Amidst all the goodbyes I said to Williams as a graduating senior, saying goodbye to the Zilkha Center gardens was particularly bittersweet. I never knew the gardens existed for my first three years on campus, but as the Garden intern this last year, I grew very attached to this sun-shiny landscape of vegetables, fruit trees and wildflowers. All year, that’s where I could be found scattering hay over the strawberry plants, identifying plants, learning to prune, and introducing people to the miracle of walking onions. As I remember all the golden hours I spent in the garden, one vibrant memory is the Jerusalem Artichoke digging party I organized last November. I’ll never forget that afternoon we unearthed the treasure buried in the garden beds.
When I imagine the Zilkha Center gardens, the Jerusalem Artichoke plot is one of the first sights that comes to mind. In the warm seasons, the plot is thick with tall yellow sunflowers. As winter arrives, the flowers drop their petals and their stems shrivel to form a sort of petrified forest. That’s when the delicious edible bulb called the Jerusalem Artichoke, or Sunchoke, is ready for harvest at the bottom of the plant’s root system.
At the “Vegetable Archeology Party” last November, eight other students and I turned up Jerusalem Artichokes in all shapes and sizes. Some were purely blob-shaped and others looked like exquisite little sculptures. Each bulb had a smooth texture and a pale gold exterior. Every now and then as we dug, someone’s shovel would hit a bulb of record-breaking magnitude, and we’d all break into a collective gasp. As the bulbs piled up, one student turned them into a beautiful mosaic.
In the Envi Center kitchen, we sliced up the bulbs and roasted them with olive oil, salt, and rosemary and sage from the garden. We garnished them with sizzling walking onions, which we had rescued from the frosty beds outside. Then we sat for hours, enjoying the last harvest of the fall, and each other’s company.
This is the kind of moment that I will miss the most from my time at Williams. I’m so grateful that I was able to create occasions for Williams students to be grounded in nature and truly together while we were all on campus. When we all began our uncertain pandemic era lives, I tried to keep this spark of community alive. I put together safety guidelines for community gardens operating during the pandemic and worked on a plan for the Zilkha gardens to support local food security. I also started a plant appreciation blog, Williams Garden Sprites, where members of the extended Williams community could share their moments of plant-related joy. This blog will continue to accept submissions far into the future, and you can find it here: https://gardensprites.wordpress.com/
My year-long internship taught me that we can build community around nature in all circumstances. Periods of instability can actually illuminate the generosity of the natural world and the power of our communal networks. It was in the midst of the pandemic that the memory of gathering Jerusalem Artichokes among friends came back to me, more beautiful, magnetic and priceless than ever before. As I take my next steps in work and life, I will hold fast to these memories and to the commitments to nature and community that I have cultivated this year.
Baladine Pierce ’20 is a Gardening and Landscaping Intern for the 2019-2020 academic year from New York, New York.