Years from now we may well remember the date with a certain mythic significance. March 11, 2020: the day the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic. I was returning from the Banff Centre, where I had been in residence for a few days to work on manuscript edits, and my husband and I were looking down the business end of the spring’s farm work. By the time I got back up north to the farm, everything had already begun to shift: Borders were closing, cities were contemplating quarantine, toilet paper had become a hot commodity and seeds were flying off the shelves at such a rate that seed sellers were temporarily closing their doors, overwhelmed.
Each week of the unfolding pandemic took on its own peculiar personality. The week when everyone stormed the shops. The week when schools closed down and went online. The week when we all tried to meet our fear by taking up breadmaking. The week when we started to realize the very real emotional toll this pandemic would exact from all of us, and the week when we began to wonder what we could do to keep up a sense of hope.
I teach and I run a small-scale organic farm, two jobs that seem to occur in absolutely different worlds and communities. But both ultimately have a lot to do with hope. When I work with my students, I put my faith in their ability to meet me halfway in just about every challenge—including the current challenge of moving our classes online. When I’m out in the fields, I put my faith in our market garden to stand up to the weather and to make the most of the amendments we’ve given the soil in order to produce an abundant crop.
I see hope in the frontline workers, showing up to jobs in spite of fears for their families and their personal safety.
I’m thinking a lot about that sense of necessary hope these days, not just as something that will gain importance in rebuilding after the crisis point of the pandemic passes, but as something very real and immediate, something needed right now for the spirit as much as for the community. Rebecca Solnit’s words from Hope in the Dark come to mind more and more often as the weeks wear on: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”
I see this hope every day during this pandemic in the front-line workers who are showing up to their jobs in spite of their own fears for their families and their personal safety. It’s there in all the young people showing up to school online in this strange new world we’ve had to create outside the bounds of our usual safe classrooms. I see it in all those crafters and innovators busy creating protective gear for our community and making sure that the most vulnerable among us get it, and in all the volunteers stepping up to do grocery runs or drop-offs for those of us who can’t access the stores. I see it clearly in the farmers and ranchers around me who are working hard to try and fill the gaps in our food system.
The way forward has a lot to do with us looking out for each other, especially as the weeks wear on and more and more of us find ourselves out of work. We’ve already flooded the seed houses with orders, so what about sharing some of our seedy bounty with our neighbours (maintaining social distancing, of course)? If we’ve got the space, we could grow a garden together and divide up the produce among families, plant some extra rows for the local soup kitchen and teach ourselves to can and preserve (if we don’t have our elders to learn from, there’s an awful lot out there on YouTube). If we’re in an urban setting and we don’t have the space to contribute to our food security, but we have the means, then perhaps we can buy a summer share in a local CSA program (community supported agriculture) to support our growers.
And we can keep doing all the wonderful things we already do, urban and rural alike: educate, create, celebrate, uplift. Solnit advises us in her book The Faraway Nearby that “[w]e make ourselves large or small, here or there, in our empathies,” and this is good, grounding advice to keep in mind while we struggle to come to terms with how everything around us is changing.
We will all feel overwhelmed at times, and over the coming weeks and months the dynamics of need and strain will impact each of us. Ultimately the road from here is going to be determined by how we show up for one another and for our communities.
Jenna Butler teaches environmental and creative writing in Red Deer and runs an off-grid organic farm near Barrhead.