For the last few weeks, I have been talking with gardeners at an imperiled community garden on the South Side of Chicago.  My colleagues at the Invisible Institute and I are making a “live documentary” about the garden, daily posting short conversations with gardeners, speaking out of their 10’ x 10’ plots, while we work on a full-length narrative.  (You can taste our work at the end of this post.)  At this point, we don’t yet know how the story ends.

Located at 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue, the garden is on land owned by the University of Chicago.  Since 2000, the U of C has allowed the gardeners—I am among them—to use the site.  Last spring, it informed us it wants its land back The University has no immediate plans to build on the site, but rather intends to use it temporarily as a staging area for the construction of a building at the other end of the block. It has set October 30 as the deadline for the gardeners to vacate the land they have cultivated.

Over the past six months, various efforts have been made to engage the U of C in conversation about possible practical alternatives that would preserve the garden until the time comes to build on it.  (That process began with this essay.)  While we have had some fruitful, informal conversations with individual administrators, the institution’s position has remained unchanged: It’s our land. We want it back. You always knew your use of it was provisional.

All true. Yet is this, under the circumstances, a sufficient response?  While not contesting the University's right to do with its property what it wishes, community members have questioned whether the University, in assessing its own interests, is properly valuing the garden.

This line of argument has, I know, been intensely frustrating to some U of C administrators. They feel they have been generous and accommodating in allowing the gardeners to use the land for nine years and in offering to help “relocate” the garden. Their patience has been tried by what they see as endless second-guessing of their sovereign administrative decisions.

There is also frustration among those seeking to speak for the garden. It arises not only from the University’s refusal to engage at the level of practical problem-solving but also from our inability to adequately evoke the value of the garden. We have struggled to give voice to that which is at once precious and unrelocatable.

If the garden is destroyed, some individual gardeners and groups of gardeners will establish gardens elsewhere.  That is a testament to human adaptability: life goes on.  It does not testify to the wisdom of the U of C’s approach. 

The University’s argument for relocation gives us too much credit. It assumes that we know how to do this, that we have a recipe for creating a wonderful garden. But the power of the 61st Street garden to nourish and console, to delight and instruct is more mysterious than that.  It is the product of countless acts of attention and care by many people over time—an organic process of immense complexity shaped by chance, serendipity, and grace as well as design.

Our documentary project, The Garden Conversations, grows out of this realization.  It is animated by the hope that a diversity of voices might articulate—and embody—what no single voice can fully express.  

It would be disingenuous to pretend this project is not part of the ongoing effort to persuade the University to reconsider its course.  That is not, however, its primary purpose.  The approaching deadline imposed by the U of C—coupled with the coldest, wettest, swiftest autumn in memory—has created an urgency to understand.  We are pressed to find words for dimensions of experience we would continue to take for granted, were they not imminently threatened.

So what have we learned thus far from our conversations in the garden?  A number of themes have emerged, radiating outward from the intimate geography of individual plots toward the great questions of health, ecological sanity, and survival in our time.  

One major theme, touched on in many of the conversations, centers on how gardeners come to know what they know.  Virtually all those we have talked with, no matter how skilled and experienced, describe themselves variously as “beginners,” “amateurs,” or “duffers.”  They recount how they learn things—by observing other plots; by seeking the advice of other gardeners; and, above all, by paying close attention to what grows and what doesn’t in their soil and light.  

In different voices and idioms, they describe a mode of learning that is intensely practical and close to the ground; a matter of making oneself available to one’s environment and interacting with it mindfully; a practice, as Wallace Stegner once said of Wendell Berry, of subjecting oneself to one’s subject.  It is a dynamic that carries one deeper into the world, disclosing the true conditions of life and offering the means to inhabit those realities.

These intellectual habits contrast sharply with the sort of power that shapes its environment to conform to what it already knows, seeking to define rather than discern the conditions of life around it, and disregarding what it doesn’t understand or control.

The University purports to be committed to something called “sustainability.”  This term has, with record speed, joined that select category of words—“community” and “peace” come to mind—rendered so elastic by abuse that they can be draped over antithetical agendas.  

For example: the construction of a state-of-the-art, green, LEED-certified building that will do avoidable damage to a unique urban ecosystem is celebrated as an expression of the U of C’s commitment to sustainability. 

Listening to administrators try to dissolve this contradiction by repeating the University’s offer to help “relocate” the 61st Street garden, I am reminded of a remark Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik of Solidarity each attribute to the other.  Referring to the state of the Polish economy as the nation emerged from Communist rule, one or the other (or perhaps both) said, “It’s easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup.  It’s more difficult to turn fish soup back into an aquarium.”

This lesson—amply illustrated by the history of urban renewal on the South Side—suggests the standard of care required.  The garden is a living thing.  It cannot be relocated.  The time will come to end it, but why now and for such faint reasons, when there are workable, safe, and cost-effective alternatives?

A friend with much experience working to advance “sustainability” within corporate and academic institutions once told me, endearingly, that she doesn’t know what the word means.  That strikes me as a good place to start.  The question then becomes: what sort of process will, over time, give concrete meaning to the term, while guarding against intellectual corruption? 

Perhaps we would do better to think of “sustainability” as a verb grounded in practical activity rather than a noun skewed toward abstraction.  If we did, we would find ourselves thinking less like social engineers and more like gardeners who learn things by practicing close attention to place, humility before mysteries they don’t fully comprehend, and hope for renewed inquiry in the spring.