It’s Saturday morning and I’m heading for the farmer’s market in my town, which is two miles from my house. From June through November, this is one of my rituals. I show up half an hour early to drink a latte at the adjacent café and see everyone arriving with their baskets and calico bags.
The people I know wave or stop to talk. The people I don’t know who are clearly local display an ease in how they approach this temporary one-block marketplace. You can see they’re heading for eggplants or bok choi, hand-made aprons, or the new fish guy and his smoked Atlantic cod. Strangers in town, newcomers, travelers, walk more slowly and look around, taking it in. Not needing carrots, perhaps, in their Airbnb, they’re here for the spectacle, the flavor of our town. Maybe they’ll get picnic provisions to take down to the Yuba River, but they don’t need a week’s worth of produce.
Each farmer has a white tent with a gaily colored flag poked into the corner where one tent joins the next, evoking Medieval pageantry though we’re in 21st century California. Today, it’s bright but not hot, and the wildfire smoke has abated, so blue sky arcs over us all like a postcard.
Two local musicians are already singing in the small square by the public bathrooms, to Kelly’s guitar. A little Dead, a little Kate Wolf. Crosby, Stills; Fleetwood Mac. Their harmony wafts up the block as I’m choosing purple potatoes from Super Tuber Farm and four bunches of basil from Riverhill. This afternoon, I’ll be making pesto. At Soil Sisters, I buy an armful of salmon-pink dahlias I wasn’t planning on. The seduction factor at a farmer’s market is nothing to sneeze at, but in September I let myself be seduced. Soon enough, we’ll be eating food we’ve canned or that’s been flown in from Mexico. I don’t let myself have store-bought flowers anymore, the pesticide use and carbon footprint are too expensive.
Generally, we don’t think of daily, ordinary, at-home life involving travel—in my mind real travel used to require Montmartre or the Ivory Coast—but I take expeditions like this all the time: trips to the dump, to the hardware store for a light bulb. I call them errands, sometimes chores, but they’re classic voyages out from home, albeit brief, followed by more-or-less triumphant returns. To identify this as travel, you just have to narrow your aperture. We depart from the driveway or front stoop and set off, see new territory we’ve planned to see (True Value Hardware, light bulb aisle) and some we haven’t (that backyard with the Teddy Bear Sunflowers, while pulling over to let fire trucks hurtle past), and then come home again, just like Odysseus but sooner.
We do this so often the journeys perforce become routine instead of surprising. Five days a week dropping kids off at school doesn’t sound like much of an expedition, where five nights in Istanbul reeks of adventure. But you can reframe this for yourself, if you want. Slow down, take different routes home, stop for coffee by yourself, follow a road you’ve never been on.
As well as surprises, travel, to me, involves foreign languages, and here, even in my rural, mostly-white, English-speaking county, I find them: Lao from the Hmong at the farmer’s market, Spanish at the taqueria, Mandarin when the kitchen doors at Asian Garden swing suddenly open. I’ve even heard Norwegian, the only language in which I used to be fluent, on the sidewalk when a group of tourists walked by.
Back at the market I’m relaxing in umbrella shade with a second latte, considering my purchases. Willow harvested the flowers. Antonio and Daylin grew the basil, but I don’t know which of their farm interns picked it, although I could ask. These were loaded into buckets either last night or at four in the morning and driven to town in pick-ups and vans. Nothing comes from more than 12 miles away.
I’ve made a game with the kids I know: we count how many people have handled something we’re eating. I consider this my contribution to their ecological education. “Your mom made the pie, so that’s one. But who picked the blackberries?”
“Okay, that’s two more, equals three. What’s in the pie crust?”
“Flour, water, butter…”
“Who made the butter?”
“Um… it says Straus on the package.”
“We’ve visited Straus Family Farms, they’re down in Point Reyes, remember? Those cows are raised in big fields and milked by machine, so no one touches the butter with their hands, but people pour the milk into the electric churn and turn it on and roll the carts full of butter over to the packaging gizmo. Then someone stacks the wrapped pounds into crates to send to the stores, and someone else drives the trucks to our co-op. Do you want to call that four? Or zero since it’s not done with bare hands?”
Many of us buy local flour, and certainly eggs if you use a yolk in your crust the way I do, so sometimes this game is easy. But heaven knows where baking powder comes from, I haven’t researched that yet. And cinnamon. Baker’s yeast. Molasses.
It’s wonderful when you can eat food that’s made close to home. The farmers support individuals, restaurants, and grocery stores with freshness and nutrition, money circulates back into the community, the transportation costs are low and therefore energy’s conserved. It’s not cheap to eat this way, but for people in my town, at least an hour from big box stores, it can be less expensive than making runs to Trader Joe’s or Costco when you add in the price of the gas. I know this is a privilege, though. We’re not in a food desert here or restricted to fast food and dollar stores. There are at least 25 small farms in our county and four farmer’s markets every week from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving.
My basket is in the car, dahlias propped in their half inch of water. I can feel the tug of my mind already shaping a poem around that salmon-pink color: color of shells, of sunlight through a child’s ear. Because I’m a poet, I’m always looking up the roots of words: I love the history and secrets carried in language. “Travel” surprised me. The English word is late 14th-century, rooted in mid-13th-c. Old French travail: “work, labor, toil, suffering or painful effort, trouble; [an] arduous journey,” and before that (12c.), from travailler “to toil, labor,” originally “to trouble, torture, torment,” from Vulgar Latin tripaliare “to torture.”
Most people I know would say travel isn’t a form of torture, despite long airport security lines and getting the Green-Apple Two-Step when you eat unwashed fruit in a new climate. But most people I know are in a privileged minority. There are notably huge populations for whom traveling is dreadful: refugees, people moving through countries where their skin or religious beliefs are despised. My online source proposes that this etymology may just reflect how torturous it was to get anywhere in the Middle Ages: whether herding sheep to the center of town or walking to the Crusades and back, carrying all that armor.
It’s possible that the span of seven centuries has shifted the meaning of this word. But maybe it hasn’t. Travel is something I’ll be thinking about as I approach my own front door again, groceries in hand.
Molly Fisk is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.