Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Land, neighborhood, culture

My garden consists of a number of modified 5-gallon buckets on my rooftop, because I have no yard. Meanwhile, from that same rooftop, I can see two vacant buildings, sitting on two unused lots, right next door. Their only occupants, as far as we can tell, are a cat and several raccoons, the latter of whom occasionally have loud screaming matches on the roof in the middle of the night.

I'm planting in 5-gallon soy sauce buckets with all that land sitting right in view. It's torture.

These parcels of land, by the way, figure prominently in my contingency plan for the apocalypse. Infrastructure just has to last long enough for me to get down the street to Home Depot and buy bolt cutters. The bolt cutters get me inside the fence, and then I cultivate the land heavily to give my family something to live off of, and something to trade with. It occurs to me now that the cultivation might go a little easier if Home Depot were still functioning well enough to sell me some additional tools as well. I'm no doomsday prepper, but I will admit that it has crossed my mind to think about buying a bolt cutter before the apocalypse so that I can immediately put my plan into action, should the world as we know it end anytime soon.*

My first plan for gardening, once I'd seen all the land next door and after I decided that bolt cutters and trespassing were best reserved for the apocalypse, was to use the bits of ground around the abandoned stoop and the piece of soil that juts into the sidewalk (what may have once been a driveway) to do some real, live, in-the-ground gardening. I didn't for a number of reasons that mostly involved the distance to a water source, the uncertainty about the soil quality, and the apparent habit of the locals of using the stoop area as a public bathroom for their dogs. It just seemed easier to use the roof, essentially.

Then one day last summer, I realized how close I'd come to being a destructive, gentrifying, homogenizing force for evil in the neighborhood. I had the day off from work and was walking down the block when I noticed an older Asian woman on the sidewalk, bent down over that plot of soil, filling a plastic shopping bag with the plants she was picking. I didn't recognize the leaves she was harvesting, but I was suddenly horrified to realize how close I'd come to cultivating her wild harvest right out of existence.

When I recently read Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates, I learned that one of the basics of permaculture is observing a plot of land for a full year - all four seasons -  before beginning to cultivate it. This allows you to understand the ecology, the microclimates, the different environments that make up your piece of land. It occurred to me that this philosophy applies to almost any situation, not just agriculture. By letting 18 months pass - though it wasn't my intent - I had the opportunity to see even the culture of the neighborhood in action, and how that affects the land.

*N.B.: I don't expect the end of the world any time soon, but there's no harm in a thought exercise (and maybe some bolt cutters), right?

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