By Madronna Holden
“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?
Filed under: Ecofeminism, Environmental psychology, Health and healing links, Hope and vision, Working for justice, worldviews | Tagged: Environmental psychology, gardens and hope, Gaviotas, Lily Yeh, urban gardens, Willow Rosenthal |