Back in the Zoo: “Essential”

Annie at Greenhouse

About 15 years ago, I visited Westrate’s Greenhouse with my family. Now, I’m employed there as an essential worker.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her experience as an “essential worker.” –JF

A little over two weeks ago, I became an essential worker. I finished my last virtual exam on a Friday afternoon and reported for duty at a local greenhouse on the following Monday morning. Some might be surprised that greenhouses are considered essential businesses, especially those that don’t grow food. Surely we can survive without decorative plants in our gardens or baskets hanging from our front porches, but as an agricultural enterprise the greenhouse at which I am employed has not been forced to shut its doors. Further, quarantine has made gardeners out of many of us–my family included–so I’ve had no trouble keeping busy at work.

I never thought I would be an essential worker. After all, I’m not battling the coronavirus first hand in a hospital or re-stocking shelves with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. I’m not sewing masks or making difficult decisions regarding the public health of my community. I’m really just moving flowers around, and planting some every once in a while. Yet I’m going to work every day during a time when many are still stuck at home, so “essential worker” is a label I bear.

There’s no mistaking that labeling some goods and services “essential,” while deeming others “non-essential” has created controversy. Protestors gather weekly across the nation to voice their complaints. Many express their frustration over social media that abortion clinics and news agencies remain open while small businesses and hair salons stay closed. Last week President Trump declared churches and other places of worship essential, and therefore exempt from social distancing rules. Other businesses, like greenhouses growing flowers for instance, stay open even though they’re not necessarily needed to sustain human life. Evidently, the term “essential” is not as straight-forward as it seems.

However, deeming some goods essential and others non-essential is not a new practice. Nearly 80 years ago when the United States fought in World War II, many of the nation’s factories were converted to the production of military items for the Allies. Luxury goods like musical instruments were deemed non-essential and produced in limited quantities–if at all. Thousands of Americans, many of them women, left their households and became essential homefront workers; not only did they help manufacture critical supplies for the war, but they also made do without certain non-essential items that took the back burner during war-time.

Way back in my junior year of high school, I interviewed an incredible woman named Irene Stearns for a National History Day project. Irene (who I wrote about in one of my first blog posts) lived through the Great Depression and World War II. In a way, she lived through her own “unprecedented time” long before this one. Irene worked for Gibson Guitar in Kalamazoo, a factory that earned three Army-Navy E awards of Excellence in wartime production. During World War II, Gibson produced intricate screw machine products, glider skids, and machine gun products–all “essential” products the military needed during the war. But Irene did not produce any of these items. Instead, she coiled guitar strings for the thousands of less-essential musical instruments Gibson produced under the radar between 1941 and 1945.  While not deemed essential, I like to think that the strings Irene crafted went on to play music that brightened many dark days.

I’m still wrestling with what it means to be an essential worker. I still don’t think my job is nearly as important as those “on the front lines.” But like Irene, I go to work and do my part, however small. I’m not making masks or machine gun parts, but I like to think that the flowers I help grow may go on to brighten many dark days.