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In the autumn, Sophie Perry moved to an environmentally-certified orchard in Michigan. There, she grew ...
2020-12-21 09:00:00

Growth in Isolation
Pandemic Diaries

Illustration by Igor Kubik
Growth in Isolation
Growth in Isolation

Late August, early morning. On a step stool in the wood-panelled pantry of an old farmhouse, Sophie Perry, in the sun. She is stooped over plastic bags, condensation gathering on the insides, standing straight like cylinders. Each bag contains a roll of toilet paper – and each roll of toilet paper, the spores of mushrooms. In her overalls, Sophie leans closer, peers into the bags, sprays each one with water. This is hope, living. This is living hope.

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For her, an ecology student and experienced farmer, growing food indoors or out seems natural, even necessary. Yet the practice of planting, tending and harvesting plants is an artful and intentional labour. For the past eight months of off-and-on isolation, Sophie has found hope and refuge in this practice.

Since moving to an orchard in rural Michigan, she has set-up small operations for growing sprouts and, most prominently, mushrooms. Sophie and I, at the supermarket. We were looking for toilet paper – cheap but sturdy. The toilet paper would provide the perfect habitat for the Grey Dove Oyster spores. The trick to these mushrooms, Sophie explained, is that they require no soil. Nothing but water and something to cling to.

She bought the spores and seeds online before driving cross-country, her car weighted with her hand-dyed clothes, her grandmother’s sewing box, snacks. A box of books. On top: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Ada Limón’s The Carrying, and Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategies, the same copy she would later gift to me.

If it weren’t for the pandemic, Sophie would have returned to her small college outside of Los Angeles. This autumn, she found she was still heading west – but only halfway. To Michigan, where a friend’s father runs an environmentally-certified orchard, growing apples, pears, figs, peppers and a few speciality fruits to sell at markets and to restaurants in Chicago.

The move made sense: Sophie had spent her summer as assistant farm manager at Morning Glory Farm, on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. In the greenhouse and fields, Sophie tended to hybrid varieties of tomatoes with names like Cherry Bomb, Early Girl, Celebrity and Sunrise Sauce.

In the house on the orchard, she lived for three months with five others, all somehow uprooted from apartments and childhood homes around the country. Scenes from the orchard house: Sophie’s black boots with the red tag, mud caked, next to the door in the mudroom. Wildflowers and fig leaves, splayed and drying on the mantel. Others, pressed between books. The washing machine whirring with the thump of rags from the cider mill, wet and browned with sweet fermented juice pressed from the fallen apples. A mug on the windowsill, milky tea abandoned. Guitar sounds. Someone in an unbuttoned shirt, stretching, reading literature on a dusty floor. The night falling in torrentially.

Perhaps to inhabit is to infuse a place with our habits. Like college students everywhere, Sophie’s days were punctuated by Zoom classes and meetings. Between classes, Sophie swam in nearby Lake Michigan, walked, ran, cooked. Foraged and dyed, photographed and printed. And every day, she found time to tend to the mushrooms, watching them as they twisted and expanded, from spore to full-stalked fungus. She invested in the habits of care and was faithful to the promise of future. An attentive commitment, it was as if she was collecting lessons from the mushrooms as they unfurled, and from the sprouts, still translucent in the dark cabinet where they lived, hidden from the sun. Translating words from plant-language to her own, bearing messages of hope and resilience, despite the loneliness and loss that felt immense, at times, immeasurable.

Activists, writers, artists, have advocated for and tended gardens to find solace, joy, justice and relief – some, famously, and others, we must imagine, in private. The quiet corners of their studies or kitchens, animated by plant clippings, herbs, succulents. The likes of Fannie Lou Hamer, Virginia Woolf and Derek Jarman. Anna Tsing, Vita Sackville-West and, of course, Jamaica Kincaid. They write their gardens as sites of death and regeneration, of habitat and habit, of care and loss.

One morning, a commotion. They’re here! Look at them! The mushrooms, velvet grey like seals, suddenly abundant. We gathered around them in the dusk, the new growth illuminated by sunlight filtering in through pollen-coated windows. The holiness of something seemingly born out of nothing.

For lunch the next day, Sophie sautéed the mushrooms with leftover sweet potatoes and onions, then slid them from the pan onto a bowl of white rice. She was tired, classes on her computer all morning, meetings with professors. This is school. This is life. And this is how we survive: we nourish. To all of us, Sophie demonstrates the accessibility and the regenerative power of caring for plants – and thus caring for oneself – while living through isolation.

The mushrooms are gone now, grown then eaten. A semester passed. An election, too.

With little resistance, we let the anticipation of grand transformations eclipse the small changes that make up our quotidian. Like the silent unfurling of an autumn crocus beneath already rotting leaves. The birds in flight over corn fields, migrating. The thin layer of moss, creeping over the propane tank.

I am told that in the late 1970s, when my somehow-cousin Małgorzata came to visit family across the Atlantic, in Queens, they would spend afternoons foraging for mushrooms on the roadside. I imagine the guardrails, silver, and the mushrooms, even more luminescent, glowing with life in the underbrush, the roadside refuse, the weeds. She wrote about them, as I do now.

In the car, end of autumn. It’s so nostalgic, to see the seasons change, Sophie says over the phone in the car. Being in the car is an emotional state, we agree. A site of passage and yearning. You watch entire ecosystems collapse into impressionist blurs of red leaves, the white trunks of birch trees, a few stray flowers. Driving north-east, the spruce and pines still green, the maples, aspens, birch all skeletal. Waiting for the snows. And still, within the decay, noticing growth.

Print by JB Beckwith
Print by JB Beckwith

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