collaboration accueil manuel copeh

My Place with Food and Nature (or Tomatoes for Potatoes)

By Kira Johnson

July 10, 2023


My hands deep in soil, feeling cool in contrast with the heat of the autumn day, I search the subterranean space, the earth feeling soft against my hands which are course for a girl of only eleven years. The familiar pressure of grit underneath fingernails, digits sifting through ground while searching as though lost in the dark. Grasping a firm but delicate potato, I mutter a word of gratitude and gently dislodge the potato from its birthplace delivering it into the open air. I place the potato with the rest of the harvest in a woven willow basket. My mother at my side, smiles, “good work is always done together,” she says and with a full basket, we each take a side and carry it towards our house.

My close-knit community, like most these days, is only about a hundred people, multiple families and relations living and working together to provide for the good of all. Each day’s activities involve working with dear friends and family to feed, care for, and ensure the health and well-being of everyone. We also work to foster diverse forests, clean rivers, open prairies, and well-being for every other species that lives within the territory assigned to our community after the great collapse. I only know life like this, and it is good – I have known since I was old enough to remember, that every life has immense value, human or otherwise.

Our food gardens and natural forests blend into one another, as my grandmother says they should. I already know the best parts of this territory, and our place in it. Where to find sweet, small apples that grow on the oldest gnarled apple in the forest, and the large, tart green apples that my mother likes that grow on a smaller tree surrounded by huckleberries. Abundant fruit and nut trees grow in the forest gardens near our homes, interspersed between towering evergreens, oaks that are best for climbing, and maples that shade us and provide the sweetest sap. In spaces between, thickets with berries thrive, colorful salmon berries coming first in the early summer with fuchsia blooms and bright berries, followed by thimbleberries with their white flowers and sour, red fruit. My favorite place is the blueberry patch, where sometimes I see bears, and can snack on delicious, tiny berries that turn my lips and hands blue. Nature provides everything for my community, and we have a deep sense of reciprocity and responsibility for the health and wellness of the natural world, which is really just an extension of us anyways, right?

My mother and I approach our earth-berm house, where I live with my mom, dad, two grand mothers and my uncle, aunt, and their baby. My community stays warm in winter and cool in summer by living in houses dug into hills, insulated by living soil and tree roots that hug our walls. My grandmother tells me stories passed down about times before the planet warmed when people lived high above ground – but eventually people were forced to move underground. We meet my grandmother who is carrying bunches of medicinal herbs – she knows so much about plant medicine. We all load our bounty into the carriage in front of the house. Tomorrow morning we’ll travel to the Gathering for Remembering, my favorite celebration where I see friends from other nearby territories, and participate in ceremonies so we don’t forget what happened in the past.

Before bed, we swim in the river. The water flows chalky light blue and clear enough to see the rocky bottom, sometimes I catch the aqua and pink iridescent shimmer of rainbow trout swimming by. Grandmother Claudia told me how all fish nearly disappeared, when humans used to take too much without thinking about the needs of land and water. Today, the sight of a large eastern brook char with blue, yellow, and red spots draws bright smiles on our faces, and we join the large fish, submerging below the surface and gliding skillfully through the water.

In the darkness of the following morning the pilgrimage begins, we travel on foot and horse with carriages bearing the weight of surplus from our abundant harvests. The Gathering brings neighboring communities together, to remember and to ensure that everyone is fed, and well, not just those in smaller community groups. Skipping down the road I quickly find my friend Lucy and link arms with her.

The road takes us past the skeletal remains of skyscrapers, covered in ivy and the occasional tree, growing high above everything else. Lucy and I whisper sad stories to each other about times before when so many endured loneliness, illness, and death high in the old buildings, grateful as we are for our supportive communities and health. Other children giggle and muse about a life lived in the sky rather than under ground. They decide being so close to the sun was what caused the last civilization to fall, even though our grandparents tell us time and again that the reason for the great collapse was that people had stopped being part of nature.

After three hours of walking, we arrive and set up to display the harvest to be shared. Other territories brought their harvests too: rare plants, different foods, art, tools, and musical instruments to share. At high noon, the welcoming ceremony begins. I am awed and join the collective silence as hundreds of people form a great circle with a single stalk of corn at the centre. The single kernel was planted in the spring and tended by a few individuals specially for this moment.

Ten grandmothers from each of the territories step forward, two by two with long sections of twine between each pair of women. The twine is wound tight at the base of the corn stalk, and the women walk in opposing circles, tightening the twine around the base of the cornstalk. The twine tightens until the stalk is severed and falls to the ground. The eldest of the grandmothers stands on the corn stalk and speaks, “Today we remember how a broken relationship with our food nearly brought about our own extinction, and which doomed so many other species. This corn represents the last time humans planted food as an industrial product, instead of as medicine, connection, and nourishment. This corn memorializes seeds that had chemicals running through their veins, and monocultures of corn and soy that fed livestock, to the deaths of our forests and rivers. We plant this corn in memory so that we will remember that we cannot separate what we eat from the natural systems of this world, without our own peril. We are nature, and food is nature, let us never forget that we are each important in the web of life and food.”

Bells rang and burlap bags containing diverse seeds were passed around the outer ring of the circle. Each one of us taking a seed, shared to increase the biodiversity of food in the territories. My hand emerged from the burlap bag with a tomato seed, and holding it in my hand, I knew next year I would be bringing ripe, beautiful tomatoes to share with the communities instead of potatoes, and I am so excited to smell their fragrant aroma.