The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
Watching a community garden grow on the site of a vacant city lot is enough to restore one’s faith in humanity. If property strewn with litter and abandoned car tires marks urban decline, then the blossoming of a garden in such a place means that city dwellers are giving priority to outdoor activity and education, nutrition and the sense of well-being afforded by green spaces. In Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks (1997), a work of young adult fiction, the founding of a community garden in Cleveland, Ohio means, above all, that residents of apartment buildings on an underserved city block reject urban isolation and apathy in favor of reclaiming what it means to be members of a neighborhood.
The fictional garden of this book begins not with an organized plan for urban greening, but serendipitously, when a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl plants lima beans in memory of her father in the empty lot adjacent to her family’s apartment building. Her story is the first in a series of interwoven tales about the development of the community garden, told from the perspectives of immigrants and immigrants’ children, as well as African Americans whose families were part of the twentieth century’s Great Migration from the South to the North. Representing countries around the globe, each storyteller has a history and a culture that began somewhere else.
As they find their way to the garden to plant a diversity of crops that represent their own diverse backgrounds— tomatoes, pumpkins, ginger, cilantro, eggplant, Chinese melons and the leafy greens of Jamaican callaloo, as well as colorful spikes of ornamental hollyhocks and snapdragons—the gardeners remember the “seedfolks,” those immigrants or migrants who were the first to put down family “roots” in a new place and who are now honored through the actual rooting of plants. These city residents think back to their youthful days on the farm, or they recall what their elders taught them about farming in the old country.
In some respects, the lush city garden growing between the walls of apartment buildings is an Edenic “paradise,” a word that one storyteller reminds us derives from the Persian for “walled enclosure” and was applied in ancient times to an enclosed palace garden. Then again, the community garden is subjected to some of the unpleasant realities of the city: people argue, vegetables are stolen, someone dumps garbage on the site and the newfound beauty of the place drives up rents in the surrounding buildings.
Ultimately, though, this urban garden testifies to individuals’ ability to work across cultural differences, language barriers and social mistrust to educate one another, work collectively and advocate for themselves with city officials. The gardeners come to appreciate as neighbors people whom they once regarded as strangers. Through the actual common ground of the garden, the people of Seedfolks find the figurative common ground of their humanity.
Carol Howard is dean of the faculty at Warren Wilson College.