Last November, we brought you the story of Manuel and Olga Jimenez. They’re a Woodlake couple who created a mile-long community botanical garden in their town to inspire and teach kids. Hundreds of young people have volunteered at the Bravo Lake Botanical Garden since it was started 17 years ago. They earn community service hours for their work but that’s often just the tip of their involvement. Many spend years working in the dirt here; some choose to go into agriculture because of it.
Last Saturday, I checked back in with Manuel and Olga to see how they are doing during the pandemic. Right now the garden is closed due to safety concerns about COVID-19 and they said they both really miss working with young people, teaching them the discipline and joy of growing fruits and flowers.
But without so much human activity, wildlife has moved in, Olga said.
“The raccoons, the killdeer, the fox,” she said. “Once in a while the coyote comes and cleans up all the rabbits.”
And there’s more birdsong.
“What you’re hearing, they’re grackles,” Olga said pointing to some loud sounds in a tree above us. “And they’re babies. I think they were born about a month ago. That’s all the activity you hear out here.”
The garden will likely reopen soon, with restrictions. But in this quieter time, the couple are still teaching, still educating the public.
Every Saturday night at 7 o’clock, Manuel and Olga begin placing white paper bags, luminaries, along the garden trail.
Manuel uses a long measuring tape to space them out about five feet apart. Then they light the candles, each one to honor a person in Tulare County who has died of COVID-19.
“Our garden is closed but it’s a very central part to our community, and I’m hoping that people do realize that residents in our county continue to pass from this disease,” Manuel said.
On this last Saturday in May, the luminaries stretch 420 feet. People can see them from a walking trail that loops around neighboring Bravo Lake.
Olga said each individual candle makes her think about how people with COVID-19 are dying alone, without family and friends near them to say goodbye.
“To see a person, you know, draw their last breath and be alone. I mean I can’t even let an animal die by itself,” she said. “I have to go and pet it or hold it or talk to it. A human. You know. It’s very important like a closure to be there and hold their hand and talk to them.”
The luminaries are a memorial to the dead and Tulare County has been hit hard, especially in its nursing homes. But Manuel says the memorial is also a reminder to people to stay safe and take precautions that will keep them alive.
“I think there’s so many people who don't feel like it’s that important to wear masks. They take it for granted if they get sick, they’re young, it’s not going to affect them,” he said.
And he’s worried about those in Woodlake who rebel against putting on masks. The local grocery store requires people to wear them, he said.
“And of course some people are still going there without a mask, like in protest and so that’s disappointing,” he said.
It takes Manuel and Olga about an hour and a half to lay out all the candles and light them. Once they’re done, they stand and look back at their work. The sun is now setting and the luminaries stretch out, past a curve in the path, so it looks like they go on forever.
“It represents 84 people who have died and the light has gone out of their life,” Olga said.
“You stand here and you look down and you see every individual luminary representing one person,” Manuel said. “It’s heartfelt.”
They said they’ll continue to do this every Saturday, to remind people just how much the county has lost.