“We are in an era when gardens are front and center for hopes and dreams of a better world or just a better neighborhood, or the fertile space where the two become one. There are farm advocates and food activists, progressive farmers and gardeners, and maybe most particular to this moment, there’s a lot of urban agriculture. These city projects hope to overcome the alienation of food, of labor, of embodiment, of land, the conflicts between production and consumption, between pleasure and work, the destructiveness of industrial agriculture, the growing problems of global food scarcity, seed loss.”
Excerpted from Rebecca Solnit in “Revolutionary Plots”:
“The second green revolution is an attempt to undo the destructive aspects of the first one, to make an organic and intimate agriculture that feeds minds and hearts as well as bodies, that measures intangible qualities as well as quantity. By volume, it produces only a small percentage of this country’s food, but of course its logic isn’t merely volume. The first green revolution may have increased yield in many cases, but it also increased alienation and toxicity, and it was efficient only if you ignored its fossil fuel dependency, carbon output, and other environmental impacts. It was an industrial revolution for agriculture, and what might be happening now is distinctly postindustrial, suspicious of the big and the corporate, interested in the old ways and the alternatives. This is more than a production project; it’s a reconnection project, which is why it is also an urban one—if we should all be connected to food production, food production should happen everywhere, urban and rural and every topsoil-laden crevice and traffic island in between.
Today, major urban agriculture projects are firmly rooted in Burlington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and dozens of other American cities. Sales of vegetable seeds have skyrocketed across the country. Backyard chickens have become a new norm, and schoolyard gardens have sprung up across the nation and beyond since Alice Waters began Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard Project almost two decades ago. Organic farms and farmers’ markets have proliferated, and for the first time in many decades the number of farmers is going up instead of down. Though those things can be counted, the transformation of awareness that both produces and is produced by all these things is incalculable.
We think more about food, know more about food, care more about food than we did twenty or thirty years ago. Food has become both an upscale fetish (those menus that overinform you about what farm your heirloom ham or parsnips came from) and a poor people’s radical agenda, a transformation of the most intimate everyday practices that cuts across class—though it has yet to include all of us. In 1969, the Black Panthers ran breakfast programs to feed hungry inner-city children, and those children—or rather the children and grandchildren of those children—are still hungry, and the inner city is still a food desert: a place where access to decent food, or even to food, is not a given. But farming has come to the ’hood. And everywhere else.
When I go to colleges like Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, which has a food garden project on campus, I sometimes find myself telling the students that baby boomers in their youth famously had sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, but the young now have gardens. Gardens are where they locate their idealism, their hope for a better world, and, more than hope, their realization of it on the small scale of a few dozen rows of corn and tomatoes and kale. Thought of just as means of producing food, the achievements of urban agriculture may be modest, but as means of producing understanding, community, social transformation, and catalytic action, they may be the opposite. When they’re at their best, urban farms and gardens are a way to change the world. Even if they only produced food—it’s food. And even keeping the model and knowledge of agriculture alive may become crucial to our survival at some later point.
Food is now a means by which a lot of people think about economics, scale, justice, pleasure, embodiment, work, health, the future. Gardens can be the territory for staking out the possibility of a better and different way of living, working, eating, and relating to the world, though by gardens we nowadays mostly mean food-producing gardens, gardens that verge on farms, or small farms that verge on gardens. Projects like Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates antilawn campaign and Michelle Obama’s breaking ground for an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn a couple of years ago make it clear a movement is under way. You can tell that it matters, because the Obama organic garden prompted the executive director of the Mid America CropLife Association to write to its members, “The thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder. As a result, we sent a letter encouraging them to consider using crop protection products.”
The rise of chickens, bees, and other agrarian phenomena in the city means that cities are now trying to craft ordinances to govern all aspects of food production, from backyard chickens and goats to the slaughter of animals raised for food. In Minneapolis plastic hoop houses—greenhouselike incubators for vegetables—have come up for consideration, though some think of them as an eyesore while others consider them useful occupants of vacant lots. Part of what is at stake is redefining the urban environment: do we want to see food produced? There are beautiful gardens; there’s also compost, manure, and other less decorative aspects, including butchery for those who’ve gone for animal husbandry as well as vegetable production.”
“You can argue that vegetable seeds are the seeds of the new revolution. But the garden is an uneasy entity for our time, a way both to address the biggest questions and to duck them. “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks,” famously said the gardener, artist, and provocateur Ian Hamilton Finlay. A garden as a retreat means a refuge, a place to withdraw from the world. A garden as an attack means an intervention in the world, a political statement, a way in which the small space of the garden can participate in the larger space that is society, politics, and ideas. Every garden negotiates its own relationship between retreat and attack and in so doing illuminates—or maybe we should say engages—the political questions of our time.
At its worst, the new agrarianism is a way to duck the obligation to change the world, a failure to engage with what is worst as well as best. In the ambiguously cynical end of Voltaire’s novel Candide, he concludes, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (We must cultivate our garden), which suggests that the garden can be a small piece of the world we can manage and put in order after giving up on the larger world. Certainly neoliberalism has been about destroying the public, privatizing the common, and taking care of yourself.
But you can’t have a revolution where everyone just abandons the existing system—it’ll just be left to the opportunists and the uncritical. Tending your own garden does not, for example, confront the problem of Monsanto. The corporation that developed genetically modified organisms as a way to promote its pesticides and is trying to control seed stock worldwide is a scourge. Planting heirloom seeds is great, but someone has to try to stop Monsanto, and that involves political organizing, sticking your neck out, and confrontation. It involves leaving your garden. Which farmers have done—this magazine documented, some years back, how the wheat farmers of North Dakota defeated Monsanto’s plans to introduce GMO wheat worldwide. But they didn’t do it by planting heirloom organic wheat or talking to school kids about what constitutes beautiful bread or by baking. They did it by organizing, by collective power, and by political engagement. The biggest problem of our time requires big cooperative international transformations that cannot be reached one rutabaga patch at a time.
The fact that gardens have become the revolution of the young is good news and bad news. Baby boomers of the sixties revolutionary variety had their hectoring bombastic arrogant self-righteous flaws, but they were fearless about engagement. The young I often meet today have so distanced themselves from the flaws of the baby boomers that they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction of mildness, modesty, disengagement, and nonconfrontation. (At a recent conference on the Occupy movement, two youngish people in the audience suggested that the slogan “We are the 99 percent” might hurt the feelings of the 1 percent; they wanted a polite revolution that wasn’t exactly against anything and offended no one, which is a nice way to be totally ineffectual.) The garden suits them perfectly because it is a realm of quiet idealism—but that too readily slides over into disengagement or the belief that your activism can stop with the demonstration of your own purity and lack of culpability.
Feeding the hungry is noble work, but figuring out the causes of that hunger and confronting them and transforming them directly needs to be done too. And while urban agriculture seems like a flexible, local way to adapt to the hungry, chaotic world climate change is bringing, we all need to address the root causes directly. Maybe there’s something in the fact that the word radical comes from the Latin for “root”; the revolutionary gardener will get at the root causes of our situation, not just cultivate the surface.
Churchill cast gardening and war as opposites because he saw gardening as a retreat into a peaceful private realm. Our age demands engagement. Gardens like Alemany Farm and City Slicker Farms produce it as one of their crops, while other gardens and food fetishism generally can be a retreat into privilege, safety, and pleasure away from the world and its problems. But gardening and all its subsidiary tasks are sturdy metaphors. You can imagine the whole world as a garden, in which case you might want to weed out corporations, compost old divides, and plant hope, subversion, and fierce commitments among the heirloom tomatoes and the chard. The main questions will always be: What are your principal crops? And who do they feed?”
Watch this video for an interesting example in Detroit, i.e. the Earthworks Community Garden