As the sunny days signal for Summer’s entrance, my year abroad at the University of Texas will reach its end together with this beautiful Spring season. As I introspect and retrospect, I find that the Spanish proverb resonates harmoniously with my current state of mind. I reaped precious academic knowledge far beyond the confines of the comfortable seeds I had planted within my cautious selection of courses. Long lasting friendships bloomed in places that could otherwise have been left infertile. New cultural understandings and mutual enrichment surprisingly hatched out of what appeared to be daily trivialities. It is shovel in hand, however, as an assistant coordinator for UT’s Concho Community Garden, that I have – both literally and symbolically – harvested the most generous, fecund fruits. Dirt does create gold. I will here dig into the rich soil of experience, and try to unearth – level by level, scoop by scoop – what I have found makes a Community Garden a place (and not merely space,) both invaluable, fragile and worthy to defend.
Community Gardens: pantries for a healthy mind in a healthy body
On the surface, lays the bare evidence: community gardens feed people. They feed affordably, inventively, diversely, abundantly and wholesomely. With its vast ‘up-for-grabs’ community areas and its high-yielding plots – all seeds, tools and assistance included, Concho adheres to this capacity. The first time I pulled a (rather modest) assemblage of carrots, radishes, and swiss chard from the community areas, I was astonished at how nourishing (and delectable) the resulting 3-course-and-zero-dollars-100-%-organic-baptized-by-mother-nature feast turned out to be. Pick it with your own hands, and swiftly concoct the meal by yourself. Know what goes into it, know where it is from, know how it was collected. Add a cup of the labor of love, a copious pint of vitamin D provided by the sun, a sprinkle of rain-water, and a pinch of natural antidepressants contained in soil. This, I discovered, is the recipe for a healthy, cheap and plentiful yield, seasoned with the inebriating and enigmatic sensation of contentment when one “feels at one’s fingertips the possibilities of the new season1.”
What’s Growing, Good Lookin‘? Veggies… and a Community
Time for a confession: when I joined the team in january 2015, I only partially understood what a community garden was. As a German-Algerian student who grew up in France, I had never even seen one. All I knew is that gardening provided me with incommensurable levels of joy and that I preferred to consume fresh and organic produce. A bedrock of cooperative functioning animates the burgeoning of a Community Garden. You grow your own, yes, but you also grow together. In a community garden, things must not and cannot be confined within your own individual plot. By bringing elbow to elbow, and forging a network of apprentice gardeners – each one simultaneously teacher and student of one another – community gardens increase levels of socialization. They do so often in areas where social ties have been lacerated by corroding levels of community atomization – caused by perverse levels of poverty and abhorrent histories of multi-dimensional oppression. And, where I find that well-intentioned ecological ideals have largely remained perniciously narcissistic and impermeable appendixes to a privileged cultural language, I believe that community gardens hold the promise to be a socio-economically positive and culturally inclusive resource rather than an illegitimate invader for those communities. To use a fishing metaphor: the role of community gardens is solely to give out the rod, the empowering know-how, and a spot facilitating interactions with fellow fishers.
The big picture – in honor of ‘Earth Week’.
Our fully-fledged affiliation to the Campus Environmental Center is not coincidental. Concho is a place of dialogue with regards to our common environmental responsibility. In fact, “more grows in the garden than the gardener sows” also sounds like a warning; the consequences of our actions may be more nefarious than anticipated. Concho is a precious green space – inhabited by neatly orchestrated and fragile, but often unobserved ecosystems. Concho approximates the zero-waste closed cycle model, at the best of its capacity: it even harbors its own efficient composting system, rainwater collecting system, and prohibits the use of any chemical inputs. Concho is a not-so-embryonic and not-so-naive alternative to the fast, pre-made, unrecognizable, costly, unsustainable ‘edibles’ on your plate. Concho is part of a movement; one that tills and sweats for the re-local-ization of our agricultural and distributive systems – as a potential, albeit arduous, solution to the world’s food crises.
Now, we are aware that these efforts might not afford profit, glory and numbers – right here, right now. Since the fall of 2014, Concho’s leadership and volunteers have started a large scale renovation of the garden – leveling out the uneven ground, expanding the community areas and building new plots. Our goal therein was to maximize the utilization of the resources and to augment the place’s conductivity to a vibrant community. In february 2015, we however received the puzzling news that tennis courts would be built on Concho’s premises. Our energy thus diverted towards administrative impediments: the precipitated search for a relocation and the drafting of a Green Fee proposal to support the former. The statement was since retracted: tennis courts will not be built in lieu of the garden (at least not in the near future). But Concho, like its fellow community gardens, remains in the loosing position when land use conflicts arise. Countless students, organizations and communities/individuals outside of the University have a vested interest in the preservation of our place. Concho is useful. I wish this evidence were not so easily overlooked. The garden’s very animated essence makes it able to be relocated, as fresh food can and should be grown almost everywhere. Concho is, however, not disposable. I ultimately advocate for a comprehensive inclusion of UT’s Concho Community Garden into the multilateral conversations on the prospective developments of the East part of campus. The reason we have decided it is essential that we speak out as a Garden is to re-insert our voice into the conversation on the worth of the Concho Community Garden. There has thus far been a ping-pong of opinions – from the UT Administration to the Daily Texan – none of which have fully done justice to Concho’s value. So, to each and every one of those people who have listened to my spiels on the garden, who have written articles about Concho, who have reached out as volunteers and veggie aficionados of all creeds: thank you. We need you, and we need our garden.
Alina BEKKA – Concho Community Garden Assistant Coordinator