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Planting a Garden of Ecological Literacy

sara.gladwin's picture

This is a what-if paper. By writing this, I’m asking others to play the believe/doubt game along with me; I ask you to entertain these ideas in their possibilities but to retain a critical eye toward their infeasibilities.

 This paper is propelled by two separate moments. The first occurred in another class during a discussion about ways to ameliorate impoverished urban areas. One of the students in the class brought up the idea of having a gardening class in which people where taught how to grow their own food and could cut the cost of what they have to purchase in stores. This idea met immediate opposition, ranging from feasibility to whether or not people living in urban environments would actually be interested in learning to grow their own food. In addition, it was brought up that many of those same people do not have the space to create their own gardens, let alone the time to maintain those spaces if they did have them. Owning a garden seemed to be primarily attached to the privilege of having time, space and money to cultivate one. While the obstacles to establishing a garden are valid, I became stuck on the idea that having a garden is automatically associated with privilege and economic wealth. The other moment occurred while reading Terry Tempest Williams’s “An Unspoken Hunger.” While I was reading about Williams’s excursions across the country and the continents, I was constantly plagued by the question of privilege. While I did not want to assume in anyway the circumstances behind Williams’ own class and privilege, I could not help but think regardless of how she ended up with the opportunity of experiencing nature, that the average person living in economically impoverished conditions would not be able to afford any of her experiences. I realized that Williams’ call to love nature was one that is almost exclusively available to those who can afford to love nature. Her call to love the earth is not simply “difficult” for some people to do; it is impossible for them to do.

Similarly in Robert White’s article, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do you Work for a Living?” he argues to expose the elitism contained in simply being able to view nature as pleasurable. He discusses the way work and environmentalism are consistently pitted against one another. “Environmentalist so often seem self-righteous, privileged, and arrogant because they so readily consent to identifying nature with play and making it by definition a place where leisured humans come only to visit and not work, stay, or live” (173). Those who labor in the environment cannot afford to see nature as pleasurable. More commonly, nature is dangerous, an obstruction to their income and work. From the perspective of Tempest Williams, the environmental movement then, ceases to be of importance to those who are either the most removed to it or the closest to it. Those who are removed cannot afford to value it, and those who work alongside then are blinded to the “pleasures” nature can offer. However, White also speaks about the ways in which those who work in nature better understand it. They can better speak to the ways in which nature exists as a whole, what White calls a “bodily knowledge of the natural world” (172), not as seen through the lens of pleasure or as sport. Evelyn White, who writes about her own distance from nature, which she views as racially-linked, writes also about her confrontation with nature. In her eyes, nature becomes transformed into something she can have an intimate connection with; something she can appreciate for its beauty as well as terror. Is her exhilaration evidence of the way those who do not have immediate access to nature can also experience nature in a fulfilling way? Is the workers ability to connect deeply with their surroundings and understand the land also speak to a kind of fullness?

As I was reading this Robert White’s essay, I was reminded of my own relationship to the land in regards to skiing. I learned to ski when I was young and developed a relationship with mountains in the winter because of my engagement in skiing. When I see white-capped mountains, I automatically recall and feel a familiar burn in my legs, the warmth of a successful ski run. I can hear the bite of my skis as I carve a path in the snow, knowing if I were to look back I would see the sharp, clear lines of my parallel skis imprinted on the slope. I feel a mixture of pride, awe, respect and love toward each familiar peak. I have been here before. However, when I was young, I could not understand my fathers’ aversion to same mountains I loved. I became a skier because of my mom, whose family could afford to take her skiing often. Similarly, my dad’s best friend in college could afford to be an excellent skier. He decided to introduce my father to the sport of skiing. My father, who came from a vastly different economic situation, had never been skiing before. Having no experience, training or knowledge of how to ski, he blundered precariously down the mountain. His association with skiing became one of fear and shame; fear for his safety and shame in his own inabilities. Was the same fear therefore transferrable to the environment? There seemed to be a clear relationship between having the wealth to afford loving the land, and a relationship between fear and unfamiliarity.

The article “The Multicultural Approach to Ecopsychology” by Carl Anthony and Renee Soule discusses some of the ways in which the environmental movement is racially exclusive and how current relationships with the earth are affected by historical relationships with land. In particular, they focused on slavery, which produced a distinct sense of the environment within slaves, one associated with fear and shame, “The depth of humiliation, the feeling of outrage has totally colored the young men’s perception of that experience of the land, leading to a feeling of detachment and avoidance of emotional engagement with rural life.” They were not simply enslaved to the white man that owned them but also to the land they were forced to tend. While I was reading this, I thought about the stories I had read about and by freed slaves, stories of seeking the more industrialized north. Recalling my now distant history lessons, I could imagine the urban environment becoming a haven and symbol for its possibilities, regardless of how it treated a person once they lived there. I thought about the way many major movements in African American history and civil rights took place in urban spaces, where the most amount of people could come together more easily, voices could be heard in these public, visible places.

One of the stories describes the experience of a European American woman who considered herself racially and socially aware. However, while driving in a deserted area, she experienced a moment of panic when she noticed three African American men running toward her car. She immediately locked the car and sped up for several blocks until she felt safe. It was only later that she realized she had been going to wrong way on the road and that those men had been trying to warn her. This example seems to be, in the eyes of Anthony and Soule, indicative of a larger assumption fostered by fear in an unknown environment. When confronted with making a split second decision in an unknown place, she relied on her instincts. This instance also illustrates the way modern technology is often in opposition to nature. We can “visit” with nature from a distance through a car window; we can experience the environment from the safety of our car. “….lessons of interdependence are everywhere, providing we do not hide behind the glass and steel structures feeling separate and independent.” We can experience nature voyeuristically, on our own terms, unlike Terry Tempest Williams’ suggestions to engage with the land. Similarly, the urban environment itself seems separated from undomesticated, the “wild”. The usual occurrences of nature are generally controlled, either caged or landscaped meticulously. Furthermore, these encounters with domesticated nature avoid being a focal point, blending into the scenery. Instead our eyes are drawn to silver skyscrapers, catching and reflecting the sunlight. Those who use cars in the city often seem even further removed, observing the urban environment from the protection of a car, such as the example in “The Multicultural Approach to Ecopsychology.”

Is the environmental crisis truly one that is racially and class exclusive? It certainly seems like a concern primarily of a middle-upper class society. Consistently, when I read our readings, I feel as though the voice of the lower class, less privileged is missing from the ecological perspective and discussion. This all led me to thinking about the difference between what people think they can afford versus what they may actually be able to afford. Would there be a way to create an economically affordable garden? Is there a way to foster more eco-friendly (“ecological literal”) responses to the environment in people whose experience with the Earth is one of historical shame and fear, or an experience of class-related inaccessibility? Terry Tempest Williams insists this can only come from a direct relationship to the earth, however not everyone has the opportunity and means to develop this relationship in the way in which she describes. Could a garden then be a more economically feasible way for people in urban areas to create this relationship with the earth?

These issues seem frustratingly intertwined with other social justice issues, as shown by the article by Anthony and Soule. Particularly, educational issues seem to have many crossovers with the fight to save the environment. One of the proposed solutions to the ecological crisis is through better involvement of environmental issues in education (Terry Tempest Williams, Aldo Leopold). This still appears exclusive to the communities that can afford to make these educational changes. What about communities with less economic wealth, in which the educational opportunities already are far less substantial? Furthermore, relying on education as a means of changing the way people approach the environment is an impossibly slow task. It may be a necessary one, but cannot be the only one when the environmental situation is one that demands urgency. When considering ideas, I thought about ways in which a community could utilize a garden on multiple layers. About a year ago, I remember learning that buildings that are constructed above a certain height are required to also create a public space.  Through a short Google search, I learned a little bit about setbacks in architecture. A setback is a literal “step” in the outer façade of a building, designed for structural reasons. However, it has also become mandated by building law codes, especially in urban environments, to control the amount of space a building takes up. The New York City Zoning Ordinance is a “setback guideline” which was designed to increase public space when planning city buildings. A setback was mandated at street level, which meant that after a certain height, a building was required to have enough room for a public plaza. What if that public space was instead a garden that people could take from if they spent a certain number of hours a week tending? What if instead of mandating a public space on sole aesthetic appeal, what if that public space was also required to contribute to the people who use it; required to produce something beneficial, such as a garden? Again, however, I was brought back to the initial criticisms to gardening in urban environments, which questioned whether or not a garden would be something that even appealed to people. However, instead of insisting upon a garden, what if the people it is intended to benefit were actually included in the discussions of the possibility of a garden? I came back to the idea of educational changes, and wondered if it would be possible to have schools where gardens were planted… What if tending to the garden was a credit bearing opportunity for students? Interestingly, these proposals seemingly would develop relationships with the earth in ways that are not leisurely but work-related. Student gardening would become a form of “work” for a class, while tending to a public garden would be a way of benefiting from the produce to feed a family. Robert White reminds us that historically, many peoples relationships with the land has been that of work, not leisurely activity.

Anthony and Soule wrote, “Invisibility is one of the main symptoms of denial.” Therefore, in order to develop a love of nature, doesn’t nature have to become less invisible in cities and urban places? Students and people could develop a relationship that didn’t require them to physically distance themselves from their own urban home, but still allow them to have a connection with the earth. While the possibility of a garden in an urban space is still fraught with issues, I refuse to give up on totally on this idea. I think that if implemented in a way that respects the desires of the people it is intended to benefit and in a way that is economically feasible, a garden could provide both; relationship with the earth in the city and an opportunity for productive work.



Works Cited

Williams, Terry Tempest. An Unspoken Hunger. New York, NY: Vintage, 1994. Print.


Thompson, Becky W., and Sangeeta Tyagi. Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.


Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1996. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

What if?

I love your opening gesture: "This is a what-if paper....I ask you to entertain these…possibilities but to retain a critical eye toward their infeasibilities." A reminder of a great strategy for reading all papers!

I very much like, too, the way you bring together not only the ecocritiques of this course (White, Anthony and Soule), but the discussion in y/our other class on socioeconomic privilege and exclusion--in order to explore the likelihood that "having a garden is automatically associated with privilege and economic wealth," that "the average person living in economically impoverished conditions would not be able to afford many of these experiences," that the "call to love nature is almost exclusively available to those who can afford to love nature…not simply 'difficult' for some people…impossible."

Of particular interest and note is your tracing the historical reality that, for many black people leaving the South after the Civil War, it was not rural landscapes, but the "urban environment " which served as "a haven and symbol for its possibilities."

And what I like most of all is your insistence, @ the end, that we not give up on the possibility of  "economically affordable gardens," on more "eco-friendly responses to the environment in people whose experience with the Earth is one of historical shame and fear, or an experience of class-related inaccessibility."

I appreciate, too, your recognition that the proposals you imagine coming to fruition--with "student gardening becoming a form of 'work' for a class, while tending to a public garden would be a way of benefiting from the produce to feed a family"--"would develop relationships with the earth in ways that are not leisurely but work-related."

mturer also explores the relationship between class and environmental action in Culture, Class, and Environmental Closeness. Check it out!