“God knows the law of life is death.” John Pock, poet
It came suddenly the way weather does in New Mexico’s summer monsoon season. Not suddenly in the sense of unexpected – any sentient being out and about on this breathtakingly perfect Santa Fe day would notice the cloud funnels gathering force across multiple horizons. But suddenly like a panther that has silently stalked its prey from a high rock cliff, content to be still for hours, moving imperceptibly until the moment for the kill was certain, and death would arrive without a struggle.
The first hint came as the almost-always blue sky slipped into a muddy gray. Anyone observing the homestead from a nearby mountaintop could see a massive ice curtain descend across a mile diameter of landscape, obscuring even the silhouettes of homes. Outdoor thermometers would plunge from the high eighties to the sixties. And if you were unlucky enough to be caught outside with an unprotected head, you scalp would soon sustain lacerations.
For those inside homes now devoid of mid-day sunlight, they could no longer hear themselves talk as the wind screeched and a bombardment of ball-bearing size ice nuggets pummeled the metal roofs. Deafening and ultimately deadly, this hail storm would not be the 30-second burst we’ve come to expect this time of year, but a 15-minute onslaught that left foot-high ice drifts against outside walls and a mass of pulped vegetation in its wake.
When the furies had abated enough to venture outside, the first destination was the vegetable garden. The damage assessment would prove easy: a near total loss except for those root crops safely tucked beneath the soil.
Like Homer’s account of Greek warriors whose mangled corpses were strewn across the Trojan plain, the inventory of the garden’s dead was long and gory. The cornstalks’ golden tassels and elegant green leaves looked as if they had been shredded by some giant clawing beast; tomatoes, only days from setting fruit, were stripped bare of all their leaves as if an infantry division of horn worms had marched through them; the broad leaves of squashes were the executed victims of a mass machine gunning; the beans had been rubbed out as well, their crisp pods gnawed to nothing by the hammering blows of a thousand jagged ice edges. Hanging chads of vegetation dangled everywhere. The garden lay like the aftermath of a 17-car pileup on the New Jersey Turnpike.
There would also be losses not yet realized. They would include the dozen or so quart canning jars that would have been arrayed on the pantry shelf proudly displaying the year’s tomatoes; packs of green beans whose luster would have been carefully preserved in tightly sealed plastic bags; easy-pickled cucumbers (Mark Bittman’s recipe) packed in reused yogurt containers that would have lasted for two months in the refrigerator and shared with everyone in sight; and the extra corn and zucchini fashioned into calabacita that would have filled the freezer.
Yes, it was only a garden. The disaster didn’t rise to the level of public policy. USDA didn’t have a subsidy program for defeated gardeners, not even a “helpline” to provide grief counseling. No community-wide relief effort would be mounted. Fundraisers featuring our resident Hollywood celebrities would not be forthcoming. No compensation could be expected for the hundreds of hours of garden preparation and tending that started in February when the first black specks of onion seeds were nestled into moist potting soil and set under grow-lamps.
But perhaps the greatest blow of all was to my ego. Like a proud peacock, I had strutted my veggie and fruit self-reliance for years, bragging on the fact that we didn’t need to shop at the farmers’ market anymore. I removed my “Grow Your Own” badge of honor – burnished by the sweat of my brow and the grime of dirty hands – and concealed it shamefully in the seed box.
As in sports, there’s always next year. As in our food system, there’s always the supermarket. No shame, I suppose, in joining the ranks of adoring farmers’ market shoppers who utter no regrets over not growing such lovely produce themselves. Starvation is not looming, like that circling panther, to consume us. Our survival is nearly certain. My wounds can be licked, my ego salved, and the summer’s icy slaughter will make great compost for next year’s garden. Chin up, old man, there will be another season.