Dear Dave, Morale is Low

How Adam Schatz (Landlady) is creatively dealing with quarantine life in a new environment.

Dear Dave, morale is low. Much has changed since we have taken your place at the house in the woods in North Carolina. I’m not sure how else to put this so I’ll just come right out and say it: I’ve built an escape room for a squirrel.

This squirrel, it’s more than a squirrel. It’s an idea of a squirrel. And you can’t kill an idea. Its predatory advances have commanded every last drop of my attention and drained my physical form. I tried to focus on work, truly, but every 15 minutes the task in front of me would pause itself as I drifted out the window, just to check, just to see if he came back.

He always came back. He’s been here before me I suppose, but he didn’t plant these tomatoes. 

You did, Dave. You planted the tomatoes, and I fear to have let you down, but not without a fight. My cuticles are shredded from lacing green gardening wire in and out and in and out of every single square of netting, the wire eager to break loose from its green casing and poke straight into my finger skin, causing me to curse before accidentally stumbling faceward into the first of many Spider Web Incidents. The green wire wove the roof to the walls of the garden you worked so hard on, and I tried to continue and honor your work. But in a sense, maybe you got the best version of a garden. You enjoyed the daily routine, the ritual of dirt work and staking, watering and weeding. The time spent outdoors is so valuable, especially now, in times like these, we’re all in this together, Geico. 

When people became poison, we of course turned to nature, and those of us lucky to get out and in it don’t need long to feel as alive as we suspected we already were. My partner and I were grateful to leave the city and visit the natural world. The natural world is wild and immediately rewarding with its simultaneous predictability and unpredictability. A watered seed will grow, probably, and you got a chance to plant those seeds and bring them up from the ground into the air. Of course you’ve eaten any of the food you grew, but to be perfectly clear, neither have I. 

These tomato plants, they grew and grew, with beautiful forked branches and leaves that I pruned daily. The key to tomato plant pruning is to keep all the growths at right angles. Any time a new bit of greenery pokes out in the 45th degree of a right angle on the plant, that’s got to get pinched off in order to train the plant into producing more fruit. You can train a plant, but you can’t train a squirrel, you know. And so tomatoes began to grow, and grow and grow, clusters of green orbs that we couldn’t wait to see the sun and rain and heat and time convert into human food. Soon enough, the first green tomato turned red and I could see the future where I ate it, and in that future I was proud. In a time when I’ve been lacking drive and vision, a tomato is an accomplishment I’ll gladly claim with pride.

Dave, if I could build a time machine, I’d zap back four weeks and kick myself behind the knees. I’d scream: “You fool! There’s a war on and you don’t even know it! Fortify the perimeter! Batten down the hatches! Sleep next to that ripening tomato and never let it out of your sight!” How silly I was, Dave. How naive. 

That evening, I saw him. The squirrel paraded atop the wooden frame of the garden, which was roofless at the time. He made sure I saw him as he held the newly-red tomato in both paws, and shoved his face into the depths of the juicy fruit. We made eye contact, and he winked at me before leaping to a nearby tree. I was mad. I was embarrassed. But I had the time to do something about it.  

We built a roof, of sorts. Jenn lives nearby, as you know, and she picked up the supplies, a gigantic roll of deer netting (and to be fair, the deer have never since descended upon the garden from above) that was absurdly priced at $90. Supply and demand, I suppose, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see our squirrel sneaking around Southern States garden center after hours to receive a kickback from the store manager, acorns in a brown paper bag and a knowing tip of the cap. Remind me what a tomato tastes like Dave, for I do not remember. 

After Jenn and I had committed a few hours to haphazard roof installation, the squirrel broke in again and ate another tomato, this time a green one, as if to say “I truly do not give a fuck.” This challenge led to the aforementioned weaving of the roof to the walls, which took me a few days due to the ninety degree heat and breaks taken to clear spider webs out of my hair. I recounted these attempts to a friend and she replied, “You’re knitting the garden.” I had to agree. She said, “You’re Elmer Fudd,” and I had to agree once again. Perhaps adulthood is switching your allegiances. Bugs Bunny doesn’t get my vote anymore, I’m Team Fudd, through and through, in these uncertain times, Acme. Perhaps a pandemic is a time best reserved for your partner to see you slowly unravel at the seams and remain by your side. I’m grateful to be lost and in love. But I’m still lost. I really am sorry Dave, they’re… they’re all gone.

The squirrel is my enemy but he is also my muse. I now have drive. I have vision. When the pandemic hit, everyone comfortingly told each other that this was not the time to make your next masterpiece, but I’ve begun to suspect those people were secretly working on their novels that whole time. For most of us music-making types, however, this pandemic has been a death sentence not only to our last bastion of income, but also to the lifeblood of what was pure and great about the entire musical experience: people in a room. 

For the economy of touring, if people in the room spread a disease, then we can’t do it anymore. For the joy of making music, it just isn’t the same if you’re not sharing a physical space. In fact, it’s not even close. In fact, it doesn’t deserve the same language. A streaming concert online shall henceforth be known as an “Attempt.” The peak compliment of “great show” can now be replaced by “Nice Try.” Call me cynical, call me realistic, it doesn’t really matter. The moment I make the best of this situation is the moment I forget how important it all really was, the way it was. Not the negligence of being backed into a corner by a shriveling music industry, no, that was never okay the way it was. But people in a room made all of the nonsense worth it. And now we have only buffering to look forward to. And lag. Sweet sweet lag. Thoreau never wrote about lag when he was quarantined on Walden. Then again, I heard his mom secretly brought him snacks, so maybe in these uncertain times HDT’s mom would let him use her phone as a hotspot. 

Pandemic lockdown occurred in the middle of a tour. I was out with Jenn’s band, Wye Oak, and we had conquered an East Coast run of seven shows with long drives and full clubs. The tour began at the Mothlight in Asheville, a truly beautiful space, not aesthetically but in spirit, shows just always have been great there. I wish we had known that we would be the last show to ever happen there before it closed for good. After our final show in Richmond, we said “see ya” rather than goodbye, because our West Coast leg was set to start in Seattle a few weeks later. 

We all know what happened, but needless to say as soon as the work was all vaporized, we found a way to leave the city where I could be in nature and we’ve been woods-hopping ever since, which led us to North Carolina, where you, Dave, had been woods-hopping before us. And the relationships forged from previous lives built on the joys of people in rooms led to the generosity that has put us here, just a few miles away from where Jenn lives. So despite the chaos and unraveling, I do get to see my friend, I do get to see my bandmate. 

At a certain point, I learned that I could not keep the squirrel out. Instead, I merely aimed to confuse him with the variety of materials I employed, different types of netting and chicken wire, twine and zip ties and wire and old chewing gum and shoelace, surely presenting the evidence of a mind gone to waste, clearly the proof of someone not to be further messed with. A loose cannon. A human being, damn it. 

Remind me what a tomato tastes like, for I do not remember. That memory has been replaced by new, worthless information, of what people claim a squirrel does not like. People claim a squirrel hates coffee grounds. Not mine. The garden became more coffee grounds than dirt, and I swear I saw him out there with a tiny pour-over and an acorn cap full of half & half, asking the aphid behind the counter for the wifi password (it’s m0rningd3w123). People claim a squirrel hates hot chilis and that if you, or in this particular case I, distill dried Thai chili peppers with hot water and blend it up and put it into a spray bottle that you spray on all your tomato plants every few nights, it will keep the pests away. I can’t help but wonder if my dude likes a spicy tomato. Or if he values wasting my time above all else. Then again, what else would I be doing? Floundering, that’s what.   

The last time I saw Jenn, she was singing her songs to a crowd, and I was playing a keyboard or a saxophone. She was pummeling the guitar. It was transcendent and all the people in the room were more fortunate than they even knew.

But I now have gotten to see a different side of transcendence in Jenn, as she ran down to the garden, screaming at the enemy, running laps around the garden beds to chase the squirrel out the door and up a tall tree.

And so, though our ability to create sounds together with an clear goal has been hindered, the squirrel has given me and my fellow human beings a shared goal, something to work towards. And like our work in the music industry, the work is never done. You do not reach a level and say, “I have made it and that is that, and it is good.” Instead, a micro-goal is achieved, then you look up to the next one, and continue forth, hopefully sometimes happy, but never truly satisfied. This may also be true of our foe, which would explain his unquenchable passion for tomato consumption. You eat one tomato, and sure, it’s great, but what then? What do you do about tomorrow? Eat another tomato that’s what. 

I thank the squirrel for giving us focus, and I curse him for eating every single tomato in the garden. I love the squirrel for gobbling my time and drawing my attentions away from what scares me most. I do wish I hadn’t knit the garden together, though. I admire the squirrel for his efficiency in setting a goal and accomplishing it. I’d like to be more like him, in that I’d like to wake up each day with a purpose. I’d like to be more like him, as well, by eating more tomatoes from the garden. You can’t win them all I suppose. Unless you’re the squirrel. Then you can win them all. Maybe that’s what I’ll take from all this. But I can’t really think straight, Dave. I’m too hungry.

Your friend and failing gardener, 


PS: Don’t even ask me about the jalapeño plant and the hornworm caterpillar.

Adam Schatz is a musician, writer, record producer and human being. His band Landlady has three records out and another on the way. He most recently produced Allegra Krieger’s album The Joys of Forgetting and has successfully cooked pad thai, soup dumplings and bagels since the pandemic began. He has a monthly Patreon page and that is currently his only monthly income, isn’t that cool? His favorite new hobby is getting emailed by coffee shops he’s been to once. Find him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here.

(Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)