THE GOING RATE OF PEPPERS: WHAT MY MAGIC IS WORTH
We are in the dog days of late summer down here in the Deep South. Every afternoon, there’s another heat advisory—not that we need to be warned. Southerners can feel the heat threatening to throw a fit after their first cup of coffee.
I was born a spring witch (Aries/April) and have always preferred the bringing forth of fire/sun that accompanies that season. Perhaps more than some folks, my spirit comes to life after the last freeze and sets to bed by Yule. I grapple to understand those friends of mine for whom the fall does not bring some sense of melancholia (what with knowing that winter is hiding behind those orange and red leaves) and struggle even more to comprehend those who are delighted by the frigid sleep that awaits. That is, until this year . . .
It could be that, as a micro-farmer, I’m near exhaustion. The construction of our little high tunnel took up the spring, leaving us to tend to planting much too late and with an undercurrent of panic. It threw me out of balance, as a witch, although it simply could not be helped. The last few weeks have been marked by pepper plants right nearly hurling their late fruit at me, simmering tomatoes on the stove for canning, dehydrating and paring and pickling and preserving until there’s very little left of my day for anything else. In an attempt to be a good steward of the Earth, I’ve created plant life that now hollers for water and fish emulsion like my chickens fuss for feed.
And I know I don’t have to do this . . . sorta. I have a choice. Kroger is twenty minutes away, right? Although, we are not wealthy folks and the food I grow sustains us every winter—but still, we might could technically get by without a garden. Technically.
Trying to explain why this is still not an option to someone is like trying to read poetry on the back of a Harley while ripping down the interstate. There are all sorts of witches out there, but I’m the species that grows my own herbs for teas, tinctures, spells and concoctions. I love Red Zinger Tea—so I planted twenty of the hibiscus plants that create it. In the winter, when I’m cuddled up close to the wood-burning stove in my grandma’s afghan, I will have that tea and take in the sweet/citrus breath of summer.
Let me assure you: there is nothing quite as satisfying as standing over your own vegetable soup with a wooden spoon come January. We have lost the primal and necessary connection to our own food as a culture, and that is grievous to me in the same way that folks lament a dying language, an oral tradition, or an art. We were not meant to disconnect. It’s healthier to eat in season, to allow our bodies to ebb and flow with the berries and peas of spring, the corn and beans of summer, and the pumpkins and ciders of fall.
But, it’s even more than that. Perhaps for no better reason, I’m a witch because I cannot fathom a life outside of the cycle. The seeds I carefully clean and dry and place into tiny brown paper envelopes are the descendants and echoes of past gardens, older rains, and sunshine from a time when my hands didn’t ache and youth was still upon me. I am tending to the cycle of my own growing age, each year growing closer to a time that my ashes will become part of that garden in preparation for a harvest I will not see. I could tell you that my spells and salves and medicine work more effectively when drawn from the herbs I have tended myself. I could tell you that the mosquitos don’t tend to bite me when I eat only the plants that are grown on my own land. I could tell you that’s its free therapy, not to mention exercise, and that it could help ease the weight of a grocery bill. And all of that would be true.
Yet, it still wouldn’t be the reason I continue.
Let’s try it like this: one of my guilty pleasures is a movie called “Doc Hollywood.” Whenever I’m broken by the world, it’s my go-to. In a very early scene, Michael J. Fox’s character slams (by accident) into a picket fence that was in the middle of getting a brand new white coat of paint. The owner of the fence is a judge, who promptly denies the offer of cash for the damage: “It won’t be the same. I built that fence myself! Neither you nor your insurance can pay me for a fence I built myself.” (1) Y’all, I cannot tell you how this resonates with me. Currently, I have three bushels of poblanos, Italian sweet peppers, and habaneros sitting in my kitchen waiting for my little witch ass to haul out the pressure canner and the water bath pot. I’m surrounded by folks who are beginning to commercialize the “small farmer” angle (selling the movement as go-between from farmer and restaurant) who have assured me that I could make a whopping $30 for that haul. Now, that might sound like good math—and I will admit that math is not my strong suite—but those are organic, well/rain-fed, pampered, heritage peppers. I knew their great-grandmothers. I reckon I would rather give them to a neighbor who appreciates that level of work and love than to make $30. Not to mention: that money would feed my husband and myself for two days. Those peppers will shimmy up on a plate at least fifteen times over the winter, more if you factor hot sauce and pepper flakes and pickled globes of capsaicin swimming in garlic and wine vinegar.
See what I’m saying? It's not that you can’t pay me for a pepper I grew myself. It’s that you probably won’t pay me enough. (Not to disparage other farmers, y’all, but I just don’t have enough land or enough produce to let that harvest go. Food security is no laughing matter.) What you can do is trade mason jars, apple cider, sewing projects and stuff of that ilk for those peppers, eggs, tomatoes, and corn. Makes more damn sense, in the end, doesn’t it?
(Y’all thought I forgot where I was going? Naw. We are just taking the long way around the garden. How’s yor ‘mom and them?)
You see: I’m a living part of that garden. And I’m honored to be such. My chickens, cardinals, and finch nibble happily away every year on the remnants of dried sunflower heads. Fresh echinacea is spun into tincture, which in turn is dropped onto the tongues of my family upon the first sign of illness. Butterfly families and native bees trust the water quality, the flower population, and the security of pesticide-free ground cover.
Frogs and toads and lizards slide through my garden, as do snakes, with nothing to fear but each other.
Every evening, we watch the bats dive against the dying light and marvel at the fireflies in the trees. I’m part of that. It took years and sweat and failure and muddy feed and a little blood to get this in tune—and I think that’s mayhap why I’m so tired. It’s September. My soul is taking one last deep gulp of air and steadying up to sing one more harvest song across the pines.
And then, I will retire to my little cottage, my mason jars full of summer, little tins of basil and mint for tea lining my kitchen pantry, and rest. For the first time, I look forward to fall. All at once, I understand that I have finally and fully lost my civilized self to the country, absorbed into it until I cannot tell the difference between where I end and She begins.
So. Why not just go to Kroger? Oh honey. Answering that would be like singing poetry on the back of a Harley.
May your harvest be blessed,
1. Doc Hollywood. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, Warner Home Video, 1991.