I thrust my hand into the dark earth and curl my fingers into a loose fist around a clump of soil. The rays of sun above me filter through the coverage of a heritage magnolia tree, its canopy blocking half of the potato bed below. In the wet days of spring the magnolia’s clumpy red roses blanketed the backyard for weeks. I’ve spent hours, if not days in total, tolerating this one tree alone, religiously clearing the wilting red petals while tiptoeing around the young seedlings the tree attempted to smother at my feet. Now that it’s July, the buds are mostly gone and the green foliage is thick along the scraggly chocolate-brown limbs. The light is still diffused in the branches, but the potatoes don’t seem to mind—their water-saturated stalks, with fuzzy green leaves, are two feet tall now. Months ago, my neighbor attempted to convince me to cut the magnolia down to save all of this extra work. I told him I wasn’t about to cut down a 50-year-old tree for the sheer inconvenience of sweeping flowers—and now that I know how long it takes to grow one simple seed into a real edible thing, how could I? If there is a Zen to gardening it is this simple fact: it’s not about the food, it’s not about the politics, it’s not about the greater good, the health or the DIY collectives; it’s about recovering a piece of irrationality, living beyond the efficiency at the core of our civilization’s malaise.
The Beginnings of Why We Garden
Gardening is kind of a lame word. It invites images of leisurely grandmothers, flower print gloves, and poor weekend fashion sense. And urban farming doesn’t seem to capture what I see happening in the yards and community garden plots around my neighborhood. Urban farming is a subversive activity, but only when it crosses the threshold from pastime to lifestyle. When that happens, something in you changes. Like the religious experiences of youth or the rapture of love, suddenly an entire realm of imagination opens up. You begin to pay more attention to the wind, the temperature and the sunshine. Everything becomes relational to the growing seeds, away from the ego, away from the self, away from the paradigm that puts you at the center of everything worthwhile. You start moving slower through the streets, eyeing scrap wood in the alleyways for potential plant beds. You examine rogue wild flowers for clippings. Rainy days become more bearable. The burning ball of fire in the sky has more meaning. You scorn the glass towers and give cheers to wild lawns and old houses deteriorating under the pressure of nature and time.
When I was a smoker, logic told me that $8 for a pack of cigarettes was a good deal and $3 for a fistful of organic fair trade kale was a rip-off. The distorted process that leads to deadly price points between carcinogens and vegetables is alive in the mental environment as well. In the same way the market teaches us to value pesticides over blemishes and teeth-rotting sodas over water, modernity teaches us to value urban over rural, individuality over community, and growth over contentment. This psychosis affects the fabric of our dreams, the careers we aspire to, and the way we conceive of the land in our culture. Accordingly, two of the saddest intuitive lessons we learn growing up in this part of the world are that food has no worth and that meals have no purpose other than sustenance. Today, food, even organic food, is expected to be cheap. Agricultural workers are the lowest-paid workers throughout the vast continental food chain.
Even those who have nostalgic ideas about what it means to farm don’t really want to be farmers. When was the last time you met someone who actually wanted to grow corn, beets, beans, or pumpkins? Have you ever met a college dropout in Toronto or New York or London who moved to the bald Canadian prairies to reap canola? And if you did, what did you honestly think of their aspirations? Were they limiting their unique individual potential? Who among you wants to be up from dawn to dusk, at the mercy of Earth’s natural systems, living on faith amongst secular technologies, covered in mud all the time, no time for art, music, or self-expression? These questions might be rude, but they’re essential to ask in order to get to the heart of the contradictory relationship we have with farming in the modern age—it’s the most basic building block of our existence, but it isn’t valued.
When exposed to the glitz of modernity, most people desperately try to escape the fields, leaving only Monsanto in the countryside. Modern humankind is urban. Nature is a place to visit. Removed from our billions-of-years-old evolutionary environment in a matter of a few millennia (and in some cases centuries and even decades), the loss of natural interaction has turned into a banal impulse to destroy. We’ve reached modernity, but lost our minds. Mental health disorders are now the most debilitating medical conditions in the United States. Not far behind are the complications related to overeating—diabetes, heart failure, cancer, etc. When we moved from the fields we stopped creating living things. This has affected us in ways we are only just beginning to understand. In this paradigm, trees become paper, houses, and fences. Fields become streets and parking lots. Minerals become steel and computers. Waterways become highways and trash bins. Animals and plants become food, fuel, and commodities. And now we are waking up to the reality that our proudest human achievement, modernity, could be an evolutionary dead end. Without the ability or desire to go backward to some pre-modern utopia, how do we go forward without killing ourselves?
I did my first inner-city garden story in Vancouver in 2008 as part of a group assignment during journalism school. When someone suggested “Green Revolution” as a title, I wanted to gag. A quarter-acre of green space in a city of ever-increasing high-rises hardly qualifies as the coming environmental insurrection. If there’s a revolution happening in this plot it certainly isn’t green, I said. Urban gardening, city farming, is not about food; it’s about recovering people. It’s about our psychological link to the land, where all issues from social inequality to food security to environmentalism converge. Every one of us has a psychological heritage choking under the veneer of modernity. The instinct that makes you nervous to fly 30,000 feet in the air in a metal tube is the same instinct that desperately searches for meaning without finding it in iPods, addictions, televisions, cars, financial careers, and endless consumption. As we filmed the first dirt being shoveled for the assignment that day, something unexpected happened. Neighborhood addicts, sex workers, police officers, social workers, and other curious bystanders flocked to the gates. Who among them could recall the last time they had thrust their naked hands into the earth and didn’t rush to the tap to wash it off: Who could remember the last time they felt the intoxicating spell of splitting the ground?
Why We Garden
I put the dirt in my hand down and mound it up against the side of a rainbow chard that’s been knocked over by the wind. This early in the season, some plants grow too fast and topple under their own weight. I stand it up and use a twist-tie from a loaf of bread to fasten it to a busted broomstick handle I found in the alley. Each morning after a windstorm some plant needs fixing. I know that what I grow in this plot isn’t going to last the coming winter. But that doesn’t matter. Urban gardening isn’t about the yield. It’s not about beating the factory-farm system or the rotten financial apparatus that is defining our generation. Instead, it’s about living beyond the systems that shape us. It’s about action. It’s about spark. It’s about creation. It’s about recovering the self. For many of us, planting a seed and caring for it until fruition will be the first time in our lives that we give life instead of taking it, that we create food instead of just consuming it. When you pull your hands out of your wallet and put them into the earth, for a minute, for an hour, for days at a time, when you hover over a seedling for weeks on end wondering if it’s going to grow its legs, you’re no longer complying with modernity.
Fore more on the environment and climate change, read Jay Griffith’s essay on climate skeptics, Climate Change Denial and the Galileo Fallacy.
Darren Fleet has reported, volunteered, worked, and traveled in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and central Russia. Once a Pentecostal missionary, Darren is now Senior Editor of Adbusters magazine. Excerpted from Adbusters (September/October 2012), a not-for-profit, bimonthly magazine concerned with the erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces.