Glimmers of Hope: Food and the Common Mind

Seed Frenzies and Saving Grace

Josh Retterer / 5.15.20

My seed orders arrived right before the plague season got into full swing. Attempts at follow-up orders started running into issues. I decided to ask the only person I know to have created space lettuce, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds, what it’s like running a seed company during the plague. We’ve heard from Frank before, and I always appreciate his wise and thoughtful answers to whatever out-of-the-blue question I throw at him. His reply was sobering.

All seed companies are feeling the pulse of America.


Some seed companies are experiencing such an avalanche of orders, they’ve had to shut down temporarily to keep their fulfillment time from getting out of hand. One buyer reported to Frank that,

The last 5 days in a row have broken all previous sales records. That says quite a bit. This is a normal reaction to societal anxiety, we have learned. Sales were already high for everyone in the industry; then came Corona, and business went through the roof for everyone just as it would normally be slowing down.

The same seed buying frenzy followed the tech bust, and the 2008 collapse. People remember in such times the few things they might control, and the importance of food. Many believe that if they’ve lost their job, they might find self-employment as farmers.

So yes, in uncertain times, seeds regain their value in the common mind. Believe me, I take no joy in this boom. It means people are suffering. In their minds, if not in reality. We can hope something good and lasting comes of it. In college, I edited the student literary magazine. There is only one poem of the era that I still remember and recite occasionally.

‘One Liner’

American attention span.

Still true.

You can see why I like Frank so much; we share a low anthropology. 

Dan Saladino, a producer of and reporter for BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, shares Frank’s hopeful-yet-realistic view of humanity — it’s right there in the title of his book, Last Harvest: The Fight to Save the World’s Most Endangered Food. It also shows up in his reporting, never afraid to ask government ministers or corporate CEOs pointed questions — and expecting answers — when lives are at risk. The episodes he and Shelia Dillon, The Food Programme’s presenter, have been putting out in recent weeks have been understandably serious, but not without some real glimmers of hope struggling to shine through (think the title reveal of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing). Needing as many of those glimmers as I can handle right now, I asked Dan for some of his brightest ones. His answer made me happy I asked.

As well as all the panic, chaos, and disruption, I have come across responses to the impact of Covid-19 that strike me as being deep and profound. An illustration of this are the more than 4000 community organisations that have emerged across the UK in the space of three weeks, calling themselves, ‘Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK’. Put simply, they are groups of people in neighbourhoods who are coming together to find ways of getting food to the most vulnerable. They’re fundraising, approaching food wholesalers and creating a completely new supply chain that can get food to people self-isolating or unable to get to food stores because they’re elderly or sick. More importantly, these mutual aid groups have become a network of people who simply want to help and share what they have.

An example is how one mutual aid group in Hackney, east London, is helping mothers who have been desperate to find baby formula when the supermarket shelves have been emptied. In their WhatsApp group, the community send out the word of a mother and her baby in need. Sometimes the group have been able to source some product from a retailer or supplier, but often it has prompted one mother to share what she has in her home with another mother she has never even met. A team of voluntary despatch riders of bicycles then get the baby formula across town.

This pandemic has brought out some of the least attractive features of human nature, but I’m convinced there are many more positive acts of selfless sharing taking place. I’m hearing more and more examples all the time.

Reading this made me think of Ephesians 2:10, that we were, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” For most, this pandemic has level-upped the difficulty of even the simplest of kindnesses, for both those endeavoring to help and those being helped. What if we freeze or chicken out at a particularly vital eleemosynary moment? Will life suddenly turn into a sort of I Love Lucy candy factory scene crossed with The Butterfly Effect? Slow down there, Ashton Kutcher.

In his new book, Peace in the Last Third of Life: A Handbook of Hope for Boomers, Paul Zahl gives a generation-spanning answer to my dubious comedy/sci-fi/horror mashup of a question.

Something you notice in life—and it doesn’t have to take Martin Luther to teach you—is that a truly generous action, an action undertaken for someone else’s benefit without your factoring in what it can do for you, is usually spontaneous, unplanned, and, in some inward way, a response to something generous that someone else has done for your benefit. In other words, heartfelt and unconstrained love is usually a response to someone else’s loving you.

You don’t really decide, through some long dialogue with the will, to do something altruistic. The thought just comes to you. The ‘backstory’ to your thought typically hinges on a prior gesture in your direction from somebody else. This is why we never tire of quoting I John 4:19: “We love, because God first loved us.” 

Bob Dylan said something like this in his song “Saving Grace” (1980): “Wherever I am welcome is where I’ll be.” My security of belovedness is preface, in almost every case, to my loving—and welcoming—another. 

What feels spontaneous and unplanned to us, was actually prepared in advance by Someone Who made now and, well, ever. Also, how do you follow Dylan — or PZ? 

You don’t.