No Zombie Fruit

Mark Wagner, Binienda Center for Civic Engagement, Worcester State University

April 3, 2017

I had been reading about the philosophical argument between materialists and pan-proto physcism and the zombie problem.  The zombie problem: how do we know whether someone or something is conscious? We can imagine a person, or a monkey, or an octopus that can simply imitate what is happening around us.  How can we tell when something is physically alive but mentally empty? I think we can all say that we have had zombie interactions, perhaps we even know some zombie organizations and can imagine the government taken over by zombie leaders. This is an important problem for us to understand, if only that the need to experience consciousness with other conscious people is critical to the survival of our human souls.  How do we test for consciousness as opposed to zombie-like behavior?

One way is to test for zombieism is to go on an adventure with 10 students, a trip in which the leader knew as much as the students about what we were getting into.  And that is what we did.  Sponsored by the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement at Worcester State University, along with our SGA and the Alumni Fund, we went on a spring break service trip to Growing Hope Initiative on Big Pine Key.

The backstory is this: in July I received a call from Ashton Fallen from the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Program (SERCAP).  Established in 1960, SERCAP serves the seven states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. SERCAP assists small rural towns and communities needing aid in upgrading their water and wastewater systems.  Ashton had the task of building out a volunteer corps. Would we like to work with SERCAP in the communities in which their water programs service? The Binienda Center at WSU had supported service trips to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic, but I always had that nagging feeling that in doing so we ignore needs in our very own country.  So I happily agreed to work with Ashton and was rewarded when Ashton called back and said she had a project in the Florida Keys in March, a project with a group called Growing Hope who was restoring Grimal Grove on Big Pine Key.  The program called for us to stay in a community church in Key West and travel each morning to Grimal Grove to engage in planting and pruning and meeting the locals where they live. We would need roughly $5000 for the project, plus airfare, and what followed was the requisite fundraising and paperwork to get the trip approved, and I was able to get money from both our alumni association and the student government, so students would cover their airfare and spending money.

Grimal Grove was developed by Adolf Grimal as a tropical fruit garden in the 60s and 70s and he maintained it until his death in 1997. Grimal was by most accounts a curmudgeon and didn’t like people, but he did like collecting rare and exotic fruit trees.  In the keys, which are a critical aquifer and stopping point for lots of migratory birds, the issue is soil and water, and Grimal had established a series of cisterns that enabled him to build soil.  After he died, and after which the garden was untended for many years, it became a dumping ground and a crack site, such that what was once envisioned as an “edible park” and a “natural wonder of the Florida Keys” had become a place known to the police.  In 2015, Patrick Garvey and Growing Hope Initiative bought it in the hopes to restore Grimal’s original vision as a resource for underprivileged community members in Big Pine Key by providing them with fresh, locally grown produce. Our effort would be to work with Growing Hope to restore the grove and ultimately empower marginalized populations to self-sufficiency by connecting them to healthy, affordable, and sustainable food through educational initiatives, cultural inclusion, tourism, the arts, and athletics.  In the long run, the outcome will be a culturally vibrant, economically sustainable, environmentally safer, physically and socially healthier community by growing and sustaining local food sources.

There are some events I’ve planned where I have to shake the trees and cajole and offer prizes to get students to take opportunities. The Trip to Grimal Grove sold out in about a minute and a half and before Christmas, I knew the 10 students who would be traveling with my wife and me on March break.  This aided us in doing background research and building group cohesion in the run-up.

We arrived on Sunday, March 19th and met both Ashton and Patrick, and what followed was a week of hard work planting, cleaning, and we built out the nursery at Grimal Grove’s farm stand, which sits on the northbound side of Route 1 in the middle of Big Pine.  It would be hard to encapsulate a week like this with any sense of completeness, but I will say this: the folks we met who were restoring the grove were welcoming and artistic and Key-sy, as they liked to say. Key-sy means it’s okay to take your time, and making new friends is as important as getting the tasks done.  And having fun is allowed, as we try to change our world:  we were made believers in the Grimal Grove, and I learned that our 10 students could think and hope and be conscious and leave behind any zombie hangover they had from the first half of the rigorous term.   

And one day, we met two Growing Hope board members, Bill and Mary, who had come up from Key West to help out. They treated us to a night out, such that we saw America as she currently is: one of wealth and poverty, one where the young have passion and the desire to overcome differences and work together toward a sustainable future, An America where, if you are worried about zombies, take a trip to Growing Hope on Big Pine Key to restore the soul and keep hope alive.

There is another, lasting memory of Grimal and his grove: One of the trees he had there has yet to be identified. Patrick Garvey imagines he brought it back from a trip to the Amazon in the late 50s or 60s. Botanists, who come to study the fauna and flora on nearby Bahai-Honda Key, plants that are brought by the migratory birds, stop to see the tree which has no name and no known relatives.  That in itself is cause for hope, and our students talked about how happy that made them: to think there are things in this world we know nothing about.  We could call the fruit of that tree No Zombie Fruit, but I’ll leave the naming to others. 

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