This fall my family gathered at my parents’ house in South Carolina for a weekend of canning. It felt fitting, in the midst of editing work for this issue, to put food by for the winter. We brought produce from our gardens and the farmer’s market and the parking lot with the tree whose tart apples are perfect for making pectin. At the end of the weekend we had filled dozens of jars: with red and green salsa, two kinds of tomato soup, roasted red peppers, pickled okra, pickled green cherry tomatoes.
And hot-pepper jelly: I wanted one sweet thing on the shelf during the cold months. It felt frivolous, amid the practicality of winter-soup making, to spend so much time on it—to boil the apples down into a goop that would be strained for pectin; to slice and de-seed habaneros and jalapeños until the air on the back porch tasted hot; to pour the jelly into the pleasing, odd-shaped jars that take up extra space in the canner.
But it also felt vital. Hot-pepper jelly, although it can’t claim to contain whole fruit, is one of the summeriest things you can get. Its nourishment is in its atmosphere, its heat, its color. It’s reassuring to know our cabinets hold enough of the stuff to last till it’s warm again, and a comfort to imagine sharing it.
It would be easy to talk about those jars a long time more. But as we worked to finish this issue, I wanted to keep in mind something harder to remember—a river I’ve never visited, although I lived near its watershed for years. The Dan River, part of the Roanoke River Basin, curls back and forth across the Virginia–North Carolina line. This February it made news as the site of the third-largest coal-ash spill in U.S. history: 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash flowed into the river from an unlined Duke Energy–owned pond in the town of Eden.
I work at remembering what’s happening in the world, at imagining what I might do in response—but those acts of imagination are constrained, at times crushingly, by the demands of daily life. Hearing about the spill on the news, I felt the ache of concern, the guilt of not doing or knowing more. I wanted to hear from someone who knows this river the way I know the rivers I love.
So I asked around recently and called a couple of people who do. Jenny Edwards, who works as project manager at the Dan River Basin Association, has been part of the response to the spill. “When I went down and saw the river running gray, I was just dumbfounded,” she said. “It really takes you a while to wrap your head around what’s happened to your place. And just when you’re starting to do so, the media blitz happens.” The DRBA had focused in the past on economic revival, she told me, after the demise of both manufacturing and tobacco farming left the area hard hit. “Our organization really wasn’t created to do environmental battle. It was founded with the idea that the local rivers, though not perfect, were in pretty good shape.” The Dan has been a popular destination for tubing, swimming, boating, and fishing. Above where the spill happened, it still is.
It’s a lot easier to think about a jar of hot-pepper jelly than thousands of tons of coal ash. But our lives depend on considering both. Kate Dunnagan, who lives near the Dan watershed and is a community organizer for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said of the spill, “My first reaction was just grief—complete grief. Mourning for the river’s ecosystem. I had this intense desire to hold some sort of ceremony, a wake for the river.” Instead, a few weeks later, community members gathered at a park for a cookout, with music by a local oldtime band, the Dan River Girls. “They want people to still come to the river,” said Dunnagan. “It’s no longer the same, but they wanted to show that resiliency and spirit.”
Helping to sustain the places we love requires that we sustain each other, too. A sealed jar is a present to a future self or a future community—something put by for winter, or next week, if it comes down to it. Something to bring to the table when the need to gather is great.
As I was getting off the phone with Edwards, she said, “Don’t forget to eat something if you’re going to be working late.” It might seem an obvious reminder, but in her concern I saw the knowledge of someone who’s put in long hours on behalf of a community. You have to feed yourself to do the work well. And sometimes you have to seek out another kind of nourishment: the stories of people who are closer to a place, the ones that help you to imagine it.
Only about ten percent of the spilled coal ash was recovered from the Dan. As long as it’s still there—and as long as similar coal-ash ponds exist—I want to keep in mind the knowledge of that disaster. The question of how to be attentive is a hard one, though. It requires that we stock up on both celebration and discernment. It requires that neither permanently displace the other.
To be nourished in these ways is to be prepared for action. We find sustenance, if we’re lucky, in good food and clean water and the instances—of conversation, human connection, art—that let us know the particulars of the world we inhabit. This issue of Ecotone is full of both delicious food and sustaining stories. As we send it off, I find many reasons to give thanks. For Matthew Gavin Frank’s essay on the degradation of the Platte River in Nebraska, as well as of the people—and prairie dogs—who have lived near it. For Randall Kenan’s brilliant remembrance of mustard greens. For Elizabeth Gray’s poems, mixing World War I maps and Tibetan ritual to evoke our hope that knowledge will keep us safe. For Camille Dungy’s adventure of eating in Alaska. For Catherine Meeks’s story, which takes us into the mind of a man intimately acquainted with the waters of Florida. And I could go on—but I’ll end this grace and let the feast commence.