It’s been just over a year since COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Among all the ways the virus has changed our lives, it has forced us to spend a lot more time at home. Many have used that time to pick up new hobbies and skills, but our projects haven’t always gone the way we wanted.
At BESIDE, we think failure is just as important as success, so we asked our readers, collaborators, and teammates to share the small victories as well as the bumps, blunders, and backfires on their pandemic-era DIY adventures. Here are some of your stories.
Eric makes soap
For Eric Parent, life during the pandemic has been a lot like hibernation. Most of his plans were put on hold by the virus, and with more time on his hands, it seemed like a perfect occasion to attempt one of his dreams: to make ancient black soap using animal fat and wood-fire ash.
Homemade soap wasn’t new to Eric, who has long been fascinated by emergency preparedness and survivalism. Rather than accumulate objects and food, he’s focused on learning useful self-sufficiency skills, including making his own soap in his kitchen. With his training as a chemist, he has found it relatively easy to work with the caustic soda and follow the recipe (even if his kids make fun of him for his Breaking Bad-style lab goggles and gloves).
But making soap from animal grease presented a greater challenge.
Inspired by the inventiveness of ancient people who made soap from the simple things around them, he started harvesting chicken fat — usually after making meals in the slow cooker — and storing it in the freezer.
For ash, he had all he needed in his wood-burning stove.
While there are plenty of instructional videos online, there are no easily accessible recipes for ancient black soap, and so anyone attempting it must take an experimental approach. This suited Eric. When he had finally collected enough grease, he removed the impurities, combined the ingredients, and poured the mixture into the mould.
Everything seemed to go perfectly, but when he checked his creation the next day, the soap was gloopy and gelatinous, not at all the consistency he expected. Though he might have saved it for laundry soap, he was too disappointed — that batch of ancient black soap went into the trash. Next time, when he’s ready to try again, he’ll buy his grease directly from the butcher. He also needs to conduct more research, but he’s optimistic. “It’ll come!” he says.
Aliya bakes bread
Toronto-based artist and podcaster Aliya Pabani started making bread in the first weeks of the pandemic, when, like so many people, she found herself stuck at home with plenty of time. A friend sent her a no-knead sourdough recipe that was supposed to be reliable and easy, which seemed like the perfect place to start.
Sourdough needs a starter, and luckily she was able to pick one up for free from her favourite Italian bakery. “I thought it was weird that they would give you what you need to make your own bread, but now that I’ve made bread, I’m like, ‘Oh no, they know it’s not going to be good,’” she says, laughing.
Her first loaf came out of the oven as a dense little lump. Still, she sent a celebratory photo to her friends. “At the time, just the fact that it turned out as bread felt like a huge victory.”
After that, her loaves improved, but her appreciation for them declined.
As her Instagram feed filled up with beautiful artisanal sourdough, her own bread seemed increasingly imperfect: the bubbles were too small, the crumb too tight.
She obsessively refined her technique and even bought a scale for more accurate measurements, but the bread was never good enough.
Still, there were aspects of baking that she liked, especially the ritual of flipping the dough every half hour, which was always the perfect moment for a break from work. Also, her friends liked eating her bread, even if it wasn’t Instagram-worthy.
Eventually, she had enough, but quitting sourdough isn’t easy. The starter is a living thing that needs food (flour) and water every day, so stopping feels a bit like murder. Aliya soldiered on for a while, but as her work picked up, she couldn’t bake as often. In the end, she was unable to reliably feed the starter, and it died.
Aliya realized that she simply prefers high-quality bread from the bakery to her own. Still, she’s glad that she now knows how to do it. The experience also reminded her how much she enjoys tactile activities, like painting and drawing. Even if her bread wasn’t beautiful, at least it helped her disconnect from the screen and reconnect with her hands.
Hélène grows grass
Hélène Philion, BESIDE’s director of coaching strategy and partner, was returning from a yoga retreat in Costa Rica last spring when the pandemic struck and she found herself confined to her country home in Magog, Québec. As a busy strategic consultant with many clients, losing the travel component of her work gave her several extra hours per day.
The gift of so much time revived her “gentlewoman farmer” side, Hélène says, which in turn led to the purchase of all kinds of gardening equipment and new plants. She soon concocted a plan to rejuvenate her lawn, which after years of neglect had been swallowed by weeds.
So she bought seeds, sowed them by hand, and sprinkled it all with organic fertilizer.
The result? A mosaic of bushy dark green spots, patches of barren desert, strongholds of dandelions, and roving bands of still-more-invasive weeds that took over the garden, the flower beds, and large chunks of the lawn.
Hélène struggled all summer with the weeds, but in the end she realized that she would never get the upper hand. Her only remaining option was to go nuclear. In August she put down a giant sheet of geotextile fabric to kill everything and start over.
This winter and spring, she’s been reading and listening to experts, so when the weather turns warm and it’s time to plant again, she’ll be ready. This year, she’ll plant native flowers and perennials, and she’s even planning a greenhouse: “I got the taste for playing in the dirt,” she says.
Jean Sébastien builds a deck
After a year enduring a progressively souring relationship with his inconsiderate backyard neighbours, Jean Sébastien Lévesque decided to use the pandemic as an opportunity to exercise some vengeance while improving his home at the same time. After suffering through many late-night parties and much loud music, he wanted to make a bit of noise himself, this time with a hammer and nails. So he built a deck. Two, in fact.
Lacking any real skill in deck-building, Jean Sébastien did not enjoy the process, which entailed many YouTube videos, a lot of swearing, and a hefty bill for cedar wood.
Add to that the bitterness of feuding with his neighbours, and the whole experience was pretty miserable. “10/10 would not recommend,” he says.
Still, he managed to put together two decks that stand up on their own, and he learned a few things about building. Even better, his seven-year-old son was highly impressed. “My dad built the porches,” he told anyone who would listen. “Both of them!” Even if it was mostly a bad time, becoming the Conqueror of the Table Saw made the endeavour worthwhile.
After all that work, Jean Sébastien and his partner decided to sell their suburban home and are planning to move to the countryside this summer. “I want a forest around, whether it’s woodland or an urban concrete jungle,” he says. “But the in-between . . . meh.”
Mark raises worms
Last spring at the height of the lockdowns, BESIDE’s associate editor-in-chief, Mark Mann, and his wife, Jocelyn Parr, decided to get more ambitious about their urban gardening plans. After sprouting seeds on their windowsills, they bought several giant pots and a dozen bags of potting soil in the hope of providing themselves with tasty salads from the back deck. But they failed to notice how a row of trees cast the whole yard in deep shadow, so nothing grew properly. By July, they had moved the plants to the roof of the shed, where there is more light, but it was too late.
Determined to make a better run in 2021, Mark bought a worm composting unit in December, along with 1,000 “red wigglers.” According to the instructions, he could expect plenty of worm castings — a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer — by spring. His Worm Factory 360 arrived in time for Christmas, and the worms were delivered by bike courier one freezing night in January. When he opened the bag, a grapefruit-sized ball of slimy pink worms tumbled into his bin.
Mark studied manuals and watched videos — there are many! — about caring for worms, such as how to maintain a nice worm-bed and what to feed them (no meat, dairy, citrus, tomatoes, or onions; lots of vegetable rinds, fruit peels, coffee grounds, crushed eggshells, and other organic goodies).
Still, despite his best efforts, he walked into the basement one morning to find most of his worm population spread out across the floor, shrivelled and dead. It was horrifying.
Despite the loss of so many of their comrades, the remaining few hundred worms prospered. Mark figured out that he needs to keep the worm bed more moist, while also providing a top layer of shredded paper and dead leaves where the worms can escape if they need some space. He is optimistic that the coming warm seasons will bring abundance to his garden, thanks to his (surviving) worm friends.
Bianka and Stéphane cultivate mushrooms
Bianka Bernier and her partner, Stéphane Arcand, became interested in growing mushrooms after a walk in the forest with their young son, who wanted to photograph every mushroom he came across. To encourage his burgeoning fascination for fungi, the family first tried foraging, but as mushrooms can only be gathered a few months out of the year, they instead turned to growing them indoors. Over the fall and winter of 2019, Bianka and Stéphane took an introductory course and raised an initial crop in their small apartment using an at-home kit. It worked great and yielded plenty of oyster mushrooms to give as Christmas gifts that year.
At the beginning of 2020, they started another batch. Then the pandemic struck. By late March, when everyone’s anxieties were at their peak, Bianka and Stéphane decided to escape the city and spend a few months at Bianka’s parents’ sugar bush. Before leaving, they placed the pots of growing mushrooms on top of plastic bags on the counter, hoping for the best.
When they returned two months later, the mycelium — that is, the actual mushroom (what we think of as mushrooms are really the fruit) — had ripped through the plastic and begun devouring the wooden countertop.
If they hadn’t come back when they did, the whole counter would have become mushroom food.
Still, Bianka and her family were undaunted. Later that summer, they finally made the move they’d been dreaming about and bought a home on 20 acres in the country, near Rawdon, Québec. With more space, they decided to go beyond the basic at-home kit and try cultivating mushrooms through the whole life cycle. So after more education and planning, they prepared and inoculated the substrate (the material the mycelium grows in) themselves. And to avoid once again making a meal of their furniture, this time they placed their mushrooms on top of a metal surface.
Bianka and her family have fallen in love with the weirdness of mushrooms: how they are neither plant nor animal but their own kingdom. They can seem quite alien, and each type of mushroom has its own personality and peculiarities, Bianka says, as well as their particular food preferences. “With mushrooms, I have a feeling we will never be done learning, and that is really exciting.”
Camille sews a quilt
This past spring, Camille Monette — BESIDE’s Director of Strategy & Content — had an opportunity to meet the quilting artist Marilyn Armand, founder of Le Point Visible. Armand makes gorgeous quilts using traditional techniques and upcycled fabrics, and Camille was inspired by her passion and the rich history of quilting, so she decided to make one herself.
Camille already knew how to sew, having previously studied fashion design. Still, to play it safe, she bought a kit with pre-cut pieces of fabric. She started small, planning to make a gift for a friend who was having a baby. It should have been easy, but with quilting, the easiest part is making mistakes, and Camille made quite a few.
Quilting requires precision accuracy with the sewing machine. A millimetre’s error can throw the whole thing off. Camille’s lines started to go wonky, and she ended up spending hours studying Google videos and trying to rework it.
It seemed that every time she took her quilt off the sewing machine, there was a new surprise to deal with.
In the end, she realized that “a finished quilt is better than a perfect one,” she says. “You have to let it go.” Making mistakes is the only way to learn, and with this first quilt, she learned a lot. Despite the challenges, she found it very meditative. She says she’ll try another quilt, but she’s still working up the energy.
Hélène communicates with animals
The first two weeks of the pandemic were panic-inducing for Hélène Binette, a dog-sitter, but she soon regained her footing by focusing on what she could control and on the good things in her daily life. Although she was still able to continue earning an income in other ways, her dog-sitting clients disappeared, since no one was travelling.
A passionate animal lover since she was little, Hélène decided to compensate for the absence of her furry friends by taking an animal communication course. She was inspired in part by work she had done with a therapy dog, helping people undergoing treatment for cancer. She says each encounter between dog and patient was unique and profound, and it made her want to learn more.
She signed up for an online course, hoping to learn how to communicate with domestic pets like dogs, cats, and rodents, as well as farm animals. But the course was delivered in video segments and offered no direct interaction with the professor.
She quickly realized that she needed human connection in order to learn anything. Without that personal contact, she couldn’t focus or absorb the material. In the end, she dropped out.
Disappointed, she decided to try again with another teacher who offered lessons over Zoom. This time, it worked. She learned that animal communication is fundamentally a form of telepathy. By training yourself to keep an open mind and heart, she says, you can connect deeply with animals.
For Hélène, the big lesson was that she couldn’t learn such a complex skill on her own. She needed contact, support, and opportunities to share her success and failures, as well as to learn from others. She’s practising with her friends’ pets and plans to take a more advanced course in the spring.
Audrey and Etienne fix a barn
For years, Audrey Guy and Etienne Bélanger-Caron have been dreaming about starting a farm where people who struggle to participate in the job market can find meaningful employment. They both still work their day jobs — Audrey is a researcher specializing in mental health and Etienne is the director of an organization serving street-involved people in Sherbrooke, Québec — but these days, they are spending all their free time learning how to run a market garden. Starting next year, they plan to offer “solidarity food baskets,” whereby those who are better off can help fund access to responsibly produced fruits and vegetables for people in need.
In 2016 they bought a property in the country, replete with an old barn that had been built in the 1870s. Their farm project was still just a dream when the pandemic hit, but the experience of working from home in front of their computers all day made them crave a more natural and hands-on way of life.
As a first step, Etienne decided to fix the old barn, which needed straightening. With the help of a neighbour, he attached straps to the sagging crossbeams in order to cinch them up slowly over a period of weeks.
One day, he was tightening one of the straps from the top of a tall ladder when it snapped suddenly, knocking him to the ground.
He fell partly on his head, incurring severe trauma to his cranium and a big concussion that nearly killed him. He was left with permanent hearing loss in his left ear. The beams, meanwhile, continue to sag.
Needless to say, the barn restoration project was put on pause, but once Etienne recovered from his concussion, the couple decided to buy some land adjacent to their property, which included an agricultural building in good condition. With this important step taken, they were able to spend the rest of the pandemic taking their farm planning to the next level. Their social enterprise market garden, À nous la ferme!, will launch officially and start producing organic veggies next year.