It is bad to loathe the months we are given, but I’m really glad that February is finally over, and delighted that March has finally made up her mind. These cool evenings are our last chance to open the windows at night and pretend like we live in …
It is bad to loathe the months we are given, but I’m really glad that February is finally over, and delighted that March has finally made up her mind. These cool evenings are our last chance to open the windows at night and pretend like we live in the mountains, bundled under deep bedcovers, at least for a month or two more anyway. These cool nights nurture our dreams of things to come, thoughts of the rising of our plants, the resurrections of our lives. And somehow, it all seems new again every year.
The sunny heat brings many of us out, makes us want to warm our skin, or go help our yards and gardens return to life. It’s the impulse that makes us willing to line up at Cecil’s, Wilsey’s, or at any of the many plant-sellers in our area. We mostly buy out of optimism rather than skill or necessity, and that'’s as it should be because it is spring.
The other day, over at Robertsdale Feed and Tack, near the shelf with all the shock collars, were two large tubs of whole potatoes, one full of small creamy white ones and the other, purplish medium sized tubers. They seemed a bit exotic, those purples and whites, in a world where we usually see only the same three varieties of potatoes. The ancient man behind the counter, the one with a limp and a twinkle in his eye (reserved for soft-handed people like me), explained patiently that the seed potato whites were good for mashing and the purples were for baking. He said both of them were from the state of Washington.
Noel Perrin writes that, at the turn of the century, Japanese farmers grew over 800 different varieties of rice. It was also not uncommon then to see dozens and dozens of varieties of potatoes regularly grown in this country. Each was known for its subtle characteristics; the Bonnie Blues had a nutty flavor, the Blue Victors a purple flesh, good for frying, etc. “Was” is the operative word here, because most of these varieties are no longer commercially available. They are probably not extinct, but only exist now in the world of the ag college. or on a research / heritage farm somewhere. There are many among us who believe that’s how it should be, that it’s OK that five varieties of potatoes make up 90 percent of what we consume. They believe that the “hidden hands of the market” have once again correctly told us what to do. In that world, if buildings, or phrases, or varieties, or races, become underused and thus endangered, the hidden hands must tell us to go ahead and tear them down, or put them in museums, or in camps, because there is just no need for them. Is there a need for a unique community like ours?
The Fairhope of E.B. Gaston is like an endangered native plant species. The special combinations of genetic material that formed the Fairhope impulse back in Des Moines in 1893 have grown during certain periods of our history and dwindled during others. Some Of us help nurture and protect the original “pure” Fairhope genes, while some of us are delighted with the mutations and morphations that we produce from these original roots. Others of us are just plain invasive species, imported from another world, unwilling or unable to assimilate, delighted to cover more land, just like kudzu.
So, in these seasonal struggles of growth and change, why do we continually manage to loose our dialects, loose our varieties of potatoes, loose ourselves? In these evolutions that are the essence of growth, the foundations of our becomings each spring, must we loose our language, our diversity, and our memory? Are we as a community meant to be annuals, or perennials?
If you believe there is nothing new under the sun, that growth and change have always been with us since the beginnings, then maybe what is different for Fairhope now is the rate and scale of change. Raw, whole milk has nurtured us since before Noah, yet the last 100 years of the history of milk can tell us much about the potential future of Fairhope. In milk’s case, the pasteurizers wanted to protect us from ourselves, protect us from the horrible milk we made. The homogenizers then wanted to make sure that my milk is just like yours. It is much easier to sell if we can blend it all together. In this last century, we took nature’s perfect food apart and reassembled it into something that is milkino (milk in name only) Ask the folks who can remember the joy of raw, fresh milk when it was a common thing. They are becoming as rare as the folks that can remember the families who founded Fairhope. In the late 1940s, there were 42 dairies in Baldwin County. Now there are two.
The pasteurizers and homogenizers are at our gates daily, and are already in among us. Is our fate to be boiled and blended so that we can be more like the rest of the world, safer and easier to sell? There are many hidden hands that believe that we should go ahead and allow ourselves to be pasteurized and homogenized, to go ahead and get it over with, because it’s inevitable. Well, it’s not. The jury is still out. The next chapters of Fairhope’s life remain to be written. Don’t sell the farm yet. Spring is here again. We may not need to become Fairhopeinos after all.
Mac Walcott is an architect who works and lives in Fairhope.