A side effect of working from home from March through the end of May was that I became an even more obsessive gardener. We’ve been in our home, purchased through North Haven Sustainable Housing, since 2008, and I have three pretty well-established vegetable gardens around the house.
I’ve managed to get some fair crops of tomatoes, green beans, turnips, and squash, with other vegetables making guest appearances from time to time. Deer and rabbits happily munched early sprouts and late season tomato jungles and I shook my fist with ineffective rage but didn’t really do anything about it.
This year, though, we put up fortress-like deer fences around two of the vegetable beds in lieu of our planned trip to Ocracoke Island over April break. We purchased a small greenhouse with some of our stimulus money. I put 14 tomato plants in the ground, with another 14 in the greenhouse. Arugula, garlic, potatoes, green beans, peas, summer squash, zucchini, carrots, kale, kohlrabi, cucumbers, herbs, and turnips all found their place. I felt safe and secure in my future vegetable harvest.
And then, admiring my newly sprouted peas, I noticed something disturbing. It looked as though someone had come in with scissors and cut the tops off a few of them. No tooth marks, and it was happening inside the fence, so I didn’t suspect rabbits or even mice. A few days later, even more had been beheaded. I was down to about nine pea plants out of my initial patch. A kohlrabi, two tulips, and a kale seedling fell victim to the mysterious pest as well.
A quick online search revealed that I had cutworms. One solution was to make tiny collars for all of my sprouts. I started frantically hoarding toilet paper and paper towel tubes, and then went for the white coils of tree-trunk protecting plastic. As the beans and squash started to germinate, I proactively gave them each a tiny collar, making almost 80 by the time I was done.
Another tactic I could have taken would have been to go out at night, with a headlamp, and find the cutworms in action. I could have then drowned them, or squashed them, or cut them in two, so they wouldn’t have a chance to finish their life cycle and make more cutworms to harass next year’s vegetables. But it seemed like too much work after dark, so I just kept making those tiny collars.
On Memorial Day weekend, as I was planting my garden, George Floyd was killed, at the hands—or knees—of Minnesota police officers. Protests erupted across the country and around the world.
Police brutality and systemic racism are not new. Neither are cutworms. But it seems like we—I mean white people and politicians, those at the top of the heap, privilege-wise—thought it was enough to put band aids on things. Thoughts and prayers, sharing memes, posting a hashtag—tiny collars, if you will. Not nothing, but the pestilence is still there.
We have to actually do the work of eradicating systemic racism. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it feels like going out in the dark and squashing caterpillars, because how could there be caterpillars in my beautiful, safe garden? But they’re there.
This country is built on stolen land and built with stolen people, and maybe this is the moment when we all finally, willingly, illuminate the fact that the problem is all of us, and then truly purge our systems of living and government and law of the destructive caterpillars that have always been there, but that it was inconvenient to acknowledge.
Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, where she teaches music, theater, and writing.