“We’ve got so much butterhead lettuce growing right now, feel free to take some!” My neighbor gestured magnanimously to the raised garden beds shared by the members of my apartment complex located in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. It was a generous offer, as I hadn’t contributed anything to this garden patch. Like I was the lazy dog in a much more forgiving rendition of “the Little Red Hen.” But I didn’t take her up on the offer, in part due to my hesitation to partake of something to which I hadn’t made any contribution. But as I looked at the garden patch I saw dog poop lining the perimeter. I saw cars driving by in the street, exhaust swirling in the air out of their tail pipes. Urban pollution and animal waste conspired together to form a grotesque symphony, a cacophony of contradictions.
The seeds for those plants had likely been purchased in little packets from Fred Meyer, or perhaps even New Seasons. What’s wrong with this picture? Why can’t I just take the lettuce leaves with gratitude, wash them off and make a delicious salad? Until now, this has only been a feeling, an undeniable repulsion that I can’t really place a finger on. But now I’m beginning to understand the many converging forces that create this kind of cognitive dissonance I feel whenever I encounter urban gardening projects.
To be sure, urban gardening can be a wholesome, community-driven exercise. But these urban gardens, despite their purported merits and inclusiveness, are (quite literally) gated communities. There is a bureaucracy that determines who gets access to which plots, and when. And before you’re considered for a plot in any of these communities, you’ll be asked to pay a fee depending on the kind of plot you’d like (https://www.portlandoregon.gov/parks/65821). Getting a basic plot in one of these gardens is relatively cheap (50 square feet will cost you $12) but bear in mind that if you’re disabled, you’ll have to pay more for an “ADA Accessible Raised Bed”. If you’d like to have a large plot to support a large family or community, get ready to pool your resources, because it’ll cost you $100 for 400 square feet.
These urban gardens are widely perceived as a symbol of empowerment—a venue for the common citizen to take back the land and its resources, to care for a living thing that in turn nourishes you and your family with its fruit. But behind this lies the same old mechanisms that have been in place since European colonization began centuries ago. Here we have the State allocating small segments of land and giving them “back” to the citizens (for a fee) in order to give them a sense of autonomy and community. Nevertheless, these gardening communities very much depend on the benevolence of the state and the mechanism of the State’s authority (capitalism) for their continued existence. This is all beginning to sound very familiar, isn’t it?
In “Decolonizing Our Diets By Recovering Our Ancestor’s Gardens”, Devon A. Mihesua admonishes her Native community to break away from modern trends of “convenience food”, a special breed of edible products born from a culture that values quantity over quality. Native peoples living within the illegal occupation known as the United States have been subject to their captors’ diets, and Mihesua goes into great detail discussing the adverse health effects that have plagued Native peoples from different tribes all across North America. Her remedy? Take back the Earth. Garden, stay active, eat healthy food and reconnect with the land that was taken away. Urban gardening is, perhaps, a step in this direction, but I fear it does more to distract from the central issues than remedy them.
In “Rape of the Land”, Andrea Smith addresses this issue more broadly beyond just dietary problems in Native communities. Even the nutrient-rich, wholesome sources of food familiar to Native peoples in various regions have been contaminated and polluted thanks to the careless dumping of toxic waste in “remote” natural areas (i.e. Indian reservations). She pushes even further to suggest that “attacks on nature are also attacks on Native women’s bodies” (referencing the work of Katsi Cook). When we begin to weave the thread between these two pieces together we begin to see a distinct pattern and extended metaphor of this Western separation of humanity from nature, and further, of women from humanity.
Reyna Green’s “The Pocahontas Perplex” illustrates this metaphor quite succinctly. In it, she points out the colonialist view of the Native woman as this hauntingly effervescent, wild creature that is simultaneously self-sacrificial and subservient to the needs of her Western lover. We see here not only a caricature of the Native woman, but an extended caricature-metaphor of the land which she inhabits. When the land is something to be “subdued”, when a woman is property in need of ownership, the heteropatriarchy fills the void. We can only arrive at this juncture if we begin to separate “human” and “nature”, as if the world is some kind of crazy circus and humans are obliged to step in, take control, and run the show.
The difference between urban gardening and what Mihesua is suggesting in “Decolonizing Our Diets”, I think, is that many urban gardeners are doing so as a hobby, rather than as a defiant, radical lifestyle change. Gardeners aren’t growing the rice they cook with their home-grown vegetable stir-fry, though not out of lack of ability or desire. It simply can’t be done with the State-allotted resources (not to mention geographic region, climate, etc). Urban gardeners are growing plants that aren’t indigenous to the land. Urban gardeners are growing tomatoes, canning them, and using them in the winter to make Daal with lentils they purchased with their reusable containers in the bulk section at the grocery store. Under the guise of empowerment and a “return” to caring for the land, urban gardens are operating very much within the comfortable parameters of the capitalist State. They aren’t a lifestyle change, they’re a vacation from urban “reality”. Nature theme parks.
I’m not writing this blog to poo-poo on gardening. My goal here is to take a step back, examine the entire picture, see where we came from and where we have arrived. We still have a problem when it comes to humanity and nature. We haven’t relinquished our control or our efforts to subdue. We can’t even legally collect rainwater runoff for personal use—water is a public utility that must be obtained from the State. Water, the very essence of life, has been subject to human dominion and control. Urban gardening is important, I think, because it serves as a reminder to what it might be like to exist in a state of harmony and gratitude toward the land we inhabit and the food we consume. But we cannot embark on this journey without first knocking down the garden gate and critically engaging its constricting urban forces.