One early autumn evening in Durham, NC… I’d stopped by the SEEDS community garden just as it was closing. The last remaining staff member, locking up shop at the storehouse, gave me the nod to walk through. She paced impatiently, busily complaining about whatever to whomever on her cell phone, in evident desire to move on with the rest of her modern life.
I wandered through the garden, taking note of the large plot of green veggie varieties thrusting themselves neatly upward in nutrient-rich earth, marked by a sign designating them a destination of hope. Survivors of domestic violence and homelessness had planted here. A dim era wafted through me, a childhood memory of cope, my mother could have been here, watering kale with her tears.
I hurried my way around, taking in little else besides the enormous and bountiful fruit tree. I was curious, what was this tree fruiting so late in the season, summer’s decease urging the arrival of a tardy autumn? I fluttered over to the orange colored fruit, ripening beneath the dark glossy leaves, tempting me.
I felt the sudden arousal of erotic novelty. The plump, sultry persimmon. I reached out, ready to pluck, and then paused, remembering the pacing gatekeeper. While she chatted away on her phone, I contemplated the ethics of my urge to take the fruit. If she’d have been unoccupied and if I’d arrived during normal business hours, which would have warranted at least some obligation to be infotained by garden staff, I would have simply asked to pick one. She might not have noticed anyhow. But then, would I be an average fruit-stand thief, pilfering the bounty of “privately-owned public space”?
Was snatching one firm fruit, not yet ripe, but plump with color, a violation of the code of community gardens the world over? Or was it my natural human tendency, the undying err of Eve rising up, with great audacity and entitlement to the fruits of the earth? Was this the lesson of the biblical myth? I walked on and, replete with the patina of temptation, exited the garden. I would be back, surely, excited by the thrill of mythical imagery.
This is the draw of the garden to my city-slicker self, the call to an unearthed, or rather earth-repressed self. I’d grown up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a place not unlike Durham, NC where I presently study. Baton Rouge is another post-rural metropolis pocked with car-friendly suburban malls, the luxurious relics of a faded antebellum past and the shotgun houses inherited by the descendants of slaves and modern migrants.
Despite the green lawns ever-present in my youth, despite my grandmother’s pastoral childhood, despite the blackberry patch wildly consuming the juniper bush near our driveway, the act of cultivating land to bare food was never a brief thought in my adolescent mind.
As a teen, I became fond of my mother’s tiny box plot in Manhattan, or rather I became fond of her fondness for it. Yet, whenever I went to visit the garden with her, I simply sat reading near the manicured roses rather than getting my hands dirty. The plot, I felt was simply symbolism of the desire for a lawn, and certainly a house to match, which never materialized for my single, working-class mother of four in the income draining New York City. Still, her claiming that small piece of community land was valiant and meaningful.
Later in life, as an adult New Yorker, without the slightest ache for suburban life, I tumbled into my yearnings for the eternal garden, the flora of fruiting wisdom.
The sprouting desire broke ground in East New York, then, by most accounts a rough and tumble wasteland on the very edge of the Borough of Brooklyn.
Friends in a collective house had volunteered themselves to help a local lot keeper rehab the community garden. It was a noticeable attempt at greening in a rather shrugged-off area of inner-city. These were not just any gentrifiers, they were activists. Working with youth in the area was a matter of personal pride, not a novelty of volunteerism. Teenagers needed engagement, the lot needed work, the activists needed purpose.
I stopped in haphazardly summer after summer, planted strawberries, composted, pulled ripe squash, and watched the garden bloom. My yearning for original food took root.
Without understanding the dynamics of farming, could I ever really comprehend the integrity of the things I ate? Could I ever relate with authenticity to the farmers who fed me? Could I know God if I didn’t know biodynamics?
This questioning and a career crisis led me to Costa Rica in 2010, a top destination for many such personal inquiries among the privileged first world, early and mid-career professionals. There, I farm-hopped, so to speak. I familiarized myself with mud and bugs and chicken poop nitrates. I learned basic Spanish. I learned that I could genuinely appreciate the pastoral life, if ever I needed. Most essentially, I learned that gardening could be way to honor to my earth-bound ancestors, redeeming a relationship to the land that has been traumatized by slavery, subsistence, migration, and industrialization.
It was a good thing too, because my next visit to SEEDS, the Durham community garden, opened with a background check…
 Lefevbre writes of the codes that define social spaces. “If indeed spatial codes have existed, each characterizing a particular spatial/social practice, and if these codifications have been produced along with the space corresponding to them, then the job of theory is to elucidate their rise, their role, and their demise.” (Pg. 17 ) The codes of the community garden grapple with a tension between the perception of nature’s abundant productivity (a public good), and the results of private effort (thus proprietary and restricted). SEEDS has confronted this inevitable tension by planting a streetside garden where neighbors and passersby can pick from the edibles without criminalizing their curiosity, need or enjoyment.