How can you not plant a rose in wartime?

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By Madronna Holden

updated 8.16.2011

“They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places.  We wanted the hardest place.  We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.”

— Paolo Lugari (Gaviotas)

Some forty years ago, Paolo Lugari and a group of supporters founded the community of Gaviotas on the llanos-an aluminum-laced plain in Colombia situated between the territories of drug lords, guerrillas, right wing militia and an indigenous people trying to make their life there.  In partnership with native people and holding fast to values of cooperation, non-violence, sharing, and reciprocity with one another and with nature,  Gaviotas shaped a community that restored thousands of acres of rainforest with astounding biodiversity in a formerly ravaged area.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this restoration is the fact that the community of Gaviotas did not set out to do it intentionally. But as they held to their values of respect for the land and refusal to use chemicals and pesticides, their actions created this magnificent surprise.  Standing amidst its canopy besides a village where peace reigns in the midst of social turmoil, a bacteriologist declared, “This place is proof God exists”.

There is a folk story in which a man asks, “How can you plant a rose in wartime?”  The answer comes back: “How can you not plant a rose in war time”?

Kenneth Helphand cites this story in his book, Defiant Gardens-Making Gardens in Wartime, in which he describes gardens planted in the worst of times-by the prisoners in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, for instance, who planted gardens they knew they would not live to harvest.  But as these prisoners tended their gardens, they also tended something inextinguishable in their spirits, Like that to which W. S. Merwin refers in his poem, “Place”: “On the last day of the world, I shall plant a tree”.

“Plant a  tree and plant a new beginning”, says Kenyan Wangari Maathai.  Planting trees led this Nobel Laureate and leader of the Kenyan-based Greenbelt Movement, to her courage and her persistence–and the hope that she wants above all to pass on the next generation despite the crushing challenges the future brings.

Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye expressed the sustaining power of the natural world this way, “The only word a tree knows is yes”. Perhaps all humans, like Nye in this poem, “are born to answer a tree”. Daryl Forde researched an African tale known by many of those sold into slavery that helped them endure the horrors of their oppression.  In that tale, the protagonist plants a “life tree” that survives him when he is stolen into a world where he is helpless.  However, his spirit revives when his brother comes upon the tree he left behind and waters it.

In line with such ancient wisdom some have transformed the “worst places” by finding a way to plant a garden there.  West Oakland is one such place, a disaster zone created by the industrialized global economy, where children are subject to lead poisoning, and residents are sandwiched between ports and warehouses, rail yards and diesel truck depots. Seventy per cent of the 30,000 people here live below the poverty line. Five years ago, this was no place to look for a garden.  There was no oasis anywhere where children could contribute their labor to an effort that mattered to them while they felt physically secure. But thanks to Willow Rosenthal and a dedicated band of neighborhood residents, that has changed.

Rosenthal chose West Oakland as a place to focus her efforts on organic gardening not in spite of the conditions there but because of them. Her effort started with a 2000 foot lot lent to her– and community support.  She worked on the supposition that the community contained its own answers to the desperate issues of hunger and pollution that faced them.  The first year, they harvested 2000 pounds of quality produce from their tiny garden and their effort grew from there.  Today West Oakland sports a Saturday farm stand which sells produce on a sliding scale that begins with zero and offers starts that residents can plant in their back yards, a local composting program where residents can either drop off their scraps or learn to compost them, cooking and gardening workshops, barbecues and other community-wide celebrations, a medicinal garden (established with the help of a local Filipina herbalist), and back yard gardens built and maintained with community effort, in addition to the intensive gardens farmed communally.

West Oakland’s community gardens have some publicity-for instance, an article in spring 2008’s Earth Island Journal.But there are those gardens we may not hear much about that are inspiring in their own quiet ways.  Lily Anderson describes one such garden:

“Two years ago, in the middle of a long period of unemployment, my father was living in Emeryville (also in the Bay Area) and found solace in a community garden, Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Garden. The garden is on top of what was once a gas station. The plants climb up art installations, sculptures, and paintings. I used to come into town and walk with my father, over the 580 freeway, to help tend his plot. Pesticides are forbidden at Big Daddy’s and so we would lay egg shells and halves of cut melon to distract the bugs from the tomato and spinach plants. I have never seen such a beautiful representation of nature and community before. Surrounded by industrial buildings and road noise, there’s a little oasis where people come together, discuss their garden, and sit among the flowers.”

There are solitary individuals working to green their cities in ways most of us will never hear of.  I would not have learned of “Gardener Robert” but for the information shared by my student, Kristian Godfrey, who worked in a bagel shop in Gainesville, Florida where Gardener Robert bartered his produce.  In her words, Robert “was a man who made gardens, and I mean he MADE them.”  Robert roamed the outskirts of modern American society, since he didn’t work. Perhaps he carried some mental distress that prevented him from doing so, “because he simply couldn’t sit still, he had so much energy he vibrated”-and he refused to deal with money-even the fee for a community garden plot.  He needed more space than that anyway. “Thus Robert would find abandoned plots of land; plots squished between buildings and apartments and businesses, and then proceed to track down the owners and then beg/ barter the use of their land for his gardens. He always had at least four in town. He would also ride his bicycle to abandoned places away from the city and garden. He offered space to anyone who wanted to garden with him, no charge. And the gardens fed him, every bite he ate. He would come to the bagel shop and barter, bags of bagels which would normally be thrown into the dumpster at the end of the day were traded for Robert’s Seminole pumpkins, bags of basil, or whatever happened to be in season.”

Gardener Robert would become depressed when the owners of his city plots would reclaim them, and his beautiful gardens would be paved over. But he would ride on seeking out his next spot to plant and beautify, even if it was only temporary.  As in the community of Gaviotas, “Gardener Robert survived and re- introduced plants in the hardest of places.”

Priti Shah adds another example of what she terms “guerrilla gardening”:

“I had the opportunity to participate in “guerilla farming” when visiting a friend in Honolulu.  We toured a few blocks and harvested greens from patches in front of restaurants and strip malls and dead space between high rises. I then helped plant a garden in the center of a busy road on the strip of dirt enclosed in concrete dividing the lanes. We tore up the dirt, added compost and soil, and then planted beans, sweet potatoes, greens, herbs and flowers. I was incredibly moved and thankful to see how much can be done with such a space.  I later checked in with my friend who notified me that the garden was doing well and people who live on that road are now care-taking and eating from it!”

If ever there was a “hard place” for such a garden, it was North Philadelphia where artist Lily Yeh began her work, in an area over half the original population had recently fled, leaving behind vacant buildings and lots full of garbage-and a remaining population where 32 per cent of the labor force was unemployed, houses were riddled with dangerous disrepair and schools provided the most meager of educations.  There was youth violence, high levels of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution.

Why should she come to work in such a place by choice? Yeh was driven by a need to reclaim the meaning of art. Being Chinese, she had witnessed the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  Instead of turning away from that horror, she re-dedicated herself to proving the power of art to heal and redeem society.

In North Philadelphia, Yeh felt vulnerable, but not discouraged. She recognized her weakness as her strength, since what she could not do alone was an invitation for the community to help her.  That help early on included a former drug dealer who seized the opportunity to create real meaning with his labor. Yeh worked on “reconnecting what is broken, healing what is wounded, and making the invisible visible” in the most concrete of ways: by hauling garbage from abandoned lots and replacing devastation with plants and with the beauty of her art-sometimes she transformed the very garbage she  found into inspired mosaics.

Today, The Village (as it now called),  sports fourteen parks, numerous community gardens, educational facilities, a youth theater, offices and a crafts center serving 10,000 low income people whom Yeh’s leadership-through-art helped  re-possess and re-build their homes.

It all began with the simple idea that Yeh could offer a bit of beauty as a token of respect for the citizens of inner city Philadelphia.

After all, how can you not plant a rose in war time?

378 Responses

  1. Dr. Holden,

    I sometimes refer to myself as an “east coast refugee” because part of my reason for moving to the west coast was to escape the economic, social, and political forces that feel very oppressive to me on the east coast. (I’m not saying that these problems don’t exist on the west coast as well–they certainly do. But just for my personal self, I find that I can breathe easier and thrive more on this side of the continent…) Perhaps you could say I have a love/hate relationship with the “Megalopolis” that runs the entire length of the eastern seaboard. On one hand, it is rich with culture, and as you highlight, full of people who are extremely dedicated to social change and revitalization of city centers. On the other hand, there is no escape from the harsh realities of poverty, environmental degradation, industrial and urban/suburban sprawl, strip malls, highways, byways, expressways, big box stores, social injustice, and an overwhelmingly dismissive and self-centered attitude from the culture in general that aggressively denies all of these problems. Just the fact that I was ABLE to move to the west coast is an enormous privilege that many people cannot afford. I am in deep awe and respect for anyone who can stay in the “belly of the beast” and do the work that is so needed. These stories are so inspiring and show how mutual respect and a willingness to cooperate and share resources can create some sense of cohesion in a community, which is the first step to revitalization of a neighborhood. May these kinds of projects spread like wildfire through our cities and neighborhoods.

    • Interesting personal response. I’m not sure how the East Coast/ West Coast difference applies here, since West Oakland is on the west coast. However, I certainly do feel fortunate to live in Oregon and in Eugene. And I concur with your wish that such projects spread everywhere. Your work on the OSU campus is certainly a way of “planting your rose” there.

    • Hey, Rachel. I responded to your message because I am also from the east coast and, freakishly, share your views. Could not have written it better, well done!

      When it comes down to it, the mutual respect and willingness to cooperate part is something that, I think, the cities and civilians could improve upon. Most of these examples our site specific and were developed ‘in-house’. I can’t imagine how much better projects like these could work if cities cut half of their social welfare budget towards funding the creation of these gardens/ the clean-up, preparation part.

  2. I think this story is a good example of how much of a difference people can really make in the world. I think that most people feel as though they are only one person, and they cannot really make a difference or a real contribution. Until you hear a story like this one, you feel hopeless. I also feel as though it is amazing to start with something so hopeless and make it into a beautiful place. My mom always told to “bloom where your planted” and that is what these people have displayed. They have all showed determination, and have planted beautiful things, regardless of the condition of the place they have found themselves in. I think that is great.

    • Thanks for your comment, Megan. I have heard this statement, “bloom where you are planted”– what a lovely thing for your mother to communicate to you. Obviously her words were important to you, since you have picked up the hope and determination from these other “plantings”!

    • Wow I have never heard that quote before, “bloom where you are planted”, but I love it! And it is something I can relate to as well. I had a really tough time adjusting after my family moved, but with the water of life, sunshine of friends, love of everyone around me, and a few extra nutrients, I think I have been able to at least budd. I think this quote is something I can use in everyday life, and eventually I will bloom here too.

  3. I must seem like a broken record with my responses starting out all the same way: Wow. Whenever my faith in humanity is ever shaken, it is restored by reading articles on your site. It astounds me that people will walk into places like North Philly or West Oakland (which I used to live near and remember all too vividly) and endeavor to rebuild and support a neighborhood that is all but lost. Even more amazing is that these visionary instigators are not residents and/or owners of the property; they do it for the sake of the community and of the earth.

    We should all be fortunate enough to create or share a space that is “proof that God exists.” To take the time to enjoy and support such a place would make the world truly a better place to live.

    Cheers.

    • I don’t get tired of “wow” as a response, Stasey! We live in a troubled world and also a wonderfully blessed one– it is important to remind ourselves of the latter so that we can be who we might be in this life. Thanks for your caring response!

    • I share your fear of sounding like a broken record. I thought it was interesting that you referred to the places as “all but lost” for two reasons. First, this seems to be the accepted collective societal belief. Thus, it kills the idea an individual can make a change at the source or it simply hinders the progress of such projects. Second, it reflects the dualistic, dominant western society worldview. I know I sound like I am just repeating the book and assigned reading, but science is limited and we’ll never fully know a landscapes ability to recover. Therefore, until we make a whole-hearted attempt, how can we honestly say all hope is lost?

      • I think these are things worth repeating, James. And though the places and situations where it might seem that all hope is lost are specifically the ones that need our help the most.

  4. This posting brings together some major concepts that we have studied this term. I think one of the most important themes throughout your examples and many others that we have read is that change does not begin with government and politics; it begins with individuals. Time and again stories are heard of major societal impacts that help people and the environment that have begun with one person and a dream . Dreams that have come from the specific circumstances of society and the environment. Those individual begin to spread the word and the dream becomes a reality. It is certainly a recipe for hope of the future. Resilience both of the human spirit and of the earth is another important aspect that has enabled the connections between humans and the environment to be maintained. Those who look to the future no matter what the present entails, like the gardeners of the Nazi concentration camps prove that life giving spirit. Their actions feed the body and souls of people who followed in their wake while continuing vitally important agriculture to support the environment. I don’t think I have ever spoken to a gardener who has not stated the peace and satisfaction they received in working with the land.

    The dreams do not have to happen on large scales to have huge impacts. Gardener Robert is a great example. He has affected many people within his community and the word of his efforts has moved people thousands of miles from that community. Bartering was an accepted means of trade for growing nations and perhaps society is beginning to understand the value of that system.

    Community projects are beginning to receive more publicity which in turn helps spur other areas to begin similar projects. All it takes is one step at a time. Thankfully many people have taken that first step. Thank you Dr. Holden for helping to spread the seed of change.

    • Wise words all, Colleen. Great points about the impacts we are all capable of making. Thank you for your insightful and supportive responses both on this website and throughout our class! To take the gardener experience once step further: we need to create and sustain fertile soil for our plantings to grow. And we help create that fertility for one another–as you mention yourself are obviously helping to do!

  5. Oh wow this is so crazy… I had no idea that people could actually do this. The idea that one person’s dreams can effect that many people in an area that needs the help and also so many around the world. I think one of the most important things that we need to look at is the idea that individuals can make a difference and without those ideas for change and the inspiration that they give to others to get involved there would be not much good in this world. A single person can make a difference and the fact that those people that do start can effect so many others on such a personal level… This is reminding me of the grandmothers story and how they travel around inspiring people to love the earth and treat it the way that it deserves to be treated.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chelsea. We need more of such “craziness”– yes? And we need to share the stories of those who do what many of us might otherwise think of as impossible so as to understand our own potential–and the importance of each of our choices in the larger scheme of things.

  6. I think that if this article had a corresponding picture it should be that old picture from the 60s of the guy wearing a turtleneck putting a flower in the gun barrels of soldiers.

    The unexpected brings interest, and interest brings action, and action brings change. Growing a garden in an inhospitable environment is unexpected so when people like Willow Rosenthal and Lily Yeh started doing it people noticed and helped as well. Their combined action created a dramatic change. Nobody would take much notice of a garden in a good neighborhood because it is not unexpected and in turn not interesting. So I guess what I am saying is if you want to share your light then go where it is the darkest.

  7. There are so many things that could be discussed in this post. I was most moved by the City Slicker Farms in Oakland and the story of Gardner Robert.

    City Slicker Farms is a wonderful story for a number of reasons. First, I am always excited by urban gardening for the simple reason that it is environmentally sensible. In this case though it is more than that. This neighborhood is lacking so many things that most of us take for granted. To have a bright spot that allows the residents to come together in a positive way is invaluable. These gardens also allow the participants to learn new skills, provide for themselves, connect with nature, and beautify there surroundings.

    Gardener Robert was a inspiring story not because of its ecological or environmental implications (though those positive), but rather from the description in the post it sounds like this is a man who in some communities would have no place. To see that this city and the residents in it can accept him even though he is different is reassuring. If all communities could be this accepting we would have a more colorful world and perhaps a more peaceful one.

    • Hi Heath. Thanks for your comment. You emphasize an important issue in the ways in which social and environmental well being are linked here. In Gardener Robert’s case, it seems that he took considerable initiative in finding a place for himself–and this illustrates how vibrant a world we might have if we enacted the sense of inclusion that made him part of his community.

  8. For some reason this essay reminded me of the image of trees roots growing up through asphalt or cement sidewalks. What is it about the permanence of nature that can inspire awe?
    I watched this show on the history channel that was all CGI and depicted earth 500, 5000, 100000 years after humans were gone. They played really intense, thrilling music as they showed nature taking over city streets and airports and the mass humanity that once was. It was intended to be intimidating and startling. I found myself thinking how much more appealing it looked 5000 and 100000 years after humans were gone. I felt myself paradoxically breathe a sigh of relief for nature.
    It’s interesting how nature can promote a soundness of the soul which usually contrasts the insanity of humanity perfectly.

  9. The intrinsic value of nature to humans can not be underestimated. One of the reasons I believe Western society has declined so sharply in the modern era is industrialization. The minute we remove ourselves from the natural world, we begin losing our connection to nature. When a person is born into this world of modern convenience and industrial domination, it is challenging to see the value of life. When a bond with the natural world is never created, it is impossible to value it.

    I truly believe that a disconnect with nature is the reason we have teenagers going on shooting rampages in schools, and high suicide rates. There is no value placed on life itself, which i attribute to the complete lack of connection to nature.

    Any opportunity we can take to reconnect with the natural world reminds us of the beauty and purity of life, even planting a rose in the putrid face of war.

    • Great point, Jason. It indicates something I firmly believe: we need the natural world to show us how to be human in some way that measures up to our potential. It also unites us with something larger, bringing us together in the face of all the divisions we face in the modern world.

  10. Dr. Holden,
    This posts is amazing, because it allows us to see what rewards can com if we treat everything with respect. Gaviotas is an example of how much of an effect will come when we treat our environments as we would want to be treated. Lugari made a huge difference in Gaviotas, but the impact is world wide. Things that may seem ugly and inhabitable need love to. This is just what Lugari did and the results proved to be enormous.

    Once we lose the relationship with nature, we lose a relationship with ourselves, we actually lose all meaning.

    Kelly L.

  11. I found this article very interesting. Its amazing to see the power of nature and the miracle that come out of respecting and understanding it. The West Oaks Community Garden is such a simple yet amazing concept to learn how to live with nature as well as share the beauty of it.

  12. Land in our society is increasingly becoming a precious commodity as populations exponentially grow. Reading the story about Gardener Roberts reminds me about how different cultures use their land in different ways. In some places in the world, land is used in its most efficient manner possible. Last summer I had to fly to South Korea to visit a facility the company I was working for was building. On the way back I arranged a two day layover in Osaka, Japan. It was very intriguing to see how effectively land was used. Any backyard space was consumed with lush gardens. Even rooftops were not safe from local agriculturalists. Japan has very strict land use laws that severely limit the outgrowth of the urban scene.

    It’s a fact that humans need to take up space to exist. But the challenge of the future is going to be how we can most effectively use the resource that we require. Gardener Roberts is really on the cutting edge. Whether he realized it or not, he discovered ways to utilize land that was seen as worthless. As the human population grows, people will be forced to find more creative ways to exist using the smallest amount of resources necessary. Soon, those spaces in between buildings will not be worthless and Gardener Roberts will have the secret to unlocking their potential.

  13. Finding hope in the deepest hopelessness and happiness in times of sorrow is what gives us a sense of life and reason to continue carrying our burden. If we always accepted the status quo and continued to carry on with “business as usual”, how could we be able to make major improvements? In most parts of the world, poverty is widespread and changes seem impossibly to be implemented. Nonetheless, this should not be an obstacle to try creating a better world and to do something about the situation. Although we are aware that we can never completely eliminate suffering and environmental destruction, but we should never refrain from doing good. If one hundred people planted a tree each one of them, they would create a small forest, if one thousand planted a tree each of them, they would create a big forest. Many people feel discouraged by the fact that they are too few to improve things, but if everybody had the confidence that she or he could implement changes, there would be millions and billions supposing the same and thus, they would be able to change really the world.

    • Thanks for this comment, Nick. Each of this instances remind us how powerful we are–how much potential for creativity, leadership and vision we hold within us ready to be released. I like your image of planting a forest together– if each of us would only be reponsible for one tree.

  14. These were beautiful stories; ones that make me appreciate that my gardening experiences have always been during the best of times in my life.

    There is nothing that can substitute for planting any kind of life, whether it’s a tree, flowers or a vegetable garden. To watch the miracle of life bloom and grow right in front of you is amazing. So whether it is barren land, a catastrophic war, a sickness or death I can see why planting a rose during wartime is so meaningful. It refreshes the soul, takes us away from where we are and gives us something to look forward to. In a nutshell, it gives us hope of something better. As Professor Holden (3-11-09) said it tends something inextinguishable in the spirit.

    It made my heart feel so good when my sports-addicted son told me he planted “the most beautiful white azalea ” in their front lawn for his wife on Mother’s Day. It makes me burst with joy at the thought that he was able to experience the wonders of planting and growing something so beautiful in good times.

  15. I grew up in East Oakland and it was not much different than West Oakland, with its poverty, prostitution, drugs and violence. As a youth I felt perpetually on guard, unsafe and at a lost for anything healthy to do. It is very inspiring and glistens of hope for the rest of the world that a place like that can have such a wonderful thing happen there. Willow Rosenthal and the many people like her who are so selfless in their desire to give to communities that seem so far gone, deserve the highest honor and respect from the global community. It is acts like these that truly instill hope in the possibility of humanity regaining a connection to the earth and to each other. Thank you for sharing these stories with us Madronna.

  16. The Gaviotas story is simply incredible. One of the main points I have learned from this story has been that sometimes we may just need to “get out of the way” of nature and be COOPERATIVE! As we try to manipulate nature so that we are in control of the outcome, then, we, many times, are doing much, much more harm than good. I loved how Paolo Lugari and company went into “action” with no end intention; they simply wanted to cooperate.

    As I mentioned in another, earlier post, but, what courage and dedication for the love of nature these prisoners were able to show us all. Seldom do we ever take the time and effort to perform a task without wanting to receive some downstream reward. Being humble in that others will reap the good we sow is just wonderful!

    Paul Nash

  17. What an inspiring article! It is amazing how some people will never give up, that is great. It just shows that we must never give up on our planet. As some people never give, neither does nature. I guess we better hope nature never gives up, or we are all in trouble! In this day and age it is getting tougher, but we have to keep trying to move forward.

    Thanks,

    Troy

    • Thanks for the connection between nature’s never giving up and the persistence of those here, Troy– this is something we can learn from nature. The tougher things get, the more imperative it is for us to act according to our values.

  18. This article makes me think back to a link I found on your site about gardens being bult in the city and was a place where youth could come find how to eat healthy and work with nature. It really reviatalizes me when I hear stories of these across the nation. I think it takes all kinds of people to keep the world turning and pushing back an ever looming disastor of ignorance. These people are heroes in their own right. The tales of their good deeds are never published enough. I think these stories are important to be heard today more than ever. I myself have started tilling up the ground to plant a garden. It gives me some where I can get out and just be alone with nature. I believe in the saying about, “how can you not plant a rose in war time”. That rose is the piece of hope you can always hold onto.

    • I also feel revitalized when I hear such stories, Kevin. It is important to remember that have larger effects in what they model for others.
      It is wonderful world to be beginning your own garden-enjoy!

  19. The story of Gaviotas mirrors the story from the reading for assignment 7 which talks about the concentration camp victims that planted gardens that they knew they would never see bear fruit. Colombia for many years experienced one of the bloodiest drug wars sponsored in part by America’s “War on Drugs” which simply effected supply enough to drive up prices and to make the risk of death that much more palatable to drug lords who worshiped money over longevity. Paolo Lugari and the other went about their business of trying to change people’s concept of what community really means. The author of the book Alan Weisman first came across Gaviotas and Paolo Lugari while working for the New York Times in 1988. In 1988 the drug wars of Colombia were full scale and no positive stories were coming out of Colombia (and really still don’t). Gaviotas though was the rose in war time where they were the one positive story to focus on when the rest of the world hated Colombia.

  20. From reading this article, facing adversity can be dealt with one or two ways. Either we can continue to make our impact on the world in the midst of our circumstances or we can allow them to quench our spirit. As shown in the communities of West Oakland, Philadelphia, Gaviotas, and those who lived through the Nazi concentration camps, their spirits were not quenched and the world is better because of their lives. Leaving the world with a tree, a garden, or bringing a community together with a purpose is a powerful legacy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tina. You point out the importance of choice is determining the legacy we leave for all those who share our earth now and in the future.

  21. I agree with the responses before mine, that there are many inspiring stories above. We often forget or fail to believe how big a difference one person can make. In these stories, we see how many people benefit from one individual’s idea, and how it is still possible for ideas like this to come to life. I think this is a great reminder to us all. What a simple idea, also, to build a garden in Oakland, in a very poor and run-down city where there is a lack of food. I’m sure that the food that locals received from this process was life changing, as was the experience of building a garden together, to have a place to share, to develop a community, and to see the direct results of hard work.

  22. It is incredible that someone could see great potential during a time of such turmoil. Paolo Lugari in certainly an extraordinary human being. In the community that he created, I thought it was interesting that all they did was care for the land and such great things arose. I just goes to show that we truly are meant to take care of our earth because, in response, it will be beautiful and healthy for us to benefit from. Even prisoners in Nazi Germany understood that gardens needed to be planted even if the prisoners themselves would not be able to harvest them.
    I think that it is a wonderful endeavor for people to look for the “worst places” to plant vegetation and then take that challenge head on, planting beautiful gardens in these locations. It is definitely important to think about why you wouldn’t plant a rose during war time. A rose gives hope, love, and meaning to life. It shows us that goodness can come from unfortunate situations. We need to keep the environment prosperous even in the worst of places.

    • Thanks for your comment, Allie. I like your the combination of simplicity and profoundness in your ideas here. Wouldn’t it be great to have a world full of wonderful positive surprises instead of the ones we are getting today as a result of our careless environmental choices. As you point out, “all they did was care for the land and such great things arose.” Certainly, this is a vision for us all to take to heart.

  23. I love hearing about projects like these. Growing up in a large city (Houston) it was not uncommon to see abandoned plots of land lay to waste. I would like to think that projects like Rosenthal’s, Gardner Roberts’s, and Yeh’s would thrive there. While not a “simple” task, developing these lots into community gardens and/or common areas would be an inexpensive way to positively effect the community. It would also encourage sustainable practices (which are sorely lacking there) and a healthier lifestyle in general. Again, these inspirational stories bring me hope that projects like these can and do thrive in the most unlikely of areas. Hopefully this will be a continuing trend.

    • Hi Allison, thanks for your comment. I find these examples profoundly moving as well. When environmental health, human health and community are all served by a project we undertake, how can we lose?

  24. I have to say that both Robert and Yeh are amazing poeple they are doing things that i know not many people are willing to do. I think that the sang “why not plant a rose in wartime” means more than doing that in wartime but anytime you may go through hard times. No matter what it is. For Yeh it was during a time where people could not afford to live and the economy was getting bad making the areas a dump. Robert must be a very unique individual, and i say this not because i think he is wierd but because of what he does. Bye doing what he does, not only is he making himself happy but he is making others happy. Those who pass bye and those who help him plant gardens. i would have a hard time doing what he has done, mainly because of the food, i dont think i could just live off what i grew and trade what a grow for bagels. i have much respect for him and for Yeh for what they have done for the economy.

  25. It is so amazing that they could do that in west Oakland. I ahve only seen that place in movies and it was portrayed as a rough place. If they can start a farmers market in the worst of neighborhoods or even in the forests like Gaviotas it proves there really is hope out there, all we have to do is work together. We can create a utopia out of the worst of neighborhoods, it’s amazing what happens when people see the beauty in nature.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kelli. You obviously feel the inspiration that these people pass on. Obviously, where some saw only a “rough” place, Willow Rosenthal saw a very different vision and went to work to make it so. I like your statement about the amazing results of finding beauty in nature!

  26. In a place full of drug lords, guerrillas, and right wing militia, negative effects are definitely taking a toll on the habitat. Paolo Lugari and his supporters have shaped a community based on values important to them and the indigenous peoples of the area. One of these values is reciprocity with nature and one another. They understand that they need to give back and assist the natural habitat to offset the damage done by the rest of society. Without the preservation of these plants, they will eventually disappear.

    We should recognize this model of living and respect that they refrain from the use of pesticides and unknown chemicals. We honestly don’t know enough about the long term effects of these substances to use them without a second thought. If we don’t take precaution now, future generations will suffer.

    • Hi Jason, thank you for your great comment on Gaviotas and Paulo Lugari. This is both an amazing and inspiring story. I certainly agree with you in terms of the values of both precaution and reciprocity.

  27. I often wish I had the type of courage and drive that the people in this article seem to possess. They seem to know exactly what needs to be done, and they do it, and seem fulfilled and happy knowing they are doing what they feel is right and helpful to the world. I am one of those spoiled people that just wants to get away from it all, but we are all so connected it is almost impossible to do. I hope eventually I will see what I can do to fulfill some of the needs of a troubled world.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lesley. I have no doubt you will find your place in this circle as you make your future choices. I think living a life of integrity of important– and effects others no make whether you go out and touch them directly.

  28. I think its very interesting how having a garden to work in and be a part of gives a person a sense of having “roots” (pun intended) or making a place feel like home. I am nomadic by nature. I have moved 9 times in the last 8 years for no other reason except I wanted to live in a new place. Of all the places I lived the ones that felt most like a home to me were the ones where I was able to start and tend a small garden. I then had to hand it over to the next tenants but while I had it it was a source of pride in my home.

  29. These stories are all heart warming and inspirational. They show that these principles can be implemented on any level of magnitude in even the worst of conditions. Life will flourish and beget more life. Especially the story of Yeh in Philadelphia, the community quickly came to join her. Life in distress is yearning for something to cling to and some sort of help. That’s a wonderful thing she did, and in my imagination of the circumstances, perhaps the people living there just needed some positive thing that they could be a part of. The Garden in West Oakland as well. Community and nurturing of life are so fundamental to the human condition, and these stories really prove that. I wonder if there is a nation-wide organization that seeks out areas that could most use a garden for the community to come together around.

    • Hi Michael. Check out “sprouts in the sidewalk” link here– you will see the blossoming of urban gardens everywhere– in terms of organizations rather than a single one. Life will indeed flourish in a living world. Time to understand that nature IS living and not just of objects for us to tinker with. These stories are power and inspirational– thanks for your comment!

  30. This is such a wonderful idea. I had heard of people reclaiming abandoned lots and creating safe play areas for children, but I had not heard of creating a community garden to help them fight poverty. I thought the healing herb garden and nutritional cooking classes were also a wonderful idea.

    I really enjoyed the quote from Martin Luther King about planting a tree. That is also another connection I had not heard before. I also hear mention of him in connection to civil rights/social justice not the environment. We truly lost out as a nation when he was taken from us so early.

    • Hi Julie. I agree with you one hundred per cent about Martin Luther King– and he certainly lives still in his legacy. Unfortunately, though this quote has been attributed to him in many quarters (thus I picked it up too), it was actually said by Martin Luther–as I later found out. I thought I had changed that here: but I added a quote by Wangari Maathai instead. Thanks for your comment!

  31. This was a great article; I really enjoyed the line “She worked on the supposition that the community contained its own answers to the desperate issues of hunger and pollution that faced them.” We all have the power to, as individuals and as a community, change how we treat the earth and interact with it. Everyone can make a difference and must be part of the solution. Plants, teach by example (as noted by Bruce Miller), and give us hope and instruction on how to heal the earth and begin a new life. How to re-establish soil, treat stormwater, and bring beauty to desolate places. They remind us that there is beauty within all of us that can sprout and flourish even in the harshest of places.

    I grow plants with the hope that plants can revive life into cities. This article goes hand in hand (actually supports, through it psychological and spiritual arguments) the reading we did for our forum: ‘Elegy for a Garden.’ Here Andrew Light discusses that for many people who consider ‘nature’ as wilderness areas protected and separate for the built environment, they believe that “the built world … will not play as vital a role in our new ethic of environmental responsibility.” I would argue, as ‘How can you Plant a Rose in Wartime?’ shows, that the built environment is where plants are needed the most. There is a movement in Vancouver and elsewhere called Gorilla Gardeners, it started in London and is a “war against neglect and scarcity of public spaces as a place to grow things, be they beautiful, tasty (or both!).” They basically go around planting local or edible plants where ever there is an empty lot or space (be it a traffic divider or sidewalk plot). A rebellion through planting! Who could ever get mad because there is a strawberry or sunflower plant growing in an empty lot? I tend to try to plant rosemary or lavender wherever I see an empty place, they are both hearty plants that people enjoy and can use.

    • Hi Chess– what a wonderful list of what we may accomplish: “re-establish soil, treat stormwater, and bring beauty to desolate places”. Soil, water, beauty– add air and we have some essentials of the natural commons upon which our lives depend (along with our plant and animal companions). Guerrilla gardeners and a revolution through planting–that is one that many can side with. Lovely idea of seeding these hardy herbs that will surely bring joy to someone. Thanks for your comment–and your gardening!

  32. This is one of those stories that brings everyone together and reminds us that good is always capable no-matter the situation. If people are given something to rally around and to put positive energy into chances are great outcomes and stories will stem from them. We as a human race are capable of so much and sometimes just seeing the beauty of something we overlook on an everyday basis helps wake us up to our full potential. Our history has showed over and over again that one person is capable of “moving mountains” and the inspiration that one gives inspires thousands more. I do think that we sometimes get self-absorbed and move to quickly in our daily lives however I also feel as though we are capable of remarkable things and for the most part are capable of the most caring actions.

    • Hi Trevor, thanks for an inspiring response to these inspiring stories. There is one thing for sure here: we have no excuse in not being “capable” as you put it, by lamenting our smallness. We have each have great potential to put into practice!

  33. I see a lot of symbolism in the character Gardener Robert. He does not leave a footprint on the earth, other than the gardens he plants. He does not drive a car, no property, no plumbing, no lumbar, etc. His life reflects many of the positive worldviews that I have been discussing for the past few weeks. I have to admit that I am a part of the ownership and domination worldviews because of the fact that I enjoy pleasures such as electric water heating, plumbing, and insulation. I live in a house that is considered property and is made from deforested trees. As much as I dislike it and can speak about what should be done…I have never really done anything about it. I think that Gardener Robert’s life serves as a good example of making a statement and being a poster-child for treating plant life with respect and reverence. He acts as an inspiration for me.

    • Very interesting analysis of Gardener Robert and his life in the context of modern human life–and each of our ecological footprints, Shamon. I am so glad he inspires you– though that seems not to be his goal in his humble life– which we would not even know about had not a student shared his presence with us. Acting with respect and reverence toward others on this earth we share is acting with respect and reverence toward the preciousness of each of our own lives. You might frame taking your own first step toward the world you want to see in this way.

  34. It is refreshing to see people care so much about others the way Yeh and Robert did. Such selfless acts require a lot of bravery. In both cases the individuals seemed to be working to provide for others- and what is more, they chose to help people who actually needed it. I once wrote an essay in response to the question “why should we help others?” my firm answer: because they need help. In the U.S. today we seem to value independence so much that we don’t encourage people to help each other out. Sometimes we can do it alone, but sometimes we can’t. I have ALWAYS depended on my parents for food, shelter, and support. Had I been born to different circumstances I would definitely be in a different position, and I don’t know how I would cope without a home or enough to eat. By accident of birth alone any of us could be in the position of receiving support from people like Robert and Yeh. Imagine if more people were like that. What if all of us adopted the mindset that we tend to have with family.. that we are obligated to help them if they need it. If we saw our brother on the street begging for food would we not feed him? Robert and Yeh seem to see everyone as brothers and sisters. It is also remarkable the ability of plants to be therapeutic. It does make perfect sense though. As human beings we’re fascinated by what is beautiful, and nothing is a better reminder of the beauty of life than a garden full of it.

    • Hi Karen, I agree that it is refreshing– and inspiring– to see those who care so much about others-and then act on that care with such remarkable results. It seems to me you are right about the answer to the question why we should help others!
      I like your idea of the kinship of humans– some extend that notion of family to all life. That is something beautiful to set alongside the garden full of life! Thanks for your comment.

  35. This shows me how lazy I am. People that have excuses not to plant find ways to do it. In prison camps, in the ghetto, in Columbia with the guerillas. I am glad to see this occurring. I hoope this inspires other as well as me to start being “green”. I have recentlly began to plant local plants due to the drought here in southern Californis. They are not the best looking but they thrive in hot, dry weather.

  36. I found that this article relates to the readings in the urban gardening section that was posted for the forum. The fact that a garden or a tree can produce such effects as bringing a community closer together is wonderful. I feel that living in the Pacific Northwest, many of the people here take the beauty of nature around us for granted. When my parents visited me here, they were commenting on all the beautiful different types of trees and plants and flowers around campus. That surprised me because I do not always take notice of these kinds of things, but the greenery that surrounds us everyday was placed there to make everything a little brighter and more pleasant. Planting a tree or flower can make a difference.

    • Hi Katie, thanks for your comment. How might the beauty of our natural environment inspire us to work harder to protect it, given the ways in which those in this essay worked to bring about such beauty in the worst of environments?

  37. I think that this article expresses hope and joy. No matter where one is, how dark a situation might be, I there is still hope and joy in a world where the earth still has the capacity to bring forth life and humans still have the ability to nurture that life and learn from it. This article has inspired me to start growing things on my patio. I live on a ground floor apartment and have a retaining wall just outside my patio so the lighting is less than ideal. Consequently I was always waiting till I moved to a place with a backyard like I remember my parents having. Yet, I think it would do my soul good to plant some vegetables and marvel at the earth and soils capacity to bring forth life.

    • Hi Samantha. Thanks for an inspiring response to these inspiring people. My best to you in your experience of marveling at the capacity of the earth to bring forth life!

  38. This article really highlights how each individual can have an impact on our environment. Ife we all do somthing as simple as planting a tree, we are according to Maathai “planting a new beginning.” This is a very important concept in that we have to start somewhere. Once we do, our environment and the things that live in it will soon benefit from it. We can learn a lot from one anothe and our actions. If we see or read about others making a contribution to earth,such as in this article… it makes us all want to join. We should all help promote the idea that although each individual makes up a small porportion of the world, we still can make a huge difference in it. We should share our knowlege with each other and never stop learning!

    • Hi Jena. You have many inspiring points here that show the power of modeling how each of us can make a “huge difference” by planting our own “new beginning”. I really like the idea of learning from one another here!

  39. I think that the power of community can help the smallest of groups overcome the largest of obstacles. In doing research on community gardens as part of my job, I came to realize that statistically, areas with vacant unimproved lots tend to have higher crime rates than lots with community gardens. In DC, it is commonplace to see an abandoned lot become a landfill for passersby. By engaging the community and making them feel as thought they have a stake in this empty plot, they will begin to care for it. Also, longstanding community gardens, as opposed to make-shift landfills, do not drive down property value, something that is extremely beneficial to residents of these neighborhoods. Finally, community gardens provide people with a chance to meet one another and to end nonsensical territorial violence. Once we start to view each other as neighbors, we can begin to build a community.

  40. It is absolutely remarkable the restorative and healing powers that the growth of plants can have. In art, a green shoot or a solitary plant in a barren place always symbolizes a new beginning, a re-birth. It’s no wonder that people in hopeless situations turn to planting or tending gardens to find solace. The stories of Rosenthal’s work in Oakland and Lily Yeh’s in Philadelphia, as well as Gardener Roberts tireless commitment to planting gardens on abandoned plots is inspirational. I think the uplifting effects that green spaces can occasion are incomparable, especially in inner-city places where access to those resources are so limited, and I am so happy to see such an interest in bring gardens back into those urban spaces.
    On a side note, the quote by Naomi Shihab Nye “The only word a tree knows is yes” reminds me of my favorite book when I was a child, “The Giving Tree.” It’s a very sweet book (though thinking back, the protagonist may have been a bit egocentric…)

  41. There really is something special in planting and growing your own food, caring for it and nurturing it. I’ve never been very good at gardening, but I have felt that spiritual connection that happens with food I have grown myself. I think the food tastes better when it has been loved by a person–maybe some of that person’s soul goes into the plant and makes it sweeter. I know–that might be out there. (This class has affected me! I can’t imagine having said that before taking this class) But I can’t think of any other explanation. Community gardens are great places! Once we get settled I would love to be involved in one or even start my own. Reading this article has given me a warm feeling in my heart that I hope will continue and will motivate me to find some way to be involved, even if it is just a little bit.

    • I agree that food tastes better when it is lovingly grown–and prepared as well. It sounds like you are ready to put a bit of yourself into a community garden in the future–not a mysterious process, but an ancient one that joins human communities and earth. And it seems to me there is nothing at all strange about thinking that we put our spirit into what we do: many traditional artisans, including quiltmakers, have traditions about leaving a thread or other part of the design lose in order to allow their spirit to escape from the piece in which it has become entwined. If we do something well, I think we can always say we have put an essential part of ourselves into this. Thanks for your comment!

  42. What a beautiful article. Reading about Gardner Robert’s desire to spread the beauty of nature throughout otherwise deprived and what sounds to me dark and dreary places has me rather inspired. I wish I had the time to sprinkle some beauty of nature upon a perhaps desolate and aesthetically displeasing area of land, which might have previously been decorated with nothing more than garbage. I have no time to garden on my own property, let alone all around the city! Though, what you are passionate about, you are supposed to always make time for, right? Life get’s in the way is usually the phrase I resort to…. Then again, what is the point in living when you cannot live it passionately? What is the point of living a life you are merely trying to GET THROUGH? Living life for your passions… that is what life should be all about, is it not? And my passions lie with the stories I haven’t found the time to write and amidst the wild world I seem to be unable to touch or save because it seems so far away, out of the way of the busy life I lead which I keep telling myself will lead me to where I want to be in the end… amidst the wild world, helping nature, and seeing her for what she is: beautiful, spirited, living amidst her, while writing of her in my novels, attempting to make others see as well…. But it seems so far away. How can someone like this “Gardner Robert” just drop it all and live such a life? A beautiful and rewarding life, some others might find a little eccentric and unfulfilling… but I bet you to Robert, it was more than fulfilling… he was living his passion. I’m envious.

    • Thank you, Cherisse. I am so glad you were touched by the inspiration of these generous and visionary gardeners. I love your idea of living life for your passions. I think most of us (myself included) too often put off living out our visions because something else gets in the way (our own inertia if nothing else).
      You know what you are working toward–and that is the first step in the right direction. Where you go from there is up to you.

  43. Yeh had a vision and acted on it…a simple act of kindness to bring beauty into a place with some much despair. Her good deeds sparked an interest in those around her including people who were not exactly “model citizens”. Instead of turning away the drug dealers- she let them help and be part of something. She did not shut them out because they were “broken” she allowed them to help rebuild what poverty, neglect and violence had nearly destroyed- which included themselves. What is most striking for me about this article is that I think we forget how the acts of one can build us up just as easily as they can destroy us. Having the opportunity to be part of something good is so important for our youth because without hope…what else do they have to look forward to?

    • Thank you for a comment that pays tribute to this inspirational woman who did not, as you note, turn away those at the outskirts of society–but instead gave them a place to pitch in, belonging to community and meaning. This says something about the capacity to heal our society as a whole– by giving young people “something to look forward to”. It also says something, as you point out, about the power of an individual with vision to make a difference. Thoughtful and compassionate comment, Anedra.

  44. Gardener Robert’s tale reminds me a bit of young Juan David in Gaviotas. In Gainesville, Robert (for whatever reason) didn’t quite fit in, but he worked out a way to do what he needed to do, and rather than inflexibly saying ‘Move on’, the people at the bagel shop bartered with him. They saw possibilities outside the norm. In Bogota (well, La Calera), Juan David with his damaged limbs endured cruelty from his schoolmates, and was told that he could never do some things (like ride a bike). When he went back to Gaviotas, however, he found acceptance, not jeering, and interested help rather than dire predictions.
    Robert’s successes, his little gardens and how he interacts with people fills we with delight similar to what I felt when I read about Juan David’s bicycling success at Gaviotas. Sometimes we don’t even need people to tell us ‘Yes we can’… sometimes we just need to get a break from hearing ‘no you can’t’.

    • Great point, Patrick. I am very touched by Juan David’s experience in Gaviotas–and this is an important reminder of the loss to our communities when we give others this “no, you can’t” signal. Thanks for the comment.

  45. One more thing just occurred to me: for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in relatively stress-free areas (no war zone, no rampant crime, no Superfund site), I suspect that it is much easier to sit back and let other do the tree planting (etc.) There’s less of a sense of urgency if we think that others are handling the problem.
    Adversity can bring out the best in us, as I saw locally when Marysville School was on fire last week – there was absolutely stellar community response. But perhaps doing something good, even if it’s easy and convenient, is still worthwhile! What if the fortunate among us (I don’t mean rich, I mean those of us with the full use of our limbs, consistently warm places to sleep, ample food) did like Gardener Robert? What if it were ‘regular folks’ doing this stuff?
    There’s a neighborhood association meeting tomorrow night. I think I’ll go. Maybe there will be a project that needs an extra helper. It’s something.

    • It is something indeed, Patrick. If we challenge ourselves before adversity hits, perhaps we won’t have to wait for disasters to hit before becoming what we might be for ourselves and for others. From what I know of you, your neighborhood group just got an added asset!

  46. I really enjoyed reading that essay, it really shows that any little difference can make a change. I believe that more gardens should be established everywhere, children should learn more about plants and how to grow them, because the adults that have that knowledge will be gone and only the children will be left to survive in the world with the knowledge that adults have given them. I also think establishing more gardens and having more food to eat or to share with those who are less fortunate would decrease the rate of homeless, and those who are starving.

  47. I think we all live in a world where we hear that one person can make a difference, but don’t always believe it. It is hard for me to believe that at times when I watch the news and see politicians linning their own pockets and not looking out for the common good. This article restored my faith that one person can make a difference. Who would have thought something as simple as a garden could transform a community and bring the inhabitants closer together.

    • It is hard to believe that we can make a difference when we are inundated with such overwhelming bad news,. Ashley. But I think acting on our ethics can build a sense of self-esteem. And these individuals certainly model the difference that one person can make… and there are so many more like them.

  48. I find it very inspirational to read about the various programs that were established in various cities by individuals seeking to return beauty and balance to these places. It is wonderful to know that something that may seem as simple as planting vegetation in our cities may bring so much good not only to the environment but also to the community – as illustrated in the example of Oakland where a whole community changed because gardens were established in the area. In a way, doesn’t that mean that plants are sacred? When we consider the power of plants – and the power of planting them – how much good we humans are taking from them and from planting them, surely we must give them more respect than most of us give them at the moment. Plants and greenery bring us beauty, fresh air and food. Beauty, availability of fresh and healthy food and fresh air brings us better life, with no doubt. When thinking about it, one would think that plants must have special powers to bring so much good to our lives.

    • This is a great insight, Iveta, in the way that both plants and the planting of them brings us redemption from otherwise bleak existences. The ability to bring us not only health but into community with one another is indeed a sacred thing-and I love your point that the gardens that do this must therefore be blessed with the sacred–and thus we owe reverence to such green beings for their sake and our own. Thanks for this comment!

  49. I like this story because it’s an inspiration for places that are run down and filled with unhappiness. I think if you provide any place or person with inspiration to renew their surroundings that they will. No one wants to live in a hovel, it’s just that sometimes it takes a little extra to get people to take action. Plus, I think that if you give a person the opportunity to connect with the earth they will find happiness in the action of working in the earth and watching plants grow.

    The gardening programs reminded me of the great programs that help troubled youth by giving them the chance to create art in public spaces rather than punishing them when they’re caught tagging walls and overpasses. People, kids and adults alike, need outlets whether it be physical art, singing, dancing or something else, when life is hard to reduce stress and to reconnect to their community, to themselves, and to nature.

  50. The West Oakland story reminds me of one I learned of in an anthropology course I took a year ago here at OSU. We watched a film on a woman in inner city California (I’m not sure if it was actually Oakland) who became an environmental justice worker and began creating community gardens, much like the one in your story. It could be the same person actually 🙂

    Either way, that film got me really interested in the concept of gentrification and environmental justice, as I am originally from Baltimore, Maryland and have seen areas that look like third world countries.

    • Hi Randa, I am not sure which film you saw. But I know what you mean; I have seen US inner city areas that seem like bombed out war zones with their abandoned buildings and generally bleak demeanor. The fact that both Rosenthal and Yeh have initiated such startling changes in these areas is certainly testimony not only to these two women, but to the inner communities ripe for something better!

  51. I am very inspired by this essay. I have always wanted to make a difference in a way such as this. I have helped out at Days for Caring at my dad’s work in Eugene, and also at Food for Lane County, but I just don’t feel like it has the same effect. Building gardens in a city between buildings is so resourceful and goes to show how if we change our habits and routines we can easily cut back on waste and energy.
    Ye’s art work is also very incredible. I have a friend who photographs graffiti, which to most people may be offensive or disrespectful. She somehow finds a way to make it beautiful in its own way. These two people have made small changes that make a big impact. I would like to work with inner-city kids when I get done with school, and I feel like these two examples are great motivators and ideas that I can use to make these children see ways in which they can love and respect the area around them.

  52. This is such an inspiring story! As an artist myself, I am always trying to create meaning in the work that I do. I want to create pieces that people can interact with and things that can change the way people see and react. I am so amazed by all of the work done by the individuals in this story. They were able to create something that changed communities and changed lives. I have seen some artists who have chosen to create beauty in some of the strangest of places. I am very interested in the work of Martin Sobey and Elbow-Toe who both have worked to entrench their art into the urban environment that surrounds it.

  53. I found the stories of Lily Yeh and Gardener Robert especially inspiring in this article. Their stories reminded me of this little cafe that I heard about while watching food network. The owner is so devoted to going green that he constructed his cafe in a way that it is run on entirely green energy. I can’t remember what the cafe was called or where it is but it was really interesting to be able to see the changes that the owner made in the interest of our environment.

    • Hi Alana, thanks for your comment. I think we can all be inspired by such acts. And such inspiration can flow from acts that seem small to each of us as we do them. Perhaps you are doing something to inspire someone else right at this moment!

  54. This story is very inspiring. I suppose most people don’t think that something like planting a garden would make much of a difference but clearly that’s wrong. I guess it makes me realize that we really should just remember to start with the basics and where we came from. I’m sure that by doing this in some locations where the land is looked at being lost is a positive reinforcement that there is still time for change and time for the land to give back if we take the time to nurture it.

    • Thanks for reminding us that it is indeed clearly wrong that we cannot make a different as individuals– not only because our actions are cumulative– but because they have the potential to inspire others. Great point about exposing your faith in the resilience of the land if only we meet the challenge of enacting the changes we need to, Jazmin!

  55. I’m not sure my first comment went through.
    **
    I felt that this story was very inspiring that in times when last was thought to be of no use to us anymore it is brought back to life and also brings us food and or beauty to give back. I guess when we look at an empty lot or piece of land and think it’s of no use we should really consider these stories. I for one know that I will be looking at things much differently.

  56. I really enjoyed the theme of this essay because it lists examples that we – humans can create beautiful things, even as stated here in the harshest of environments. It also reminds us that we are connected with each other, with each tree we plant we are connecting with the present and the future generations. I love the quote plant a tree, plant a new beginning, which reminds me of the movie Wall-E 🙂

    As I read this essay I could not help but think of all the flowers, plants and even trees I have seen growing out of crevices in city sidewalks, out of the sides of buildings and on windows sills, literally. They have always struck because sometimes all they have is a very very little bit of soil, sun and water that they chose to survive in such “harsh” conditions is inspiring.

  57. This makes me want to rip out my overgrown tiny little backyard and plant a garden! What a beautiful essay of the healing power of plants and gardens. I loved the story of Gardener Robert. What an inspiration to make more out of what we have. I think I mentioned this film to you before, but this essay makes me think so much of “The Greening of Cuba.” In this film, a community which is on the verge of destitution was able to turn it all around through the use of community gardens. Everyone was in on it, even the larger businesses turned their front areas into large thriving vegetable gardens for everyone to appreciate.

    I get so inspired to hear about communities or cities that are turned around because there are enough people who care about that area to try even just a little. If people even just try to make a difference, they most certainly will.

    • Hi Alyssa, thanks for sharing a note on this video: here the link to its producers: http://www.foodfirst.org/node/1135. I haven’t linked it on this site, since I have linked only free videos (and there is a charge, though a fairly minimal one, for this dvd).
      One thing I find interesting about this situation is how the US embargo (and the inability to get oil and chemicals) helped turn Cuba into a nation of organic gardeners with a network of community and farmer’s gardens everywhere!
      I too am inspired about those who make a difference in destitute situations: certainly this models something for us who have so much more in comparison.

  58. Isn’t it interesting that even in these times of great despair, nature still manages to find a way? I am becoming aware of more and more of these inner-city programs centered on art and nature, and I agree with the idea of starting in the worst place first. If we can change and rebuild and heal these areas that are seen as lost causes, then we have proof that we can succeed anywhere we choose. I personally know that when I find myself a new home with a little land, and perhaps a little time I will plant many fruit trees and a garden to provide food for myself and my family. If we have more of these programs surfacing, with enough people taking this view, we might just be able to turn things around. The problem is we feed our corporations money through our ignorance. If we do not possess the skills to provide for ourselves, then we must rely on others to provide for us in exchange for something of value to them. If we fail to look out for ourselves, then who will? These corporations certainly don’t seem to be concerned about the long-term viability of their customer base, and I’m sure possible side effects from hormones and pesticides are of even less of a concern to them. I just hope that these programs can spread to more cities and more towns, and maybe someday through education we can force these corporations to change, or risk going extinct themselves.

    • Thanks for this comment, Damien. Nature’s “finding a way” to communicate hope to us in times of despair is a powerful point. I agree that corporations (the same ones who bring us industrial agriculture) are not going to bring us safe, fresh, nourishing, and sustainably raised food. So we may as well do it ourselves– the fact that it seems to help create community is a wonderful bonus.

  59. While Gardener Robert would seem to many a man to be pitied, he is in fact one of the few who has actually taken control of his life without succumbing to the restrictions of society. Granted, his methods would not fullfill the needs of most modern people, they fullfilled his (as far as anyone knows…). He is able to survive living by principles that were common in communities hundreds of years ago – bartering for his needs rather than working and paying with money. The result is areas that are made better simply through his daily activities. It seems that he would be a good candidate for Gaviotas. It’s too bad we don’t have places like that here. It’s very unfortunate that the owners of those parcels find it so easy to devalue what he has created for the short-term profit a paved-over lot brings.
    Gardener Robert, Lily Yeh, and Willow Rosenthal are all inspiratinal people who have made communities better simply by following their hearts and applying their refusal to be stopped to something they feel is an important issue. I was fortunate to have experienced much of Lily Yeh’s work when I was living in NJ and spent many weekends wandering around Philly. She’s incredibly inpirational. My husband and I spent a good portion of a day driving around looking for her artwork and amazed at the areas we found her influence. Hers was the only beauty visible in some of those neighbirhoods.

  60. My mother and I have always shared a similar sense of wonder and awe about the world we live in, and our conversations would inevitably show the strength of our imaginations. One question my mother and I would often contemplate upon seeing an old beautiful tree is: “What has that tree experienced in its lifetime?” I guess the reason this question always fascinated us is because we always believed that history from the tree’s perspective would be more accurate than history from a human’s perspective. Two people can view the same thing so differently, where as a tree is rooted in reality (excuse the pun) and casts no judgments. Trees simply live and grow and accept life in all its various forms. There is so much hope and security in the idea that a tree rejects nothing. As long as a tree is still standing there will always be a place where people can go, and like the tree, simply be. This peace that trees, as well as gardens, provide is evident in the stories of Gaviotas, West Oakland, and Lily Yeh. Where there was once only despair and oppression there now exist places “where children could contribute their labor to an effort that mattered to them while the felt physically secure.” So, even if I can never know all that a tree has experienced in its lifetime, I can be fairly certain that at some point that tree has said “yes” to someone or something that needed a little hope and security.

    • Lovely response, Jordan. These inspiring instances of what we are capable of accomplishing in concert with the natural world also bring to mind, as you indicate, the ways in nature is also visionary and inspiring.

  61. This essay goes along with the readings we did for the discussion post this week. I learned during these readings that you can indeed plant a garden anywhere if you had the knowledge and the right tools to do so. Considering people turn parking lots, driveways, and urban sprawl into these wonderful flourishing organic gardens is not only encouraging, but also uplifting. In a neighborhood that is known for so much discontent, there is a garden.

  62. I think that Lily Yeh’s story is very inspirational in that anyone can start out with an idea to do something great and ultimately achieve that goal through hard work. It seems that a bringing gardens and plant life into the city really has a positive affect on the lives of people that live there. In these cases what begins as a simple plot of land to grow food eventually turns into a place for the community to come together. I feel lucky to have lived very close to the forest all my life and feel bad that some people who have grown up in the city haven’t really experienced plants and trees in the way I have.

    • Thanks for your response to the inspiration that Lily Yeh creates, Travis–and your compassion for others in your statement about your own experience. Perhaps we might create a world in which ALL have the potential for such experience.

  63. When Naomi Shihab Nye said that “the only word a tree knows is yes,” I think of the unwavering ability for life to grow in the least nurturing of environments. In West Oakland and North Philadelphia, we see examples of individuals and communities going against, nay, completely rejecting the odds of failure. These people did not ponder the viability of their creations, they just created. Like Gaviotas, they simply did what they new in their hearts to be good, and something amazing came from it.

  64. This article brings fond memories from a personal experience. When I first moved to Eugene, I arrived with a duffle bag and very little cash in my pocket. I found a room to rent over a garage in a subdivision near Autzen and used up most of the money I had to get into the rental. This subdivision was one of those filled with cookie-cutter houses on lots that were so close together you could see through your neighbor’s windows from your window. I was therefore shocked to see that one of the lots on my streets had been planted to be a community garden. A couple who lived next door maintained the garden with help from the neighbors. They encouraged people to take the organic produce they wanted and had a donation jar to help pay the water bills and upkeep for the lot. There were weeks when I was getting started when that produce, exchanged for the change in my pocket, was all I ate. It was so refreshing to me to see the neighborhood support our little garden, there was always someone there working or picking produce and it was a place for gathering and meeting others in the neighborhood. In what might have otherwise been little more than a bedroom community, this garden made our neighborhood a community and I will never forget that. This wasn’t one of the “worst places” like those described in the article but I think it is still a great example of how planting a garden in an unexpected place changed a neighborhood and changed it in a great way.

    • What a wonderful example of a community garden with an emphasis both and community and garden– and a true gift on the part of those who opened the lot to make a shared garden there.
      Thanks for sharing this, Katy.

  65. Wilow Rosenthal really is proof that one person can initiate change. Small steps have a large impact, like the Graviotas where their lifestyle has resulted in change. I often find myself thinking “what can one person do”, but clearly one person can do a great deal when they are empowered by their beliefs.

    • Indeed, Bernadette, these individuals stand in decided contrast to any of us who would make ourselves small in a society which does not say very much about common individuals as opposed to heros in our history. I also think that we don’t have to accomplish such large things as they did to make a difference. One small step begins every such process of change and healing.

  66. It is very inspirational to see how one person can make a difference. Just when you think that you don’t matter, just a little bit of effort can go a long way. It seems that no one wants to start anything, but as soon as they see someone doing something special, everyone starts to get involved. They were just waiting for someone to start it.

  67. This article is a perfect example of how the least likely place can be the one where people can reconnect with nature. This reconnection with the natural world has benefits beyond the aesthetic beauty it provides. By caring for the natural world communities are able to give back to what the natural world provides for them as well as build bonds with one another.

  68. It takes such strength and conviction to stand up against adversity and rise above the negative that can be a constant in everyday life. I am always in such admiration of people who have a vision and follow through. Both art and gardens have an amazing way of bringing community together. They have no age limits, cannot discern who has money and who does not, and simply require nothing more than ones time. As evident in this particular essay they also provide a place for healing.

  69. It seems as though when most are faced with negative it is an overwhelming feeling that is hard to overcome. Driving through the cities of Oakland and San Francisco I have seen the poverty stricken areas described in Willow Rosenthal’s story. I must be honest and say as I was driving through the area I was scared, always looking over my shoulder, grasping my cell phone, and making sure the car doors were locked. Amongst all this negative and poverty though Rosenthal and the community worked to create a positive atmosphere. It was such a refreshing story to read and it was exciting to read of people who pushed to make a change. This is evidence that one individual can make a difference and it doesn’t take government, overwhelming money, or big corporations; all one needs is a vision and drive. It makes you wonder if every city had a Willow Rosenthal what would the community be like? Would there be less poverty, a healthier community, and/or a “greener” focus on life? Instead of government focusing on negativity, fines, and crime what if inner cities like this were to positively reward the community with similar efforts?

  70. Excellent essay about finding ways to better our lives through interaction with the natural world. I can’t help but wonder, if more people planted gardens when times were tough, or took to the woods for a while when life got them down, would we as a society be so depressed? I understand that antidepressants are necessary for some people, but would as many people need pills if we were spending a little more time with nature and a little less time in front of the TV? I don’t think so.

    Like it or not, our whole society seems like a war. We are taught from birth to watch our backs, to be competitive with our fellow man/woman instead of to cooperate with them. We are raised around violence (including sexual violence), theft, bribery, blackmail, and numerous other criminal or unsavory acts. And we are taught, in some ways, that it’s okay to do these things and act in these horrible ways if it gets you what you want.

    Me, I’m going to plant a rose.
    Because I believe that we shouldn’t give up on our society. Because I believe we can turn it around.
    Because I believe a little bit of nature can cure a lot of ills. Because I believe in life.

    • Thank you for this touching stance that helps to benefit all of us on this shared earth, Amanda. Powerful declaration here, especially at the end. I have no doubt that planting your rose will inspire others with your hope in the possibilities of turning things around in society–and belief (as you eloquently put it) in life.

  71. This article is so inspiring. To read about Robert and his amazing gardens to Yeh and her healing through art. Both these people brought such beauty to places that were disregarded and forgotten about. Robert would plant his gardens and produce such great things in high supply. The fact that he could eat anything he grew is great it shows us that out earth, nature and soil will always be able to nourish us even in the hard times when others neglect the area the rest. For Yeh to bring such a poverty stricken part of town to a striving place everyone wants to come and visit is amazing. Just from art and a few plants you can change the outlook of somewhere. I just think it is simply amazing.

  72. I am excited about a future with more gardens and small farms. In my coastal community, I have been delighted to see the city recently renovate a piece of public property along the main drag. They are turning it into a row of community garden plots, available for rent. The strip of gardens is going to be in full view of the long line of tourists who flock here each summer. In what is sometimes conceived of as a greasy tourist trap, am delighted that our community will be showing off a side that genuinely represents the attitudes of a lot of people who live here. I think the gardens will actually help the community purge it’s greasy perception and cultivate a sense of moving forward in the best way.

  73. So inspiring! I find it amazing that one person can have a vision or urge to start something like planting a garden and have it turn the whole community around. Yeh’s project started with a garden and ended up with better educational facilities, a theater, and so much more! It’s astounding how much can grow out of so little. I think these impressive feats could be due to the sense of community that these projects and gardens instilled in people. I think this sense of community also extended to the natural world when people started caring for their gardens. These people also started to recognize the importance of where their food comes from, since many of them were sometimes relying on community gardens for their meals.
    To me, one of the impressive things that was shown by Gaviotas was the ability of the people to stay relatively safe when the entire country was flooded with violence, without arming themselves or putting up extensive barriers.

    • Thanks for your comment, Amy. These inspiring stories are also small (or in the case of Gaviotas, perhaps, large) miracles of hope and possibility. We need to remember what we are capable of–and the ways in which our relationship with the natural world brings this out.

  74. Urban gardens are an excellent way to help people reconnect with nature and provide a much needed change of scenery and opportunity.

    By allowing impoverished people to learn to grow their own food and to surround themselves with the beauty of nature instead of the towering steel of a modern city, these citizens are allowed an opportunity to change their lives.

    Parks in cities and community garden project are some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Coming from Chicago, I can tell you that there is little more refreshing than seeing a rooftop garden from the window of a skyscraper. it gives you an entirely different outlook on the day. i can only imagine how it must make those who work on the gardens feel.

    More communities, especially in inner cities, should take the time and effort to start a community garden and take a drastic step to improving their won lives through the beauty of nature.

    • Thanks for an inspiring response to the inspiring activity of creating urban gardens, Rick. It is a delight that that which feeds us and connects us to one another in such gardens is also lovely!

  75. I remember when serving in Iraq during the first Gulf War, a small group of us, desperate for something, anything green in that vast desert. We were all from a base in Tennessee, and to many, Iraq was a whole other universe. I was born in New Mexico, I was used to sparce vegetation, or so I thought….

    Arriving in Iraq, there was nothing, no vegetation, just sand everywhere. The group in the barracks ahead of us, had somehow managed to create a small garden inside the barracks itself, there was no way you could plant something out in that sand and sun and have it survive.

    We were curious about it, we seemed to be the only set of barracks with one. But we kept it going, we hadnt created it, but somehow, we felt entrusted with it. Handed it guardianship. I later found out from someone who had been there a bit, that one guy who missed his wife’s garden so much, he started with a single pot and some basil. And over time, it just grew from there.

    A quiet cry for normalcy. A need to have something, anything that reminded a soldier of his real life, in a place rife with death and values we didnt understand. There was a need to have something we could literally sink our fingers into and bring to life. I have no idea if that little garden is still there, if the group behind us had the same sense of guardianship to the garden that was still thriving when we left. But yet, I still remember the fresh scent of basil…..

    • Thanks for sharing this powerful story, Sam. I especially like these words, “There was a need to could literally sink our fingers and bring to life”. I can’t think of a better story to illustrate the point of this essay.

  76. Gardner Robert is an inspiring hero for us all. What a great story and reminder of how one person really can make a difference. I also like the statement ‘the only word a tree knows is yes.’ Trees and gardens planted throughout cities provide shade, beauty, wildlife habitats, and reduce air pollution and noise. They simply feel good. Small organic gardens can feed and provide nutrition and sustenance for many, including the poor. It is also a great way for us to live in community. Nature heals our brokenness and renews us. It’s good to know there are people like Gardner Robert and Lili Yeh ‘planting roses’- bringing light and life to our environments, while healing the planet and those who dwell on it.

  77. This is a pretty touching article escpecially the part about oakland. I think its really cool that gardening really bettered the community in terms of feeding those no so well off, beautifying the neighborhood and bringing about a communal closeness. I also liked Robert’s Seminole’s story about basically living off his urban gardens. Its a refreshing example that his kind of lifestyle can still be lived in the modern globalized age. This article goes along well with other articles which suggest the healing power of plants. Such as the statistic you gave in another article about patients getting healthier quicker when they could see a tree out the window. Plants and humans truely can have a beautiful interconnected relationship that can causes great positive change.

    • I find these stories inspiring as well, Benjamin. And a challenge to each of us about how it is possible to live both with the earth and in community. Thanks for your comment.

  78. This article is a great example of possibilities and hope in saving our natural world despite our destruction to it. I found the various examples of people representing this very possibility intriguing. From Willow Rosenthal who focused her efforts with organic gardening in an area specifically known as a disaster zone, Gardener Robert created his gardens within abandoned plots of land between buildings, Lily Yeh chose to reclaim the hard place of North Philadelphia where “she re-dedicated herself to proving the power of art to heal and redeem society.” It was Yeh that recognized strength in her weakness “reconnecting what is broken, healing what is wounded, and making the invisible visible” as she it states in the article “offer a bit of beauty as a token of respect”. These statements said so much in the recognition of though we may see one area as ugly, it is then were we should build to make it beautiful again in reverence for the area and land it is on. In all of these situations it was in the darkest and gloomiest of places that they “planted a rose” so to say. It represents hope for, even the worst we have done to the natural world, if we rebuild and plant within that area, we definitely can redeem the beauty we have once destroyed. Such as the ancient wisdom says.

    • Thanks for your own touching comment in response to these inspiring individuals, Francine. You have such a great point in the idea that wherever we see such ugliness (or pain or suffering, hunger or poverty)– wherever things are most bleak– is precisely where things are in need of the transformation we can create with our own energy.

  79. Dr. Holden,

    I think these storties are great examples of people holding on to their humanity and having control of something in a world of choas. With wars and such unhumane activities, it amazing to see people rise above and show that good can conquer evil. Planting these gardens or a single plant is great way for individuals to gain control of their lives in a world that is full of chaos and uncontrollable societies. I think is all best stated with a quote from your post, “this place is proof God exist.” Showing that people can over come their own adversities and have positive impacts in negative enviroments.

    • Thanks for your comment. I see these examples of folks not so much overcoming their own adversities, but gaining their sense of purpose in helping others out of seemingly impossible situations.

  80. These stories were truly inspirational. I entirely agree with the bacteriologist that places like these reassure me that God exists. He truly gives us beauty for ashes. Whether knowingly or not, these visionaries were living out principles that I believe Jesus has outlined for us in the Bible. I am inspired by the actions of Gardener Robert, who was truly living out a life that the early church believed was essential. I need to plant my first garden! That way, when I have children, I can pass this legacy on to them. It may not be much, but it’s better than doing nothing.

    • I can’t think of any better way to acknowledge the divine in the world of life we have been given– nor in ourselves. Thanks for your comment, Christopher. Have a great time with that garden!

  81. Dr. Holden,
    Again, thank you for yet another great article. The symbolic beauty of planting and nurturing plants during troubled times is such a powerful one; showing not only the resilience of life but also what the natural world can bring to our troubled human society. The Gardener Robert story really made a lot of sense, speaking to what we as former simplistic hunters/gatherers/farmers have lost touch with. The idea of using your own hands to create and grow in such unlikely areas is just so beautiful and powerful. On a smaller scale, I, and I am sure many others, have felt similar positive effects of gardening and growing your own food in unlikely areas. This story really visualizes on a more drastic scale how human beings could benefit from gaining back a more intimate and healthy relationship with the natural world.

    • Thank you, Cheyanne. These are such inspiring stories of the kind each of us experience, as you note, in an “intimate and healthy relationship with the natural world”.

  82. This is a great article, and such a testament to what a difference the ‘small things’ make in people’s lives, and most especially during tough times. I Gardening is a great way to bring people together, to relieve stress and anxiety, and really create something from nothing. It is truly very rewarding! I just last weekend planted my garden for the summer, and look forward to coming home at night and watering and tending my crops. And how great does it feel when months from now I am actually cooking with an eating the fruits of my own labor? It is indescribable, and so satisfying.

    Also, about 7 years ago I read a book about Gaviotas (Gaviotas: A Village to reinvent the world), and it was truly an inspiration to me, and I still get a certain feeling inside when I think about what that book meant to my life and the changes I made after reading it. It was one of the greatest books I have ever read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is wanting to learn more!

    • Gaviotas is a great book indeed, Megan. This community and all the ones here are models of what we are capable of. Congratulations on your garden and all the rewards you are gaining from this! Thanks for your comment.

  83. This essay touches my heart because it rings true in my life. I suffer from MDD (major depressive disorder) that sometimes renders me relatively useless. I am determined to treat it without pills because of previous experiences with antidepressants that left me numb and unfeeling, or were recalled due to possible liver toxicity (!). It seems that just about the time that life feels like too much to handle, in my personal wartime, a simple communication with nature can bolster my spirits and make me feel that my life makes sense. When I think about the lives of the impoverished in inner cities, my existence seems comparatively blessed (this is not saying I am better than them, but stating that my situation seems more favorable). I live in a quiet town which is technically not rural, but horses still live in the city limits. I have a stable relationship with my partner and, although I am frequently low on cash, I generally have everything I need. So if nature can do things like that in my life, I can only imagine how it would work in the context of a city where unemployment is the norm, where drugs and gangs are prevalent and where hope is all but lost. The trick, as I see it, is to not underestimate nature. Many might say that communication with nature might help someone such as myself, because my problems are small, but could not tackle the most seemingly insurmountable problems. I prefer to look at it in a different way. If planting a rose or taking a walk or thinking about the stars can make such a difference in my life, there must be no limit to what wonders it could work in the most hopeless of situations.

    • Thanks for sharing your own inspiring story, Amanda–and your courage in dealing with this disorder. I would venture that your insight and sensitivity make you vulnerable to all the grief there is floating around in the world today. Nature as healer is an amazing model: she needs us and we her, and so we heal each other. I love your last idea: thanks for sharing the story that makes such vision and hope possible.

  84. I can see how most people feel overwhelmed in the most horrible circumstances to a point where planting a rose would seem useless, but I can say form experience it can save you. I have not had a very easy life from my childhood on but what always reminded me of the good in the world were the many plants my mother took care of in and around our house. She made these flowers and herbs family and would even get upset if I forgot to water them one day out of the week. I didn’t know it then but this really instilled in me the need to appreciate and respect all living things as equals. I cannot compare my life to those living in Nazi war camps, but I can say I understand he need to connect when the rest of the world feels like it has left you behind. A plant can give comfort and remind me that life continues in even the worst of circumstance. There is good and that good can grow and flourish.

    • Thanks for sharing your own personal story and sources of resilience, Aimee. What more glorious lesson can natural life give us than, in your words, “There is good and t hat good can grow and flourish” (should we add: against all odds?)

  85. This essay made me want to go out and plant something! The idea of planting a rose in wartime, or a garden in between two closely packed buildings is beautiful. It brings hope to people around it. Planting gardens or cleaning up empty lots, we all can make a difference, and we all can slowly change the damage we have done to the environment.

    • Great idea about going out and planting something, Brandon! I agree that these actions are inspiring each of to action in our own ways. Thanks for your comment.

    • My absolute favorite picture is one that I have of a daisy growing inbetween two buildings. I think the picture is taken in New York. All around it is trash and debis, but out of the sidewalk is this one daisy growing in the most inconvient spot. Your comment made me think of this and how looking at that picture makes me feel. It brings me hope that even in a world that is falling apart there is still a chance that things will get better! 🙂

  86. I actually read this article a few times just to really appreciate it all. Really the article pointed out to me that one person can truly make a difference. We can see this with the Gaviotas community, in North Philadelphia, and in West Oakland, where one person just wanted to make a difference and the community around them jumped at the opportunity. I thought it was important to note none of these people figured they would truly make a difference, yet nature has flourished in the areas where these people live because of of their change in views. Overall, I thought it was interesting.to see how reverence was something the communities learned in each instance.

  87. I love the story about Gardner Robert. He seems like he is his own rose, he may or may not have a mental illness like suggested in the article, but I cannot help but wonder if that mental illness was caused by something that happened in his life not just being born with it. I have always wished the world could be ran on faith and trust instead of money. I truely believe it would be a better place without it.

  88. I read this article previously and had to return to it. This past weekend my family and I visited New Orleans. This city has been hit time and time again by destruction and signs of that destruction were everywhere. As we were walking through downtown NO, we came across the most beautiful park with flowers, trees, birds, fountains, etc. We immediately found a seat and took in the beauty instead of the problems. I think that’s why it’s so important to plant “roses” during hard times because through the beauty of nature, we can find ourselves at peace, no matter what is surrounding us.

    • Thanks for sharing this personal example of what it means to actualize this kind of natural vision in the midst of hard times/restoration work, Megan. I very much like your point that the natural world has this power to bring us to peace no matter what else we might face. Yet another reason to care for the earth that sustains us!

  89. Professor Holdren,

    “Planting a rose in wartime” is a great statement to use metaphorically for how humans can improve the planet, even in a city setting. If every person were to make a commitment to do something to improve an area close to where they live, whether it be an empty lot or a run down park, collectively, this would improve the landscape of even the most impoverished cities. It is also a very good opportunity to help feed less fortunate areas by growing food in gardens right in their backyards.

  90. I really enjoyed this article, how indeed can we not plant a rose in wartime? With so many people out of work, and so many recently politicized, specifically young people following the election of President Obama, I suppose I am surprised we don’t see more of these sorts of behaviors.

    At the risk of following the notion of general American comfort and modern malaise down the rabbit hole, there seems to be no good reason why more people don’t supply more of their own diets. The localtarian idea is great for a number of reasons, and I can only imagine that these sorts of community gardening movements are only helping this transformation/reaffirmation.

    • I also had a chance to read the mini article on Lily W. Yeh, her ability to go from insight to action is really inspiring.

      I do not consider myself an artist but this quote really struck me, “Yeh decided that being an artist “is not just about making art…It is about delivering the vision one is given…and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.”

    • Thanks for your feedback, Thomas– it is gratifying that there are so many whose actions are capable of inspiring us.
      I think you are right about the importance of community gardening for a number of reasons.

  91. I think that this is a absolutely wonderful article with a powerful message. My own family in Italy owns a farm in which they have several varieties of roses and so this story has a special place for me.

    The comfort that planting and gardening can bring to a person is a remarkable thing. There is a sense of serenity and belonging that raising something for many years brings, as well as a personal connection to the plant which is difficult to find elsewhere. Yeh’s story is certainly unique in it’s scale, however anyone has the capacity for improving just their own home or a neighbors using her methods of renewal.

    • Great perspective, David. I am glad you have some familial roses of your own to share. Excellent point that Yeh’s story has an amazing scale of effect, but her “methods of renewal” can apply to each of us in whatever small or large way.

  92. Plant a rose in wartime? Definitely. The stories about the planting during the Holocost as well as the one about planting gardens in tough forgot neighborhood, both support the benefits of plants on humans. Not only do we get biological benefits (the CO2 absorbing plants release man’s needed Oxygen intake), but they are great for our psychological health too. To be able to see a seemingly helpless plant, sustain and florish in such a dire environment, gives the viewer hope that they too can emulate that plant. By connecting with the “human-like” properties of the plant, man can feel a surge of hope and determination. Plants are a great role model for all. I think I will go plant something right now.

    • Happy planting, Jessika. I think there is nothing quite so healing as having our hands in healthy soil.
      And I think we can perhaps turn this approach around; not only in connecting with the “human-like” (as you put it) properties of plants, but in the ways that plants as plants might teach us more about our potentials in being human (in generous support for other lives and resilience and roots, for instance). Thanks for your comment.

  93. One of the most heartbreaking consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the destruction of olive trees. As part of land disputes, often settlers will destroy olive orchards. Not only is this environmentally destructive and destroys families’ livelihoods, it is also heartbreaking to see trees as victims of conflict (many of them are older than the conflict itself). Aside from that, it is infuriating for me as a Jew to see other Jews cause destruction that is directly against Judaism’s teachings. Not only does Judaism revere trees so much we have a special holiday to honor them (Tu B’Shvat) but the Talmud expressly forbids the destruction of fruit-bearing trees – including olive trees.

    • Thank you for the insight here, Hannah. It is sad when religious reverence toward plants is waylaid for the sake of anger that gets one nowhere. There is a reason for the injunction against destroying fruit bearing trees! This has also happened to Christianity as well, when self-avowed Christians side with capitalism in licensing the destruction of the natural world. Whereas the point you make is extremely disheartening, I see as heartening movements such as Jewish Voices for Peace and the young people refusing to join the Israeli army to enforce the occupation– not to mention, the work you yourself are doing in making bridges. Those Christians who work for environmental issues (and environmental justice) are going back to the deepest roots of Christianity from my perspective. It is my fervent hope that the care for our shared earth may teach humans to overcome our differences; I love this Palestinian saying: “All the politicians should be sent to the moon so that they can look back and see we all live on one earth.”
      Keep up the good work.

  94. This was a great article to read after hearing about prisoners during WWII would plant to ease their pain.
    I started this year to take care of a small plant that is in my apartment that i thought was really pretty. It is something that I always look at when I come into my room. The essence it brings to my room is something that I couldn’t find in anything else that would make my room look nice. The relaxation and calmness of the plant as it sits on my window sill is amazing. The vibrant colors it displays is something that can only be given off from a plant and not paint. Sometime when stress is overwhelming me, I find myself sitting at my desk staring at it and it has a calming effect on me allowing me to refocus my thoughts and get back to what ever i was doing. I can relate to what the prisoners were thinking as they tended their gardens and what the people in West Oakland and the inner city of Philly. The presence of something so simple in our lives can make the mind so clear and happy at times.

    • Thanks for sharing your joyful relationship with this plant, Will. Seems like if anything cross-cultural is in our human nature, it is this love of growing things–no surprise since we owe our continued life on earth to them.

  95. These stories about changing our environment for the better are very inspirational. I believe they truly represent the meaning of the phrase; “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. It seems like this urban gardening movement is a necessity to help those metropolitan people keep conscious of the “Green World”. I can’t think of a better way to sway public opinion other than by demonstrating what you represent and also creating a better environment for those same people.

    The use of Urban Gardens for subsidizing produce, increasing community evolvement, social awareness and beautifying these metro areas are all exceptionally positive motives to continue these efforts. I especially felt like artist Lily Yeh’s efforts are exciting. Its people like her that seem to bread inspiration and I think we should all learn from these kind of practices. Maybe next time one of us see some abandoned space, thats turned into others waste depot, then we will remember these peoples efforts and do something ourselves.

    • I think these stories are inspirational as well. They indicate some of the things each of us are capable of. Thanks for your own insights on the dimensions of inspiration here– ways in which creating beauty– in nature, community– or even in the transformation of an ugly building– is a profound catalyst for change. Something to be thankful for on this day after Thanksgiving. Thanks for your comment, Ryan.

  96. Why we don’t teach kids these kinds of lessons and heroes in Elementary School baffles me. Needless to say, I will be planting a garden as soon as I get home from work. These stories are just amazing. The people in the article remind me a lot of Johnny Appleseed only I can connect with them better. It’s hard for me to describe how I see the big picture here; it’s like after a volcano hits and yet plant life renews itself on the mountain side. I guess what I’m trying to say is that even when everything seems lost, as long as we work harmoniously with our environment alongside our intentions, things will be alright. Good stuff. Definitely the kind of stories you’d want to share with the next generation.

    • I am with you a hundred per cent in terms of showing our kids such “heroes” as models . Seems a whole lot more productive than seeing “heroes” as those who are able to stomp on others and win physical battles.
      Easy to feel that we stand on a precipice with respect to the problems we currently face. But it is such times that it is all the more important to take action to set things right following the example of inspiring folks who are planting and nurturing the seeds of the best of what we might bee.
      Thanks for your comment– I can’t think of a better gift for the generations to follow us than stories such as this to empower them and inspire the actions of their elders.

    • I never thought of that. Kids do need to be taught classic stories like Johnny Appleseed. I used to love that story. I loved how you expressed the idea of it with the volcano example. I think that is a great example of how a garden can bring peace and solitude in a dire situation.

  97. Planting plants or gardens brings in peace during a time of hardship. That is what I believe is trying to be said. The beauty of the plants and/or garden touches the souls of the people around them and shows them there is something to live for in the world.

  98. I love the mentality of “why not plant a tree?” Planting trees, flowers and any kind of garden or produce can be nothing but good for a community. This article reminded me of Acorn Foundation here in Corvallis. One of my professors and his wife run the foundation and help low income, non-english speaking families get jobs, learn to read and drive as well as produce their own food. Their program helps families grow and maintain their own gardens which helps the entire community. Not only is it a sustainable food source but the different plants and flowers are uplifting and educational for the children. Planting a tree or some type of flower during a time of war may seem like a simple, unnecessary task but just think of the good that could come from it.

    • Very nice take on the title, Kat. How might you tie it in as a metaphor for what the other folks in this essay did?

    • i agree with you. This idea does seem extremely simple but leaving new growth behind is never a bad idea in times of destruction.

      I have also had a teach here at OSU that does similar thing, only he raises money through gardening and selling produce, clothes drives, and pretty much anything that has to do with sustainability and the community. He uses this money to send underprivileged children from albania to school. It gets me really excited that so many people in my own community are doing such great things for each other and really shows you that one person can make a difference in others’ lives

  99. I think this was a very insightful essay. People need to realize that they can make a difference in the hardest of times and places. I was tlking with some people a little while ago reflecting on the hurricane Katrina destruction. One person asked why people even wanted to rebuild, and thought it was a better idea to spread out to the other states where there was no destruction. This thought brought up a lot of issues with my friends and i to say the least.

    this idea of people turning beautiful things from what seemed to be destruction or decay is amazing. Gardening in these places is such a great example of this. people need to realize that they CAN do something when things look meek, even if it is just planting a rose.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jason. It is the hardest times and places that need us most. I just got an email from someone today who proposed that instead of calling such events as Katrina natural disasters, we call them “help one another” events.
      We have a model of resilience and community in the natural world– as the examples of these gardeners show us.

    • I agree with you, and I believe that the power of beauty is important in dark times. War is the darkest time of all, and if anything can distract us from its brutality than it is definitely welcome. Anybody can do something about the problem, and this article is perfect example of it. Planting something never really hurt anybody did it? But the problem arises when we destroy what we have planted.

  100. I, like Ms Brinker (first post), am from the east coast and have tremendous respect for those willing to stay, even more so for people not originally from there, in the midst of what I call ‘collapsing civilization’. Everytime I walk through downtown cleveland, chicago, and new york I am humbled. The number of poor living on the streets seems to continually grow, so much so that you could easily run out of pocket change in one block.

    But examples like the ones presented in your article foster hope. Personally, I want to help people and, to me, this article is a good foundation that should be used by local politicians in the social welfare programs.

    These gardens give food to the poor, provide them with something to do, get them off the street (for the day), can be used to provide income, and most importantly provides a sense of meaning, community, acceptance. The benefits or potentially endless, less crime, more aesthetic beauty and thus more compassion, jobs, food, builds communities, and even can be a form of therapy (it is, I checked!).

    All human beings deserve the right to belong to something greater than themselves. Our society has forgotten this and because of this homeless persons feel like they are not members of society. I am happy to see more urban/ community gardens popping up and I can only hope the idea spreads like wildfire.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and compassionate comment, James. Such gardens do not only help the poor but all of us who share community and healthy food (and recovered land) as we participate in them.
      I find it heartening that such gardens are spreading everywhere– and you may find some next time you wander through downtown Detroit, where land left by closed auto manufacturers (originally some of the best farmland in the world) is being reclaimed as garden. The city of Detroit has a very interesting ordinance that supports the founding and nurturance of such gardens.

  101. It broke my heart to learn of the prisoners in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany that sometimes planted gardens that they knew they would not live to harvest. How I hope these gardens gave them some sense of hope and peace during their final days. I hope they also realized that by planting these gardens a part of them was going to live on. It’s amazing what a sense of hope and joy a garden can bring to a community which was also the case in the gardens mentioned in West Oakland, Gainesville, Florida, and North Philadelphia.
    I’ve also experienced the peace and joy that a garden can bring. I was going through a very difficult time in my life a few years ago after losing my Grandmother so I decided to plant my first vegetable garden. There was such healing in bringing those seeds to life after facing the death of a loved one, and although I only got a few tomatoes and a handful of green beans from that first crop the garden was able to give me something that was worth much more.

  102. I think it is interesting that in the few years I have lived here, that at least 3-4 garden communities have been established. I think gardening is a great way to connect with the community and with the earth. I think if I spent more time gardening, eating meals that were cooked by my own hand, and made clothing and other things by hand then my children would see that life doesn’t have to be lived so far from home. I really think that through these essays as well as few other reading of my own, slow is a really awesome pace.

    • It is wonderful that these garden communities have been established near you, Tina! That is a sign of so much that is healthy and possible in our situation. Your own “slow pace” is awesome indeed. And if many of us do not want to (or do not have the skills to) do things like make our own clothing, we might well trace who does make our clothing–and see that it is done with the integrity of the “close to home” feeling of family you refer to.

    • So true, Tina, that “slow” is an awesome pace. When we slow down to “smell the roses” we notice the bee on the rose,and the bee notices us. I don’t have a garden where I live here in the desert, but there is a great community co-op down in the bosque where we can participate in the gardening and receive a portion of the produce in return. Gardens really allow one to re-connect with the cycle of life, birth and death, growth and decay.

      • Rebecca, that is great that you have a community co-op garden. (I had to look up “bosque,” as I did not know what it was.) I wish we had a community garden program here in Dallas. I think there may be a few, but unfortunately the city has made a lot of rules and regs that make it very difficult to establish them. The examples of West Oakland and North Philadelphia are really inspirational in what they’ve accomplished from starting with very little. It seems like it would be a very positive thing for inner city neighborhoods.

        • Indeed! Changing Dallas city policy might not happen easily (should I say “will” not happen easily?) But the city of Detroit not too long ago drew up policy to not only allow but encourage urban gardens in its boundaries. Not so many years ago, certain cities in Wisconsin would not allow native landscaping– now they are asking their citizenry to do this kind of landscaping. Things can change. If you have a potentially sympathetic city counselor, you might even send them a copy of the Detroit policy (you can google) it with a personal note. And if Dallas does not like the idea of modeling itself after Detroit, you might be able to find some other city it does want to emulate that also has urban gardens. Good luck!

  103. Plants are not only a resource, but an important connection with the natural world. They stand for more than things that we can use to our advantage. Articles like this are making me realize how plants are seen in society. It is a great new perspective.

    • Lovely points, Samantha. I myself am very inspired by these gardeners–and I very much like your point about the ways in which plants are our teachers in connecting us to the natural world.

    • I also commented that stories like this, that recognize the importance of plants and all nature to be beneficial to us as individuals and a community as a whole, present an important perspective that can help guide individuals into taking action to preserve and protect our environment for our benefit as well as the environments own benefit.

    • I agree, that the plants stand for something more than just plants that we use to our advantage. They are a symbol of the bond human nature and mother nature share, they are a symbol of how the earth takes care of us as humans, we need to thank her and give back by taking care of nature as well.

  104. That is an interesting comment about Gaviotas not intentionally setting out to restore the rainforests. What really strikes me about the statement are the words “…as they held to their values of respect for the land….” I really believe holding to one’s values is about the most important thing a person can do, and not always easy, as the Gaviotans found. But I wonder: isn’t that really just the core of being successful at any endeavor, including restoring the health of the earth? If we just “hold to our values” and keep our focus on what is really important, everything else will eventually fall into place. Compromise our values, and we get what we have now—a fouled environment.

    • Great observation about values, Susan. If humility is one of those– or even just holding to our proper place in natural cycles– we might understand that we do not and will never know enough to manipulate everything and predict absolutely what will come out. So how much better to hold to our values and have wonderful rather than disastrous unexpected results.
      I also think that holding to our values is a way of honoring ourselves: saying to ourselves and to the world that they–and we–are worth honoring.

  105. I really liked the line, “How can you plant a rose in wartime?… How can you NOT plant a rose in wartime?” I think that is a great representative of how you can look at a situation, glass half empty or half full. It really does only take one individual, one simple act of giving, or just doing SOMETHING to spark a whole new perspective on a situation. Not only is this rose a symbol of what good can still come out of a devastating situation,but also shows us how giving Mother Nature is. At a time of complete destruction to her and mankind, she is still able to produce a beautiful object for our benefit. I think that if the model of reciprocity was embedded in all of us and our culture, something as simple as this rose would remind us how much nature has given us and still gives us. We need to have reminders all the time so we never forget how fortunate we are. We need to remember to give back to our earth for all she has given to us. To harm her, and harm our own environment just seems absolutely foolish when you put it into a larger perspective and see how Mother Nature has taken care of us in our times of need.

    • Thoughtful response, Courtney. Of course, if we cease to care for the natural world, she will eventually cease to provide us with our sustenance.
      As you indicate, facing the many situations that are need of healing today does not imply being overwhelmed by them to the extent that we do nothing to heal them. It is truly inspiring how our small acts may accumulate into good results when done with the right values, intention, and knowledge.

  106. I loved reading all the examples of how nature, specifically a garden, can uplift human spirits in times of turmoil and anguish. I was particularly moved by hearing of the prisoners of concentration camps during the Holocaust who planted gardens to keep them going. It is inspirational to tend and care for something that could grow and prosper for a long time, in the case of the prisoners of Nazi Germany, longer than their lifetime. They were leaving something beautiful behind, something that may be able to bring peace to someone else in the future. I have read countless stories of the effect nature has on human suffering; we have discussed how hospitals are now incorporating healing gardens for their patients. I think the recognition that nature has extreme benefits for humans is a step in the right direction to protect it.

    • I think you are right, Emily. Obviously, we resonate deeply with the natural world in which we grew up as a species.
      Lovely points here!

    • It’s interesting to think about nature, something we see almost everyday, as something that can move or transform the way we feel and think. You mentioned how hospitals are going to try andincorporate gardens, which I think would do more for those patients than meets the eye. It reminds me of a web article we read about how hospital rooms with windows looking out at tree’s helps thosepeople more than without a window. Now this lead me to think of myself, and how every time I go to the library I absolutely have to be by a window that is facing outside. I had never thought about it before, but I just feel like we are so connected with nature, and sometimes we don’t even realize how deep that connection might be.

  107. It is obvious to anyone who has cared for a garden that tending the land and growing your own food creates a positive feeling within you that is hard to describe. I think that this is telling of the connection that intrinsically exists between humans and the earth. Whether we choose to admit this powerful connection or not, it exists and shows itself when we foster plant growth on the earth.
    The story of people in Nazi concentration camps growing gardens is sad, but beautiful. Hopefully the act of gardening and watching things grow and bloom gave some peace and hope to the prisoners.

    • Thank you for your compassionate response, Nicole Nature has often served as an emotional as well as physical refuge in the face of abusive by other humans.
      I find it inspiring indeed that some of these gardeners took it on themselves to change the circumstances of other humans for the better through creating gardens.

    • I agree that the connection between plants and humans is deep. We must know that we cannot live without plants, somewhere even in this easily forgetting society, we know that without the grass and trees that grow we would have little oxygen and without the nourishment from these, we would have no food.

    • I agree about the people in concentration camps. Sometimes I think holding on to simple pleasures helps people make it through the roughest of times. In this case, the gardens may have been the last happy things that the people tending them were able to experience.

      • Sometimes, Jenni. There is one instance in Defiant Gardens in which children tending such a garden destroyed it on hearing they were being removed to another camp.
        It is not about being positive and more– being intimately tied into a cycle of hope and community– which can also be torn from us, sadly, by one another. This is why I think it so inspiring to hear of those working to re-root help others in beauty and community through gardens.

  108. These stories are very inspiring! As I see rural areas in the Northwest treated like junkyards I wonder what can anyone do? Moving from Seattle where everyone pressures the city to keep it clean, not use pesticides, and where there are so many more rules established, mostly social rules; it is hard to imagine what can be done in places where the consensus is to each his own. It is refreshing to think that even if you aren’t the type of person to organize some great movement, that you can do what you can on your own land, or be a bit of a renegade and maybe nurture a piece of undeveloped land by planting native plants along the roadside. Anything helps and if people see you doing something to help out the community they will join or at least appreciate your efforts. I think we’ve become to complaisant in our assumption that the government will or should take care of our problems. We tend to forget WE are supposed to be the government and that we can help change our lives by starting small. By starting local and starting small its not as overwhelming when faced with massive amounts of pollution, garbage, and poverty.

    • Anything helps indeed, Stephanie-and we need every one and every way to lend a hand possible. Your actions count not only in themselves, but in models for others.
      There are tree planting organizations that plant trees near freeway off ramps in Portland (see our links page).
      Great reminder that WE are our government (that’s how a democracy is supposed to work!)

  109. It is interesting to think of how deeply connected we really are to plants, they are one of our closest bonds to the natural world, as well as animals. Personally, I love even a house plant in my office to cheer me up and make the room seem more homey- this is probably because I live in WA and things just don’t seem right unless they are green and alive.

    • We are very fortunate to live in a land which is so alive and green- let’s hope this inspires us as it did some of those in this essay.

    • I like your connection to houseplants. A lot of the time we consider “nature” to only be things in the outdoors. We might all be a lot better off (and in much better moods) if we accepted nature as interconnected. I think it goes beyond simple plants, though. Sometimes I notice the wind blowing at significant times and can’t help but feel a connection with nature.

  110. It’s pretty amazing to see people go into areas of the world that are socially, economically, and environmentally distraught. The people in the article didn’t need to bring a bunch of money, programs or people, they just wanted to make beauty through gardening. Such a simple act of planting a garden had the ability to transform entire communities. This article sheds light on how truly powerful plants, and nature can be. I think when people garden and plant trees there is some sort of intrinsic bond with what you plant, something I’m not sure I’ll ever understand, but I will always understand that there is something special, and unique. This reminds me of a book I read in high school ( The name I’ve forgotten). A man is about to pass away, but everyday he is outside rain or shine working on his garden. I didn’t understand it then, but even though he was sick, he was outside in the dirt meticulously plating. I think he felt like these plants were something that would be apart of him, a small part of him that would continue to grow even after he was gone.

    • Lovely metaphor of the “something” we leave behind of ourselves when we plant a garden and tend it, Melinda. Sounds like a great book to read in high school! Nice insight about the simplicity of the approaches here: these people, as you note, did not bring in complex programs– or even much in the way of start up money. What they brought that was essential was their own presence and care– one of the reasons I think they are so inspiring to many of us. This highlights the power of the unique presence of each of us.

  111. Having spent most of my life in Oregon, where a farm or at very least farmers market is not too far off from any big city, it seems completely foreign to not have access to locally grown produce. I think that is something that most of us in Oregon take for granted. On the flip side, for those from major metropolitan areas, it probably seems absurd that you can live in the second largest city in the state and be inundated with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms.

    I think community gardens like those described in the article are essential for a number of reasons. Poverty has prevented many inner city residents from being able to have fresh produce. These gardens offer an alternative and an opportunity for the residents to eat healthier. By being able and have access to healthier foods the obesity rates will decline. They also provide a sense of community spirit and pride. In these tough time, having something to take care of and work on can make a huge difference in a persons life.

    • Nurturance and (the right kind of ) power are intimately related, Amanda– thus you do well to remind us that such gardens offer us on opportunity to care tor and work on something together.
      And yes, we do take many things for granted in Oregon– though I don’t think it absurd to live in a large city with access to so many local garden and farm products– any more than I think it absurd that we have an “urban forest:” department in our city. I think the absurdity is declining in Detroit, where vast factories are being supplanted by gardens in the wake of auto plant closures.
      But I understand your point about our stereotypes of cities. I hope we can grow beyond this.

    • That is a great point about lower income people not having the ability to have access to fresh produce because it tends to be more expensive in large cities due to shipping costs. If these grass roots urban city community gardens would spread more people would be eating healthier which would also keep more people out of the hospital and more people would live longer. It is so great that these people can make a difference.

  112. When I read the title of this article, the first thought that came to my mind was the importance of being positive, even when hope seems lost. The mention of prisoners of war who tend gardens even in the darkest hours is a great example of people who can maintain a positive attitude through a simple, positive act. Just simply planting flowers not only adds a positive feel to depressing times, but it also assists in helping the environment. Therefore the question that was posed and answered (“How can you plant a rose in wartime?” and “How can you NOT plant a rose in wartime?”) makes perfect sense. If we all fail to make positive efforts during a negative time, the negative times may take much longer to end.

  113. The simplicity of the stories here are amazing. Especially in urban areas, people often get overwhelmed by whats happening around them and forget to slow down and take a minute to talk to one another. I think the social interactions created by farmer’s markets and urban gardens in “less desirable” areas are an extremely important to the development of community in these areas. I definately live in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood, or whatever you wanna call it, and our farmer’s market has changed quite a bit since more and more different influences from different people have began to come. There is something about food that always brings people together, and in places where there doesn’t seem like much of a connection between people, atleast at the market, there is a change. People meet people and ge interested, and the kids see this and that stimulates change.

    • I am glad to hear that your neighborhood is “up and coming” in terms of the community created by sharing food and local markets, Jenni! This is a very hopeful sign!

    • I agree that the markets can bring people together and unite communities. I think its great that the market in your area has brought the community closer together. It is an amazing thing to actually feel like part of the community that you live in.

  114. I was very interested in the gardening community that was brought to Oakland because I used to live about 30 minutes away from Oakland and it was and still is an awful place to go. Like all cites there are some nice parts buy Oakland is by far the dirtiest and most dangerous places I have every been. With that said it is nice to hear a story about someone shining things up a little but and hopefully bringing the community together more so that they all start respecting their environment because it is a dirty place.
    One thing that I would be interested to know is how Robert go the gardens going so quick and how he was able to get water to the plants. He must have been a very determined man to get so many gardens going and maintained in an urban environment like that.

    • It seems that both Willow Rosenthal and “Gardener Robert” were “very determined”– as you indicate. This is part of their capacity to inspire us–as they let us know what we are capable of if we express the same kind of focus in terms of better our world.

    • Robert, you make a great point about Oakland. The story about a small group of people making their community better may not seem like much in the midst of a large, dirty city, but at least it is a start. Your comments about Oakland make me very appreciative of the beautiful bright green trees around me, and the chipmunks and deer running around my backyard.

    • I also admired the spirit of the leaders in the communties like Oakland and Philadelphia. It takes alot of drive and committment to coordinate the efforts of volunteers and residents to make a project work and turn a bad situation around. Robert must have had a medical issue that he was dealing with like add and the only way that he could deal with his problems was to work and keep busy. He was also homeless and starving. He was willing to do what he needed to do to survive.

  115. I love the idea of planting a rose during ‘wartime.’ Physically speaking, we may not all have a backyard to plant a beautiful garden in, but we can still make do with what we have. Symbolically speaking, we can plant roses in the form of ecofeminism even if the rest of the world does not see the point. We will plant our roses because it makes us feel good, and we know it is the right thing to do. Perhaps when ‘wartime’ is over, the rest of the world will appreciate the roses.

  116. After I read this Article I felt that more people should be taking over the unused plots in our cities that are vacant and unused like Gardner Robert did and start feeding the Homelesss and the Poor. I live in Camas Wa which is relatively an affluent area. We do not have a high crime or a homeless problem but we do reside just outside of Portland Oregon and when I drive into the city to work each day and I see the Homeless on the streets in the Pearl District where I work which is also an affluent area I think there is so much more that can be done but is not being done. There is vacant land not far from where the homeless are and it sits there year after year being unused. So many people also like to give of their time to volunteer in the community and they could tend the gardens and set up booths to hand out food to the needy. Potential.

  117. Having spent most of my life in Oregon, where a farm or at very least farmers market is not too far off from any big city, it seems completely foreign to not have access to locally grown produce. I think that is something that most of us in Oregon take for granted. On the flip side, for those from major metropolitan areas, it probably seems absurd that you can live in the second largest city in the state and be inundated with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms.

    I think community gardens like those described in the article are essential for a number of reasons. Poverty has prevented many inner city residents from being able to have fresh produce. These gardens offer an alternative and an opportunity for the residents to eat healthier. By being able and have access to healthier foods the obesity rates will decline. They also provide a sense of community spirit and pride. In these tough time, having something to take care of and work on can make a huge difference in a persons life.

    • We are indeed fortunate to live in the Willamette Valley, Amanda–and community gardens are a win in combating poverty as well as environmental and other social issues for the reasons you point out.

    • I agree that community gardens are beneficials for a poverty stricken area for many reasons, most of which you highlighted. Gardens give the opportunity not to be dependent on city systems of shipping in food and are therapeutic in reconnecting with other life forms. They also can give a sense of accomplishment, watching your hard work grown and transform into something delicious. I grew up in the suburbs and also took advantage of garden space and farmers markets. But I have now realized how much a few plants really can brighten city-dwellers abodes and communities with green not to mention be able to feed their families.

  118. I am touched by the stories of “Gardener Robert” and of Lily Yeh who introduced green life and food sources in random plots of waste land. I had the opportunity to participate in “guerilla farming” when visiting a friend living in Honolulu. He introduced me to a group of people, some of whose ancestry was in Hawaii, who wanted to either reclaim land that used to be full of green space, learn how to make use of random plots, or wanted to save money by growing food but didn’t have the space to do it. We toured around a few blocks and cleaned up/harvested greens from previous plants planted in patches in front of restaurants or strip malls or dead space between high risers. I then helped plant a garden in one of the most interesting places I have ever gardened, in the center of a busy road on the strip of dirt enclosed in concrete dividing the lanes. We tore up the dirt, added compost and soil, and then planted beans, sweet potatoes, greens, herbs and flowers. I was incredibly moved and so thankful to have been shown how much can be done even within a concrete space. I checked in with my friend who notified me that the garden was actually doing pretty well and people who lived on that road are now care-taking and eating from it!

    • What a wonderful “guerilla” gardening activity, Priti. This example deserves a place in this essay as well along with the other inspiring actions described here! Thanks for sharing this.

  119. How strong of Lily Yeh to build such an amazing place. North Philadelphia is really rough, I’ve seen on the news so many times where traffic has been diverted because of a car fire (someone has literally burnt a car to the ground). My sister lives in Philadelphia and she says that there are probably things that happen like that at least once a week. For Lily Yeh to go and clean that area and build parks takes a lot. The people must be grateful to be able to see a little area of green and empowerment that can give them some hope that things can and will get better.

  120. I am so thrilled to see that this article mentioned the City Slicker gardens in Oakland. Two years ago, in the middle of a long period of unemployment, my father was living in Emeryville (also in the Bay Area) and found solace in a community garden, Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Garden (long-winded title, I know). The garden is on top of what was once a gas station. The plants climb up art installations, sculptures, and paintings. I used to come into town and walk with my father, over the 580 freeway, to help tend his plot. Pesticides are forbidden at Big Daddy’s and so we would lay egg shells and halves of cut melon to distract the bugs from the tomato and spinach plants.
    I have never seen such a beautiful representation of nature and community before. Surrounded by industrial buildings and road noise, there’s a little oasis where people come together, discuss their garden, and sit in the flower garden.

    • Thanks for sharing this wonderful image of Big Daddy’s, Lily. I’m thinking I should incorporate it in an updated version of the post on “planting roses”.

    • Lily, my mother has a very similar story to Big Daddy’s. She is struggling to find a job right now due to the economy and has turned to gardening. She has transformed our backyard into a massive garden full of corn, potatoes, and onions. She has even added chickens! Every possible leftover is thrown into the garden as compost, especially egg shells. She has even started selling some of her vegetables and eggs. Gardening has given her a sense of restored pride and now a small job that she loves.

      • Wonderful, Sage. This is work that most of us can find one way or another. It is great that your mother has such a great garden!

      • Sage,

        That sounds like a wonderful thing for your mother to be doing. Gardening has a nice calming effect on some people and add to that a little bonus money for doing something she likes, that is perfection. It’s also nice to hear that the leftovers go into the garden for compost, I used to have a compost pile (back in Vermont) when I was growing up, it really was a good fertilizer for the garden too. I suppose the next garden I start I will have to put the leftovers directly in the garden instead of a seperate compost pile! 🙂 Thanks for the nice post.

        • You can easily bury your leftovers, or place them under leaves (I am thinking of the current state of my yard!), as I am sure you know. Thanks for making your gardens!

  121. I really enjoyed reading this article. I instantly thought of the community garden trend that I learned so much about in an environmental sociology class that I took last year. It is amazing how gardens can give the gift of life, bring together the community to create friendships, and a way to heal in times of war. And I don’t just mean war between countries but wars that we go through within ourselves. I have witnessed first-hand relatives go through something tragic and then turn to gardening to being the healing process.

  122. This story was inspiring, in part because the results weren’t part of a carefully planned and choreographed set of events and occurrences. I visited the site linked for the Philadelphia projects (The Village), and it was honestly very impressive to me. Many of the people there looked like they were simply enjoying themselves- something so many of us forget to or unable to do. I was particularly intrigued by the gardens being set up to provide herbs and other aspects for the local chocolate shop; I dabble in chocolate myself, and I would love to discover that kind of a resource.

    The sheer amount of produce grown in Oakland amazed me. It didn’t sound like anyone involved was a professional producer, but with the community efforts, they certainly made up for it. Gardener Robert was another inspiring personality. If all of our communities had members like these, and administrators who would let them be as they will, I think that many populations would benefit from the (sometimes seemingly eccentric) personality and effort exposures.

  123. I really enjoyed reading this essay. There are a lot of great ideas here that I believe are essential to achieving a successful relationship with the natural world once again. In order to plant a rose in wartime a person would have to have the belief that even if they died the rose would live on and provide beauty for the next generation. It was moving for me to read that even prisoners in concentration camps were compelled to plant gardens. The people who plant in the face of death find solace in knowing that the plants will live on. People need to share this mentality. It’s the same mentality that asks, “How can you not plant a rose in wartime”? Today the people that share this mentality are planting gardens in big cities. They are doing their part to change the environmentally disastrous concrete jungle. It is essential that western society in particular has a paradigm shift and realizes that by planting for our future, we can begin to heal the damage we have done to this planet.

    • Hi Zach, thanks for helping to pass on the inspiration here– not only something we need to feel, but to act on! I cannot imagine a more important hope than that we begin to heal the damage humans have caused.

    • I also really enjoyed reading this essay. I completely agree with the idea that a rose planted in wartime can possibly outlive the person who planted it and maybe spread some of the values that person held. I also found it interesting that people who were prisoners in concentration camps took the time to grow gardens even though their was a good chance that they wouldn’t see them through to fruition. I think that they did these things as a way to hold on to their humanity and connectivity to nature in such an ugly place and time.

    • I completely agree with you, that people that plant gardens and beauty in the boring human made concrete buildings have faith that what they are doing will restore the environment.
      I liked the idea that planting a flower, even in the face of death being comforting interesting, I had never heard the theory that it helps cal, people because they know the flower will live on after their death. Thinking about it now, I can see how that is soothing 🙂

  124. Yet another great essay Dr. Holden, Thanks for sharing.

    Planting gardens and greenery amidst the busy, hectic, concrete lifestyle of urban areas has so many benefits. In Oakland for example, the sheer amount of food produced was more than I could have imagined for such a small plot. The dedicated people who tend to such areas are a great addition to the surrounding area. With the numerous people within urban centers, and the ease of planting in tight spaces, more local farms could pop up throughout different cities. What a great way to reduce the pressure on industrialized agriculture and the destruction on the lands outside of the urban centers. Even through all of the concrete jungle, an urban center has the capacity to be very eco-friendly per capita. Sustainable transportation options, renewable energy grids, and other sustainable features can be amplified in cities. If more produce is grown locally, imagine the possibilities! Now if we could only keep down the urban sprawl.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Nick. I appreciate the chance to pass on these inspiring stories. Interestingly, there is an article in the latest National Geographic on the eco-friendly aspects of cities for the very reasons you point out. It is of course, sometimes potential unrealized–but also actualized in things like mass transportation.

    • Nick I agree that there are many benefits to having a garden within the cities. Benefits such as citizens who live in poverty will be exposed to healthier food alternatives. Other benefits would be rewarding by having a reduction in the amount of energy required to import these fruits and vegetables. Also, I agree that it is impressive the amount of produce that can be grown in a tight space, such as on, in or around a building. The cities have potential to ease the environmental strain that comes from acquiring resources from outside the cities by producing resources within.

  125. I think these are all great examples of people helping the communites around them. Even in the case of people planting these gardens to benefit themselves, they have grown to the point where they benefit a community and help to foster a sense of unity which in turn changes some of the daily stress of life from competition to cooperation. People would benefit greatly from fostering these sorts of ideals in the communites around them.

    • So very telling that in an interdependent world, what we might set out to do for ourselves (if we do it with authenticity and care), also benefits others and vice versa.

    • Groups like these restores parts of nature and inspires may others to do the same. I personally buy produce from local farmers from local farmers markets out here in Sacramento for similar reasons.
      Also, I always felt that during difficult times some people love planting flowers and trees as a symbol of their existence and hope that the plants will be a marker of their hardships.

  126. What a moving and inspirational article! It is people like those mentioned here that should be the ones we commemorate as heroes. The idea that an ordinary person can walk into a broken down, beat up area and, with a little elbow grease and some determination can turn that space into something healthy and healing. I especially like the theme of community and reciprocity: these people work together to create something beneficial, not just for themselves but for each other and for the earth. Something as simple as a garden can grow a sense of belonging and pride in one’s community, and in turn leads to other neighborhood (and ultimately planetary?) improvements. I hope the people like “Gardener Robert” and Lilly Yeh continue their work, and that more people hear about and join their movement.

    • I agree! I found many of these stories very inspiring as well and am wondering what I myself can do to potentially create another amazing story such as these.

  127. There are multiple amazing stories of how nature can thrive anywhere in this article. The story about West Oakland as well as Philadelphia is quite astounding. It is wonderful to hear what people and communities combined with time and effort are capable of doing. I also agree with the article that many other small helpful things can be done and are being done but just not noticed. So, whether it is recycling your compost scraps or planting a rain garden, I think everyone is truly capable of lending a helping hand to such a good cause.

  128. Wangari Maathai is quoted here saying “Plant a tree and plant a new beginning.” I know a lot of people who planted at least one tree or flower when they moved to a new place, not just to mark the passage of time, but to have a symbol right in front of them that life can still go on through the toughest of changes. Nature can bring peace from chaos.

  129. I loved this article! It was so nice to see that the simple act of planting a garden can help decrease violence. I am actually amazed that by showing beauty and nature to a place use to run-down buildings, poverty, and violence, life improves and violence goes down. The fact that nature is so powerful is astonishing, and the fact that our society today does not realize the power of healing nature brings is upsetting.
    I know that I love walking downtown and seeing flowers and trees that are lined up along the sidewalk, because I feel at peace.

  130. “Plant a tree and plant a new beginning.” This statement by Wangari Maathia is full of power and truth. I am truly inspired by those who began planting gardens in some of the roughest urban areas of the country. The planting of these gardens have brought new life to the area in both the vegetation and lives of community members. People were able to be a part of a project and able to feed themselves from it. I hope that in the future I can become a part of a project that is as beneficial to both the natural world as well as communities in need.

    • I love this statement as well, Alicia. Thanks for sharing it–and something of the inspiration it entails.

    • Dear Alicia,
      I too would thoroughly enjoy sharing the experience of a community garden and hope to be able to do so in the near future. Dr. Holden’s philosophy course (Worldviews and Environmental Values) has taught me a wealth of knowledge that I wish to incorporate in my life and to involve my children in doing so. This will encourage them to share similar environmental values and pass along what they’ve learned and value to their offspring. As I have learned this is an essential tool for individuals to share, and by so doing we will naturally form communities flourishing with ancestral knowledge and value. I can’t think of a better way to encourage this, but to share a community garden.

  131. “Gardener Robert” is truly a commendable individual with strong principles and character, and I admire his passion for simple truths—that he so naturally gravitated to through his gardening and bartering techniques.
    Another noteworthy attribute of his, was that he refused to handle money. I can understand why, it has become a representation of filth (to me). Far too many people go after monies—sacrificing whatever and whoever comes in their way—in order to obtain as much of it as possible. The truth is, it is only an it, and will only ever be an it. It is nothing more than printed paper and should never be valued above another person’s wellbeing, nor that of the environment. Despite the majorities’ acceptance of money, Gardener Robert refused to play-along. Instead, he set a strong example as to what is important within communities—sharing and respectful interactions with the natural world.

    • Essentially our survival is now based off of money. here are no lands for us to create a community that lives from the Earth. Since birth we are bound to this type of society. Rarely do people ever sacrifice anything unless it is for money. Most of the things we do in this country is in attempt to gain monetary value. The trade chip that is money, buys our food, shelter, water, and taxes pay for our air.

      • As money more and more takes over our political process through corporate lobbying and campaign financing, I am heartened by a trend that runs counter to prioritizing money, in which people grow community gardens and exchange labor with one another as neighbors.

    • Good perspective, Rose. We need such people to model for us what is really important in life, yes?

    • I completely agree with your opinions concerning money, Rose. I don’t place any particular value on money but OSU wouldn’t just “share” an education with me and even my offers to pay with lettuces were not received well. Maybe I just lack effective bartering skills.

      • I think it is about time we offered certainly bottom line products to our citizens without handicapping them financially– things such as food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.

  132. This article makes one thing clear about our species. We are the caretakers of the planet. Blessed with the dominance we can have on this planet because of our intelligence, we should occupy it such a way that nature is always protected. We have the ability to create life for other species which is unique from other species on Earth. Why shouldn’t we use our skills to help the planet? Other species partner with each other and rely on one another to survive or make life easier. We should have a similar approach.

  133. (new)

    I find it touching that so many people want to participate in gardening and there are those out there who try to bring that beauty, and serenity to all. Especially to those areas that are suffering from hardships. Being able to learn to take care of yourself, have a space that is full of life can bring so much to a persons life. Inspiration, security, peacefulness, and a sense of community. I find it interesting that it took one person, Yeh, to put the wheels in motion that actually led to what it sounds like the renovation of an entire abandoned area of a town. By involving citizens and creating a community it sounds like their local government stepped in and helped turned an ugly place into a beautiful place with parks and other structures.
    What a beautiful way to recommission a space into a community center and provide a way for people to have access to fresh, local, in season produce. Not only will their spirits be fuller and healthier but so will their bodies and minds.

    • Lovely points concerning the many positive dimensions of such gardens, Brandie. That one inspiring person had so much success in these instances by touching something deep inside of all of us, so their work did not have to be done alone– soon a community joined them.

    • I agree that goverment try to make an ugly place into a beatiful place……

      I think there are several purpose why we have gardening around cities lately.
      1, Environmental issue ( We can reduce the temperature at ground level because asphalt absorb a lot of heat from the sun…too much radiation…Plant can reflect light),
      2, looks better. It sometimes better to have plant so they support our mental health.
      3, Cost reduction (plant on the roof helps to reduce the cost for cooling the building)

    • It is uplifting to hear stories of positive change isn’t it? We often look back and wonder about our past actions, or in-actions, but oftentimes it takes just that one person to have the strength and courage to go against the mold and chart a different course for change.

      • This is one of the reasons I like Murray Bookchin’s statement that unless we do the impossible [that is, what seems impossible to us from the perspective of our current reality] we will be saddled with the unthinkable.

  134. I feel like a lot of these story relate back to a time when I was a kid. As a kid I would always be taken by the idea of garden growing and tried to get my parents to help me garden watermelon, and strawberries or any other thing they thought we could grow. I never understood why they destroyed the only area left for gardening by the time I reached my teenage years. I can only remember feeling too angry to argue that I gave up. This story of solving community issues such as poverty in a unique way is very inspiring. Currently, I have the perfect location to learn how to grow again. I find this story uplifting and want to explore my option of getting back into the gardening I did as a kid. Thank you for presenting a new way to solve everyday problems. In this day and age, poverty will not be diminishing, but if people can learn to trade food like the people in this essay did, then maybe the devastating side effects of poverty will be greatly reduced.

    • And perhaps we can even redefine wealth so that at the same that monetary poverty in the growing gap between the rich and poor in this country is growing, the wealth of community and the gardens you refer to are growing.
      I am sorry for the loss of your childhood garden but now, as an adult, you can recover it for yourself.

      • And actually on a side note, I know I am responding to this without expectation for class credit, but I just wanted to mention the irony of my conversation with my neighbors and my husband. Literally, a day or two after submitting my comment to this article, they tell me about how they are creating a community garden in our background. We have a space that is perfect for this but I found the timing of their announcement quite perfect! So in other words, gardening may be in my very near future!

  135. I think this web essay is good example to show how the worst place can be the one of the best place where human can reconnect with nature. Even the period when the holocausts were done, not only we get environmental benefits, but they (plant) supported us from mental perspective. The story of people in Nazi concentration camps growing gardens is really sad thing. Ideally we should not have anything like this, but it happened. The reconnection with nature world is definitely beneficial for us. We should be able to give back same condition if we take care about natural world communities.

  136. JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I think the quote should be refashioned and modernized, better fitting our present world. “Ask not what the planet can do for you, but what you can do for the planet.”

    The examples of community gardeners in this essay show just what a strong human spirit can accomplish. With all the doom and gloom we are bombarded with constantly from media outlets, it is wonderful to see/hear examples of just how powerful human strength can be. These people are humanity at its finest. While they receive little or no attention, and mainly don’t seek any out, we give far too much attention to socialites and money hoarders alike. Societies attention span is so short that every second counts and we should be projecting stories of hope and optimism, that real positive change is possible with only a minor amount of inputs.

    We can either skate through life blissfully apathetic to everything around us, just living out our time, or we can make a difference in it, not just for ourselves, but for others, future generations, and the planet as well. It’s fairly simple, we can either do something or do nothing. I, for one, have never been able to sit still. I am always moving, there’s always something that needs accomplishing. I feel that if I sit around and do nothing then that time is wasted and I’ll never get it back.

    A wonderful idea of not wasting precious time would be that those who are readily free, open, and available, such as the unemployed, teens, and those retired, etc. could spend their time tending community gardens or other such activities. By getting out and getting involved those people who would otherwise be doing nothing would be gaining a very real sense of community, as well as lifting not just their spirit, but the earth’s as well.

    • Thoughtful perspective on the shift from being mired in “doom and gloom” to becoming part of proactive communities. As you point out, there is no reason to “waste precious time” (or to waste our precious lives) even if the system does not honor us at present.
      At the same time, I do know that looking for work can be more than a full time job for many.

    • The only component that you didn’t mention in fostering a “sense of community” in those who would “otherwise be doing nothing” would be support of those people who are presumedly “not wasting precious time” because they are too busy to be “getting out and getting involved”
      themselves.

      • In an economy with so many poor and unemployed, just getting by can be overwhelming. We need a society which provides the security to free up all this human energy. Thanks for your comment.

  137. As cited in Gaviotas, caring people only need to give nature a little head start and then it’s just a matter of protecting it long enough to see the true power and wonder of our earth. These stories illustrate that the destruction done to our environment in the name of progress can be undone in the name of prosperity, to make change and save lives. One person can make all the difference in the world, imagine what two people can do. Together they could bring about change twice as fast, seperately they could bring about twice as much change.

    • It is so true! If we could all come together in our own way and just protect the natural environment there would be so many benefits to all! I never imagined that damage to the natural world could be undone but these success stories really do prove something different. If we could all just work in our own way to protect the Earth from damage then we would be able to see the power and wonder of it.

    • Lovely and powerful points, William. We should never underplay our power to make a difference with our personal choices as these examples have taught us. And if there are two of us acting, it more than doubles our impact in the way we are able to support one another.

  138. It is pretty amazing that these people were able to restore this destroyed land and they didn’t even know that they were doing so! It is crazy to think that if we came together as a society and actually worked towards bettering our environment all of the improvements there could be.
    The story of West Oakland and Willow is really inspiring. She brought the idea of giving back to nature and seeing all of its beauty to a place that was already destroyed and was home to many people who did not know the beauty of the natural world. This is one simple act by an individual who has brought the idea of green into a destroyed area and has made a significant impact. It also has allowed the community to come together and have a stronger sense of “home”, which is truly amazing.
    If we could only follow the values that the Gaviotas and Willow placed on their environment and how they treated it, then we could turn all of the damage around and have a promising future.

    • I am not sure what you mean by the idea that these people “did not even know” they were “restoring this destoryed land”, Shaylene. It certainly seems that each of these people set out to right something that was very wrong– and did so in inspiring ways. Your own comment is a hopeful one in this context: with people such as these to show us the way, we can indeed heal damaged human and earthly communities. Thank you for your comment.

  139. In reading this article I was reminded of my favorite uncle. When he was alive, he was a vagabond and never could quite settle in any one place. However, the one thing he always took with him wherever he went was a Rhododendron. My uncle purchased this pink beauty when he was in his late twenties. Nine years ago he passed away and my mom took great care to move it from Mystic, CT back to Portland, OR. Every year it blooms an iridescent shade of pink and magenta and I am reminded of him and I am comforted that his life and memory lives on, deeply rooted, in the beauty of the petals and the leaves.

  140. I love hearing stories like these, of people recreating empty or ugly urban space with productive gardens. If I could have a dream job it would be that of Gardener Robert, or Yeh, especially if I was able to make it work out that I was able to support my nutritional needs using my produce in one way or another. Maybe someday, not sure it would work in Oregon, year round anyway. This type of gardening is becoming more common, and will be essential in our quest to save ourselves and our planet.

    • Indeed, Kendra. And if such a garden can be put in place of a quarter acre of ruble in Harlem (see our quote of the week for the words of a founder of the Five Star Garden there), it can be done anywhere.
      And gardens can be metaphorical as well for that place of healing, resilience and inspiration where life can thrive that we nurture anywhere in our lives and communities.
      It is a wonderful goal/vision you have and why not follow it in whatever way it emerges?

    • I also love how urban gardens are becoming a trend. I especially enjoy rooftop gardens. I remember recently reading an article about a community in San Francisco whose joint efforts (via rooftop gardens) are helping re-establish an at-risk butterfly species that is indigenous to the area. By planting native greenery, in an otherwise unused space, that supports the butterflies they are helping to save them from extinction. Not to mention, the economic and otherwise benefits of rooftop gardens.

      • Rooftop gardens are wonderful– I would love it if entire cityscapes might be seen from above as natural habitats that might motivate the birds, in the words of William McDonough, to feel that their is something recognizable to them as home as they fly over.
        One especially important aspect of green roofs is the leavening of the “heat island” effect that city collections of asphalt and cement create.

  141. Having spent some time living in impoverished, high-crime communities, I can appreciate the risks that people like Rosenthal, and Yeh are taking. I enjoyed reading about their stories and other quasi-“guerilla” gardeners. Their impact was powerful and will likely create a ripple effect of compassion in the communities that their outreach serves. The education these communities receive will also greatly impact their lives and hopefully create a sense of the need for worldviews that incorporate nature and other living and non-living systems as partners.

    • Thanks for your comment, Latifa. It is inspiring not only that these leaders were able to take such “risks” in communities that were physically dangerous as you point out, but also that they had such faith in people who have classically been overlooked, neglected (or simply feared)–that the members of those communities emerged to express their potential, once they were given dignity and purpose.
      The sense of welcoming and inclusion expressed in our “quote of the week” is powerful indeed.

    • Not only do the people receive education, but they also get vital nutrition that is severely lacking in many inner-city urban areas. Since many large chain supermarkets don’t exist in these areas and most food comes in the form of shrink wrapped packages or fast food, it is a food source that many urbanites need.

      • Indeed, many poor urban communities have been labeled “food deserts” for their lack of available nutritious food– what a wonderful thing when education is linked to good health and nurturing communities by feeding them well.

  142. I believe that human interactions with gardens and with plants in general, is engrained in our DNA. We have been raised along side plants for our entire human history, so it is no wonder the spiritual effects gardening has on the human psyche. I think it is wonderful the community service that these urban garden pioneers are gifting to impoverished communities. They see hope in lands that most would deem hopeless, and that takes great strength.and perseverance. It would be hard to imagine a world without hope and innovative ideas driven by passionate folks like these.

    • You have an important reminder here that humans and plants have co-evolved- it is no wonder they lift our spirits and create community feeling in us!
      And you are right, gardens have represented hope to humans for thousands of years, what better occasion to remember this in the transformation of otherwise bleak environments.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • This is a great point. When I am feeling anxious or stressed I always head to my garden. Ironically, if my children, especially my infant, is having a rough day then we all head straight to the garden and it instantly calms everyone down. Even if they are not “helping” me with the garden, the simple presence of nature is calming to them. There have been many days of teething that my baby and I have spent the majority of our day in the backyard. I have yet to find an activity that brings so much peace, yet so much acomplishment at the same time. I am sure this is exactly what the urban gardens bring to people who need these peaceful retreats the most. Hope is a powerful thing and it is indeed courageous what these people have done for these communities.

      • Hope is a powerful thing indeed, Jessica. Yet another profound gift these inspiring people have shared with their communities. I have often found that a crying baby is immediately sedated by simply being taken out of the house into a place of sky and green.

  143. The idea behind guerilla gardening is quite inspiring. If there are any places that are in need of a little piece of hope and tranquility it is in the many urban centers of America. The paving of America has been a quiet tragedy for our landscape, combine that with slow degredation of some of these areas and we see a need for some hopeful solutions for those that live there. The random acts of gardening kindness are an eye opening way to get people interested in fixing some of the problems on their own that exist in their community. I think by giving people a reason to act and create beauty, you can build community and assist in creating a healthier environment.

    • Thanks for sharing many thoughtful points here, Travis, including the power that the creation of beauty may bring to us as individuals and communities. “Random acts of gardening” as you put it, are also random acts of kindness on a number of levels.
      And as for the over-paving of the US– I concur with you on this point, and am heartened by movements like those who work on “de-paving” city scapes to make room for growing things.

    • After reading your comment I thought a little bit more about the idea of guerrilla farming. I recently was gifted a bunch of squash starts and I can’t fit them all in my garden. I think this weekend i might plant them in some irrigated parking strip at city hall.It sure would be nice to stumble upon some tasty vegetables some time when you’re walking down the street.

      • Wouldn’t that be delightful! If the strip is irrigated, you might also want to make sure it is not maintained in such a way that everything no planted there is pulled out (or sprayed) as a weed. This is why guerilla gardening sometimes works better in relatively neglected areas– though then there is the problem of summer watering.

    • Travis, I couldn’t have put it any other way. Every day we look out the window and what do we see? A new building or community being built that was once the home for many animals and natural plants. America has become obsessed with developing new cities, towns and roads that often they don’t think o the environmental damage that is being created. People need to become more responsible for the actions they take; just because we didn’t build the new road doesn’t mean we did not contribute to the damage being created to our environment. I think as humans we already have the power to create beauty to improve our communities and make a stronger and healthier environment, but what we lack in most cases is the ability to put forward our efforts in protecting the environment. The Paving of America begins and ends with humans, what we decide to do prior, during or after the construction is up to the individual to speak up and say “NO”. Sometimes we build new items simply because we have the technology and tools to do so without thinking of the consequences that it will have at one point. Our environment plays a major role in our ecosystem and last I checked we are part of that ecosystem which means if anything goes wrong we will also pay the ultimate price. Let’s take it a step at the time just as you explained on your discussion, this way we can better our ecosystem and help maintain and restore our natural world. By giving people the reason to act can and will create communities and create healthier environment, thanks for the insightful discussion.

      Moises Ascencion

  144. It’s good to hear the kind of positive effects that could be had on communities by this. I find it interesting that even prisoners during the Holocaust took to gardening-maybe, as the article somewhat suggests, it gave them a task to fixate on? A free choice amidst their harsh prison? And perhaps the effect of such gardens on communities, or their own blooming, at least, in Gaviotas, was part of why it was theorized that the community was “proof that God exists”?

    • Thoughtful points to ponder, Thomas. Certainly focusing on maintaining natural lives in the midst of the death camps is a profound human response. In the case of Gaviotas, the ingenuity of following life natural models– as well as the exemplary sense of human community– had much to do with attesting to the presence of God. I can think of no other way to witness this than through expressing our own best potential–and what Gaviotas has rendered in its own actions is nothing short of miraculous.
      Imagine if we all lived according to such standards what our natural environment and human communities might look like!

  145. I think this essay is a lot like the tree huggers in the city one in the sense that we all feel the power that the Earth gives and we know it will be here longer than us. Gardening is one way to become closer with the nurturing power of the Earth, it’s almost medicinal. I really enjoy hearing about underexposed urban dwellers getting to experience the satisfaction of cultivating their own food. After all this is how we started a civilization,

    • Great points about connection the living earth, Aaron. This is not only how we started a civilization– but how we might maintain it– if indeed, we are successful in doing so.

  146. As these examples illustrate, there is power in nature and even in the simple act of gardening. I have worked with troubled youth at a camp near my home and we kept a large garden with both vegetables and ornamental species. For a great many of the young men the act of eating a plant which he tilled the earth, sewed the seed, watered, weeded, and harvested, was very important and had a significant impact on their worldview and behavior. For others at the camp, it was hiking in the backcountry among a landscape far larger than themselves that had the greatest impact. There is indeed power in planting.

    • Thank you for sharing this experience Paul–and for helping these troubled youth to find their sense of belonging in the natural order and human community (expressed by yourself).
      At the Youth Garden in which homeless youths are employed in Springfield, they also learn skills (gardening and running their farmstand–as well as the personal focus to carry these out) which allow them to be employable.

  147. Dr. Holden,

    Thank you for yet another great article. Being from California and visiting places like Oakland I know exactly what you mean in terms of living in a place that has no garden, pollution is by far horrible and extreme in some areas and poverty only increases the wow factor of this city. Planting a Rose in Wartime is not just a term used to describe the ability of the prisoners to plant a rose inside the camps but also means the war that we are fighting today and that is the “War on Global Warming” every day we create more emission that only damages our planet yet everyday there are thousands of people to wake up to support global warming due to the fact that they live in a city that is solely based on industrialization. Yet organizations that expose people to the green world allows our human population to step back and see just what it is that we are missing by showing them the world that we live in today. It is funny to see the phrase “Hard Place” because our planet has the ability to grow plants or other resources even in “hard places” in most cases a place becomes a “Hard Place” because we ignore the beauty of earth and focus solely on the ability to produce more goods. It is great to see that there are Organizations that allow cities that lack the ability to produce a garden with a chance to find the diamond in the rough to create a green environment where we can teach our children the importance of being Green and Helping Green. Let’s not forget that education starts at the lowest age group and ends never, since every day we learn something new.

    Moises Ascencion

    • I like your take on “hard places” that we have created, Moises. Time to soften them with lives of human communities in concert with growing things–and art as Lily Yeh did.
      You are right, whether we acknowledge it or not, our carbon emissions are currently tantamount to an outright war on living systems. We need to understand the effects of our actions and take responsibility for them– thankfully, as you also point out, we are capable of continuing to learn something every day. Let us hope that our knowledge grows sooner rather than later.

  148. What an inspiring article. It is fantastic that these communities have a place for people to feel solace. People in poverty have so many things against them, it makes me wonder how many people receive inspiration from these community gardens not only to get out of poverty but to feel a sense of pride in their community. I also wonder how many young lives have been spared by these community gardens. While teens are helping in the gardens they are off the streets, gaining pride in their accomplishments. I am sure this sense of pride helps people gain confidence and peace in other parts of their lives as well.

    It is great to hear how one person can be such a catalist for change. All of these wonderful accomplishments began with just one person and transformed whole communities and beyond.

    • The actions of those in who planted such “roses” in the worst of times are inspiring indeed, Jessica. What a wonderful thing to contemplate– how many young lives have been saved by such efforts.
      The sense of feeling that their actions are essential to their community is vital to those coming to adulthood– something we should give all our young peoples a chance to experience.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • I feel the same way! After reading this article it seems much more possible to make a difference locally with something like a community garden. I feel like the area in Portland that I am from does not have any issues that we need to help the youth get off the street. However, it seems like the benefits are still there and it sounds like a fun way to get involved in the community and get to know your neighbors!

      • Great point, Aakash. One thing that such gardens can counter is the trend of separating neighbors from one another. And given our current burgeoning of human population and denigration of good farmland– not to mention unstable weather and drought, we can use any gardens that grow food to share that we can get.

  149. This was an incredibly inspiring essay. The examples of how ordinary people took steps to better their environment and the lives of others were really amazing. I enjoyed reading how Gardener Robert found small plots all over the city to use for his gardens, and then bartered his goods for other foods. I also agree with the idea that gardens/flowers/trees can be healing to ground that has been the site of destruction. It makes sense to bring that ground back to its natural composition, to its roots, in order to heal; and by doing so it can be therapeutic for those that have suffered or lost loved ones at that spot.

    • Thanks for your comment, Maddy. Such inspiring people as these not only leave us with the profound results of their actions, but model for us what we are capable of.

    • I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on how gardens/flowers/trees can essentially be a way to heal an area that has been greatly affected or destroyed. I agree that it is essential to take these affected areas and revitalize them by bringing back what was originally in place. And bringing it back is not always possible, but trying to save whatever we can is a good start.

  150. This was a very inspiring essay to read because it showed how much of a difference the actions of individuals can make in this world. The examples of the people in this essay showed traits that we should all look to follow. They did not let the present condition of the place affect their view on how much they can really make an impact. A great example from this essay is the story of Lily Yeh. I am absolutely in awe in how she did not let the sight of the condition North Philadelphia deject her. Rather, she used it as further motivation to do her part to improve the area.

    • Hi Sandeep, thanks for your response here. As you note, our personal visions are empowering to us and inspiring to others– if we let them take shape beyond the current conditions of the human world we find ourselves in. And on the latter, I go back to Hegel’s observation that we can be the best of creatures because we can be the best… it is all a matter of choice.

  151. The community of Gaviotas that unintentionally restored thousands of acres of forest was the most interesting from this article for me. It made me wonder how much we could do if we consciously made decisions for our planet. This community was able to do it simply by abiding to their personal principles. This is the key, without society adopting principles that reflect what we want for the earths future we cannot change our practices. I feel there are many people that want to consider themselves “green” or conscious for the environment but they do not truly feel this way, the Gaviotas did and that is what led to such drastic change in the landscape. I don’t know how, but I know that we must find a way to change the mindset and values of the majority to truly change the way our society consumes.

    • You have some great points here, Aakash. To “change the mindset and values of the majority” we must indeed change the way our society consumes.
      It is so powerful to know that communities like Gaviotas exist– just as it is powerful to understand the values of particular indigenous elders. There is so much we are capable of for the good– as indicated by the Greensboro Declaration that you recently responded to here.
      There is much we have to do, but we don’t have to do it alone!

  152. Even a small “rose” can help change people’s lives; it doesn’t matter if they are not in the big cities that block nature out like most of these stories are. I grew up in a town that is all about the great outdoors and everyone has at least one hobby that takes place outside like hiking, skiing, or snowboarding. Even with the love of the outdoors people aren’t necessarily connected to nature. When I was in my teens, we had a family friend who was going through some hard times. She was dealing with severe back pains at the same time that she had lost her job due to the crash in the economy. My mom noticed that she was not doing very well mentally and invited her to come visit our garden. They would sit and talk while my mom was weeding, and after a few days her friend began to help. Even though it can’t have felt good with her back pain, she kept at it. When she knew the difference between a weed and a plant my mom invited her to stop by anytime, even if we weren’t home and to spend time in the garden since she didn’t have one of her own. In the short span of half the summer our family friend began to seem happier and more like herself. By fall she had found a job, had moved to a bigger house with a yard to have her own garden, and claimed that eating the food she had helped grow made her back feel better. Working respectfully with nature is some of the best medicine I know and can turn anyone’s day around for the better. I wonder if anyone has looked into putting community gardens in high crime areas to see if crime rates would go down. It might be worth looking into.

    • This is something to think about, Rachel– that even those with a “love of outdoors” (as in sports) may not be well connected to the natural world.
      What a lovely story in your mom’s use of her garden to facilitate healing for this woman. Actually, there are a number of gardens in high crime areas– as most of the examples here are–and research indicates that more green space in a neighborhood is associated with less crime.

    • what a beautiful story, Rachel. 🙂 I’m glad that your family friend found such peace in the garden. I love visiting mine when I’m down or need some fresh air. Today I found that all of our milkweed (for monarch butterflies) has sprouted new leaves and flowers, and there was a ladybug feasting on some aphids there! We also found TEN tomato plants in the area that used to be our compost pile (we moved it to the other side of the yard) and they look SO happy! It makes me feel good to know that the foods have come from our own little plot of land, and I love sharing it with others. 🙂

      • Wonderful, kristin. We have special reasons to celebrate spring. I knew the monarchs feed off of Willamette Valley milkweed (that is virtually disappearing) but did not know they migrate down to sip it in Florida as well. They DO migrate to a particular place in Mexico to breed, so it is great to have their favorite plants along the way.

    • Your story reminds me of my uncle who is currently watching his wife die of cancer. This is very difficult, and I have noticed he spends most of his free time now in the garden. They moved to a house that is set in front of a beautiful, natural hill, and surrounded by forest. Although my aunt is probably beyond healing, again this is an example of how nature is used to calm and nourish us in difficult times. Perhaps we can look at this hard times as a blessing if they teach us to turn to nature and find the benefits of a partnership there.

      • A very touching family story to share with us, Aften. It sounds like your uncle knows something about spiritual survival–and there is a parallel in your observation about what challenges may teach us in Lily Yeh’s looking for the light to ignite in Ruwanda.

  153. I think of this as a way to repair the damage we cause the earth. I love how these people see, even small plots of land as a chance to improve someone’s life. I have seen Guerrilla gardening in action in my community. I must say that it was the most beautiful thing I has ever seen.
    A man in a apartment complex in front of the railroad tracks decided that in the small piece of land beside the railroad he would plant a garden. He had corn, pumpkin, watermelon, zucchini, tomatoes and much more. It was an amazing thing to see.
    I am happy to know that there is people out there that are willing to take there time to create beauty in these run down communities. They literally bring back life and nature to the impoverished. It is amazing to me that someone can live there life traveling and gardening to survive.

    • I definitely agree that the gardens brings life to the communities. You bring up the point of how people travel and garden to survive. But that is exactly what our ancestors did before the land was industrials. We all come from hunters and gatherers. The idea of gardening and traveling for food has been a part of our lived for a long time. I think that this helps us appreciate the land, and learn to not take more then we need.

      • Thoughtful connections here, Sara. Certainly, we have some ancient parts to our nature that grew up in concert with our adaptation to the natural world that have not been entirely erased by modern living.

    • Thank you for your sensitive response, Laura. It is wonderful that in the midst of human actions that bring death to the natural world, there are those nurturing it back to life as in the case of the apartment dweller with his garden.
      The only issue I would be cautious about is the fact that railroad tracks are often sprayed with herbicides.

  154. I have to say, I smiled at the mention of Gainesville, FL. It is such a quaint and forward thinking and moving place. My brother moved from there last year when he took a job at Google and transferred to San Francisco. Gainesville is such a great place, and it’s true, there are community gardens all around. There is one lot that is near my brother’s old house, that is HUGE, and so carefully tended to and cared for. It was a great inspiration for me, seeing that communities can work together that way. We are very disjointed in the ‘big city’ of Jacksonville where I grew up most of my years. I have been in this small town for a year now, (St. Augustine) and we do have our own land with our own huge garden and all that, but still there is not the sense of community that Gainesville has. I would love to live there, maybe someday.

  155. This past weekend I attended a Scientology service, simply out of curiosity about the religion. After further reading on the subject, I’m not sure I agree with the principles of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, especially after taking this Ecofeminism course. In a book introduction of his, he states how man now has the tools in this modern day to find happiness as he now controls nature and is surely now able to control himself. As a burgeoning ecofeminist, this doesn’t align with my ideas, but I saw that the people in the Scientology church I attended are very happy and have clearly found something that motivates them and excites them in life.
    This is just a background to my point, which comes from when I met a member of the church who is one of the primary leaders. He is a muslim and scientologist with many business accomplishments under his belt. We discussed the grander topics such as life’s purpose and he asked me what I wanted to do with life to which I replied, ‘art.’
    Even this man, this patriarchal-minded businessman rooted in a culture that treats women as second class, smiled at my response and said it is artists who change the world. Creativity, he said, is the greatest thing a human can do, and that is something I certainly agree with.
    This essay is a wonderful real-life example of this subject he and I agreed on, especially the final part about the artist Lily Yeh who used her artistic creativity to change the shape of North Philadelphia for the good.

    • I certainly agree with your notes on art, Aften– whereas it also seems to me that art is the opposite of the impulse to control.
      My take on the ideas that we can control everything is that it is just the extreme of our cultural idea in that respect: it also is at base egoistic. I can get everything I want by visualizing it only if I am the only one in the world doing such visualizing. What about the needs and desires of the rest of the world?
      On the other hand, if one focuses one’s power on finding one’s path in the midst of life–and being of service in this regard, I am all for it.
      You might be interested to take a look at the essay about beauty that I just posted here– the end speaks of Yeh’s going from Philadelphia to take up bringing beauty to a region of Ruwanda devastated by genocide.

  156. I am from San Jose, in the Bay Area and have seen first hand these gardens. It is so beautiful how in a community full of buildings that seem to be piling on top of each other and cars that never stop moving, that there can be peace in these gardens. When I first saw these gardens when I was a child I was surprised to see the amount of sharing that takes place. Many people are willing to give their fresh grown fruits and vegetables to the homeless or families who are struggling. I think these gardens bring out the generosity in people, at least in my community that I have seen.
    I think that nature is constantly trying to push its way back through our industrialized cities. I have been walking down the streets of downtown and through a crack in the sidewalk the tiniest flower is pushing its way through to the surface. That proves that no matter what we do to rid this land of the beautiful nature that once covered every surface, that nature is fighting back. These plants are strong and they want to be seen. To me that is a metaphor for the struggles we go through in life, but we always get back up. We can relate nature to any part of our life because we come from it.

    • Thank for adding some lovely personal details to the sketches of urban gardens in this essay. I find much hope in the way that such gardens, as you observe, bring out our generosity and capacity to share.
      Do you know the Malvina Reynold’s song, “God bless the grass (that grows through the cracks)”. The lyrics on much in line with your second point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRxvaVhVN7A.

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