Proud and Sturdy

Comforts of Kale

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

Comforts of Kale

Fiona Lee MacLean

I’ve always loved the idea of kale—that a vitamin and antioxidant rich plant could stand up to a harsh New England winter, growing past our traditional harvest time, with minimal effort on the part of the farmer. But for a long time I resisted exercising that minimal effort. Summer is so busy on the Island, and sweaty, and packed with weeding and watering and livestock wrangling… It’s seductive to give in to the shorter days and the slower pace of the off season, put the gardens to bed for the winter, and curl up next to the woodstove with a book and a cup of tea.

That all changed when my mother got sick. Both in solidarity with her new commitment to healthy living, and because nothing forces you to face your own mortality quite like a parent’s cancer diagnosis, I developed an obsessive love for the leafiest of green leafies. Raw kale found its way into my morning smoothies for its alkalizing effects. I snuck it into soups and stir fries and casseroles. I became that person who shows up at a potluck with a distinctly healthy tasting salad. I dehydrated it and salted it and tricked my kids by calling it a “chip.”

It wasn’t just the health benefits, though. Much to my dismay, I am just not that hard-core about the state of my physical being. My compulsion was more about the plant’s resilience, its ability to not only survive but to thrive in the face of adversity. I had always enjoyed the slowing down of autumn, taking stock of what we had achieved and making plans for the following year. But that year, anxiety and unease clouded my usual farmer’s practicality. The wide expanse of post-harvest garden was too dreary and depressing to even look at.

Except for the kale: proud and sturdy plants—glorious green leaves against the dull brown backdrop of a winter garden. It was green and lush and alive, and only grew sweeter with the cold snaps and frosty nights. I found it so inspiring—its saying power, its ability to continue to draw nutrients out of the soil after all the other plants have taken what they need. To survive on soil leftovers. And to carry on when everyone else had given up and packed it in for the winter.

Growing it wasn’t exactly foolproof, especially after we took down part of the garden fence to bring in a truckload of manure. The sheep found their way in, of course, but I couldn’t even be mad at them. I looked at their dried out pasture and how happy they were in my kale bed and I thought yes! Of course! Eat the kale, that’s what it’s here for. To nourish us when we need it most. It lasted a little longer the following year, but then the aphids invaded. We battled them with dish soap and by soaking the leaves in salt water to get rid of the unwanted beasties. We eventually just made kale soup and considered the remaining aphids extra protein.

Those minor setbacks may have discouraged the old me, but the new, kale-loving me knew better. She knows that kale is here to teach us about flexibility and soldiering on. As tempting as it is to become attached to our agricultural projects, every single plant and animal on the farm is temporary. But even in death, everything has a purpose—nourishing us, or clothing us, or giving its nutrients back to the earth.

Sadly, moms are temporary, too. I lost mine this past summer. And though I’m still struggling to find perspective, I take comfort in kale more than ever now. On my daily dog walks and while carrying out our winter farm projects, I take time to visit the kale. I watch it thrive in the garden when everything else is gone. I watch it keep its lovely green leaves under the weight of the first snowfall. I know it won’t last forever, none of us do. But whether we’re facing vicious sheep or swarms of insects or just your average, run of the mill existential crisis, sometimes the best we can hope for is to be like the kale in my garden—lift our leaves up to the sun and put up a good fight.