A watershed is actually an area of land—all the land containing rivers, lakes, and streams that drain into a larger body of water, such as the ocean. The Mississippi watershed covers forty percent of continental United States. In Canada, thirty percent of freshwater drains into the Hudson Bay watershed, which spans five provinces. So watersheds are everything, really. Everything we and all other living beings depend on.
Despite this dependence, we don’t often speak of watersheds. Unless you’re a scientist, these days you’re more likely to hear the phrase watershed moment, which derives from the British definition of a watershed: the crest of a ridge dividing two drainage areas. A watershed moment also divides, not land but time. It describes a pivotal moment after which things will never be the same, from which there is no return.
The personal essays and poems published here were written and submitted during the spring of 2020, just after a global pandemic was declared and the first lockdowns began across Canada. We collected and published these stories quickly, without our usual in-depth vetting and editing process, because we wanted to capture the immediate experiences of women and non-binary writers—their initial, visceral responses to such extraordinary circumstances.
This collection reflects a moment in history. Anxiety, shock, gratitude, fear, restlessness, determination. Reading these stories even a few months later, we realize how much we didn’t know, how we made things up—figured things out—as we went along. But that’s always the case, isn’t it? The Covid pandemic was “unprecedented” but, in many ways, so is every day. The poems and essays here show resilience in the face of uncertainty and a surprising yet reassuring togetherness as expressed through the power of literary writing.
It’s estimated that, in Canada, our food travels an average of 2,500 kilometers before arriving on our plate. That slice of holiday chocolate—cocoa, sugar, palm oil—likely travelled much further, almost 50,000 kilometers according to one study.
With initiatives like “food miles” and “buy local,” we’re learning more about the distance our food travels and the advantages of choosing food made closer to home.
But the idea of food “travelling” is still abstract. Food doesn’t move by itself. Chocolate, for instance, requires growers, harvesters, processors, packers, transporters, manufacturers, marketers, retailers, shoppers, and sometimes servers to “arrive” on our plate. These general categories hide many more people who bring us food: cleaners, chemists, mechanics, logisticians, cashiers…. Hundreds of people as well as the families that depend on them.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve become more aware of these complex supply chains because glitches have made the links visible. When grocery stores ran out of Robin Hood flour last spring, it wasn’t the flour that was in short supply. It was the iconic yellow packaging. When did we last consider where those familiar yellow bags come from?
In realizing the many critical steps of food production and distribution, we have have started talking about essential workers. We’ve started praising essential workers. Thanking essential workers.
Or have we?
Have we really thought about these workers—the woman at the cash, the dishwasher in the restaurant, the trucker on the highway—or have we only thought about the work that needs doing? Flour bags that need to be made. Check-outs that need to be staffed. Chocolate that needs to be shipped.
Do we value essential workers or just their essential work?
In this issue of Understorey Magazine, we share stories of the many workers who bring food to our table. We share small details of their everyday lives in the hope of better seeing them as individual people who contribute enormously our everyday lives.
The writers and artists published here show us the tired but still playful hands of production line workers; the clenched, hesitant hands of a livestock farmer on culling day; the shaky hands of a veteran restaurant server; the knowing hands of a decades-long canner; the nimble hands of a food-cart cook; the scarred, strong hands of a butcher; the grieving yet giving hands of a community-kitchen worker.
So many hands. And so often women’s hands. Most food work done in the home and garden, in the “front of the house” in restaurants, at the cash register in stores, at the bedside in hospitals—the lower-paying or unpaid work—is done by women, very often women of colour. This is one reason why rates of Covid-19 infection have been higher for women than men during the second wave of the pandemic: more women are on the front lines, not just of health work but of food work too. In higher-paying professional and management roles—chefs, owners, CEOs—and traditionally male work like farming, fishing, and transport, women remain vastly underrepresented.
Perhaps in addition to “food miles” we need to consider “food hands” when choosing what we eat.
We hope this issue of Understorey inspires us all to take a moment to appreciate the often-unseen hands that bring us food. And then take another moment to appreciate the hands we see every day, those of family, or housemates, or partners—even our own—that plan, buy, harvest, cook, and clean up the food that keeps us going, from one year to the next.
Here’s to a brighter and more joyful 2021.
We Still Return for the Cod by Kat Frick Miller
Thank you to our cover artist for Issue 19, Kat Frick Miller. Her painting We Still Return for the Cod was originally created to accompany the article “Cod Haven’t Fully Returned, but We Still Return for the Cod” by Jennifer Thornhill Verma, published in The Independent NL in October, 2020. You can see all Understorey Magazine covers here.
Earlier this year, as Covid-19 spread throughout the world, reports surfaced about the design and fit of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Even the smallest sizes of PPE were too big for many women working on the front lines of the pandemic. The PPE was designed for a generally larger male body. The technology was biased.
Later this year, as Black Lives Matter protests gained strength, many reports emphasized what has been known for years. Police surveillance—which has led to police violence—depends on facial recognition technology. And facial recognition technology misidentifies Black faces more often than white faces, up to ten times more often. The technology is biased.
During these and other world-changing events, people turn to the Internet for vital news and information. But pop-ups, animated GIFs, autoplay, and other website clutter mean people with epilepsy, autism, and other physical, developmental, and cognitive challenges can only read for a short time, or not at all. This technology is also biased.
But can technology be biased? Can chunks of metal, plastic, and silicon be sexist, racist, ableist?
We tend to think of technology as non-human by definition. But technology is, of course, designed, produced, tested, and marketed by humans. And in the tech sector, most humans are men; in North America, at least, they are mostly white men. Available sizes of PPE are based on human assumptions about “typical” healthcare workers. The algorithms that run facial recognition technology are coded by humans with experiences in particular families, workplaces, and communities. The design of websites depends on goals and values, often the uniquely human goal of making money. All of these assumptions, experiences, goals, values—in other words, biases—are built into the technologies we use every day.
In this issue of Understorey Magazine, we explore at how technology, with all its biases, affects our lives.
How might something as simple as a salad spinner, as familiar as a karaoke machine, or as complex as computer-generated haiku forge conversations across generations and cultures?
How do the features included on a fitness tracker or the tools needed to adjust a wheelchair facilitate or complicate wellbeing?
How might technology connect us directly and intimately to our very identity? Or to our faith?
Answers to these raise questions further questions about who is involved in creating technology and about the barriers—everyday, systemic, colonial—to greater inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.
Together, the writers and artists in Issue 18 suggest that technology serves us best when the human elements are made visible. When we acknowledge that technology arises not from isolated individuals or autonomous companies but from complex social, cultural, and political systems. When we see that technology does not have a “user” but functions in a network of parents, caregivers, teachers, mentors, Elders, and many others. When we accept that technology is not a thing but a process and work toward technologies that enable without subjugating, that engage our passions but not our compulsions, and that help us understand ourselves by giving voice to many.
Thank you to our cover artist, Teri Donovan. Teri’s Kitchen Queen (plastic toys assemblage, spray paint, fishing line, white flocking) provides the perfect image for the many themes explored in this issue.
A special thanks to the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender, and Social Justice for their continued support of Understorey Magazine and for providing funds for this issue.
In the few weeks it has taken me to read and review Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times (Caitlin Press, 2019), the world has all but forgotten the climate crisis. It is March 2020. Headline stories of wildfires and floods have slipped to the bottom of news websites or disappeared completely. We are consumed by another—seemingly separate—crisis: COVID-19.
But as contributors to Rising Tides show, as all nature writers show, few things are truly separate. A virus moves from wildlife to humans and then, within months, is transported around the world. Is COVID-19 different from the climate crisis, or are both symptoms of a larger problem: our unyielding consumption and exploitation of nature?
Rising Tides is a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays that originated in a workshop on Galiano Island, British Columbia. Most of the forty-plus contributors are from Canada’s west coast; many others are from Ontario, and a few write from the east coast. Despite their range of geographic location and writing genre, Rising Tides’ contributors are united in their portrayal of a world already altered by climate change. Their writing is not speculative, as editor Catriona Sandilands notes in her introduction, but rather bears witness to what we have already lost and what we continue to lose. Right now, every day.