The garden shows us that the world will still be here even when all the structures we’ve erected are threatened or fall apart…. It reminds us that we will not wash away in the tumult of the moment, that we too are strong and competent and that we can take care of ourselves, our communities and our families.
— Christine Smith, head of community gardening organization Seedleaf.
I abandoned my partner to a pandemic-exhausted city. The meds had just arrived. Instincts screamed “flee,” and with the advent of hope came new dreams. I wanted to go home and had no idea where that was. I put what was left in a knapsack and let go of the rest: apartment, lover, friends, recovery community and an adrenaline-saturated fifteen-year theatre career. To a newly POZ thirty-year old gay man in 1996, I was at a fork in the road and it felt precarious. Geographical cures helped until they didn’t; horny helped until it didn’t. My queer-drama anxiety-attachment disorder just kept kicking panic down the road waiting for the mid-life self to deal. It dropped me to my soil -tained knees.
I never imagined becoming a faggot farmer. CrowDog came along, rugged, slightly older, loyal as a sheep dog, skilled in the ways of the earth and blessedly naive enough to become my lifetime partner. While lifting groceries out of the back cab of his 1981 black Ford Ranger, we got caught in the middle of a drug bust. We had just returned from three months travelling across Canada, the NE States and Mexico knocking on the doors of intentional communities. Reminiscent of episodes from the X-files, we were offered a tin of biscuits from a busty grandmother to stay in a ghost town in Northern Ontario or asked to make a deposit of our night soil in next spring’s veggie patch in Somewhere, Manitoba. We did notice however, the communities with the most staying power structured themselves around a single primary organizational principle, be it ecological, educational or spiritual. We had helped found Canada’s first Eco-Village (ourecovillage.org) but had recently bolted after the financial backer got spooked over our HIV status. It was the cusp of Y2K and we knew we needed to get our nelly hands deep into the dirt to plant these queer roots. At Earth Day in Victoria several weeks later, we noticed that the only 20 people dancing in a crowd of hundreds were all from Salt Spring Island. We moved to this island in a rainforest on the Salish Sea onto the traditional unceded lands of the Cowichan, Pauquachin, Malahat, Penelakut, Tsawout, Stz’uminus, Tsartlip First Nations. We felt a sense of what is known as ‘urgent biophilia’, the need to take up gardening in the aftermath of disasters.
Change or be Changed
Historically, groupings of people band together during times of peril. As a social-arts researcher, I study how some grassroots communities adapt during periods of threat and/or change. Uprisings often begin over resource scarcity, bread revolutions. During catastrophic periods of social change, these un-conscious collective initiations only get harder until mutual participation in actions of accountability evolve communities toward healthier outcomes. Early responders, known as positive deviants, those Sacred Fools who deviate from the norm, self-organize as they set off on a new course. Second-wave adapters recognize potential for relief or pleasure, bi-pass social criticism and crazily enough join in. By jumping into the unexpected, they too inspire others to risk reputations and resources. Rather than wait for institutional, parentalized permission, if and when, this third larger wave arrives to the event-of-change, communal momentum builds. Strategies emerge; some fail, some stick. Models are revealed and if adopted culture adapts. Discovered in 1990, this Positive Deviance model helped impoverished communities in Vietnam feed their kids. Researchers found a neighbourhood of malnourished children where a few parents (the so-called positive deviants) had instinctively fed their own children unconventional but readily available foods such as the broth of shrimp and crayfish that lead to better nutritional outcomes.
Welcome to the Gaybourhood
Pandemic refugees, we represented a cresting wave of white gay gentrifiers. As transients we paid attention to how the histories, characters and sizes of dwellings, neighbourhoods and communities shaped lives. The Gulf Island’s region has a longstanding reputation as a sanctuary from the madness of the mainstream. Unless you were Indigenous. U.S. war resisters, escaping the draft, discovered they could grow and sell enough pot to build homes. Hawaiian settlers from the late 19th century, then Chinese labourers, and Black families escaping slavery farmed beside euro-colonialists who filched the lands of long time Japanese settlers during WWII. We have much work to undo the violence of the past. Defending and tending this land may ultimately mean surrendering it back to those most harmed if we are to heal the scorched soil of survivalist histories. If we are to survive the tsunami of change, it will because we listened to and acted upon the endogenous knowledge of local First Nation Elders. It also feels vital to have active relationships with elders within our own queer circles.
Just down the road lives Old Man Jim. Originally from Minnesota, he’s gay uncle to three generation of gardeners. His current apprentice is a carrot top four-year old who digs in the dirt alongside him where she learns the practical history, art and science of propagating blue ribbon prize-winning flowers and vegetables. Play-dates include bringing her friends over to hand grind Jim’s multi-coloured kernels of corn grown for his morning porridge. Very humble about his thirty-five years as a major Hollywood set decorator (his Oscar for Lincoln sits by the glass-entombed jellyfish), he is however, rightfully not humble about his meals. Daily, he bows over America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks after lighting an incense stick to a Buddha liberated from the set of Seven Years in Tibet. His feasts range from gourmet seasonal events to shucking local oysters at his annual New Year’s Eve party. He stopped having mixed crowd parties after we let loose a gaggle of Radical Faeries one midnight. Acorn, the Fae-Anglican Priest, wearing only a raccoon hat and a front flap of some indeterminate animal for a jock strap; Miss Mary Mischief serving up on one of Jim’s antique silver platters partially used bottles of poppers collected from the bathhouse where she worked… well, during the traditional New Year’s morning clean up and debrief Jim confided that the party was just a “little too gay.”
Echo Valley Neighbourhood Gardens
Three years ago a fire broke out in the tinder dry woods across the road. If the gusts of the previous days had blown as strong, we wouldn’t have homes, vegetables and jams to share today. Within 24 hours, the neighbourhood showed up in our living room. We now meet quarterly for ‘podlucks’ to refine escape plans and practice evacuation routes. The Emergency Neighbourhood POD system was originally set up to respond to earthquakes; forest fires were included three years ago. Other disaster-preparations are imminent. COVID and the real concern over transportation-chain disruptions compelled us to co-create a neighbourhood interactive food growing culture.
“Food is the next edge,” says Bryan. We know what we put in our mouths matters. How we relate to the earth and how we organize around food determines physical, mental, social health and wellbeing. Bryan, our gaybour living just across the road, has recently claimed the crown as Island Climate Action Queen. He lives in the original 1920’s ox-blood red, farm manager’s house with husband Brian, our very own valley Poet Laureate. We’re all second-generation AIDS era survivors, our lives forged by the viral fires, blessedly wounded inheritors of stories that will never be ours to tell.
Days after CrowDog and I completed our initial quarantine early in March of 2020, having just returned from the Global Faerie Gathering in South Africa via Italy, neighbourhood queers whipped out the pitchforks and frothed up a call to action. Potatoes became our rallying cry. As transportation disruptions scrolled across news feeds, we calculated how much mullein we’d need to grow to wipe our asses. We reminded ourselves that this island only has several days of supplies to feed eleven thousand people. Food insecurity finally meant more than complaining about $10 heads of organic cauliflower. Seventeen of our thirty-two closest neighbours stepped into their gumboots, met outdoors six feet away and planted our first seasons of the Echo Valley Neighbourhood Gardens.
We’re an odd mix of single parents and long-time grassroots activists living month-to-month, elders on pensions and those trust fund and investment-supported. We’re landscapers, social scientists, artists, educators and old school farmers. We’re all white. We weed and strategize how to dismantle white supremacy, class disparity, homelessness and support community equity as a strategy to help this island adapt through multiple crises. We talk about projects, how the kids are coping and share laughter as we share the labour and bounty of the land. The garden newbies, those former professors and business consultants, swear they have found religion in the dirt. Weekly, we trade bread for produce. We’re learning how to work short-wave radios. Last month, we played Santa trudging through a snowstorm to share homemade cookies and jars of dried veggie salt rubs. On Christmas Eve a small team braved the cold to pick and deliver 3-pound bags of Brussels sprouts to our doorsteps:
‘Twas the day before Christmas
and down in the field
there alighted three farm elves
to pluck the Earth’s yield;
the waiting bright brassicas
glinting with rime
as the sun through the mist
commenced its slow climb.
Jade-bright they were,
those wintry pearls
all leafed and layered
in petals and curls.
We snapped them as candies,
December’s cold cheer,
and offer you emeralds
in the dark of the year.By Brian Day
List of Ingredients
Seeing my 63-year-old husband with his thrift store church lady wide-brimmed hat preparing vegetable beds alongside this gardening crew is one of life’s simple joys. For the past year, for two hours most Sundays, neighbours representing four generations, from 4 to 78, get a little mucky each week. We’ve developed five food security gardens over three properties harvesting several hundred pounds worth of delicious, nutritiously dense food in our backyards. We begin by gathering in a circle at 6’ intervals; acknowledge we are cis, Caucasian settlers on unceded SȾÁUTW̱ lands, before taking a few minutes to ground into the spirit and intention of the morning’s shared labour. We may honour our elders or lean on our shovels and smile as we watch a child pull her first carrot from the earth. We applaud each other’s successes and hold our hearts when one of us has suffered. As we plant and weed the dogs chew up the grass and move stones in our way. We fix fences and gates where we’ve tied hand written gratitude flags to not only keep the deer out but to remind us to be humble about the extraordinary advantages we share as part of this eco-social experiment, this learning how to be good neighbours.
We know that growing our own food is only as good as supporting others to do so for themselves. Following Margaret Wheatley’s advice of creating “small islands of sanity” we encourage others to organize around the question: “What resources do we have and need to adapt through these times of crisis together?” While this has been the healthiest use of our time during these initial days of a Global Pandemic, we understand many others are tragically not able to do so. For these brief hours of gardening, our minds are blessedly more concerned about whether the squash will mature by fall. The mental health benefits outweigh any of the human foibles we come up against. Our retired professor, who calls himself Mr. Mole, has developed an interactive website where we post not just what we’ve done, but how we have organized, from surveys to tracking hours and budgets. We also post CrowDog’s pickle and sauerkraut tutorials and think of other ways to further facilitate kitchen table wisdom through neighbourly discussions. As CrowD’ says, “Hope this ferments for you!”
May all beings be nourished,
Love, robin hood