The Burden of Privilege
I had intended to write about back to school gardens and children’s gardens, and offer some inspiration for packing healthy homegrown fruit and vegetable packed lunches, but instead I was knocked over by the eye-opening burden of privilege.
While NOLA residents and businesses negotiated the aftermath of yet another catastrophic hurricane, New Yorkers negotiated flooded subway stations, and tornadoes struck Maryland and Pennsylvania, I was basking in the blinding cool heat of the first high-noon 'winter' sun, taking photos of my late-summer front yard garden.
Of course it wasn’t actually winter, but the day had the makings of it. It happens quickly here where I live — suddenly the page turns on the seasons, and the fade unfolds swiftly, abetted by cooler temperatures, damp, much shorter days, and a leaf-bleaching winter quality of light that swallows shadows.
The birds and the bees know it, the squirrels, raccoons, black bear and coyotes know it, and my gardens knows it. Female spiders and their intricate, beautiful webs are suddenly everywhere in my path, plump with eggs and desperate to find a safe spot to build a silken nursery pod in which to deposit their progeny for the winter.
Small children on our street play bicycle and scooter games, having abandoned their bathing suits and water play. The cool breeze blowing down off the mountains assures them that soon they will be back at school, and that another short but delicious summer has passed.
My tiny neighbours Jack and Sophia visited on their bikes, carving trails in the still damp bee turf, noticing with discomfort, the cold wet on their feet. Jack made his usual rounds past the cucumbers trellises, harvesting an Artist Gherkin to take home and devour whole, once peeled. Sophia pinched a fading collection of cosmos and zinnia to first decorate ‘her’ tiny iron table. After gifting a white cosmos to my family, she decorated her pink bike with the remaining blooms, and I walked the children home.
That was yesterday, the first of September. The neighborhood was unusually quiet and calm, yet I was inexplicably unsettled, unable to bask in the pure joy of the garden. My so-called mummy radar was telling me that something was amiss.
I’d been checking on the status of a flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia that our eldest daughter was taking with her business partner. I told myself not to worry, that they would be fine; that flights are delayed by headwinds, air traffic, and all manner of interruption, every day, all year long. But the disquiet was persistent, and relentless.
Eventually, I received a text from our eldest daughter; a note of reassurance that she had landed safely at PHL. Her comforting message tempered a heart-stopping screenshot of a local Emergency Alert travel warning related to hurricane Ida.
Her plane had been unable to land during four consecutive attempts, due to what she described as ‘crazy rain’. Our three children grew up outside in perpetual rain, in a coastal rainforest, so indeed this rain must have been crazy, and powerful. Crazy is an accurate description of my mindset at that moment. Crazy with worry, crazy with despair, not just for my daughter, who took the incident in characteristic stride, but for the planet.
A National Public Radio bulletin issued today reads: Ida Brings Historic Flooding To The Northeast, Killing More Than 40 People. And this was the ‘tail end’ of the hurricane?
NPR continued: Hurricane Ida's remnants brought catastrophic levels of rain to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic on Wednesday into Thursday, triggering statewide emergencies as well as the first flash flood emergency issued for New York City.
The storm is blamed for more than 40 deaths, including 23 people in New Jersey, 12 people in New York, five in Pennsylvania, and one each in Connecticut and Maryland.
One flooding victim was just 2 years old, the New York Police Department said.
"We saw a horrifying storm last night, unlike anything we've seen before," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference Thursday morning.
I watched family group chat videos of the beautiful Schuylkill River that intersects the city, rising to heights not seen in 150 years of keeping records. The water was a churned up and muddy mess of chaos, spilling its suddenly murky guts out onto the streets — a wake up call for anyone sleeping through the warnings.
I love Philadelphia. My brother and his wife lived on a small Valley Forge acreage for several years. It is a beautiful and historic city, but like many coastal cities, including my own, it is vulnerable to extreme weather and to rising sea levels. A National Climate Assessment report identified Philadelphia, and PHL airport as particularly vulnerable to storm surges.
What exactly does any of this have to do with back to school, or school lunches? Everything, sadly. Everything and everyone on the planet is connected, so to not pay homage to the pain and suffering of our human family in NOLA, Pennsylvania and New York, in California and British Columbia, in Haiti, in Europe and elsewhere, and head back to school without a plan for change isn’t what we should do.
We can affect positive change, and mitigate climate change. We can radically accept the new not-normal, take responsibility insofar as we are individually and collectively able, and leverage our burden of privilege to affect change.
I am not a farmer, yet I grow rather a lot of food in my urban permaculture front yard garden. My life and my livelihood do not depend on my garden. I can run down to the market and buy what I need, if I choose to. If necessary, my food garden alone can feed my family, and for a time I can lean on the preserved homegrown goods that line the shelves of our pantry. I am without a doubt, privileged.
For the millions of people working in and dependent on the fresh food supply chain — the very people who feed us —these past months of climate change-related extreme weather have been extraordinarily challenging. For some, they have been devastating. Entire annual crops were wiped out in just a few days. Hundreds of lives and billions of dollars, lost. Lost.
It is becoming increasingly clear that home food gardens of all shapes, sizes and ambitions, have a critical role to play in achieving food security at the regional level, and in helping to repair a broken food supply chain.
Just this past weekend, I spent time with two much-loved third generation grocer friends - I’m talking extremely dialled-in produce and consumer packaged goods experts — with whom I was discussing climate change and the impact it will have on supply chains. I asked them too, what they thought about the movement to grow food at home.
They answered that food gardens did not threaten their business in the least; that on the contrary, home gardens reduce pressure on an increasingly pressured fresh produce system, and that the ‘heroic’ commitment to growing food at home, especially with children, engenders a respect and appreciation for the value of fresh produce that benefits society and the grocery industry as a whole.
I was relieved and inspired to hear what they had to say. The economic back story however, the story that we will read about and experience very soon has yet to unfold.
I was able to read over their shoulders, the wholesale costs for produce coming online just after and since the three heat waves, drought and extreme weather that struck the Pacific Northwest and pretty much the entire west coast of North America this summer. Price increases of 100% over last year, in many cases are on the near horizon, and most of those tied to shortages. So, price increases, and supply shortages — that’s significant.
And what about animal food crops? Some farmers in the U.S. and in Canada had no alternative but to fire-sale drought-struck livestock, or turn commodities grown for human consumption into animal feed. Along shorelines, billions of shellfish and intertidal animals cooked in the heat. I experienced this baking phenomenon myself on a very small scale when my watercress pond cooked its contents. Wells in farming communities ran low unseasonably early this year, and in some cases dried up entirely, putting both people and livestock in jeopardy.
We have friends who farm cattle, or used to, before extreme weather threatened their livelihoods and put their tax beneficial farm status at risk. Where we live, farmers have been given a COVID-related pass for 2020 farm income requirements, but I haven’t heard or read about a survival strategy for farmers, related to the widespread impacts of climate change.
Absolutely, we will experience the economic impact of these broken links in the food chain, but as a resilient species we will adapt. We have adapted to change throughout history, and in times of food crisis, we have banded together. The Great Depression and both Great Wars sent entire populations into food security service. We can do it again. We have the means and we have beneficial new technology.
Climate scientists tell us that this year’s extreme weather is not random or an anomaly. The United Nation’s 2021 Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change confirms that extreme weather is here to stay, and that we better wake up and plant food at home. Okay that’s not true, the report didn’t really say to plant food at home, but it did say that we must accept and mitigate climate change, and quickly. Climate change cannot be reversed, but planting food gardens helps mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.
As individuals, citizens, parents, families, there isn’t all that much we can do on a micro level. At a macro level, federal leaders must get busy legislating and directing change for the better, and we must influence them with our votes and then support them with our cooperation.
At home, each and every one of us can reduce our carbon footprint, reduce consumerism, plant trees, share what we have with those who have less, and most important — plant a food garden. Big or small, short or tall, inside or outside, just plant the seeds of change that will help build food security for you and for your community.
The pandemic has kept the vast majority of us closer to home, with more time to spare. Why not use that time wisely to grow food, to band together in food security service?
I don’t know so much about it really, in the scheme of things, but I’m here to share what I do know with anyone who asks. I know for example, that adopting urban permaculture principles at home makes the food gardening process easier and more resilient, more able to adapt to climate change.
Just 17 months ago, I began transforming our barren front yard of soccer and Japanese beetle ravaged grass, into an urban permaculture garden of eden. Each and every day, the garden takes my breath away, and I am struck by the power and intuition of nature to self-direct and do what she needs to do to build and restore edible ecosystems.
The great long story of how it all works and why, and how to apply the ethics and principles of permaculture, is for another day. If you are interested in the deep dive, please read my past articles, but for now I think we all need a little hope, and some good news.
My gift to you this first week of September is to share some beautiful, high-noon photos of nature growing delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables (and one tiny veggie dog) in and around modest and decidedly un-fancy raised beds made out of inexpensive wood fencing material, in an urban front yard like any other.
I hope these images inspire you to try your hand at growing food. And if you are already growing food, to grow more and share what you know and learn, with someone who doesn’t.
If I can grow food, anyone can, seriously. We live in a temperate rainforest, above the snow-line, on the side of a mountain, along the 49th parallel — not exactly farm country. Let’s do this, let’s leverage our privilege!
Until next week, happy gardening!