A Bunch of Collard Greens

I’m sitting here gazing at a bunch of baby collard greens, the leaves stacked one upon the other, all green, with deep white spines and veins, the edges tinged with reddish-brown and subtly scalloped. Because these are organic, the leaves are not perfect. Some are torn, others have reddish spots here and there. They are fleshy and still smell earthy. The bunch squeaks when I press on it.

I would enjoy looking at these leaves any time, all perfectly shaped, miniatures of the mainly giant collard greens I buy at the green grocers. I’d think about a seed growing into a bushy plant, all its leaves identical, replicas of each other, repetitions of the ideal leaf. I’d think about recipes I might prepare: collard greens and ham, collard greens with smoked turkey. Or collard green wraps with rice and ground chicken stuffing.

But today I’m thinking about something else. On a walk this morning with my dear friend, we came upon this tiny free produce box in Emeryville. A smallish wooden box with a clear front and one shelf, the box bore a sign: Take Something. When I lifted up the door, I saw three bunches of greens, two on the bottom shelf, one on the top. “I’ll take one,” I announced, reaching my hand in and bringing my bunch of baby collard greens into the light.

“Oh, those are lovely,” my friend and I both exclaimed. But when I asked my friend if she wanted to take anything, she declined. She and her husband receive a produce delivery every two weeks, with more than enough for the two of them.

I felt a bit greedy taking the greens. There are plenty of other people who could really use free produce. Who was I to leave the box with one fewer offering? But somehow, I couldn’t convince myself to put the collards back. What I felt was about more than free produce. It was about connection.

During Covid, so many of us are connection hungry. While we may live with families and take distanced walks with friends, our lives are devoid of the myriad small connections ordinary life once offered us: People in line with us at the supermarket. Other shoppers at our favorite clothing store. Wait staff and diners near us in restaurants. People we passed on the street with whom we exchanged hellos and smiles (we can still exchange hellos but not smiles). Other parents in the local parks. Shop keepers. Repair people we once invited into our homes and chatted with as they worked to set things right for us again.

As I held the collard greens, I realized I felt a connection with the people who had grown them, nurturing them from seedlings to mature plants, watering them, feeding the soil around them, then once they had matured, picking them, and finally offering them to anyone who happened to pass their way. No, I don’t know these people. I don’t even know where the greens were grown. But in taking them, I felt the growers’ presence, like a hand reaching out and touching me. And now, during Covid, I didn’t want to give that up.

On An Emeryville Street

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