Urban Insistence

It’s often the case that a poem or a piece of art or a book review finds its way into my inbox; not nearly so often that I repost it. This is a powerful, imaginative piece of writing, and by way of confession, I wish I had written it. (Still, the introvert in me most likely wouldn’t have been able to perform it.) I am grateful to Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoi for writing it, and at least as grateful to my Courage and Renewal colleague Larry, for making sure I saw it.

This is the time of gardens – in this part of the world anyway – and because Jim and I have more than doubled our garden capacity this spring and summer, I’ve got gardens on my mind (and on my aching back). As this is our first permaculture experience (permaculture philosophy and practice has exploded throughout New Hampshire) I am as interested in what the insistent impulse to grow does without benefit (or harm) of human intervention as I am in a garden with intention.

In my most recent book, I included a description of an urban community garden, my first experience of such an adventure. It was years ago, yet the experience is as fresh as though it were yesterday. Rather than put it among the other excerpts from the book, I am including it here.

Years ago, the people of two neighborhood churches partnered with elected district officials and neighborhood activists to organize what became a successful community garden in a rough Seattle neighborhood. Unlike some, this garden had no personal ownership, and its rules of protocol—suggested by its organizers—were simple. First, each household that ate from the produce over the course of the growing season was required to work in the garden; that included children as well as elders who were able. The garden was situated on the grounds of a three-tiered assisted living home owned and operated by one of the churches, and a number of the residents contributed regularly to its tending. Second, we were asked to harvest only what we needed for the day. “We want you to keep coming back,” was the explanation given. This was as much about the community gathered as it was about food; people had to come back every day and talk to one another, work with one another, get to know one another. I was a Metro Transit bus driver at the time, and the garden was located along my daily route. I loved signing out of the bus yard, climbing into my bright red Volvo 122-S, and stopping by on my way home to harvest my home-grown dinner.

Finally, we were asked that we not take all or even the last of any particular delightful thing that had weathered the grey days, the exhaust from the cars and buses. The last of the harvest would be shared among all of us.

We honored these commitments for the most part, with no policing of any kind, without censure of anyone. On the day we harvested the last of the vegetables of the season and prepared the soil for its winter rest and spring planting, we wanted to celebrate. “We get to eat the rest of this now, right?” asked one of the residents of the home whom we had dubbed “the hoe-man.” It was a great idea, and we, the motley crew, set up tables, chairs, and blankets on the front lawn under the shade trees whose leaves were just starting to turn.

There was an abundance of food! But this was not the most important part of the celebration. In response to an inarticulate and certainly not uniformly conscious understanding about the gift of harvest and the life-sustaining qualities of the fruits of the earth, sun, and rain, we were moved instinctively to celebrate in a sacramental way. No one told us how to do it, but we figured it out; it was second nature.

This was my first experience with what I now call the intersection of church and not-church; as I had been not-church for many years, it was also my first experience with people of churches. The celebration evolved in an organic kind of way. The Presbyterian Home provided us with a home-baked loaf of bread and a very large stein of wine. We also had juice. And, heaped on the table we had dragged out from the wraparound porch were cucumbers, tomatoes, foot-long zucchinis, radishes, bell peppers, pole beans, and a few scrawny remnants of broccoli. Without using the language or theology of any faith or denomination, we thanked the earth, sun, and water for their fruits. We told the story of our gardening efforts as a part of—even a small part of—an effort to feed and therefore to better a broken world. We told family stories about love and support, about the importance of this particular gardening community and a growing sense of safety within our neighborhood and our city.

One woman, too young to have a fourteen-year-old son—but she did—said, “It’s the first time Jason has wanted to hang out with me in a long time.”

Some of her friends who knew Jason nodded their heads.

One loaf of bread served about thirty of us that day. As it was passed from person to person, table to table, each of us named the blessing held within the loaf as best we understood it and could speak it. Two of the children sitting next to each other on one side of me took hold of the loaf, glanced at each other, and, as though on cue, shouted the words peanut butter.

A few of the older adults were reticent and awkward, mumbling words quickly through their hands as the bread passed by. They knew the church rules for right behavior; only the priests were allowed to touch the bread. But there was no such rule that day, and there was no question but that peanut butter was a sacrament. The blessings of the children in particular, most of them undertaken with reverent solemnity, broke open our adult hearts with an intensity that we had not expected. By the time the bread came to me, I could hardly speak. We knew what this was about—the bread of life, about the celebration of community, about acts of kindness, generosity, and joy. It was about thanksgiving. It was about the celebration of earth and water and sunlight.

As with so many of our life experiences, this one continued to reveal itself long after the fact. I think back now on what had been a glorious summer, one in which everyone belonged; I try to remember who was in charge and quickly realize that no one was in charge. Or, better said, we were all in charge. We were in charge of the “rules”; we were in charge of the tending of the garden; we were in charge of the celebration. People rose to whatever the occasion demanded. Against the tapestry of my current professional life, it seemed irresistibly easy. No one was ever angry. No one was ever dismissed or diminished. No one person mattered any more or less than anyone else. Leaders arose for the times and occasions they were needed. Today I call it “circular leadership.” At the time, I wouldn’t have had the words, or even the thought; then, it was seamless.

And while I am on the subject of city streets let me recommend a short read called Seedfolks, one of the best, most heartwarming and hopeful descriptions of the collaborative birth of an urban community garden.

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