Gardening for the planet, and for the soul

Community gardens reveal a need for focus and connectedness

October 06, 2011|By Nina Beth Cardin

In 1906, as the world's farmers began streaming into the cities, Jules Meline — former prime minister and twice minister of agriculture of France — wrote "The Return to the Land," to "convince the world that the return to the land, and to the work which the land still offers" was the surest way to mitigate the troubles that increased technology, and increased consumer desire, were bringing.

Coincidentally, in 1909, Bolton Hall, a New York lawyer, social activist and the father of the "back-to-the-land" movement in the United States, published "The Garden Yard," a beginner's guide for the urban gardener. "A farm is the only proper home," he writes. And with an earnest amount of work, he believed, every home could be a garden, and every garden a "farm." Meline and Hall were two passionate, emblematic voices seeking refuge and redemption in the Earth and soil from a world running headlong into the seductive arms of industry.

One hundred years later, the United States finds itself called by another back-to-the-land movement. We see it best in the burgeoning community gardening phenomenon. Baltimore Green Space, for example, a dynamic local land trust, assists groups of neighbors who wish to protect and preserve their nearby open spaces and turn them into fruitful gardens.

The Community Greening Resource Network (CGRN), a joint program of the Parks and People Foundation and the University of Maryland Extension service, has 150 community, school and family gardens attached to it. Dozens of congregations, neighborhood and apartment associations and plain folks of all ages are getting down on their knees to turn and feed and mix and coax the soil to release its earthy fertility and blessings.

Advocates explain that community gardening promotes healthy communities, makes fresh food available where it is often scarce or too costly, strengthens community bonds, reduces food-miles traveled, provides recreational and therapeutic opportunities, reduces impermeable surfaces, assists in stormwater management, and preserves open spaces. All of which is absolutely true. And laudable. And enough to justify all the effort.

But I wonder if these explanations, while good public policies, are the true motives that cause thousands of people to get off their sofas and out of their houses to work in the dirt week after week. I think there is something more personal than all that.

Gardening brings this overwhelming world of ours, with all its complexity and speed, demands, innovations and troubles, down to a manageable size. Gardening, while not easy or predictable, happens right here, slowly, before our eyes, in our neighborhoods, according to nature's patient schedule, with our own hands, in nothing more complicated than water and dirt. The world is reduced for the moment to this one task, this one place, this one hope: that our garden grows. We become both actors and supplicants; hosts of the seed and guests of the harvest.

This intimacy in gardening becomes for us an act of contrition. We know we are harming this Earth, each of us — even we, the good people — if not personally by what we make and use and toss, then indirectly by what we purchase and consume. We cannot help it. No amount of personal choice can help us avoid living within a system that has not yet been appropriately transformed. So mea culpa, we know we are guilty, and we instinctively respond by doing penance, asking forgiveness and hoping that our acts of gardening compensate in the end for the harm we cannot avoid.

Years from now, historians will write about this curious blossoming of community gardens, this century's urgent, urban return to the land. They, too, will speculate on what might have caused it. We can tell them we did it as much to heal our hurting souls as to heal a hurting world.

Nina Beth Cardin, a rabbi, lives on a wooded lot in Baltimore, where she salvages downed branches and limbs for her wood-burning stove. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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