Life in Lockdown
There’s a tree shrew that slides up the bird feeder when we lay out fruit and bits of rice. He prefers the fruit, of course- the rice is for the birds- but he knows his way around our garden well enough to know that if there’s any food, it’ll be on the feeder.
There’s also a frog that croaks and burps loudly every night outside my window. I can’t be sure if he’s with a friend or if he’s by himself and just good at sounding like two different frogs but he’s out there, without fail. First a long, loud croaaakk then a shorter one, but he’s out there every single night. I’ve come to see him as a sign we’re doing okay, we’re doing all right. There is still life.
I want you to imagine that you like climbing trees. Any type of tree- tall ones, short ones, they’re all your friends and you love them all. If you were to climb the jacaranda trees growing on the street where we live and look into our garden, you would notice how large and healthy it is, with plenty of space to run around.
You would see my mother’s pink bougainvillea, her yellow and red hibiscus trees, and her purple periwinkles. You’d see my father’s many papaya and banana trees, and his pride and joy, his durian tree. We used to have a passion fruit tree but that stopped flowering many months ago. Even before I began paying attention to it and learning names of the birds that drop by, our garden has always been full of colour and life.
Ever since lockdown in Malaysia began in March, my room, the house, the garden – that was pretty much it for me.
In the early days, our garden was the only place I could walk in. You would have seen me going around our garden if you were a tupai – a tree shrew- or a bird, or if you had nothing better to do and spied on us from the trees. I would do a few circuits and crouch on the grass with my eyes just a few inches above the ground. I would peer through the heliconia plants and imagine I was exploring a jungle somewhere, trapped between towering ferns and wild jungle trees when in reality those plants and stumps were barely waist-high.
Our garden gnome in the red pointy hat and blue cardigan became a giant statue (late 20thcentury) that I’d stumbled upon by accident in this treacherous tropical jungle. The low stone wall that separated the driveway from the grass became an ancient structure designed by architects of old. The neighbour’s cat who peeked at me through the bushes was local wildlife.
Well, I had to do something. I had to make do.
There are two shrews living in our garden. No, make that three, maybe four. One of them sleeps in the kemuning tree right outside my window. I know this because I had the window open this morning while it rained. The leaves quivered and when I looked up I saw him sitting in the branches, sheltering from the rain. I shall call him Scrat.
Also- those big black carpenter bees with the metallic blue-green wings. They’re everywhere, drinking from Mama’s yellow trumpet flowers, pub-crawling from flower to flower. I see them every day from where I sit.
When I think of how a virus streaked across the world and disrupted our lives just like that *snaps fingers* the only response I can muster is a long-drawn sigh. This was the 2020 none of us expected. All of us had plans.
What happens to travel after this?
I was supposed to be in Scotland in May, walking on trails across the Cowal Peninsula and the Isle of Skye, but clearly that never happened. I cancelled everything by mid-March. I’m devastated, but let’s put things in perspective here. Missing out on a trip comes nowhere close to what so many others have had, and continue, to deal with: loss of income, a death in the family or the effects of the coronavirus. Fulfilling my need to travel now is no longer as important to me as it used to be.
I’m prepared to put off international travel for a while. Maybe this isn’t the time to fly to faraway places just yet. Maybe I could, I don’t know, hang around closer to home for a few more months. I have no plans to indulge in what I see –in these present circumstances- as unnecessary travel.
So I am thankful for this garden; I am thankful for the joy it gives us every day. In the early months of lockdown, the garden gave me a place to walk in. A place where I imagined I was somewhere else, somewhere wilder, and yet the garden gave me exactly what I needed.
I’ve been keeping a diary of what I see, hear and smell in the garden, and every day I see something new.
There is an order here: the sun shines, the clouds burst into rain, things grow. Birds and bees and little creatures come. During the day the spotted doves and mynahs peck at leftover fruit and grains of rice. Then the sun sets and the garden prepares itself for the night, and out come the fruit bats, the palm civets and the frogs.
I am particularly fond of frogs. I’ve never touched one and doubt I ever will, but I know this about them: frogs are an excellent indicator of the state of your garden- they don’t live in environments that are toxic. The skin of a frog is highly permeable, making frogs so vulnerable to pollutants they can die within an hour of exposure, so they naturally avoid places that are dangerous to them and I dare say, to the rest of us. If you grow your own fruits and vegetables and you see a frog or two hopping about, be happy.
A kingfisher in our garden! Just this morning, sitting on the phone line, its feathers bright blue and orange in the sun. Where on earth did it come from? There are no rivers nearby, except for the stream in Bukit Gasing. Tried to take a photo, but it disappeared in a flash of blue.
One more thing- it rained in the night and this morning I saw pugmarks where the ground had gotten wet and soggy. Four elongated digits ending in claws- perfect for climbing. No footpads here, so it wasn’t a cat. We have a visitor.
It’s evening, around 7.45, after Maghrib. It rained for an hour today and the sky outside is that deep shade of blue now that the sun has completely set.
I have never sat at my desk and not been captivated by what I see in the daytime, but the garden is loveliest in the evenings after a downpour. There is a cleanness in the air, a warm shower before bed kind of feeling. A slowing down.
I hear a rustling in the kemuning tree outside my window but it stops abruptly, as though something has realised it has caught my attention. A tree shrew settling down for the night. I used to ask our gardener to cut off the upper branches every six months. Mosquitoes live in the tree and I hate them, I told him. Now that I have a tenant I just let the tree grow.
On the nights I hear the tree shaking violently, I know it’s a palm civet crossing over from our roof to the tree and back. We see them regularly, creeping on phone lines like tightrope walkers. In March when our streets went silent and the lockdown was strictest, I caught one skulking on our balcony one night, its long tail swaying, its eyes shining like lamps.
It’s close to dinner and just about when the mosquitoes come to attack so I reach up to shut the window.
Outside, from somewhere below, an old friend announces his presence. A rich, lusty, throaty sound that I’ve heard every night for months now: Croaaakk.
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