Making Eating Public

I first heard the term “guerrilla gardening” when I was living in Providence, Rhode Island. A good friend of mine was working for the Southside Community Land Trust there, helping on their various farms and running their weekly farmers market. He used to make seed balls with sunflower seeds and top soil, packing them into tight dark little knots. Then he would ride around the city tossing the balls of dirt into abandoned lots.

A few weeks ago Boing Boing pointed out two guerilla gardening projects. I was interested that both projects were by “artists” and were considered installations or art pieces. The first project was by a “Toronto street artist” called Posterchild who has been building small flower boxes and attaching them to telephone poles. The other artist was planting mini gardens in potholes throughout Tijuana, Mexico. Both projects inject a bit of nature into the city, but both seem somehow removed or somehow without purpose.

I don’t really mean that as a critique. I like both these ideas and would love to see other similar efforts in large and small cities alike. I fully understand the potential for projects like this to raise awareness, and appreciate that not all art need to have a “purpose” beyond ideas. However, these two projects, and my friend’s seed tossing in Providence, suggest other possibilities that I have been pondering.

At the café where I was sitting when I wrote this there is a telephone pole and at the base of it weeds had pushed through the sidewalk. To my right there was a planter filled with bright flowers. On a nearby rooftop saplings reached up towards the drooping sun. Vines crawled up the brick building across the street.

What if those crawling vines bore green beans and snap peas? What if this planter held tomato plants, basil, and leeks? What if those rooftop saplings were apple trees and the weeds bursting through concrete were corn?

I am not saying we should replace all the flora in a city with vegetable plants and fruit trees. And I realize that what I am imagining would run into all sorts of issues in terms of soil quality, growing conditions, and such. But let’s put that aside for a minute and just see where this train of thought might lead.

So often our food is grown behind closed doors. This is especially true of industrial agriculture, but also mostly true of CSAs and individual’s gardens. Our CSA grows its food in fields tucked back off the road, and is itself a kind of ‘exclusive’ club, open to those who can pay. Even people’s individual gardens tend to be back behind the house, through a fence or hedge. Why do we hide our gardens away?

This summer our next door neighbors planted a fantastic garden outside their house. They stacked up old tires, and lined up big buckets, filling them all with soil. I have seen them out there often, tending to the plants, watering them, checking the fruits and vegetables. Each morning when I walked my dog, I peeked under the tomato plant to see how they were growing, I peeked through the big green leaves and yellow blossoms of the squash vines and tried to spot ripe ones. I enjoyed watching my neighbors toil over their garden and appreciated that they were enriching the neighborhood by putting their garden out front.

We tend to wear our politics on our sleeve as bumper stickers, buttons, tee-shirts, ribbons, and even those colorful rubber wrist bands. Why then, is food such a private matter? What if we proclaimed out diet like we do our politics? I make my own pickles! I grow my own corn! I bake bread! I eat organic!

I feel lucky to have seen my neighbors growing their own food. I feel like a witness to a few people trying to do things a little different. Seeing them with their public garden, built out of cast off buckets and old tires, made me want to grow more of my own food. It inspires, it teaches, it makes eating public. And I think there is immense value in that.

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