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Where is Real Food in dark times? – Journal Review

In these waning days of Daylight Savings Time, it was barely light when I went out to whack down giant, frost-withered stalks of canna with loppers. I’d done a couple of invigorating, winterizing projects in the yard that morning already including slow-dancing a gigantic blue yard vase that comes up to my shoulders, step-by-step, into the shed.
So what gives here? “When you’d just as soon weep all day, best to work all day,” I’d told myself, hauling myself vertical and walking out to the kitchen to chop vegetables and mix up pepper-studded cornbread while it was pitch dark outside. Once the bread was in the oven, I started on a batch of skillet beans. Keep moving, keep moving …
Everyone has days, I guess, when, as the Gullah people say, “I been in sorrow’s kitchen and done licked out all the pots.” Sometimes the weight of the world, the weight of one’s own life, the turning of the seasons, just bear down and must be acknowledged. Blues must be sung.
Maybe this is especially true in an autumn like this one whose foliage has been so spectacularly on fire that people can’t help themselves: Facebook and Instagram have blown up daily with beyond beautiful photos of trees from everywhere in the leafy half of our country. One incandescent orange/yellow/purple/red phalanx of trees against an azure sky follows another. I hope you’ve been out enjoying and snapping your own visions of our autumnal beauty.
Today, however, though it’s still sunny and warm, it’s bleakness I feel. This week leads up to 2022’s last big Harvesting-of-Everything. The end of October means we must stare All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead, and Halloween straight in the face. Can we even stand it? Endings, absences, eternal, decaying seasons stand sentinel. What a weight.
And, such a contrast to a week ago. I had big loppers in tow that day too and felt pretty great. Bundled up in many layers, wearing hat and gloves and shivering on that 45-degree afternoon of spitting snow from the lowering, gray cloud cover, my friend and I had met up and joined a brigade of honeysuckle hunters and choppers, tasked with taking down a tiny bit of the invasive bushes that are doing so much damage to our local forest ecosystem. During the last few years, I’ve watched a treasured, expansive black raspberry patch along the CHS forest edge be completely overcome by honeysuckle. My pal and I were part of a Weed Wrangle, sponsored by the Soil and Water Conservation District. This cutting frenzy was a SICIM (State of Indiana Cooperative Invasive Management) project. (That delightful acronym suggesting “Scat! or “Get out of here!” seems an intentional comic contrast to the sprawling title of the government office that oversees it.) We chopped the horrible honeysuckle down by the truckload that afternoon.
But I digress … Those cannas I was lopping down in the dim morning light -— why in the world bother with them? After all, cannas not only have to be chopped off, their bulbs have to be dug up and stored. Furthermore, they’re about as far as you can get from a native species. Cannas are native to the West Indies, for heaven’s sake, and were first taken to Portugal and Spain in the late 1500s, but got popular in this country after the l893 Chicago World’s Fair (the Columbian Exposition) when “huge crowds and rave reviews greeted an enormous planting of cannas” as described by Liberty Hyde Bailey in Garden and Forest.
Cannas would no doubt lead the SICIM list if they weren’t big, ole teddy bears that can’t overwinter in our climate. So, I’ll be coddling them: putting them in crates, covering them with tarps in a warm corner of the garage.
Each autumn I deeply relish and slightly dread canna dig day. I have dug them in adverse weathers — think cold wind, cold rain, sleet. Today I’ll be digging in shirtsleeves and shorts. These corms have history: I got them from a Farmers’ Market vendor some long ago spring and have performed their required hard work every spring and fall since.
Cannas are not poisonous to animals, nor can they spread. Sure, they make a tall show of tropical grandeur, but why invite work? Since I am a gardener who eschews impractical work and non-native plants, messing with cannas makes me a hypocrite at best, more likely a pure idiot.
That statement, however, misses one central fact: my grandmother and my mother grew cannas. In my favorite photo of her, my grandmother, wearing a simple print dress, and her practical shoes, stands in her Iowa farmyard, squinting into the sunlight, in front of a tall row of cannas. They dwarf her. The photo is black and white but not to me. It is full of color and sunshine-y smells and breezes. I can hear the chickens in the nearby yard. Grandma Emma Diller has been gone 60 years but not in the canna garden and not in this paragraph.
So maybe the blues will seep out of me as I shove that shovel into the ground again and again later today. Maybe. There are other ways to soak up sorrow. I fire up some classic Mississippi Blues with just a click or two on an iPad. John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters know of what they sing. That hard, heartbeat strum of guitar behind the wailing voice pours into a room, into a heart.
Our trees are headed to bare sticks and cold rattling; fuel prices are going high; everybody is fighting, but when Muddy or John Lee hits his guitar hard and pushes back at the dark, and says, “Walk with Me and Be Happy” no matter what the Sad, I believe ‘em. “Rock Me, Mama, All Night Long.”
So stand on up, keep cutting out your invasives. Stretch, breathe, keep your balance.
Look bravely toward the darkening horizon and head right on down that lonely, lovely roadway into winter. Add some harmonica and maybe some bass to keep you strong. You’ve got the tools. Pull on those boots. See you on the other side of dark.
 
Dr. Helen Hudson provides her Real Food column to the Journal Review.
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