We are now swamped by a microscopic virus whose backlit photos suggest an organism of luminous beauty rather than one of mass destruction. In a manner not unlike the “cocooning” that we employed during the aftershock of 9/11, we are told to self-quarantine, social distance, and shelter-in-place by public health folks whom we now lean on the way a drunk leans on a lamp post. During 9/11, almost 19 years ago, we watched in horror as a massive plume of black smoke carried the molecules of thousands of lost souls into the skies over metro New York City, soon to waft, serene as a host of angels, over the Atlantic Ocean. Clinging together desperately against the incomprehensible chaos, we never found an answer to our collective question of “why?” Many of us drowned in grief, some were shocked into silence, others marched off to the nearest military recruiting station like their grandfathers had in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lacking an obvious foe – Al Qaeda terrorists or Japanese militarists – we may be even more stunned by the onslaught of the coronavirus, today’s “enemy” whose source – metaphysical and physical – seems uncertain at best and against which we cannot send bombers or battalions of young men and women. Hunkering down, closing down, and cancelling all that propels our reason for living are anathema to our social natures which cry out for engagement, revenge, and reassertion of a dignity now denied by something absolutely unseen. Our leaders do their best to gird our loins for a passive war even when our first response is to attack, not to seek cover.
Standing down from the things we love in times of a pandemic – the company of others, good food and beverage, my eight now cancelled Spring speaking engagements – frustrates the pursuit of passions we hold dear. In Nobel prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera we recognize that the Spanish meaning for cholera (colera) is as much anger and passion as it is a disease. The novel’s characters struggle with overwhelming amorous feelings held against a backdrop of a country-consuming illness. As we navigate our way through a public health crisis not seen since the early days of the Aids/HIV epidemic, our success or failure this time around, as it was with 9/11, will rest on how we find new but challenging ways to love in the face of the indifferent disease.
Using her latex-gloved hand, the farmer gently moves my grasping paw away from the neatly stacked heads of lettuce. I realized this was no longer the good old farmers’ market days of picking through the bins or holding the apples up for inspection. The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market is now practicing safe shopping – instead of “pick your own” we’re now doing “you point, I’ll pick.” This Saturday’s winter market was missing one-third of its normal vendors and the crowd was down by that much as well. While people seemed a bit nervous – six feet distance between customers being impossible to maintain at a farmers’ market – they were happy to be there, reassured perhaps that some farmers were willing to show up. After all, we were more secure here than we would be at the area’s supermarkets whose aisles were packed to the gills with tense shoppers pushing bulging carts. There was no hoarding at the market, just soft murmurings between friends about those “local meals” they were making at home that evening since their favorite farm to table restaurant was closed for the duration.
And you never have to look too far to always find a tidbit of good news at the farmers’ market. Today’s was that the “Honey Man” was back after his successful rotator cuff surgery over the winter. Believe me, rumors were flying that his return was uncertain which is the kind of gossip that can send shock waves through the faithful. His reappearance alongside beautiful brown quarts of “Bucking Bee Honey” squelched the upsetting noise of rumormongers, thus stabilizing global honey markets, or at least the part of the globe that is Santa Fe. Remember, several farmers’ trucks and their goods were lost beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center on 9/11 while millions of dollars in lost market sales followed in its aftermath at the peak of the Northeast harvest season. Our support (and love) for farmers are as necessary now as then.
Your farmers’ market is just one of many small candles against the darkness. The mutual assistance initiatives cropping up like crocuses are another as neighbors and youth groups organize themselves to deliver food to those who must self-quarantine, or to form phone-trees that will conduct wellness checks. Keeping our farmers in business is obviously important, but so are the numerous other small businesses and individual entrepreneurs who are essential to our communities. One Santa Fe writer offered tips for how to keep a local, independent book store operational even though it must close its doors for now. Two things you can do, he suggested, are to buy coupons from the store now that can be used to make purchases in the future, and to order books directly from the store that they in turn will order for you from their suppliers.
Friends from Jacksonville, Florida (see my new book Food Town, USA) report on the efforts of the Northeast Florida Food Bank to feed their hungry clients. The dire news coming from food banks is that the quantity of food donated by retailers through normal weekly food recovery programs and processes is diminishing. Just as consumers are experiencing empty shelves at their local grocery stores, those same stores are reducing the amount of product to pull from their shelves at night for donation to the food bank. This is forcing them to source paid products to replace any potential shortfall, which means they need cash donations. Food banks are the feeder of last resort for many Americans. This may be a good time to dig a little deeper into your charitable piggy bank.
Likewise, the Northeast Florida Food Bank has experienced an 80-90% reduction in the number of volunteers due to cancellations amid health concerns. They state that, “We are actively seeking more volunteers in the short term while staying within the following guidelines: Maximum of 30 volunteers per volunteer shift, age restrictions, and responding to health screening questions prior to entering the warehouse.” Stepping outside of our immediate comfort/safety zone within an acceptable range of risk may be necessary to fulfill our obligation to take care of our own.
My son, Peter, both a horticulturalist and musician offers this advice to keep both the creative and brewing classes afloat:
I’ve spent a lot of my life dependent on income from professions that revolve around public gatherings (mostly music). Though that’s not the case for me now, my heart aches for my many friends who still are. Please remember there are ways to support them that don’t require public gatherings. Buy a local artist’s album on Bandcamp. Or pick up their LP and have a couple of friends over for a listening party. Grab a six-pack from a local brewery even if you can’t stop by their tasting room. And if the going gets real tough, support their crowd funding requests. Take care of the artists, the small business owners, and all the other weirdos who sacrificed reliable incomes (and often health insurance) to make this world a more creative and dynamic place for the rest of us.
I remain, as I probably always will, a snarling mass of contradiction who’d sooner wear the tattered rags of opposition than don the cloak of stoicism. But when I give myself permission to breathe deeply, to use this good brain that God gave me, I see more clearly the things over which I can gain control, as well as the things that I cannot. Little is accomplished stressing over the numerous lost speaking gigs that I had prepared so hard for, whose notes, data, jokes, power points, and practiced facial expressions are now no more than part of a gathering plume of smoke clouding out the sun. After all, the calendar tells me as does the subtle shift in temperature that Spring is on the land. Better to assert my voice through my too-soft hands and aging back than waste visceral energy on that which has evaporated in the wink of an eye.
Therefore, I have resolved this season to grow the best fucking garden ever! To that end I have expanded my raised bed space by 50 percent, amped up my Johnny’s Seed Catalog order, and just finished loading and unloading 400 pounds of bagged, composted manure. The hardworking, fast moving young man at the Lowes Garden Center who helped me with the manure told me that, “Its crazy around here. We’re all running because business is up 13 percent this week.” When I asked him what they were selling, he said, “Freezers.” Well, I thought, I’m working the production end of the food chain where I’ll grow enough for me, my neighbors, and even the food pantry. I’m not taking a survivalist, store and hoard, shelter-in-place approach. I’m attacking this “enemy” head on with my rake, hoe, and wheel barrow.
I will urge the same upon you, my friends. The times, the circumstances, and the soft scent of Spring call us to join a campaign that we might annoint “Victory Garden 2020.” Let’s fight back against the pandemic by digging and planting as much good earth as we can, household by household, community garden plot by community garden plot, window box by window box. The love of our land, the love of good food, and the love for each other, shared with heart and muscle, will win the struggle.