Close encounters with cabbage worms

Somewhere “inside the Beltway” people are bleating and waving banners about an epidemic that isn’t. And Very Serious and Sensible people are blathering about an election that won’t be held for a month but whose results they predicted sometime last year.

A year ago, I think–no, I know–I would have been much exercised about these conversations, ready to mount my horse and charge into battle with people I didn’t know about issues completely beyond any of our control because it would have seemed … so all-consumingly important.

But time passes and priorities change, and what seems all-consumingly important after so much momentous change in my life is the drama that’s unfolding outside my back door.

The drama unfolding outside my back door...

This, for the record, is the drama unfolding outside my back door…

It’s barely light here at 7 a.m. and chilly. The temperature is 45 degrees; the skies are clear, cobalt glass. I’m picking through poblano pepper plants that are still heavy with fruit despite the ever-shortening fall days. There are dozens of peppers, all sizes, from as small as a thumbnail, to as long as my hand. I marvel at these plants, which, though carefully tended, were forced to survive in pots while we planted gardens for Farm Boy’s clients and our church. They grew, in these pots, to a height of nearly four feet while we packed and plotted our escape from a place that, since mama’s death, no longer felt like home. Once anchored in soil, they continued to grow–and have fruited generously, heavily, ever since.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is what should be on my mind. In less than two hours, I’ll be force-marching a group of college kids through this familiar tale. But my focus right at the moment is on the crow complaining overhead and the eight or ten of his brothers and sisters cawing raucously in reply. I wonder to myself, Do they know us yet? Because I’ve read crows can recognize faces–that they can recognize humans as friends or enemies–that whole flocks will avoid a farm where so much as a single crow has fallen prey to a farmer’s shotgun. I glance upward, shading my eyes, but the dazzle from morning dew across the clearing is blinding–and I can’t see a thing.

Heaving a great breath of crisp air, I turn to the next row and confront what’s brought me outside: not this lush, unexpected late harvest, welcome though it is, but rather, the present emergency. An infestation–dang ’em!–of cabbage worms.

The initial damage seemed slight: a few holes in the tender leaves of a few young collards. I didn’t think it a big deal. You live and work in nature long enough, growing stuff that’s good to eat, you get used to the fact that insects and animals like the stuff you like as much as you do. Then, too, I was complacent. The cold Virginia winters killed off so many pests that we had never experienced a serious pest infestation at any of our community gardens.

So inexperienced was I that, initially, I couldn’t even figure out what was causing the trouble. Farm Boy had to flip the leaves over (duh!) to show me the culprits. There didn’t seem to be so very many of them, so, again, I was slow to worry.

The enemy

I’d always thought cabbage worms were bright green–“these ones” were a flavor new to me.

I used our Mint Bomb, which had been effective against every other pest we’d previously encountered. Farm Boy spent a day picking the bugs off by hand. Looking at the harvest of insects, suspended at the bottom of a bowl of soapy water, I felt reassured and went back to grading papers.

But a few days later, the situation seemed much more serious. I’d gone outside to harvest some leaves for supper and discovered they’d  begun to resemble nothing so much as elegant (and quite inedible) lace fans. Meanwhile, the worms had moved on from the collards, mounting a robust enemy infestation of the once-gorgeous cauliflower plants and even (finally) the cabbages.

A slight matter this would certainly have seemed to the Very Serious and Sensible people I hear in snatches on the radio as I drive to work. Of course, I can’t imagine those folks do much cooking. Or that–were they to take a pledge (as we did five years ago) to eschew the products of the Food Industrial Complex–they’d worry about the loss of a few cabbages.

But here in the deep red rural South–while we’re surrounded by natural beauty and friendly neighbors with yards full of chickens and geese, goats and cows–we worry.

It’s ironic to recall how much we talked about “food deserts” in my former home, the concrete jungle that comprises central city Charlottesville, when we were, in fact, surrounded by an embarrassment of food riches. I could walk out of city hall–on the heels of a stimulating conversation on the challenges of bridging the wealth gap and the transportation gap to put something other than fast food or USDA staples on an impoverished child’s plate–hang a left on Market Street to walk home, and pass not one but three locally owned grocery stores within that ten-block stroll.

And groceries were the least of it. That same stroll would take me past literally dozens of small businesses selling all the bakery bread, fresh pasta, Virginia wine and cheese, and local “value-added” treats I could afford. On Saturdays in the season, there was also the City Market, where Farm Boy marketed his nursery stock, and we purchased organically raised eggs, meat, vegetables, and homemade jams and granola from people with whom we shot the breeze every week, whose farms and homes we’d visited many times. Quite literally, I shopped at national chains only once a month to stock up on paper goods for the kitchen and bath.

We felt virtuous. Now, I realize were just privileged. That was what it meant to live in the “locavore capital of the the world,” as Forbes magazine (unwisely for the city’s collective ego) dubbed us–it meant having a world of privilege on a plate.

We are not privileged here. The closest food mecca–one with a robust farmers market and a Whole Foods to boot–is nearly an hour away. There aren’t dozens of certified organic C.S.A.‘s to choose from. There’s one: Margie Levine’s Crescent Farms, and our share runs out around Thanksgiving.

Finding antibiotic-free meat and eggs is a challenge. There are small-scale butchers–reasonably priced with a great selection–but you’d get some puzzled looks if you asked for organically raised meat. There’s one guy doing pastured poultry, Rob Gallegher, whose nonprofit, Thornwell Lush Acres Farm, benefits the Thornwell Home for Children. The search for grass-fed beef and pastured pork–well, that’s still on.

Farm Boy says it’s like stepping back in time. No one questions our devotion to our garden–most people grow tomatoes and summer squash for the table here. But the names Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan are not household words. Conversations about food don’t assume a familiarity with Food Inc., Dirt! The Movie, and Fresh. People don’t even believe in climate change, much less understand the opportunity it offers the South–with its long growing season and copious rainfall–to compete with the drought-embattled farmers of California. Our family’s four-season commitment to eating fresh and local is definitely an outlier.

My colleagues at the college “get it”–thank heaven–but our more casual contacts probably don’t understand what this represents to us: these beds we raced to prep before the season was too far advanced, the 30-odd cole crop seedlings now reaching maturity, the beds of Asian greens and radicchio, the arugula and mache, the radishes, the beets, the carrots and turnips coming up behind them.

How much they whisper to us of … fresh starts? second chances? coming home?

So is it my passionate gratitude for all that that drives me outside–or just the beauty of the morning which makes even this mundane task seem an adventure? Carefully, slowly, I work my my way from plant to plant with what I’ve taken to calling the Bug Bomb–a souped up version of the mint mixture, whose nuclear potency is achieved by adding … cayenne pepper. (Because, yes, we’ve taken the no-pesticides pledge, too).

This is close work, detailed work, involving picking off the larger baddies by hand, dropping them into a bowl of soapy water, then spraying each leaf front and back with a mixture so potent I have to wear laetrile gloves while applying it. Advanced biological warfare here, I’m thinking to myself, and humming a bit.

I feel strangely alive, in the moment, but also in the eternal, my thoughts wandering back and forth, back and forth in time. One moment, I’m recalling a scene from Caroline Gordon’s Penhally in which she describes a group of bored slave children picking tobacco worms off the crop by hand. The next I’m chuckling at a Farm Boy witticism. And every moment, I’m feeling close, closer than ever before, to the women who drew me back to South Carolina: my mother, whose graveyard dust rests, Geechee fashion, at the heart of the garden patch; and her great-great-grandmother Eliza, born a slave, whose story I’ve been struggling nearly 40 years to understand.

I’m acutely aware that it is mother land I’m inhabiting now, that I dwell less than thirty minutes in any direction from place names that are as close to me as the beat of my heart. Saluda, where Eliza bore three children to her master, a slaveowner named Hill: a skilled farmer whose orchards were so lush that they gave his plantation its name: Fruit Hill. This was a Hill who never married, who owned as chattel the only children borne to him, but who also passed his skills with the land on to his sons Fellie and John, and helped them buy land, in Ninety-Six, to replace the acres they could never inherit. Ninety-Six, the place where my mother was born. Thirty miles from Newberry, the town to which Eliza fled “when Peace declare,'” as the old people speak of Reconstruction–and where she lived and died having reunited with a son who had been sold, a son who was not the son of Jim Hill.

In the now and in the eternal, the voices of the Very Serious and Sensible people who want me to be afraid, very afraid, and to trust in their wisdom, are a confused babble, diminishing in volume, drowned out at last by the cackling of crows and this moment of close encounter with cabbage worms. What I’m left with as the sound, so central to my former life, fades, dims, into silence just this: my gratitude.

I’m back in Mother Land. I don’t know what it means, but I know it will be revealed.





3 comments for “Close encounters with cabbage worms

  1. Caroline
    October 27, 2014 at 12:44 am

    Shame that such beautiful worms are so destructive! I love your blog; miss you here in the Locavore Capital.

  2. October 27, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Oh I love this post. My own adventures in gardening this year dealt with many pests of all sorts, although not worms. Everything but. I’m threatening to give up vegetables and stick with what I know I grow well- berries.

  3. October 27, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Caroline! You big softy, you! But yes, if you think the worms are beautiful, you should see them when they grow wings. I hate that stage even worse than the worms though–cuz I can never catch them!

    Becky, I’m hoping when we get the insectary going maybe we’ll have better luck. There are plenty of predator bugs around here. But yes, I agree. It can be exhausting –and there can never be enough berries in the world as far as I’m concerned!

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