Friday, March 10, 2017

A garden story

This story is mine. It's about being a gardener, and how the meaning of that changed over the decades. It's about what I garden now, not just out of the rich soil of one garden plot, but also in the work I do in the context of this stunning collapse of the old political culture of the U.S. I've been a gardener for a long time, but it means something different now, coming as it does at the same time as our human destruction of planetary systems is starting to really impact everything and everyone. It's all happening so fast now and the gardening metaphor helps me see and understand it - and fear it less.

Collapse is coming for a reason. It is inevitable now. It needs to happen. It will not be pretty.

It seems to me that the essential gardening question we face in the context of collapse is this: what are we cultivating to replace it?

Back in the 1980s I was part of an intentional community in Washington that had one member who lived some 98 miles away in rural Pennsylvania just north of Hancock MD. It was a place we used for R&R, community retreats, a little rest from our intense lives in the city. It was from our friend out there that I first put my hands in the earth for the purpose of raising food. Leon had a very large organic garden, which fed him all summer long and through the winter by way of the freezers we helped him fill each fall. Everything I know about organic gardening I learned from Leon.

By the mid 90s I was living in a rented house in Takoma Park MD, right on the DC border, and it was in that backyard that I finally had my own little square to grow some food - tomatoes, a few peppers, peas and beans. I've been hooked ever since.

Once I moved back to my hometown of Milwaukee in 2006-7, I started to get more serious about it. An elderly friend, aware of my longing, offered me several square feet of her back yard. The soil was incredibly rich and untouched by any chemical inputs for at least a generation. Food grew out of that space in abundance and we feasted all summer long. Now I was also raising sweet peppers and eggplant, various kinds of squash, and lots of greens.

I lost that patch when my friend had need to sell her home. So my next move was to rent a plot in a community garden belonging to UW-Extension. Now I had a 20' by 20' plot and my food-producing just kept expanding. Now I had food to share - tomatoes, squash, kale in abundance... This was okay. It was personally satisfying, though I missed the community of my friend's backyard.

Then I discovered Alice's Garden - an urban community farm in central city. The switch was easy and incredibly fulfilling. Alice's Garden had been part of this neighborhood for 27 years and my decision to garden there was a decision to become part of the city of Milwaukee in an entirely new way.

Photo: Cheri Johnson

Milwaukee has enormous challenges. Its reputation as the most segregated city in the country is well-earned, legacy of generations of housing discrimination and virtual "walling-in" of the African-American community. It incarcerates more young black men than any other city as well. The poverty rate for our black residents is around 37%, unemployment for blacks a shocking 17.3% (compared to 4.3% for whites). The city has been described as the worst in the country for African-Americans.

The culture of racism in this region is powerful and deeply entrenched. I grew up in one of its suburbs, Wauwatosa, which was established as a "whites only" town, enforced by one of the infamous "restrictive codes" that helped structure racism into the very way the metro area developed - and still to this day marks the segregated nature of the population. From housing codes to how public transportation is or is not supported, to the lack of funding for inner city public schools, and to the reality of who gets hired and who does not, the dominant white world has found all sorts of ways to keep most of the black population encircled in certain areas of the city.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
Alice's Garden is like an oasis in that desert, a 'safe space' where a different kind of community can come together, one dedicated not only to growing healthy food but to having an impact on the seemingly intransigent culture of white dominance and racial separation.

This is a garden in search of more than delicious sun-ripened tomatoes. And so much more happens in this space than food-growing. It is a gathering place for young and old, for community events, and cultural growth. It has a labyrinth gently carved through a garden of herbs, teeming with bees in the summer months. The garden embraces diverse expressions of culture and spirituality. An evening ritual there carries enormous meaning and power. Like any good garden, diversity is not feared, it is celebrated. Like any good garden, it is also necessary for healthy growth.

Now here's the other thing: the day I arrived to get my key to the gate, I was witness to a drive-by shooting just two blocks away.

That is NOT the character of this neighborhood, but it is fact and metaphor that reveals something about this city - and invites a different understanding of the meaning of this garden.

How do we nurture rich soil, a harvest of abundance for all, health for the human family, and a hope for meaningful life on this planet when injustice, cultures of separation and fear, cultures of white supremacy and exclusion are still so much a part of us? Why is this garden an oasis?

Learning the watershed. That's me in the black t-shirt. Photo: Venice Williams

I have been working on themes of ecology and spirituality for a long time now - 12 years since I 'retired' from my work in DC as director of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico, which ended its gorgeous mission after 25 years. It was a shock to me to come back to my home town to see that the segregation I left behind when I was in my 20s is not much different than it was then. And when you really take that in, when you have the courage to take the long, deep look into that reality, you understand more clearly than ever how it is that this nation ended up with the political swing to an authoritarian white-male-dominated anti-democratic regime as we now have in Washington, and in my state and a couple dozen other states right now.

In the face of decades of challenges to that white culture, we are now dealing with a full-on reaction to those challenges, and with corporate and political leaders who played on those fears and resentments to get themselves into positions of power.

Okay, this is a blog post, and what I just wrote begs pages more to explain and support, but I am going to leave it there. I'm going to guess that most of you reading this know exactly what I'm talking about.

My story is this: gardening has become a passion, a mission - to raise a lot of my own food through hard labor and the joy of being part of a community that is creating a new food economy, a new grassroots food culture, in the city of Milwaukee. It has also become metaphor for how we go about the work of "new creation." A good garden needs all kinds of healthy inputs - good soil, lots of worms and bees, clean water, sweat and labor, tools, the right balance of organic plants to keep pests at bay, ongoing tender care, and is enriched by growing more than one needs so that the harvest can be shared.
The labyrinth. Photo: Cheri Johnson

A good garden cannot grow amid racist separation, degraded human soil (heart and spirit), toxic environments, and enforced discrimination. That's why Alice's Garden has become so important to me. How can I go on talking about ecology and spirituality in a culture this dysfunctional, even pathological when it comes to racism and the concentration of wealth and privilege, without talking about racism and the concentration of wealth and privilege?

So I don't. I mean, I am still very happy to go into communities to talk about the degradation of the planet, the impacts of which we all feel now by way of climate change, high rates of environmentally-induced diseases, species extinction, and the wreckage of habitats that are dear to us. But we need to be clear about this: that degradation comes from the same roots as the degradation of the human community by way of conquest, genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, violations of treaty rights of indigenous communities, and the violence of militarized police responses to the struggles for freedom from the various forms of oppression used to keep structures of segregation and injustice firmly in place.

From the beginning of the white European conquest of this continent, we have seen humans and the other living communities of North America ravaged by the violence of the conquerors, by the colonizers and settlers. We have ruined one place after another by being bent on economic domination of nature. I mean, just ponder what industrial agriculture has done to the Great Plains states with giant machines and pesticides, the top soil ruined or disappeared, vast fields of GMO crops fully contaminated by pesticide-spraying. Or think of the rape-like quality of industries like fracking, pipeline construction, or surface-mining for coal, tar sands bitumen or rare earth minerals, to get an idea of what I mean.

I believe these are not two forms of violence, the violence against the Earth and the violence against African-American and indigenous peoples. I believe they emerge from one mentality, and that mentality has to be taken out of positions of power in our world if we are to survive.

Photo: Venice Williams
Back to the garden. It will soon be time to put that spade back in the soil. I know how well I worked it. I know it will sink right into the earth once the ground is unfrozen. I know that with a little sweat and toil, a little organic compost gently mixed in, that that bit of earth - that "mother soil" that is so generous with us, and even forgiving despite all the abuse - will produce abundance once again. Because I did not abuse it, did not destroy it for personal gain. We partnered, that little bit of Earth and I, and we're going to make some good food together. We're going to help foster some community in the neighborhood of Lindsey Heights. We're going to show this city that there is another way to live here.

~ Margaret Swedish 

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