by Venice Williams

Do I have my keys? Is the bin overflowing with seed packets already in the car? Do I have the three-ring binder with the rental gardener forms? Water bottle? Sunglasses? As I review this list of what I need for the morning at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm, I see that my husband has already pulled the car in front of the house and loaded some items in the trunk. A few weeks away from the summer solstice, a couple weeks after the “Safer at Home” order issued by Wisconsin’s governor, I close the door of our home behind me.

That’s when I see them. Right there, on the sidewalk, between me and the passenger-side door, I see three used disposable masks. Were they all tossed in front of our home at the same time? Did the wind blow them there? Did some folks just choose to switch out their masks for new ones? Could they not have put them in their pockets until they returned to their homes, and disposed of them properly? Are the former owners even still wearing masks? Are these masks contaminated? Do I need to have on a glove to pick them up? I pull a pair of garden gloves from the trunk of the car, pick up the discarded masks, walk to our garbage can in the alley, and feel frustrated, angry and confused, as I toss them in the trash. At least, this will all be over soon. Or so I thought.

It keeps me up some nights, my concern for all of the waste we are creating during this pandemic. It has resulted in countless restless nights, and actual nightmares. Relinquished masks are everywhere! How do we even begin to do the math? How do we calculate the increase of trash in landfills? How do we manage it? How can we possibly estimate the harm we are doing to the earth? Its creatures? Our rivers and lakes, seas and oceans? What kind of wasteland are we building up for our grandchildren’s grandchildren? I have questions, so many questions. I am not just seeking answers. I want solutions.

It is a Friday evening, and I have been brewing and blending herbal products for most of the day, preparing for my Saturday farmers market. As I sit at our kitchen table, I hear the voice of the youngest, yet largest child in our household. “What’s for dinner tonight, Mom?” Why is he always hungry? I feel my ecological self being thwarted again, knowing tonight’s dinner will be pre-ordered take-out, delivered to our car door. If they would only allow me to reuse my own containers, it would save everyone money. “But you may have the virus,” the voice on the other end of the phone scolded once, as I placed my order and offered to bring in my containers to be refilled. We have put intentional effort into supporting local restaurants, food trucks, and caterers during the pandemic, but there is a downside. In spite of what some food businesses consider to be annoying questions before I place an order (Do you use Styrofoam? Are your food containers compostable or recyclable? Would my order be placed in a paper or plastic bag?), there is only so much recycling that can be done under the conditions we are now experiencing. As I go through my list of questions on this particular Friday evening in an attempt to patronize a new restaurant, the young female who was trying to take my order releases a long sigh, and pleads, “Lady, please. We are just hoping our business survives, and that we can pay our bills.” I thought, I am wanting the earth to survive, too.

Then there is the overarching, substantial, environmental impact of our family and friends once they are hospitalized with the virus. I cringe for the soil, our water, our living whenever I contemplate the gloves, face shields, masks, isolation gowns, needles, syringes and vials that are tossed throughout the world, every hour of the day. Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit environmental- stewardship membership organization has reported that hospitals generate around 30 pounds of waste for each of our loved ones, every day they are hospitalized.

Plastic bottles of hand sanitizer. Disposable sanitizing wipes. Gallon bottles of bleach. There seems to be no end to the list of items purchased and thrown away at an incredibly high rate since the onset of COVID-19. Even as we exhale a bit more fully, as we continue to vaccinate human beings throughout the world, we must acknowledge all the discarded material that comes along with inoculating billions. Most of us, twice. All of us will require booster shots in the months and years to come.

I do not want to even address our increased online shopping, and all that goes into getting our packages and groceries to our front doors, both the packaging materials and the fuel emissions. I just can’t.

I am overwhelmed. Not many, if any of us, saw this coming. I try to wrap my faith around this one, attempt to find a spiritual framework to put all of this in. Where is the scripture for this moment in the history of humanity? In the midst of so much sorrow and loss of humankind, I also mourn for what is happening to the earth. I find some solace in God’s word that speaks to me about worrying: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears” (Psalm 18:6). “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8) I must confess, all it does is calm me in the moment. However, this is not about tempering my emotions. I need to know what we are going to do about the harm we are doing to the planet.

As I have these conversations with my environmental friends throughout the world, all of whom have the same intensity of concern as I do, they tell me, “Venice, we all have to just keep working on this together.” What bothers me most is this: I am part of both the problem and the solution. So are you. How often, since March 2020, as I have created waste, and have recycled as best I can, have I felt hypocritical. Often, I have carried shame for how I am not contributing to the best interests of the earth. We must, all of us, think more considerately about how our everyday choices, throughout this pandemic, are impacting the health and welfare of the earth and the elements that sustain us. Please. We must.

Venice Williams is executive director of Alice’s Garden Urban Farm and The Body and Soul Healing Arts Center, both in Milwaukee. She is also the developer of an ELCA worshipping community called The Table.

This article is from the June 2021 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.