Ed. note: The following is the second excerpt from long-time Resilience.org featured author Christine Patton’s (written under the pen name C.S. Patton) new novel, Seed. You can find out more about the book here.
Sunday dawned bright and mild. October, like most months in Oklahoma City, could vary wildly in weather, and the city’s residents knew they might need anything from sunscreen and flip flops to hats and scarves. Today, Skye outfitted the family with baseball caps and hoodies so they would be comfortable working at the Earth Magic community garden throughout the day.
When Skye, Craig, and Katie finally mobilized and advanced toward the garden, Craig was burdened with a backpack filled with picnic lunch, thin blanket, and miscellaneous necessities: gardening gloves, water bottles, library paperback, cellphone. Katie scampered ahead, eager to see her friends.
“Katie!” Craig called. “Not too far.” He was trying to treat Katie like he always had, give her the freedom to explore, but after what had happened he couldn’t resist the urge to keep her near.
“What are we doing today, o my darling, my dear?” he asked Skye. “To what purpose will my muscles be turned, my back be bent?”
“Well, o my beast of burden,” she said. “We’ll be harvesting okra, apples, and watermelons, and tearing out the dying vines around the outside of the garden.”
Within a few minutes, they could see the Earth Magic garden, already bustling with volunteers ready to pluck, dig, compost, mulch, and water during the general work day. Earth Magic was located on elementary school grounds and was one of the largest urban community gardens in Oklahoma City. Small family plots in the center were surrounded by larger communal areas planted with rambling vines: watermelon, pumpkin, butternut, and spaghetti squash vines that needed room to sprint fifteen feet in the summer growing months.
Although the community garden was completely unguarded, Craig had stopped worrying about the lack of security at Earth Magic years ago. Peaches disappeared regularly, but most people were not interested in stealing turnips and butternut squash. Now, with fresh food in such short supply, Craig’s security concerns returned. As he and Skye approached the garden, he began considering how the area could be protected. A fence would be too expensive, and human guards would be impractical. Maybe a Rottweiler?
Arlo and Sela, the garden organizers, were directing the traffic of volunteers from the toolshed and gazebo, both crafted of recycled wood, the boards neatly fitted together and painted a bright turquoise. Craig had helped build the toolshed years ago, amazed at how the couple managed to scrounge supplies and parts for all their schemes. Arlo had lived in Oklahoma City for forty-something years and could find free materials for virtually any project under the sun. He had even found a replacement bumper for Craig’s Corolla for five dollars a few years ago, and had attached it free of charge.
Arlo was wearing an Earth Magic shirt as always; today’s version was a faded blue that contrasted the orange and red paisley bandana securing his wild gray hair. Although his frame was wiry, his coffee-colored forearms displayed muscles hardened through a lifetime of gardening, repairing cars, and carpentry work. The only neat thing about him was his carefully trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee.
Sela was slightly tidier than her partner in her simple plaid work shirt, jeans, and primeval-looking Tevas. “I think Sela’s the closest thing to an angel this side of heaven,” Skye had once confessed, and Craig had nodded, thinking that sometimes, angels wore grubby disguises. Sela was the only woman he knew who never painted her toenails. More power to her, he thought. Although she had bright, silver-white hair, wrinkles seemed to bounce off her café au lait skin, which glowed with the joy she somehow spread to everyone she encountered. Katie, and everyone, adored her.
“The apples are ripe!” Sela announced to the small crowd assembled at the garden, and a happy cheer was followed by some impromptu dancing. Arlo and Sela handed out an assortment of large containers for the apple-pickers. Selecting two buckets, Craig and Skye headed to one of the trees drowning in apples. The lowest branches were so heavy they almost kissed the ground. Skye and Craig stepped up to remove the apples within reach, twisting them until they dropped into their hands.
An elderly Latino gentleman with a shiny charcoal moustache directed a younger relative to the center of the tree, gesturing at him to take hold of the trunk. “OK, everyone—back out from under the tree!” called the younger man, as he gripped the middle of the trunk, which was as wide as a slender man’s chest, and began to shake it. Within a few seconds, dozens of apples rained down from the upper branches. Katie ran over, black ponytail flying, and they all began to pick up the apples, examining each one, putting some in their basket and a few in the bucket for the second-rate fruit destined for applesauce or chicken feed. After the bulk of the apples had been gathered from the ground, Arlo brought a ladder so they could pluck the few still stranded in the upper branches.
“How’s the garden?” Skye asked Arlo as he set up the ladder between two of the larger branches. Most of the volunteers moved on to the next tree, and they heard a shout as apples began to thump the ground.
“Better than I could expect,” Arlo said. “The new techniques—the deep mulch, irrigation tape and rain swales—they really helped this year, even with the drought,” he told them, bending down to collect the remaining apples. Skye leaned to help. Katie climbed up the ladder while Craig held an empty bucket for her harvest.
Arlo and Sela had traveled to Detroit last winter to train with their community garden and urban farm organizers, who were planting the semi-abandoned parts of the city with vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees. The couple had returned with plans to combat the three-year drought that had driven away even some of the most loyal members of Earth Magic, who were tiring of the 110-degree heat and crispy brown tomato plants. The success of the new techniques had lured most of their volunteers back, and Earth Magic was swarming with workers once again.
“I think she meant the code enforcement tickets,” Craig said. The city had sent a squad of officers through the neighborhood last week. They had trampled through every front, back and side yard in a three-block area, issuing tickets totaling over a thousand dollars.
“We’re trying to comply, but they keep telling us the tomato plants are weeds and have to be mowed down.” Arlo shook his head and shrugged. “They gave us ten days to pull them up. We’re holding off for now, though. I think we can get a reprieve.”
Craig saw Skye purse her lips, but then she looked at Katie’s happy face and said nothing about bureaucracy and institutionalized persecution.
“How are you doing with the bank holiday?” Craig asked Arlo. Banks and airlines had been closed for two days now.
“It’s not bothering us,” Arlo said. “We don’t buy much. We grow most of our food, even at this time of year, and we can get around on our bikes pretty easily in this part of town. But…“Arlo paused. “Our friends at the church aren’t going to be so fine,” he said, referring to the homeless, poor, and temporarily jobless people he and Sela fed at the church each week. “This kind of thing always hits them worst.”
Katie had wandered off to join a group of children dancing in the grass outside the garden. The kids joined hands and circled Katie, who was singing:
Ring around the rosies
pocket full of posies,
ashes, ashes, we all fall down!
The kids all fell to the ground together, laughing hysterically.
“Creepy,” Skye said and shivered. Craig raised his eyebrows in question.
“It’s about the Black Plague,” she said. “The first sign of the plague was a rosy rash, and superstitious people, which was basically everyone back then, carried posies—flowers—to keep the disease away. There were so many corpses during the plague years they couldn’t bury them all. They had to burn them instead.”
“Nice,” he said.
“We’ve had plagues since people crowded together in cities and didn’t know how to handle their poop,” she said. “And thought bathing was sinful.”
“Thank God for fresh water and sewage systems, huh?”
“And civil engineers,” she said.
Together with Arlo, they began hauling the apple baskets back to the pavilion by the toolshed, where some of the volunteers were beginning to set up lunch.
“You think we’ll ever have a plague like that?” Craig asked. A virulent disease that offed most of the population was a common scenario in disaster movies, but he had always thought it was rather unlikely. Gruesome, dramatic, but unlikely. Nothing in reality killed that fast.
“You mean here in America? It doesn’t get much attention here, but plagues like AIDS are still ravaging entire countries. And you never know when something like Ebola will get out of control.”
“But that’s Africa. They don’t have any public health infrastructure there.”
“I don’t know. Some viruses are like sharks. When they smell blood in the water, they strike. Think of the super-flu from World War I. It killed sixty million people, mostly because of the conditions—people were starving. Their immune systems were already weakened.”
“Have you gotten Katie the flu shot yet?” Craig asked suddenly. World War I and Africa seemed fairly distant. But he remembered how pathetic he had felt the last time he had the flu nine years ago. He had barely been able to push buttons on the television remote.
“I was waiting until later in the season, but maybe we should all get one now. I’ll see if my boss will let me bring the nasal vaccinations home.” Skye’s manager at the hospital was notoriously flexible, excusing Skye’s occasional migraine-induced absences, assuring her that her productivity while at work far outweighed the problem.
Quiet now, Craig and Skye arranged their picnic lunch on the grass amidst several other families. Soon, the ground was a patchwork of blankets, plates, kids, and food. Their neighbor Benicia and her family sat next to theirs, and Skye realized the apple-shakers were her relatives. Benicia leaned over to thank Skye for the formula she had dropped off yesterday, and Katie and her friend Elena plopped down on their blanket, grabbing their water bottles. Soon they were all chatting in a mix of English, Spanish, and hand gestures as they ate their sandwiches.
After lunch, they returned their tools back to the shed and found a mound of food ready for them to transport home.
“This is too much!” said Skye, crouching down to look through the pile.
“Your fair share,” said Sela, smiling. “If you get the chance, save the seeds and bring them back to me for the seed bank.” She was cleaning the tools as they were returned to the shed, scraping off the dirt that had accumulated during the day’s work, then rinsing and oiling them. “We’re an official seed saver for the Southern Seed Exchange.”
“How are we going to eat all this before it rots?” asked Craig.
“Oh, the pumpkins and winter squash will last at least a month or two. Eat the tomatoes, okra, and eggplants this week. Or you can leave them here to be donated to the soup kitchen. We’ll use them up in the Wednesday meal.”
Skye began sorting some produce to donate.
“Hey Sela,” Craig said. “Have you considered getting a guard dog for Earth Magic? All this stuff is left unprotected every night…”
She considered for a moment, then shook her head. “Not practical, especially with winter coming. We can’t leave a dog outside in freezing temperatures.”
Craig hesitated, then shrugged. At least he had tried. And he couldn’t think of other realistic security measures to guard such a wide-open space.
“By the way, we’re having an apple-dehydrating and beer-brewing party this afternoon,” Sela said, changing the subject.
Skye glanced obliquely at Craig as Katie jumped up and down, squealing, “Yes! Yes!” Craig nodded. Brewing beer sounded like a pretty interesting way to spend an evening. Otherwise, it would be more of the same depressing news on television, with much speculation but little content.
Sela conveyed the directions to the party, adding, “Bring a knife and cutting board!”
Photo teaser image: Urban Neighbors Facebook page.