Finding Essence in the Time of the Non-Essential, 2021

This project is an interrogation of the concept of essentiality. As we struggle to stabilize ourselves in the wake of a global pandemic, many are searching for essence, for the qualities at the core of who we are as people, societies and global communities. What is our constituent substance, that which will remain after everything superfluous is stripped away? As the world began to shut down in response to the spread of Covid-19, millions of individuals worldwide found themselves, and their work, declared to be non-essential. What happens when a huge population of people are declared non-essential? Maybe an urgent need arises to identify with the essential arises.

Below is an ongoing series of images and reflections that I’ve developed in response to the past year. I’m just now well enough to put these experiences into a shareable format. I wasn’t one of the strong ones who handled the repeated shut downs with grace and energy. Living with neurodiversity, the virtual world was over-stimulating and left me feeling overwhelmed, and deprived of input for the senses I use most to understand the world. I fell apart and retreated. After spending the better part of six months in bed, I found a way to cope, spending my days in the forest, in my garden, and in an abandoned orchard. These are the things I found there.

Early August: Reaching on tippy toes, I grab the tip of one of the highest branches, one of those with the roundest, juiciest berries, those that seem to hide themselves in inaccessible places. With a thorn poking into my thumb, I pull the branch down, slowly extracting nine or ten of the prized fruits. Dark purple juice runs down my arm, tracing a deep old wound, the one searching its way up, searching for my heart, searching for the spot, the one that ends it, the very best berry batch, deep in the forest, the place we don’t know about. I’ve spent the week gathering the berries, each one costing a prick, a scratch or a fall into the thorns. I put them into a large pot, cover them with water and boil them to extract their dark sticky, juice. Stirring the dark liquid, I search, for things not found, for the parts that are missing, for what’s at the center.

Late August: The blackberries are finishing as the figs are starting. There is an abandoned garden down the hill, overrun and mostly the domain of wild boar, scavenging for the overripe fruits falling from cherry, apple, persimmon, and fig trees. Wild brambles and overgrown blackberry vines encase everything, but there is a fig tree I can reach. This year the tree is overwhelming in its generosity. The branches of fig trees are pliable, so you can pull the high ones down easily to pluck the sweet fruit. Whereas blackberries flight harvesters with ferocity, the figs give themselves away, dropping into my hand at the lightest touch. In no time my basket is full. I separate the firm from the soft, using the nicely formed to preserve whole in syrup. On the stove, they boil gently in their syrup for hours, filling the house with a gentle but complex perfume. I don’t stir for fear of breaking the delicate fruits, but occasionally swirl the pot to prevent them from burning. Slowly the figs change from hues of green and purple to a deep caramelized yellow and the syrup takes on a translucent shade of pink. I start preparing the soft and misshapen for jam. Cutting into the fruits is visceral, they are almost humanlike with all their softness, milky white membrane, and pink, grainy insides held together by the most fragile of skins. I feel like a serial killer, with my razor-sharp knife and my hands covered in stickiness.

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