It felt like slaughter.
I stood with one foot on the frost-filmed lawn, one foot on the neck of the kale plant that I was trying to snap in half. My numb fingers clutched the kale’s three-inch-thick stem as I wrestled it, swaying it back and forth, crunching and cracking the veritable trunk that still had enough green in it to resist the end for another few minutes. I paused, out of breath from the struggle, staring once more at the drooping green leaves, frozen solid for the second time this week. It was time to harvest, or they would complete wilt and be useless to eat. And with the final harvest, I had to fell the three-foot-tall trunks as well.
With a determined grunt, I grabbed my pruning shears and forced the sharp edges along the base of the stem, gnawing them back and forth. Green layers stripped away, the exact color of the caterpillars I had massacred a couple months ago to preserve the kale for its final few harvests. The kale plant, a tree of crinkly leaves, shuddered, then snapped and crashed to the ground.
I stood up, dizzy. I felt the ache in my throat, the pressure behind the eyes, the tension in my forehead— those sensations when you want to cry but know that it makes no sense to cry. Except maybe, today, it did.
The plant had started as a tan speck, a sphere smaller than a poppy seed, cradled in my palm. It was late March, blustery and overcast. I was still struggling with deep depression, feeling like life was futile, like I didn’t matter, like nothing I did had any worth. But it was time to plant the kale, and so I grabbed a jacket and forced myself outside. It wouldn’t take long.
I had dropped the seed— along with one more, just in case— into the shallow indent in my Square Foot Garden. The book recommended 1-2 kale plants per square foot, but the infinitesimal package of life seemed too small to sit by itself, so I had made two indents. I patted the fluffy black soil over the top, tucking them in against the rain and cold. And I waited.
It didn’t take long— I wish I had taken notes to remember how long exactly— before I saw some raggedy new leaves popping up from the earth. This seed had unlocked itself, feasting on the soil’s nutrients, drawing the compost and minerals into itself, eating earth and sun to create something completely new. This smaller-than-a-poppy-seed speck was now the size of my little finger. Magic.
My curly kale, a hybrid, grew into handsome two-foot palm trees; the lacinato, an heirloom, branched out in twisty black-green curls, like a Dr. Seuss plant. Spring crested and broke into high summer. As the kale grew, so did I. My heart healed, my purpose strengthened, my will renewed.
“Kale will bolt over the summer, so save the seeds and harvest the whole plant.” So my gardening books told me. But every day, as I peeked out at the kale from inside the blessed air conditioning, I saw them standing up to the sun. A bit wilted, but no sign of bolting. Every other day I poured water on the roots, watching the thirsty soil lap it up. And as my other garden plants withered away— carrots dying of heat stroke, peas fading to fragile buckskin-colored husks— my kale endured.
Summer lasted an eternity, stretching through October into November. My kale kept growing, putting out fresh growth at every whiff of cooler weather. Cabbage butterflies with white wings laid eggs on my plants, and soon an army of caterpillars tried to mow them down. I spent hours picking caterpillars and drowning them, sacrificing their lives that the kale might live. I swatted away grasshoppers and scattered incubating insect eggs with a blast of the hose. The kale, bedraggled, kept unfurling new crinkly leaves from the center of the stem.
We pretty much skipped fall, and winter dropped on St. Louis like a frosty bomb. I watched the weather forecast; I watched my kale. The hardy leaves laughed at the light frosts, growing brighter green with each icy touch.
Then came the week with two hard frosts— the ground turned to ice and stayed that way. The kale leaves wilted, then drooped flat against the stems. It was time for the harvest, time to tuck the leaves away in my own freezer for a winter of greens.
Which brought me to today. And I stood, staring at the fallen plant in front of me, still perfectly shaped, still green, and I thought of our journey together. I thought of all the food it had given me, all the smoothies and pasta sauce and salad. It gave me so much, and all I gave it was an occasional drink of water. And now, in the end, I had killed it.
I didn’t cry. I sniffed, and stamped my feet and breathed on my hands to warm them up, and I continued the harvest. The next plant fell, and the next, and the next. Their stumps stuck out of the leaf mulch, naked. I gathered their stalks and leaves into a bale, which I heaved on one shoulder. Sixteen pounds of kale rested on me, ready to be stripped, cut, and put away. I stared at the stumps once more, and briefly considered uprooting them. But that would be too much, too hard to deal with today. I really didn’t want to cry.
Practicers of permaculture choose perennial plants because they describe harvesting annuals as “clear cutting.” Now, I understood what they meant. This wasn’t like the other harvests throughout the year, picking leaves that would soon be renewed— this was a death, the end of a living organism that had eaten, drunk, grown, and turned its face to the sun.
As I hauled the bale into the house, scattering errant leaves on the living room floor, I realized that this didn’t just feel like a slaughter— it was one. For anyone to live, something else must die. It’s ingrained in the fabric of our world. It’s in our soil, our plants, our gut flora. Life can only be sustained by death.
I paused at the door, staring outside to the stumps I had left behind. Slowly and sincerely, I nodded to them. “Thank you,” I whispered, and shut the door.