My name is Alex Smith, and I am a new student of sustainable agriculture.
Like most of us, I grew up hardly thinking about where and how my food was grown. Over the years, though, food has started to play a bigger and bigger role in my life and how I think about the world.
Maybe this change began when I started to learn about the essential roles that agriculture plays in social and environmental justice (and injustice). Or maybe my focus on food has grown because my most peaceful and happy moments tend to come when I’m working in the garden.
Whatever the reason, I have set off on a journey to explore the theory and practice of sustainable agriculture, here and around the world. As a contributor to this blog, I hope to share some of what I learn along the way.
Community Gardens: Bringing People Together
For the past two seasons I have volunteered in a community garden, where a handful of people come together every week to dig in the dirt. I have gotten to know a lot of my neighbors this way – sharing stories and gardening tips as we harvest kale or turn compost. Since the garden where I work (Crestmont community garden in Bloomington, Indiana) is in a neighborhood where a lot of families live, it is also a great place for kids to come in contact with nature.
Young people will grab raspberries or tomatoes and run around on the narrow woodchip paths. They will notice the multitude of creatures crawling in a wheelbarrow full of compost, or butterflies and bees visiting flowers, or the way that soil smells and feels just after rain.
While we do grow a fair amount of food, much of the value of the garden seems to be in the connections that people make there – hence it really is a community garden!
Small Surprising Details
In another sense, the community aspect of any garden goes beyond the people who work and play there. In ecology, a community refers to the total collection of organisms that interact with one another in a particular place.
Vegetables and flowers that we plant are only a part of the garden community. It also includes weedy plants, insect herbivores that nibble the leaves, their predators (mostly birds and other insects), a host of microbes, fungi, and invertebrates that decompose dead matter in the soil, rabbits that much on the lettuce at night, and people, too.
When we garden, we participate in an intricate system of interaction between different creatures. We shape this system, digging beds, planting and harvesting, deciding how many weeds to allow, but it also shapes us.
I can’t think of a single time this summer when I did not leave the garden feeling somewhat changed, with new eyes for the small surprising details of the world.
The Community of Living Things
Of course, our lives are always shaped and facilitated by the lives of other creatures.
All the oxygen that we breathe is the exhalation of plants around the world. We owe our fresh water to the capacity of wetlands and forest streams to filter out impurities. The stability of the climate depends on a delicate balance of factors, from dead plant matter locked in permafrost in the arctic to vast colonies of blue-green algae floating in the South Pacific.
But there is a difference when we step into the garden. Suddenly, these vast webs of life that we depend on every day come out into the open, where we can see, touch and taste them.
I feel that every time I step into the garden, I am re-introducing myself to the community of living things.