What if kale were as idealized by vegans as backyard chickens are by locavores?
What if the leafy greens conferred nobility, honor and a sense of purpose about us as much as the Michael Pollan’s elite crowd derives from eating their “special” dairy, eggs, and meat?
This piece was inspired by those who pursue spiritual enlightenment through another being’s death, those who cherry pick ephemeral Native American sentiments when they are of benefit to them. After reading a disturbing article by a journalist who traumatizes her children regularly (while patting herself on the back for her good liberal values, of course) by having them watch animals get slaughtered for their table, and yet another website dedicated to the life-and-death cycle of a flock of backyard chickens, I wondered what it might sound like if someone growing kale employed the same hackneyed, self-aggrandizing and narcissistic language and mentality.
This is what I came up with in response.
It seems unbelievable that this life-force a few feet in front of me, past its prime but still standing proud and tall in my garden on this gray early December day, came to me as improbably tiny seeds delivered to my home. As dark brown miniature pebbles, smooth to the touch, these seeds would have been easily dwarfed by the average peppercorn. I held the seeds, little pipsqueaks rolling around in my palm, almost slipping between my fingers, when they arrived in the mail one happy day a few weeks after I’d outlined their picture in a catalogue with a heart, and I beamed with a mother’s pride. “They’re perfect,” I thought, clutching them close to my chest. The delicate seeds held within them the promise that they might eventually blossom into full-grown, hearty and vibrant kale plants that would stretch toward the sun, and after glimpsing their cousins in the catalogue, I immediately knew that I was meant to have them in my own yard.
Over the years, my husband has seen me dive into projects with great gusto only to abandon them within a week or two, so he was understandably skeptical of my plans to take this on and apprehensive about giving over a significant part of our yard, valuable feet to urban dwellers, to any new lark of mine. In my attempts to become more self-reliant, though, I began to reject the idea of buying kale from the grocery store: denatured, limp and lifeless, grown by strangers in unknown conditions (were they overcrowded? Sprayed with chemicals?), plucked from the earth too soon and shipped from far away. I preferred to buy it at the local farmers market, but even with that, I began thinking that I didn’t want to ask anyone to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself.
I started the tiny seeds indoors in early spring: poking my finger into the soil, I let a few tumble into each hole, then gently covered them back up, like tucking them into bed. I reviewed the instructions on the seed packet daily as though it was my lifeline to them; I watered them enough but not too much, turned them to face the sun equally, kept them warm overnight. I checked on them whenever I thought of it, which was often, scrutinizing the soil many times every day for any signs of life.
One bright Saturday morning, it happened. I woke up and saw that skinny green sprouts had sprung up overnight, right on target with when the packet said that they should. I did a little happy dance and went racing through the house, waking up my husband and son. The sprouts were tiny and fragile but they were the first indisputable evidence of my diligent care. I could do this! These sprouts would eventually grow up into big, bushy plants. At the moment, though, their future was the last thing on my mind. I was just so enamored of these tender little babies, especially proud as they began to mature into hardier seedlings. I showed off their pictures to the friends who indulged me. I sang to the seedlings, gently caressed the soft leaves between my fingers, and every day they seemed to get farther and farther from the little dependent sprouts they’d started out as just a short time ago. They were thriving – heck, they were born – because of me.
When it was time to put them in the garden, I was anxious. The seedlings had been so nurtured and protected in the sunroom of our home. Couldn’t springtime’s violent windstorms break their delicate stems? What about marauding squirrels, mean birds that might yank them out of the earth just for the sport of it? I fretted over them, so vulnerable out in the elements. I knew, though, that I had to let the seedlings out on their own in the sun, fresh air and soil as nature intended or else they would get strangled by their own roots. As much as I worried about them, my husband gently reminded me to stop being so attached, that these plants were eventually for eating. I tried to ignore him as I planted them outside to flourish.
Flourish they did. The plants seemed to grow taller and more mature, more into their own, by the hour. After just two weeks outdoors, they were clearly no longer wispy little seedlings: they were fully realized plants now, beginning to grow tall and luxuriate in their sheer kaleness. These plants, hand-raised from seeds, were now the essence of healthy kale. It made me choke up whenever I thought of their cousins, raised in unnatural pseudo-farms, stacked one on top of the next in boxes on the produce truck and transported to far-flung destinations. My thriving, beautiful plants were in direct defiance to that sickening approach to vegetable husbandry.
That spring through fall, we enjoyed the chlorophyll-packed leaves we clipped off the mother plant: shredded as salads, in our breakfast scrambles. The kale seemed to grow heartier and bushier with every clipping. Our son was proud of the plants, eager to show them off to friends and to collect leaves for our meals. We planted so many – too many, probably – and they took over more of our yard than we planned. Even my husband didn’t mind, though. Looking out into the garden, seeing their happy leaves swaying in the breeze, basking in the gentle early summer’s sunshine and gulping the cooling rains of autumn, we knew that we were doing the right thing. The natural thing.
It had become clear by mid-November, though, that the kale plants lived their full life cycle. The leaves, once so full and crisp, were spotted with holes and barely hanging on. There were so many bare spots now, the plants so vulnerable to autumn’s deepening winds, and they swayed so intensely with them I thought they might snap right in half. They held on, though it was becoming clear that I would need to assist them on their passage in order to ready the yard for the new life of next spring. This was the natural order, I told myself. They had lived good, complete lives, reveling in their essential kaleness.
It was time. In my heart, I knew that it would eventually come to this.
They had to die.
I steeled myself for the inevitable. They had given me and my family nourishment for months and now it was time for them to die a dignified death befitting such noble leafy greens. My son tried to dissuade me, tearfully asking if we couldn’t just bring them indoors for the winter. I repeated the mantra of what we had been talking about all summer: that living under the sky, their roots deep in the earth, was the natural life for kale. Living inside, they would have a shadow of their lives outdoors – austere, constrained, hermetic – far removed from their wild nature. We could keep them alive, but at what cost? His face wet with tears, my son reluctantly nodded, identifying with his child’s mind how it feels to be a hemmed in rugged spirit, but he looked away, unable to look at me. I cried, too. Part of his innocence was lost.
Still, he wanted to be there when the kale inhaled its last bit of carbon dioxide. I wanted him there, too, to bear witness and so he could appreciate the life and death cycle that happened in our own back yard. My husband offered to sever the plants, to cut them from their lifeblood, the roots, but I insisted on seeing it through to the end. I was the one, after all, who had raised them from seed, who sang to them as seedlings, caressed them, admired them, watered them, plucked their mature leaves. Looking at them every day, I was filled with gratitude that I was able to give them this life and they in return gave us sustenance and me a sense of connection to the earth, a rootedness I had never felt before. No, I told my husband, I had to see this through from beginning to end for my own spiritual growth.
I took the knife that I knew would do the job the quickest and with a shaky hand, I held the plants once more, pulling them to me, and once again, they yielded to my touch, trusting. Why shouldn’t they? All they had ever known was gentleness and care. With a hand shaking so much I didn’t know if I could do the job, tears streaming down my face, I took a hiccuping deep breath. They trust you, a voice chided me from inside my head. How could you do this? I am doing it because I love them, I finally responded. With that, I pulled the knife across my first plant.
I can’t say that it was easier than I thought it would be. It was harder to cut through than I’d anticipated, gorier. They were once so alive and seconds later, they slumped to the ground, lifeless. No more vitality. My son gasped and sobbed into my husband’s chest. One after the next, the kale fell – flump – their roots exposed, their leaves, once so voluptuous, now dry and brittle with age. We stood over them for a few minutes, no one sure what to say, and then we silently began gathering them to take indoors. We would enjoy one last gift from our babies.
That night, we had kale salad, lovingly massaged with olive oil and seasoned just so, and we had a stew, full of their earthy, sweet nutrients. I set aside the stems to use in a stock that will keep nourishing us through the winter. The night of their death, we talked about our favorite memories, the first time they peeped out of the soil, the jaunty seedlings, the early leaves of spring, the powerful plants of autumn. We talked about how we covered them during the big hailstorm of June and we laughed as we remembered how I chased the squirrels away from them all summer.
After dinner, we looked at pictures of them in all their bright verdant glory of early fall. Seeing them like that, my son and I sniffled a bit again, but we knew that our bodies were full of their natural goodness, fed by the sun and the rain and the ebb-and-flow of the seasons. Their death gave us life.
As I tucked my son into bed, we gave thanks again for the kale. Right after turning off the lights, he called me back into his room.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Mom,” he asked, his voice in the darkness of his bedroom, “could we grow more kale again in the spring?”
“Of course, my love.”