What I first remember about Sara Wakefield was not exactly Sara. It was the electric smile of her infant daughter, peeking at me from her mother’s sling. And I remember the baby’s incredible blue eyes. I had to meet her. I walked across the Absolute Bakery & Café and sat down next to that baby. Then I saw that the baby’s mother had that same smile, those same eyes. Her name was Sara. She told me she was starting a natural food store, right there in dusty-lonely Mancos.
This woman has got some serious guts, I thought, in addition to a bright smile and a ridiculously cute baby.
She did start her store, with friend and business partner Meghan Tallmadge. It was 2004. They took the back third of an industrial metal building on Highway 160. They planted vegetables in the gravel-and-weed-strewn yard, and created a space for their babies to play in one corner of the store. Soon, many other babies were playing there, too. Zuma Natural Foods became a community space for a whole cadre of people, some with families and some without, who wanted to do right by the planet and their own bodies.
Sara’s connection to local food and local people started far away from either of them. As an exchange student in Australia, she saw that pollution from local industry being dumped into the ocean was making surfers ill. She organized a protest. Thousands of people came. “Right then, she knew she could make a difference in the world,” recalls her dad.
What drove Sara, from that age onward, was something that few of us are either lucky enough or fearless enough to develop in ourselves: a clear moral code, informed by deep spirituality, and expressed through careful ethics. Sara was an environmentalist. Over and over again, she expressed this conviction through her contributions to local food.
And it wasn’t just the store. Sara was constantly organizing potlucks, cooking parties, harvest parties – whatever it took to bring local people and local food together.
There came a time when Sara, who had become a single mother, had to say goodbye to the store she founded. She had spent a lot of her younger life living, by choice, on very little income. She had farmed and protested and worked on important causes. Now she needed to care for her daughter. I remember one very long, very late conversation around that time. I was more of a witness to her process than a participant in the discussion. Finally, she said, “So, it’s time for me to do this. Yeah, I’m going to earn better money. But I’m also going to do some really great things for this place.” She stood up, with her hands on her hips, and I saw that it was decided.
Sara completed a master’s degree in Public Administration through the University of Colorado. Her focus: local government and community development. When she graduated, the Great Recession was bearing down on us all. It took her many months of diligent effort to land a position as the director of The Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez.
When she told me about the job offer, I asked, “Will you be happy there, since the job is not about the environment?”
“But Laura, it is,” she said.
And for her, it was. Through her work at The Bridge, and later, as the director of Manna Soup Kitchen, she sought to feed and care for local people, using local food. Sara saw justice being done for the larger environment through the mundane and small-scale operations of caring for others. To her, it was exactly like a healed ecology, with all parts of the system receiving and contributing in balance.
Sara’s unexpected death, on July 10, leaves a painful gap in the ecology of our local community. In me, it’s left a gnarled ball of anger and bewilderment. It’s a hell of a thing, which will not untangle itself: that we’re meant to keep on saying goodbye to good friends as we age, until it’s our turn to be grieved for. One wants to turn this awful feeling into something useful. So I am cooking. I find I can’t stop. I’ve hosted two dinners so far. I want to feed the people around me like Sara was always doing, and celebrate the difficult and wonderful harvest of our region, with absolute conviction. And serious guts.