Monday 25 April 2011

Other Women's Garden Stories

I have spent considerable part of the last decade reading and listening to stories about other women's gardens. Over this time, it has become increasingly clear to me how important their storied nature is to the significance of the experience of gardens. The transience of garden experience may partly drive the documentation impulse -- like that associated with travel and food. But the narration of gardens seems to play a psychogeographical function beyond the mere capture and communication of ephemeral beauty. In the Toronto context, this is amply clear: the Toronto Community Garden Network, Afri-Can Food Basket, and FoodShare Toronto Garden projects are all adept at mobilizing the stories of gardens for progressive politics. Their stories of people coming together to grow food help marry the sometimes abstract world of collective politics with the readily imaginable benefits of being able to grow food together. Gifting politicians with honey from urban gardens or showing proud before and after photographs of highrise lawns cum food gardens certainly gets some points across about urban political ecologies! (Much as representations of the White House vegetable garden have helped legitimize vegetable gardening.)

The seeming straightforwardness of the stories that can be told with gardens can be troubling, though. Gardens have been canonical sites for teaching proper citizenship and comportment, and gardens are all too often places where "deserving" poor people are taught that they should be able to fix complex systemic poverty themselves, through a bit "honest work." "Healthy" and "natural," gardens are easily used to encode contentious cultural politics in difficult to question ways.

Food gardens are popular development projects, not just for the cultivation of material sustenance, but also for the cultivation of the self. A quick browse of garden fiction lists exhibit the garden as a powerful tool for individuals: self-realization and escape into reflection and transcendent communion with nature are common themes. The significant percentage of gardening that appears to be performed with some narrative intent belies gardening's focus on individuals, however, and draws attention to the social and communicative nature of gardens -- even beyond the obvious domains of community gardening.

And it these social and communicative functions of gardens as stories that I find fascinating. Given the massive cultural shifts that have taken place around food and agriculture over the past century, how much are gardens "read" in the ways their authors intend? How much of the intent of garden narratives is implicit, even to their gardeners? "Garden studies" is an academic area that brings together art history, literature, architecture, landscape architecture, cultural studies, environmental studies, and geography; how much do readings of garden fiction help garden readers interpret?

Grenness, Johannes, 1914, Woman in Red Dress in Garden with Poppies and Summer Day in a Garden, courtesy of Blogger 'SPhera's excellent entry on Johannes Grenness (with several worthwhile gardens to see).

World Connect, 2011, Niagadina Women’s Community Garden,
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Jayne said...

I just found your blog via a Google search and am fascinated not only by this post, but by others that I've scanned. I'm on my way to a writing class but I'll be back to read more!
(So glad I stumbled in!) :)

Jess said...

I myself find the process of gardening, the ephemeralness of it, the life, the death and the growth in between as lending itself incredibly to a running narrative in the gardener's own mind. Whether or not those make it onto paper or not, they exist and often the glimpse of a moment in the story of someone else's garden can often start a lifelong fascination with the subject and creates lifelong gardeners.

Thanks for the link.

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