I approached the planting of this year’s vegetable garden with an uncommon degree of ambivalence and lassitude. Usually, I’m fueled with an abundance of spring zeal to bring my backyard to life and shake off winter’s lethargy while demonstrating my horticultural chops. Maybe it was New Mexico’s perpetual drought or the beady-eyed varmints who evaded my defenses that had worn me down. Or, more worrisome yet, I wondered if fifty years of gardening had finally placed a damper on that fire in my belly? In a manner that would inspire no one, I did find an old bag of potting mix and reluctantly stuffed a few lettuce, kale, and basil seeds into some containers.
But then Putin invaded Ukraine, buildings in Kyiv crumbled, and the bodies of children lay across the streets of Mariupol. Places we’d never heard of with names we could not pronounce suddenly felt painfully close. Economic sanctions were imposed on the Russians, and the brave Ukrainians became everyone’s favorite underdog with their Alamo defense. First gas prices rose, then food prices, and finally my motivation.
When one friend complained about the high price of gas, it occurred to me that was the price you pay for freedom and democracy, a much smaller price than the one being paid by Ukrainians. When I saw the horror that the Russian military had inflicted, any remaining sympathy for those who complain about $5 per gallon gas dissipated like flared methane from a refinery tower. I told my friend that when we were teenagers filling up our gas guzzlers in 1968, gas was 34 cents a gallon. Inflation alone would bring that same gallon up to $2.80 today, but for cars whose gas mileage is nearly three times better than it was then. The pre-Ukraine war price in my neck of the woods was $3.39 per gallon. Even at $6 per gallon, our high-mileage cars still put us ahead of where we were in 1968.
Holding aside the impact of world events on my wallet, Putin’s actions reminded me of how much I’ve always been influenced by an intolerance for bullies. The one physical fight of my life was with Rickie D., our junior high school’s notorious miscreant who distinguished himself by starting fights with smaller kids. He picked on me one day shortly after I had spent two months at summer camp learning karate. Much to my surprise, I landed a solid kick to his solar plexus that sent Rickie reeling. He never bothered me again.
A few years later I would trade violent resistance for non-violent forms when I refused to submit to induction in the Army. In this case, it was my revulsion for the bullies in Washington who dropped napalm and Agent Orange on Vietnamese villages. McNamara and Nixon didn’t back down as quickly as Rickie, but I like to believe that my one piece of grit, when combined with that of millions of other resisting Americans, eventually ground the country’s war machine to a halt.
I would discover corporate bullies early in my community organizing years. They included supermarket executives who displayed contempt for lower-income neighborhoods by shuttering their long-established chain supermarkets, turning these places into food deserts overnight. My bully list would grow to include owners and operators of factory farms whose disregard for their workers, the air, the water, and of course the animals surpassed all understanding. All of these foes, of course, required more than a well-placed karate kick or acts of civil disobedience, but with the right set of tactics and persistence, even these bullies could be brought to heel.
When it is time for the warrior to oppose the one who harms others, they must avoid losing their own humanity by tarring those who innocently inhabit the bully’s universe. I was reminded of this while viewing a 2003 video of Paul McCartney’s concert in Moscow’s Red Square (Paul McCartney – Back In The USSR (Live – Reprise) – YouTube). As the band and Paul, who was wearing a red t-shirt with “No More Land Mines” emblazoned on it, kicked into “Back in the USSR” every set of Russian hips were soon gyrating to their maximum capacity. Thousands of gleeful concert goers moved as a unified testament to the power of music to bring the world together. But, literally, the only sour puss among the joyful throngs that night was Putin’s. He sat in the VIP seats, expressionless and motionless, using the scenes around him, no doubt, as further confirmation of the West’s decadence.
When Paul sang, “Well those Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind!” I saw in my mind the New York Times photos of uniformed, Ukrainian women, blonde braids dangling, learning how to fire an AK-47 to protect their homeland, families, children, husbands and lovers. If these warrior-princesses are willing to throw themselves into combat against the bully, then I could very well get off my sorry butt and plant a garden, to say nothing of paying a few bucks more for a tank of gas!
As the Red Square crowd made clear, we must separate the bully and his henchmen from the people. Thousands of courageous Russians have protested, resisted, and fled Russia to register their disgust with Putin’s war. And keep in mind that resistance and protest in Russia is not for the “sunshine patriot”—you don’t just get arrested and then released with the help of the nice legal aid lawyer in 24 hours. Speaking out against Putin can get you 15 years of hard time in the gulag.
What’s at stake? My pandemic post (Love in the Time of Corona | Mark Winne) of two years ago urged that we support our local farmers and plant more gardens—ones that we could regard as victory gardens—as insurance policies for the food system challenges that lay ahead. In a similar vein, let’s label this year’s gardens “democracy gardens,” not only to direct our attention to the growing depletion in the world’s food supply, but to acknowledge the dark anti-democratic storm clouds gathering across the globe, and now causing death and destruction in Ukraine.
We pay that policy premium by buying and growing local food; we oppose the world’s slide toward authoritarianism by shoring up sustainable food resources at home and abroad. Autocracy doesn’t just prevail in Russia, it infects China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, and other countries, including our own. Taking a page from the world’s most infamous 20th century dictator’s play book, Trump’s Munich beer hall putsch was January 6, 2021 and his “brown shirts” were his horned bumpkins assaulting the Nation’s capital. Stopping Putin’s rash seizure of Ukraine is the first step in ensuring that democracy’s slide is reversed, both globally and nationally. (If you want to explore the affinity between Trump and Putin, see Trump and Ukraine: Former Advisers Revisit What Happened – The New York Times (nytimes.com)).
How does my garden and your garden help? Just as we decrease our demand for gas by driving less, we can decrease the demand for food by growing more. As the world stares into the face of severe food shortages due to a decline in both Ukrainian and Russian food production this year, every seed and every row that we plant matter. Since Ukraine and Russia combined provide 30 percent of the world’s barley and wheat, disruptions this year could adversely affect “up to 1.7 billion people—a third of whom are already living in poverty,” said a recent United Nations report.
So, those Ukraine girls really knocked me off my couch. I’ve cast off my desultory approach to gardening; I invested in a drip irrigation system to conserve water; I bought chicken manure from my local egg farmer to enrich my soil; I started hundreds of vegetable plants indoors.
Easter weekend found me on my knees, not only to celebrate Christ’s ascension, but to set baby plants into my judiciously composed garden beds. I cradled each tiny stalk between my thumb and index finger, folding their delicate root threads into the soil, and pressing each one into place with just enough force to feel the earth’s spongey resistance. Normally, my rough prayers—more like threats—are for the damn pests to stay away long enough for the plants to reach edible size. But today, my prayers were for Ukraine’s soil to be free of blood and for democracy to be nurtured once again.