species), published 2019-12-02, is one of my favorite writings on the subject of grief. It weaves together nearly all the topics below.

Biodiversity Loss

Remembrance Day for Lost Species Day, aka Lost Species Day, is November 30th. Many of these blog posts are on or near that date.

Grief and Gardening: Extinct Plants of northern North America 2021, 2021-11-30
Extinct Plants of northern North America 2020, 2020-11-30
Extinct Plants of northern North America 2018, 2018-11-30
Extinct Plants of northern North America 2015, 2015-11-29
Extinct Plants of northern North America, 2014-11-30

Climate Change

The IPCC Report: Grief & Gardening #6, 2007-02-04


Grief and Gardening: A Dissetling Spring, 2020-03-19
Drumbeat, 2020-03-27
Grief and Gardening: A Feast of Losses, 2020-04-06
Correspondence, April 2020, 2020-04-13
Grief and Gardening: The Defiant Gardener, 2020-05-06

I adapted some of what I wrote on the blog, and several of my tweets on this subject, for a short post on McSweeney’s: “Do Not Deny What You Feel“. The McSweeney’s piece was later picked up by YES! Magazine. Search for “Flatbush”. or “AIDS”.


Grief and Gardening: 20 Years, 2021-09-11
Grief and Gardening: Remains of the Day, 2019-07-11
Grief & Gardening: Nine Years, 2010-09-11
Seven years, 2008-09-10
In the Shadow (How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?), 2007-08-08
Grief & Gardening #2: Five Years After, “Ths Transetorey Life”, 2006-09-09
Grief & Gardening #1: 1, 5 and 25, 2006-09-04
Without God, 2001-10-15
This Week in History, 2001-09-14


Names, 2021-12-01 (World AIDS Day)
Off-Topic: The Conversation: 2016-03-12 (on Nancy Reagan’s death)
In the Shadow (How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?), 2007-08-08


2006-10-08: Grief & Gardening #3: Nihilism and Squirrels

Gardening Matters: The death of Takeo Shiota (Grief & Gardening #4), 2006-10-29
The Daffodil Project: Grief & Gardening #5, 2006-11-26< Continue reading

Grief and Gardening: The Defiant Gardener

Rhododendron periclymenoides, pinxterbloom azalea, blooming in the backyard, May 2020

Normally, this time of year would be busy with garden tours, workshops, talks and lectures, plant swaps and sales. In past years, my garden has been on tour for NYC Wildflower Week. Two years ago I spoke at the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Millersville, Pennsylvania. Last June I hosted the most recent of my Pollinator Safaris in my garden.

I had multiple engagements planned for this Spring, and into the Summer. I was going to speak on a panel about pollinators in NYC. This past weekend would have been the 10th Anniversary of the Great Flatbush Plant Swap, of which I was one of the founders. I would have been doing hands-on workshops on gardening with native plants in community gardens.

This year there is none of that. The reason, of course, is the global pandemic, COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV2.

As I write this, I have been working from home for 8 weeks. The same week I started working from home, the first death from COVID-19 was recorded in New York City. Now, less than 2 months later, nearly 20,000 are dead.

We still have 200 dying every day. This is not anywhere near “over”.

The language and lessons of trauma – and recovery – are what we need to embrace right now.

Unavoidably, for me, have been the parallels with the AIDS epidemic. Unparalleled disparities in wealth built over decades, and systemic racism sustained over centuries, ensure that the epidemic does not affect all equally. A corrupt administration targets those it considers its enemies, cynically allowing who oppose it to die, a deliberate genocide.

In March of 1996, I had just started reading Walt Odets’ “In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS”, the first book I read which gave voice to feelings shared by many of my cohort, gay men of a certain age: survivor guilt, and a spiritual crisis which has ravaged many of us. I wrote:

March 1996 

so far surviving
what will it mean to be alive
having outlived generation after generation
decades of death
the explosion widening until, finally
and yes, with some grim, righteous satisfaction
finally noone can truthfully say
they are not also affected

imagine how it will be
when your closest friends are strangers
when long ago you gave up hope
of growing old together
as everyone you’ve loved, and despised
has died, seven times over
when you’ve learned, and loved, and lost
and learned, loved, lost
and …
When each new friend is met with the knowledge
that they too will leave soon
but it no longer matters
because, you think, you’ve already grieved their deaths too

the corpses pile up
against the walls you’ve built around yourself
walking along familiar streets
past the bars, your old haunts
you see tombstones, crosses, ashes
and you’re not safe, even in your own mind
especially at night
when the walls must come down
and you must remember the dead

you want to believe you’ve come so far
but it hasn’t even begun

This is where we are – where we all are – now. Our bodies cannot physically sustain for months on end our initial response to the sudden changes we experienced with the epidemic. When we must survive, even against a low-level persistent threat, our brains rewire themselves. We are collectively immersed in what is aptly called endurance trauma.

But I feel no satisfaction from it.

I am grateful that both my husband and I are able to work from home. We continue to adapt, in both large and subtle ways, to being forced to be around each other nearly constantly.

For my part, I take advantage of every good weekend day, and long daylight hours, to garden as much and as long as I can. I have been removing non-native plants – mostly the Iris and daylilies – to make room for planting more native plants. And, for the first time in years, to grow some food crops.

Since there would be no Great Flatbush Plant Swap this year, I decided to give away the plants as I removed them. I have been giving away plants from my own garden for weeks, now. While my initial intent was to solve a problem I had in my garden, it’s turned into much more.

I’m having conversations with neighbors and passersby, checking in with each other about how we are handling the situation. These visits often turn into mini garden tours and educational talks about how to garden for habitat, inviting even more life to co-reside with us, healing the urban ecology as we nourish our own connections to the natural world.

The Front Yard, May 2020

Whatever green people can grow sustains them psychologically. These new “victory gardens” are a form of defiant gardening, which Kenneth Helphand so beautifully wrote about in his book of the same title. It is a way of coping with, and defying, endurance trauma.

The following comes from an open latter I wrote on October 15, 2001, barely a month after the September 11 attacks, to Joanna Tipple, then pastor of the Craryville and Copake Churches in New York State.

As I tend my garden, I recall how it was a minute, a day, a year ago. That flower was, or was not, blooming yesterday. This plant has grown over the years and now crowds its neighbors. A label in the ground shows where another plant has vanished. Should I replace it, or try something new? I weed. I plant. I water. I sit. The garden asks me to see it as it really is, not just how I remember it, or how I wish it to be. Gardening continues to teach me many lessons. Gardening is my prayer.

So I must be in the world. Remembering what was. Observing what is. Hoping for what can be. Acting to bring it into being. When we struggle to understand, we question what is. Science can ask, and eventually answer, “What?” and “How?” It cannot answer the one question that matters, the question for which Man created God: “Why?” Now, as with each new loss, I ask again: Why am I here? Why am I alive?

The only answer I’ve come across which satisfies me at all comes from Zen: The purpose of life is to relieve suffering. Not to relieve pain, or grief, or loss. These cannot be avoided. But to relieve suffering, which we ourselves bring into the world. Because death is senseless, the only sense to be found is that which we manifest in our own lives. The only meaning there can be in life is what we impart.

Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, wrote “What is to give light must endure burning.” Light doesn’t justify burning. Light transcends burning.

We are enduring, now. Whether we know it or not. Whether we acknowledge what we feel, or not. We must also do more than endure. How we celebrate ourselves transcends what we must endure and survive. It serves only our enemies – and serves us least of all – to be polite, nice, and “normal,” to be unassuming and inoffensive, to be silent and invisible.

Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene for YES! Magazine, from a self-portrait I took of myself in my backyard.

Related Content

NYC in the time of COVID-19

2020-04-06: Grief and Gardening: A Feast of Losses
2020-04-13: Correspondence, April 2020

I adapted some of what I wrote on the blog, and several of my tweets on this subject, for a short post on McSweeney’s: “Do Not Deny What You Feel“. The McSweeney’s piece was later picked up by YES! Magazine. Search for “Flatbush”. or “AIDS”.

Grief & Gardening Series
  1. 2006-09-04: Grief & Gardening #1: 1, 5 and 25
  3.  2006-10-08: Grief & Gardening #3: Nihilism and Squirrels

    and the most recent additions:

Other relevant blog posts


Correspondence, April 2020

I received an unexpected, and much-welcomed, message from a colleague, asking how I was doing. My response ran a little long, so I thought I would reproduce it here. Annotated with links, where applicable.

Double-flowering bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, blooming in my backyard, April 2020

We are doing well, as well as can be expected. My husband and I have both been (lucky enough to be) working from home. It’s 5 weeks for me this week.

I’ve been writing a weeks-long thread on Twitter.

I’ve been writing about the experience on my blog. I started on the Solstice, when I’d already been working from home for weeks. Later posts borrow from my Twitter thread, and past blog posts. I’m sure I’ll be writing more in the days and weeks and months ahead:

I even got a short piece published in McSweeney’s. And that got picked up to be re-published by YES Magazine. Nothing online yet.

I had multiple engagements planned for this Spring, and into the Summer: speaking on a panel about pollinators in NYC, a neighborhood plant swap, workshops with community gardens. All cancelled. On paper, I’m still going to Eiseman’s leaf-miner course in Vermont in August, but I expect that to be cancelled, as well.

NYC has just started to turn the corner of the immediate crisis the past few days. Recovery – economic, psychological, sociological, political – will be ongoing over generations. There will be an immediate need for trauma and grief support and recovery for emergency, health care, and other front-line workers.

Every night at 7pm, everyone goes outside, into the street, onto their porches, or leaning out their windows, and makes noise for all those working through this, from ER docs to grocery clerks to delivery drivers.

Before everything went whack, I bought a big birding lens. I’ve been out 3 times during this period to Prospect Park. The lens weighs a ton, but it makes all the difference. Adding all my photos as Observations to iNaturalist, of course!

The garden is a salve. I ordered seeds and plants, neither of which I’d been planning to do. I’m giving away plants from my garden to my neighbors to make room for my new acquisitions.

I’ve got a new bee species record for my garden! Just awaiting confirmation from a second identifier.

I’ve vacation coming up, for Earth Day and City Nature Challenge. Planned before all this began. I extended it to make it a solid week. We’re not supposed to be taking public transit for non-essential activities, but I have a car and can get around to most places. Gardens are closed, but public parks are still open, for now. I’m looking forward to some intense observartin’. Both “abroad” and in the garden.

Related Content


Grief and Gardening: A Feast of Losses

It’s been barely a month since the first handful of COVID-19/SARS-CoV2 cases were reported in New York State. On March 4, there were 6 confirmed cases.

As I write this:

  • There are nearly 5,000 dead in New York.
  • Nearly 3,500 have died in New York City alone. If NYC was a country, it would be 6th in the world in deaths.

It’s not over. We face the worst in the days ahead. But an end – for New York, at least – is in sight.

Projected COVID-19 Deaths per Day for NY as of 2020-04-04

It is a strange hybrid collective trauma we are working our way through. So much has changed so quickly. It’s not quite four weeks since I started working from home. My husband started working from home three weeks ago. A week after that, all NYC restaurants and bars were forced to stop admitting guests. On the equinox, I first wrote about living through an epidemic for the second time in my life.

We’ve had the advantage of being able to make (some) preparations for it. Yet we have months of loss and grieving to come.

There is no clear roadmap for how we should react, respond, and recover. Those of us who have survived past epidemics can draw on our experiences, but none of us have ever lived through anything quite like this.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), from which I borrowed for the title of this blog post:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.

Related Content



2020-04-21: The McSweeney’s piece was picked up by YES! Magazine. Search for “Flatbush”. or “AIDS”.
2020-03-30: I adapted some of this blog post, and several of my tweets on this subject, for a short post on McSweeney’s:
Do Not Deny What You Feel
2020-03-29: Updated

As a child, even as I watched rockets launch from my bedroom window, the news kept us apprised of the ever-rising (American) casualties from the Vietnam War. As an adolesecent, I was fascinated and appalled by old issues of LIFE magazine published during World War II. Every article, every ad, devoted to the war. That terrified me the most: that there was no escape from it.

That’s where we are: at war.

Just like those WW2 LIFE magazines, there is no escape from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s in every segment on every news program, every article on every front page, the constant crawl across the bottom of the screen. We get the latest numbers: how many sick, how many dead. We get the unprecedented numbers of people out of work, their workplaces shutdown in efforts to contain the spread.

Yesterday, the U.S. surpassed China as the country with the largest number of confirmed cases. New York City has 1/4th of them. Within days, every hospital bed in NYC will be saturated with COVID-19 patients. Beyond that, overall death rates will rapidly increase, as otherwise survivable conditions become fatal due to lack of medical facilities.

This is all so familiar.

I moved to NYC, to the East Village, in 1979. Just in time for the AIDS epidemic. We endured as the numbers went from a handful, to scores, hundreds, thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands. We lived and loved in fear for ourselves, our community, our way of life. We worried about every little cough, every blemish, every lump or swelling, both in ourselves, and others. We lived and loved in anger at the cruelty and incompetence of a federal administration that cared nothing about us, and killed us through their indifference and inaction.

It’s all so familiar. It feels the same now, but the pace and scale have been multiplied by a thousand.


[Shortly after midnight]

I need to acknowledge what I’m feeling before I try to sleep tonight:

Endurance trauma is real.

I survived the dark 15 years of AIDS as a death sentence. That trauma is reactivated, living in NYC, the middle of the worst of COVID19.

The situation in NYC is horrific, and is only going to get worse over the next two weeks, at least. All NYC hospital beds, ICU and others, are saturated by #COVID19 patients: 6,000 hospitalized, 1,300 in ICU. 222 people died yesterday. Just the day before, 85 people had died.

So, yeah, I’m having some feelings. And that’s how we get through this: by feeling it. The only way out is through.

It’s real. And it’s scary. Leave room for yourself and others to feel what they need, to grieve, to rage, to despair.

That’s how we keep going: Together.

Related Content



Social Distancing

New York City

New York State

United States
A live, continually updated version of the map above.

The data for the map comes from here:

For “reasons”, there’s little trustworthy federal information available. The CDC is still the official source of stats.

Global, and you can select a country, and drill-down to more local figures, e.g.: states for the U.S.

This site has visualizations world-wide and by country, and you can download the data for your own analysis:

Also allows you to drill down to country level.

Grief and Gardening: A Dissetling Spring

The Return of Persephone“, Frederic Leighton, 1896 (four years before his death)

The March Equinox – Spring or Vernal, in the Northern Hemisphere – occurs at 11:49 PM Eastern Daylight Time this evening. It’s the earliest it’s occurred in over a century. It seems fitting, given the warm, nearly snowless winter, and the quickened pace of everything else.

We are in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease is COVID: Corona Virus Disease. The virus that causes it is known as SARS-CoV2. At this time, New York state has 1/3 to 1/2 of all cases in the United States. That ratio has been increasing quickly over the past couple of days; it was 1/4 just a few days ago. As one would expect, New York City alone has most of those; 1/4 of all confirmed cases in the U.S. are in NYC at this moment.

Once again in my life, I am in the epicenter of an epidemic.

The changes to our daily routines have been rapid.

  • I have been working from home for just over a week, enforced by my employer. At first it was just to the end of this week. Now it’s to the end of the month. I’m expecting it to last at least into the fall: at least 6 months.
  • I have been going down to New Jersey every other week to help my sister take care of our elderly disabled mother. I had to call and cancel that indefinitely. Everyone in NYC must assume they have been exposed, if not infected. Any visit from me would be a risk to her life.
  • My husband and I enjoyed brunch just last Saturday at our favorite place. All restaurants and bars are now closed.
  • Theaters, museums, zoos, all closed.

Because of rapid changes such as these, it doesn’t feel early in all of this, but it is. The social marketing of social distancing – reducing contact, even indirectly, with others – has been somewhat effective. The streets are quiet. Mass transit ridership is down 40-90%.

Somewhat effective, but not enough. We are still in the exponential expansion of the disease. The number of cases is nearly doubling every two days. Humans’ brains don’t work well with exponentials. If there are 2,500 confirmed cases in NYC today, by this time next week, we should expect over 20,000; in 2 weeks, 170,000. The lack of testing compounds this. We are running blind, because we cannot stop. We must balance ignorance and risk.

This is unique in my lifetime. Yet there are touchpoints with other disasters and atrocities we’ve survived: 9/11, Sandy, AIDS. As bad as all those were, the worst of it was caused by people. I fear – I expect – the same to happen here. Only now, it’s a disease affecting everyone, not a dispensible, disposable community. And it’s everywhere, not just NYC, not just this country.

We are all about to undergo endurance trauma. This is not a singular event. It’s a marathon. It’s going to last through the summer, into the fall. Depending on how effective or ineffective we are at managing ourselves, this could extend into next summer.

Those who profit from fear want to divide us. What I am also seeing is mutual support, resiliency in community. After 9/11, people in NYC were kind to each other. That was when I changed my standard greeting of separation or departure, whether from a loved one or a bus driver, to “take care”. It remains always appropriate, and especially apt during times such as these.

Birds sing outside my porch. The succession of blooming trees has already begun. Life around us goes on without us. It is the only glimmer I can perceive this Spring of Persephone’s promise.

The Borrowed View: overlooking my backyard

Related Content




Social Distancing

New York City

New York State

United States
A live, continually updated version of the map above.

The data for the map comes from here:

For “reasons”, there’s little trustworthy federal information available. The CDC is still the official source of stats.

Global, and you can select a country, and drill-down to more local figures, e.g.: states for the U.S.

This site has visualizations world-wide and by country, and you can download the data for your own analysis:

Also allows you to drill down to country level.