I shiver in my sweatshirt, the sun already setting. Grabbing one end of an enormous blue tarp, I help my friends Jim and Ruby spread it like a blanket over our giant pepper patch. How much longer can we protect the garden from these killing frosts?
Last spring, my family teamed up with Jim and Ruby to create a “pandemic victory garden.” Our friends maintain the biggest garden I’ve ever seen: 70 x 100 feet—around a sixth of a football field. The plot is always more work than the two of them can handle on their own. This year, the five of us tended it together (socially distanced, of course). Ruby says that they’ve never enjoyed such abundant crops. Not even close.
If you’re a gardener, you know the intense labor it involves, with no guarantee of success. That’s especially true here in South Dakota. Our growing season is very short. Hard frosts—even blizzards—can hit late in the spring and early in the fall. Summers, meanwhile, can be exceedingly hot and dry. Or hot and exceedingly wet. June through August, we can count on only two things: the garden will be buggier than free computer software and as windy as a politician on steroids.
But hey, what’s a few bugs and a little wind among friends?
We’re losing daylight faster than we expected. Ruby and Jim just picked the last of the tomatoes and squash. Some Hubbard squash weigh upwards of 30 pounds. They look like shelled creatures brought up from the bottom of the sea.
In another part of the garden, I sped with buckets through the pepper plants bent beneath bunches of fruit. I harvested sweet bell peppers of every color, from yellow to chocolate-brown; jalapeño peppers, some of them as red and glossy as lipsticks; slender serrano peppers, longer than fingers. The two habanero plants were so thick with orange peppers, Jim told me that he’d yank them up by the roots and hang them upside-down to dry.
It’s going to be a spicy winter. Yum.
One piece of advice from someone who should know better: Always wear gloves when harvesting hot peppers. (I forgot. Again.) And never touch your eyes. (Yep, I forgot. Again.)
By this time of year, we’re well past the bugs and the weed-pulling. Now it’s all about keeping things alive until they don’t need us anymore. With five of us caring for the garden, these past months, we’ve never gotten tired. Well, maybe that’s not quite true, considering our aching muscles and blisters. Let’s say, rather, we’ve not gotten as tired as we would have without one another’s help.
These days I’m seeing a lot of tired people. “Pandemic fatigue” or “coronavirus burnout,” the experts are calling it. A recent survey of citizens in 24 nations suggests that while we’re all using facemasks more than we used to, we’re also venturing out more without social distancing, and we’re handwashing less.
I get it. I’m tired, too. Tired of worrying about my aged parents, unable to see them except on a screen. Tired of worrying about my husband, teaching on a university campus rife with infected students. Tired of worrying about my son, trying to stay healthy in high school and at his job while applying for admission to colleges he can’t visit in person.
I’m tired of not having guests for dinner. Tired of not recognizing friends on the street behind their masks. Tired of not hugging or even shaking hands. Tired of not hanging out in coffee shops and bookstores and museums and concert halls and, well, anywhere indoors, just for fun. Tired of imagining new ways to celebrate, to mourn, to protest, to build community. Tired of learning new means of earning income when I can no longer travel to book festivals, readings, and other gigs.
Like I said, tired. We’re all tired, the essential workers perhaps most of all. Our society is treating many of them as if they’re disposable. The pandemic has utterly changed our worlds. Change is always difficult, even under the best of circumstances, but these months have been an unbelievable slog straight up the mountain. Everyone’s climbing at once, blazing a trail as we go, through rough, unforgiving terrain. Sometimes it’s downright hard to breathe, and the summit isn’t even in sight yet.
I lay a rock on my corner of the blue tarp to weight it down against the wind. Ruby, a brick. Jim, a chunk of wood.
One secret of gardening: you can’t rush what can’t be rushed. We need to respect our place in the scheme of things, as uncomfortable as that may be.
So cover your part of the garden. Dig up the potatoes, but wait on the carrots—Jim says they’ll get sweeter with the freeze. Sing and laugh as the chill falls on your shoulders. Say a blessing in frosty plumes. Yack it up with somebody you love, the next row over. Let the rich dirt stain your hands. Sit down when weary and take a breather. Someday this tough season will be past.