My life is Little House on the Prairie now, and it’s all TikTok’s fault. I know this because a few weeks ago I stepped out my door and was filled with a quiet fear. The frost had come while I was sleeping and one look at my plants revealed they did not escape untouched. Fine white crystals lined every leaf, and while some, like mint and sage and Swiss chard, were unfazed, others were devastated. Every shoot and tendril of the tender plants that had been feeding me all summer—tomatoes, zucchini, sweet potatoes, beans—was either frozen stiff or bowed and turning black. The squash were wilted and bright green, like they’d been plunged into boiling water, a sure sign that ice crystals had shredded their cells. Fat green tomatoes hung precariously from wizened brown trusses that had been healthy and green the day before. For a few frosty breaths, I forgot that I lived in a city and could go to a grocery store. The earth was abruptly inhospitable, and I didn’t know how I was going to eat.
Just before the pandemic hit, I moved into an apartment with more than 200 square feet of garden space. I’d done some gardening before, but mostly of the balcony and windowsill variety. Growing produce was always part of the plan, especially since my pet rabbit requires a constant supply of greens, and is a bit of snob when it comes to their freshness. But in the loneliness of lockdown, cultivation became an obsession.
I grew everything from cabbages to obscure Andean root crops like oca, which looks like a fat pink grub and tastes like a lemony potato. When I took midday walks to clear my head after hours of reporting on Covid-19, I started noticing edible wild plants like plantain and dandelions in my neighborhood, and eating them. When acorns fell, I filled tote bags to make flour. I watched crows dropping nuts from power lines to crack them against the pavement, realized they were walnuts, and eventually found the tree, along with hundreds and hundreds of pounds of walnuts just laying on the ground. I checked storm drains for apples washed away by heavy rain. Suddenly I hadn’t hadn’t seen the inside of my local Fred Meyer since February, and was living a life somewhere between Laura Ingalls’ and an urban raccoon’s. The frost wasn’t just a hobby garden setback to me. It felt like a natural disaster.
Of course, my descent into LARPing as an opossum didn’t happen in a vacuum. I’ve been interested in ecology and sustainable agriculture for a while now, but in big, abstract ways that revolved around things I would do later, when I was older and more settled. Then Covid happened and I fell down a (somewhat literally) bewitching internet rabbit hole: cottagecore TikTok.
Cottagecore as an aesthetic has been around since at least 2018, when Tumblr users started collecting nostalgic images of a romanticized version Western country life on mood boards, but its popularity has surged during quarantine. If you’ve made bread from scratch or gone on a quaint picnic in the last nine months, you’ve participated in the trend. Aesthetically, cottagecore is women with long hair and long dresses holding wicker baskets, a warm berry pie resting on a cloth served beside herbal tea in a thrifted china set, mason jars, foraged mushrooms, beeswax candles. Ideologically, cottagecore encompasses multitudes, but its basic themes are living in harmony with nature, taking time to participate in overlooked arts like weaving and home cooking, and being either extremely gay or extremely straight. Seriously, the two poles are cottagecore lesbians creating manless idylls with their girlfriends or conservative “trad wives” homeschooling their children and deferring to their beardy husbands in all things.