If ever there was a time for gardens that time is now. In this time of global meltdown and anxiety there can be no finer remedy than that of returning to the earth. Gardening provides a hands-on therapy because it is one of the few remaining outlets for those of us who feel increasingly powerless in the face of corporate forces which threaten to overwhelm us daily by trying to convince us that we do not exist.
Consider this: just the act of entering a supermarket can be soul-destroying. The atmosphere is more like entering a casino than a food store. While we are being bombarded constantly with advertisement encouraging us to buy-buy-buy at ever increasing prices, we have less and less knowledge of where the various items on these shelves have been shipped from and when. The only area of the grocery store that has anything which is in anyway good for us is the area of fruits and vegetables. Anything in a can or frozen is suspect. All the colors have been artificially added and the expiration dates are barely legible. The chickens have never seen natural sunlight and have spent their entire brief lives in factories as much controlled by light bulbs as the workers who mind them. The cows have never eaten grass and may even have been fed on each other in some form or other. It is only the fruits and vegetables that have maintained their natural color, and yet we have no idea either what pesticides have been sprayed on them or how long they have been preserved for us. Only when you grow your own and follow the process from earth to table are you really safe. Added to this is the incredible feeling of pride to know that what you are eating is the product of your own labor.
The last time that Victory Gardens were being planted was Eleanor Roosevelt’s time; and it was an excellent affirmation of her husband, the president Franklin Roosevelt, and his sense of optimism for the country after the depression. Now Michelle Obama is growing organic green gardens on the White House lawn. She should be commended for her example. To see her and her children actually go out and dig a garden is a tremendous example for the country. Firstly it is an activity which can keep a family together. It is amazing how few children, especially urban children, have ever seen vegetables or fruit in any form other than either canned or on a shelf. Even in the South, the percentage of farmers has been reduced to only one third of what it was fifty years ago. Agri-business has swallowed up small farmers. And what then has been the result of this loss of land and deforestation? Not just urban blight but a tremendous increase in disease as well. Children are increasingly obese and diabetes is becoming more and more prevalent. Fifty years ago, childhood diabetes was almost unheard of; now, it’s the norm. It is not just the quantity of food that we eat — it is the quality.
Another important aspect of gardening is the sense of hope. You put something, namely seeds, into the earth in the belief that you’ll see something result from this effort. Not of course absolute certainty but at least the hope, the expectation that something will come of it. The very act of planting is therefore life-affirming. For black Americans especially, the garden has a particular significance. The garden provided the provisions which might well mean the difference between life and death for a family — during slavery and even after emancipation. During slavery, even the more benign slave owners did all they could to economize when it came to providing food for their slaves (George Washington for example was always frugal when it came to feeding and clothing his slaves at Mt. Vernon; he allowed them a garden and a few chickens but limited their poultry lest the slaves were able to sell their produce and possibly earn money enough to eventually buy their freedom). Even after emancipation, the problem was the Jim Crow laws which would tax small farmers out of existence.
At what point does a garden become a farm? When you feed more than yourself and your immediate family. A garden is a source not only of nutrition but of identity. The quality of your produce also defines you.
One segment of society especially in need of both nutrition and identity are the incarcerated. Prisoners are woefully neglected when it comes to diet. Prisons are a haven for junk food and of course the junk food industry. You would not believe the amount of money made from coin-operated vending machines in these facilities. The prison diet at best is massive carbohydrates augmented with sweets and powdered substitutes. The most difficult thing for those incarcerated is to obtain any fresh vegetables. These cannot be gotten from the canteen at any price. A family member may send a candy bar in a package but not an onion or a carrot. I find it interesting that they may send the latest sneakers but absolutely nothing of any nutritional value to an inmate. Why don’t the powers that be allow gardens? A garden in any prison facility allows much needed healthy and rewarding exercise as well as a remedy for the malnutrition which results so often in dental agony. (This is usually the first visible sign of incarceration). A green garden would supply a much needed sense of responsibility as well. Many prisoners take up food collections (that is to say that they contribute to food pantries by way of churches). I have seen this at Sing-Sing Prison as well as Green Haven in Connecticut at the time of the Hurricane Katrina outreach.
Now, every culture has a creation story as part of its history. This creation story always has some mention of a garden to signify some perfect time. In this Garden there was no death. People lived forever and there was no hunger. These stories can be found in Africa as well as Asia and the Middle East. There follows some form of violation, either a refusal to obey some law or a betrayal of trust, which results inevitably in the expulsion from this Garden, be it Eden or wherever, because this story is not merely Biblical but universal. What is interesting is that it’s only after the expulsion from the Garden is man forced to struggle and attempt to fend off death and all the elements which threaten to annihilate him. In other words, he is forced to try and transcend himself and his circumstances. While we were in the Garden we were still in the womb and now we are in the womb no longer. We have all of us become aliens because we’ve been cast out, but who is more cast out and dispossessed than the incarcerated?
To enter prison is to lose even the right to your name. It is for this reason that a number is assigned and the individual is made to relinquish all rights to identity and become, in effect, “a package.” A package may be shifted about at will. Moved arbitrarily from facility to facility without any advance warning. How therefore can a package transcend itself and become human? I think the answer may be found in the garden.
What can give a person a greater sense of worth than to know that they are actually still able to contribute something to society despite being incarcerated? Learning to tend a garden provides not only a form of release but an inspiration and a useable skill as well for the future. Indeed, to tend a garden is to know that there is still such a thing as a future.
To paraphrase Voltaire the French philosopher and satirist, all we can do in the end is tend our garden, for even a slave while he tends his garden is not a slave but a gardener.
Every garden is therefore a victory.
Edgar Nkosi White is a playwright.