It was October 26th, and I was writing a simple article about the power going out in Arcata and the subtle social benefits this might have, but I knew there was more to it. Then, due to fires burning around my hometown on the Mendocino coast, power failed long enough for a feeling of isolation set in.
It took me awhile to figure out what the real issues were, and a bit longer to come up with a possible solution. I heard conversations about fuel shortages, fights at gas stations, meat freezers thawing, stores losing money, and sick people without electricity for medical machines. But the most obvious conversation I feel needs to be addressed is food storage and our connection to feeding ourselves.
I was enjoying a beverage at a local drinking establishment when the lights went out, and basically nothing changed. I then left town for San Francisco to gear up for working the upcoming crab season. When returning to Mendocino a few days later there was different vibe in the air. The grocery stores had been mostly bought out, and people who were trying to get their projects done had an itchy vibe to them. So, to avoid the stress of the world, I figured I’d go to my parents’ house, which has always been a safe haven in my life. Home is also where I have long childhood memories of helping my mom in her vibrant green garden. When everyone else was panicking about food, I have gone there for a healthy meal from the garden that sits to the side of their house.
On this occasion my mother was thrilled to see me, but when sitting down with her and my step-dad for a nice dinner, we had a plate of rice, beans with some eggs. This was normal, but in past times, the centerpiece was usually potatoes and a mountain of greens. As the meal went on my mother explained that she had been doing more messages at the spa than in the past, and her wrist had been hurting, so she hadn’t put her garden in this year. I was aware of all this, but the importance of a home garden doesn’t settle in until the trucks aren’t showing up at the grocery stores. It’s then I felt I was eating from my parents’ doomsday stash of rice and beans.
That night I stayed in my little brother’s room and thought about how to solve the problem, and I realized it could only be solved with physical effort. So in the morning I started to dig in my mother’s garden, as I had when I was a child. So next time the power fails and people start to panic, we are going to have fresh potatoes and chard out of the ground once more.
I spent the rest of my day milling around Mendocino with the deepening realization of how feeble our food distribution system really is. While there are many backyard vegetable gardens in our area, there is still dependence on shipped food – food that is grown far away, warehoused, and delivered from refrigerated trucks. You may have some element of your diet that is produced or caught in your region, but typically with our complicated diets, we have no idea what comes from were, and because of this, no matter how country you are, you are likely eating an urbanized diet given the distribution system. And if you live on the Mendocino coast where, after just a few short days of trucks not delivering food, the population shows signs definitely being adversely altered.
On what was to be the last day of power outage I found myself talking to people on how the situation affected them, and what their solutions might be. That is when I was pushed in the direction of Mr. Sam Cook, our resident Texan. It was a beautiful day and I was again at Richard’s By the Sea, were you can have a cheap drink, watch the whales go by, and be told Kentucky is the greatest basketball team in the world. Sam had placed his BBQ trailer just down the street overlooking the Pacific Ocean, across from Out Of This World. When the meat in your refrigerator thawed you could bring it down to Sam and he would throw it on the grill for you to enjoy a sunset dinner, giving leftovers to mangy dogs like me.
When I arrived I was hungry and Sam had been cooking for days. He was running low on food, but I still got a little potato off the grill and had to ask him if the cops had stopped by. “Of course they did, he answered. “When they asked what I was doing, I just said you want some brisket? And when they asked me something else, I would say you want some brisket?” As I ate my potato he pointed his tongs at me: “You want some brisket? How you gunna say no to that? One of them looked damn hungry too.” He swung his tongs around. “What are they gunna do, shut me down? I’m feeding people in a time of need. I just wish some old boys would drop off some Valley oak to keep this going.” Sam shrugged, pointed his tongs at the coals, and I knew what had to happen.
Since then I have been talking to friends who own property, and now I am planting some big potato patches, so next year when the power goes out you can have a potato from me and my people, and some brisket from Sam. This also goes out to the officers of the region – – when your food stocks get low at home, grab and armload of oak, come back to the BBQ and bring your family down for a sunset dinner. And if we are lucky others will plant an excess amount squash and we’ll have a real meal provided by our community, rather than hope that the powers that be will deliver the big trucks full of food – a safety net we assume we are owed.
To conclude this idea, my mother reminded me of an old story she had been told. When my parents first moved up here, my mom had become close friends with an elderly lady in the Albion area. The lady once told her that when the Great Depression hit, she barely noticed, because she and her husband provided for themselves by means of their land, and sharing with the community around them. So she saw the Great Depression as a city thing. The lesson in this story is that if you know how to use it, the strength and security of rural life is in the soil you walk on.