By Paul Myers
–Piece originally published in the Gibsons Farm Collective newsletter–
My father grew up poor in southside Chicago, a clapboard housewith no insulation, and rail tracks out back where the freight trains rolled past on their way to the Blue Island Yards. Like many, his family appropriated a small plot off the siding there to eke out some vegetables, and to keep a few hens. Today we might call it “urban guerilla gardening”, but in the meagre 1930’s it was perfectly normal behaviour. Everyone did it, or at least, everyone poor did. As a child my Dad worked that rank, oily soil, and though he hated chores, the soil did what soil does: it went into his skin.
Then came Abundant America. Giddy with victory, flush with resources, beguiled by prosperity. And the concrete trucks came and made freeways, and suburbia was born. The pull of ‘more, better, and bigger’ became inexorable. Food gardens gave way to more lawns, fringed by a regimented brew of ornamental foliage, incongruous and - save for eye appeal alone – without function: Pampas Grass beside Ajuga beside Viburnum beside Jade Plant beside Mock Orange. That’s how I grew up, a kid on a Schwinn bike riding over fresh blacktop, past yards festooned in green bling.
My Dad bought in to the prevailing doctrine of the times. But, just like all of us, he never really sloughed his roots altogether. Or rather, the dirt never really got out of him. So we had lawns, but we also had vegetables. As a child, I did chores in the garden. And, as I would later discover, the soil did what it does. When my father died last year, at age 93, his body was completely expended. But all around his home – lawn long since be damned – he had vegetables growing.
My partner Dawn’s story is similar: a love for a garden that came from her father. This is the story of nearly all of us, in fact, because this is how life once was, not so long ago. When our mothers and fathers (city folk, country folk, no matter) got their nails messy, grew a bit of food. When they saw seedlings grow, blossom, and fruit. When they harvested and served. They experienced this everyday joy, and had a measure of food sovereignty too. We don’t need to reach back far to find a farmer/gardener in everyone’s lineage. It was not so long ago.
I, for one, believe it is also not so far from returning. Look closely at your hands. I’m venturing it is just beneath your skin.