It’s 4 am, and I’m alone with a field of crickets outside my window screens, two dogs, one pressure canner, and 35 quarts of tomato sauce. It’s the week before Labor Day. Since 2011, I have a thing about canning tomatoes before Labor Day.
It seems like we’re all learning special names that make our chests tighten, cause our lips to draw tight, or teach us to can tomatoes early: Katrina. Irene. Lee. Sandy. And now Harvey.
Irene and Lee are my reasons for canning tomatoes before Labor Day. The year they wiped out Schoharie County, they took the tomatoes with them. And the eggplants, the squash, the peppers, the onions, the last of the sweet corn….And of course, countless homes.
I can’t face a winter without tomato sauce. So now I buy bushels from Barber’s farm stand as soon as they start to come in from the fields in August.
I view every fresh tomato after Labor Day as a gift.
There’s not much to do when when monitoring the pressure guage at 4am, except sit and think. And right now, I’m thinking about this odd irony, how hurricane season coincides with susainability festival season. I’ve had the chance to speak at a few of them around the country: Kickapoo Country Fair, The Common Ground Fair, The Fort Collins Sustainable Living Fair. My job at these events has been to offer perspectives on being hopeful, embracing a sustainable future, finding meaning in a life free of consumerism.
The Fort Collins festival was the worst for me. I remember standing off to the side of the mainstage, meeting my contact person. “I’m-I’m not sure how I’m going to get through this,” I told him plaintively. “My community was just obliterated by Irene. My heart just isn’t in this.” I didn’t know how to explain the anguish I was feeling over what just happened; the guilt that poisoned my body for not being home with my neighbors, for having a sturdy house high on a mountaintop; or the confusion about how I was supposed to encourage disparaging environmentalists prone to cynicism and burnout to look forward to a bright future.
“Yeah, I heard about those storms!” He effused, his voice rich in detached sympathy. He gave me a pat on my arm. “But I envy your water, you know? For us, it’s wildfires. You’re on in 15. Good luck!” And he disappeared.
It was one of the worst lectures I ever delivered, but sitting in front of my canner, I can at least smile about that part.
I decide to pass the time in front of the canner by scanning the news online. I can’t cope with the news on Harvey. I put my phone down. The statistics don’t enter my conscious. The number of inches of water, the percentage of homeless, the miles of destruction, the dollars in damage…All the stats are meaningless figures to me, used by journalists to paint illustrations of what too many of us now already now from experience. It’s fucking bad.
But only three days earlier, as this storm was submerging Texas, I was in Cooperstown, in the next county over, at yet another sustainability festival. This one was aptly named, “Be Positive:”
I drive over after the cafe closes for a panel discussion late in the afternoon. Thankfully, I don’t need to bring a prepared lecture in hurricane season. I only have to answer questions. On that day, the sky is blue, the air is clear, and all is calm for us in upstate New York. While the flood waters rise in Texas, we panelists answer questions about solar panels, kilowatt hours, wind turbines, local economies, and balanced living. Professional survivalism pushes Harvey’s devastation from my mind. It pushes memories of Irene and Lee from my mind. It pushes the boxes of tomatoes sitting on my kitchen floor from my mind. I just do my job: smile, laugh, answer, repeat.
Finally, the moderator presents us the last question for the afternoon.
“What gives you hope?”
It’s her most important question. It dawns on me that this was probably why she organized this event in the first place. People need hope right now. She needs hope right now.
The first panelist pauses a long time. Finally, he shrugs. “Where there’s life there’s hope…I guess…” He doesn’t sound very hopeful. We work our way down the line. I am last.
And in that moment, I have a big problem. The flood waters are rising down south and the farmers up here are wondering if there will be tomatoes and squash past Labor day. And I’m supposed to name one thing that gives me hope.
And I can’t name one thing.
Because I’ve always had hope. I see hope in every facet of every day. How am I supposed to pick one thing? I rattle off a few when it’s my turn, then leave, pondering the question.
I ponder it still as I check the timer on the stove, then return my gaze to the dial on the pressure canner. How can I feel chronic hope when life has become so uncertain, it’s unwise to wait until Labor Day to can tomatoes?
Because, I realize, I’m in love with my life. And if I am forever seeing things that I love, I am forever finding hope.
And that, I think, may be the key to all this sustainability and resiIiance we chase at all these festivals. We talk about kilowatt hours and carbon credits and incentives and penalties and miles per gallon and community organizing and coalition building. But none of these things build the resiliance to overcome the flood waters and the wildfires without love.
If we want to survive into the future, if we want to build resiliance, to pull ourselves from the storm with nothing but the soggy shirts on our backs, then we need to be in love with our lives, with the stories we are unfolding, with the people, with the land, with our calling. Love frees us from consumerism, empowers us to protect the earth, saves us from greed, and teaches us that the world is abundant in the things that matter. It gives us the strength to get up and face whatever comes next. And when it all goes under water, as it apparently does these days, there are still things to love: the neighbor’s face you get to see again; the two children who will hold hands and skip through the mud puddles as the waters recede; the mother who wipes away the latest tears and then cheerfully throws her arms into the air and says “I’ve been meaning to get rid of stuff anyhow;” the volunteer who drops everything and pulls a complete stranger to his chest for a much needed embrace.
Chronic love leads to chronic hope. Yes, there is despair, loss, and sadness. But as long as there is love, hope remains a renewable resource. And we keep going.
Our family’s thoughts and prayers are with all of you in the wake of Harvey. Keep going.