Monday, March 15, 2010

The Proliferation of Urban Gardens

When I was writing Sacred Land, I was on the bus one afternoon, staring out the window. I've never been able to read on a moving vehicle. So I stared and let my thoughts roll by with the scenery. An empty lot between two buildings just begged for green and growing things. It screamed Plant a Garden Here. This lot and my thoughts on the book gave me this vision of every empty lot, every roof top, every yard as a garden. Flowers, herbs, and mostly vegetables and fruits. I wrote Sacred Land with this vision in mind. What would a world be like where we grew half our own food? Where instead of meeting at Starbucks we could meet at a friends' garden to sip mint sun tea? Where parking lots of abandoned malls were bulldozed to grow food?

My idea is not new. I learned from the fantastic book I'm reading, Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, that in Detroit in response to the depression of 1893 the mayor helped people to set up Pingree Potato Patches where the unemployed and indigent grew food on abandoned lots all over the city. Exactly! And then during the world wars such programs existed again, most famously the Victory Gardens of WWII. After the depressions and wars end, though, we go back to the supermarket and let the lots go abandoned once again.

Why? Why do we only cultivate urban farms if we are crazy counterculture freaks or during times of war and economic depression?

Joanna Macy writes in her article "The Greening of the Self" that "What looks like apathy is really the fear of suffering." We have become, as a culture, apathetic about our food. About farm workers. About the land and the subtle and exquisite balances of ecology in relation to agriculture. Why should we care about such things when we can get a tomato from the supermarket any time of the year? Because really growing tomatoes is hard. You have to know what you're doing. And you have to wait until August, and then you have to preserve or give away all the extras you don't get to eating. Working a garden plot takes knowledge and work.

Ah, but the rewards. I can hardly buy a supermarket tomato. I have tasted the real thing. Same with lettuce, arugula, parsley, spinach... the list goes on. I know that not everyone loves digging in the dirt. But most people love the feel of the sun, the call of birds, and the joy of harvesting an egg or a carrot from the source. These joys are very truly possible even in the city. Even from a condo. For a banker or a paraplegic or a dancer or anyone.

Plant something for yourself this year. Even if it's a single basil plant. Or a whole farm! See what happens in your world. In your heart. We can change the world one garden at a time.

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