On Saturday afternoon Mary and Joan (and Davin, of course) came by and helped us clean up hundreds of cigarette butts, several broken bottles, the bamboo fence we built two seasons ago that had been literally and purposefully kicked in inch-by-inch along its entire length, a bag full of miscellaneous garbage, concrete dust left by City workers and three big bags of garden waste.
By Sunday morning the garden had acquired some new garbage and a broken bottle. By Sunday night there was a large, dead, potted palm, 6-8 cigarette butts from the neighbors, and the garbage bag full of waste that we had picked up only the day before had been dumped back onto the garden. Whomever did it took the garbage bag with them.
I’m enraged. I’m heartbroken. Actually, neither of those words are accurate. I’m beyond both. The last few years trying to tend the garden amidst what is happening in this neighborhood has been like fighting a war. I can’t fight this war anymore. It is too painful. And I know now that I can never win.
When Joan and Mary showed up to help yesterday carrying with them their enthusiasm, good cheer, and two delicious salads made by Mary, it was very heartening. A neighbor named Barry also stopped by and gifted me a bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) from his garden. I love bloodroot. It all felt good. It felt like both myself and the garden were cared for by a community. If they had not been there to share in the labor, I would have picked up all of that garbage along with another helping of bitterness and resentment.
The other day, while laying on the proverbial couch bemoaning more troubles with the garden my therapist (who is also a gardener) said, “A garden can feel like your own body. When someone attacks it, it feels like they are throwing up on you.”
Perhaps that will read as dramatic to many people but it is the truth of my experiences as a gardener. I put myself into it. I’ve tried not to. I’ve tried to detach. It doesn’t work. And even if I could somehow manage to remain emotionless about the act, the fact is that I don’t want to experience gardening in a detached way. I’d call that landscaping.
From the moment I put my shovel into the ground so many years ago, I became responsible for that space. I care about that little patch of land and what happens to it. I don’t think that was ever my original intention, but it is what happened. For me, gardening is an emotional experience and a complicated exchange. When I work in the garden I nurture, I care, I feel, and in return I am nurtured, I nurture myself and I work through my troubles; a relationship develops. I unintentionally set down roots.
Unfortunately, in a neighborhood like mine, this has come with a price. Depending on what is done to the garden it can feel like the perpetrators are literally puking up their utter disregard and trash on me. At other times it feels like they are throwing all of their own self hatred, guilt, shame, and inner turmoil at me. Two summers ago, when someone very purposefully flattened a patch of plants with their feet, I could feel the rage that went into that act. I could feel the anger and pain and hurt. When passersby throw trash and allow their dog to poop without picking it up they are saying, “I don’t care about anything, myself included.” When the people who live directly over top of the garden continue to throw their cigarette butts into the garden, especially after it was so obviously cleaned up by their own neighbor, it is like they are whispering in my ear, “We are so invested in our self-loathing, we can’t see what is in front of our eyes.”
When people dump their diseased and used potting soil onto the garden, it feels like they are assuaging their guilt. When they deposit dead, potted plants into or at the edge of the garden I imagine their confession, “I feel badly that I killed this plant but I can’t accept responsibility for it. I need to pretend it is still alive and that you can save it. Here, you be responsible.”
I can’t be responsible anymore. And that was partly why I asked for help. Cleaning up the garden as a group, as a caring community, lifted some of the burden of what lay at the heart of the acts that went into destroying it from off of my shoulders and heart.
Experiencing these assaults on the garden over and over again makes me angry and filled with rage. But knowing what lies beneath the assaults makes me sad. It hurts. I am not impervious to pain. And I don’t think I can continue to set myself up for it anymore.
Before I go on, I need to be clear that what’s happening with the garden isn’t normal. I’ve been gardening that little patch of land for 10 years, and while there has been garbage thrown, some things destroyed, lots of thieving, and a bit of weirdness, what happened then could never touch what has been going on over the last 2-3 years. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 14 years, and I have watched it change. At first I could attribute an acceleration in violence being perpetrated against the garden as the result of the turmoil being experienced in the neighborhood at large as the effects of increasing and accelerating gentrification took hold. But then the bars went in. This part of the neighborhood is turning into the new club district and the people coming in experience the neighborhood as their personal playground rather than a place where people live. They just don’t give a shit. And many of the street people and disenfranchised who live here are being displaced. And they are angry. Rightfully so.
I think there is a lot that can be said about the fact that when I moved into this neighborhood it was considered dangerous and bad. The “bad part of town.” The other side of the tracks, literally. And now that it is cool and hip and “good” it has become a terrible place to live. That “bad” neighborhood had its problems, but it also had a sense of community and caring that thrived underneath the so-called bad.
Unfortunately, the garden has become a target, something to vent on. Gardens can mean a lot of things depending on where you are coming from and how you look at it. Or don’t. Because unfortunately, many people are so screwed up that anything beautiful can feel like an affront or have so little disregard that they are simply blind to it. As I said before, I can’t disconnect myself emotionally from what I put into the garden. And as a consequence I feel it all. Continuing to try and garden through this feels like I am playing a hand in my own abuse. It’s like I am standing on the street and waiting to be spit on.
Yesterday was the first day of the garden’s year. Hardly 12 hours had passed before new damage was done. Not 24 before a total assault.
After 10 years digging the garden, building the soil, putting in plants, taking out plants when the City decided they wanted to put in a garden, putting plants back in when the City decided they didn’t want to put in a garden, replacing destroyed plants, replacing broken fences, spending my own hard-earned money, wasting hundreds of hours of my own time, picking up shit, filth, garbage, etc.; I am done.
I tried my best. I don’t own this space and always knew that I would have to make my exit eventually. It hurts to walk away from it in this way, having been defeated and feeling like I’ve failed on multiple levels.
Walking outside to that scene tonight was the breaking point. It is finished.