I had a long conversation with my mother-in-law yesterday. She lives in California, and she told me that word on the Cali street is, if your home is burgled you don’t call the cops, because they won’t come. Because of budget cuts, there aren’t enough police officers to take a report at the scene of the crime.
No, you don’t call in the robbery; you dust yourself off and you drive your ass to the nearest police station to file a report. Then, presumably, nothing happens, unless the criminal who robbed you feels some sort of deep remorse and turns themselves in, because there aren’t enough police officers to investigate crimes either. Now, I don’t know how accurate this depiction of California law enforcement is, or what exactly is going on deep inside California politics and budget wrangling, but it doesn’t sound good.
Fear. There is fear in suburbia, can you feel it?
Most of the time, I live in my happy suburban stay-at-home mom/gardener world and I take great joy at living in place. I grow my food and tend to my children and walk to the market. In my youth I traveled a reasonable amount, visiting places as diverse as Tokyo and Reykjavik (that’s the capital of Iceland, and it’s lovely – you should go), but these days I leave my hometown – the town where I grew up and willingly returned as an adult – only reluctantly.
Periodically I pop my head up into the big world and get positively bitch slapped by bad news. Apparently Detroit is permanently on fire, the official welcome in Baltimore is a mugging and a Sweet Sixteen party in Chicago is a flash mob robbery. I didn’t even know Connecticut had a bad part of town, but I guess the New Haven kids who aren’t excelling in Comparative Literature or History at Yale are excelling in assault.
In this atmosphere of ratings-driven media shock-hype, nice law-abiding suburbanites all over the country are watching news scenes of domestic destruction and are bringing their hands up to cover their slack jaws. “That’s just terrible,” they say. “Look at that looting! Look what those people are doing.” That the shocked suburbanites are often pinkish and the inner urbanites on TV are often brownish is worth noting, because it serves to increase the feeling of separation between those watching and those being filmed.
Is this really our world? Is this really our country? Are we falling apart at the seams, communities devolving into looting and murder from the pressure of the recession? I don’t think so. The actual numbers show that in the past two decades crime, nationwide and across the board, is down – less murder, less rape, less burglary. But what is real in the aggregate, and what we feel to be true is not necessarily related. And so it is easy to ignore statistics that New Haven is much safer than it used to be when we feel threats all around us.
The economic downturn has left even the reasonably fortunate among us feeling financially uncertain. Shocking reports of tremendous inhumanity leave the most jaded among us shaking our heads and wondring what the fuck is the matter with some people. How do we respond to this perception of threat – a vague threat from everywhere at once – when we are completely helpless to larger financial forces and wholly unable to stop crimes 2400 miles away?
Many of us have responded by taking up gardening. Does that sound flippant, or stupid, or callus? I don’t mean it to. I mean that in a time when the world feels out of control, and when the issues of the day seem too big for any woman, many us are finding relief from our smallness and our powerlessness in our own good earth.
We are controlling what we can – how we spend and do not spend our dollars, how we feed our families, how we relate to our neighbors – by focusing our attention on a kind of hyper-localism. We hope and work to the idea that our tiny plot of goodness, buzzing with bees and fragrant with herbs and producing of good nutritive stuff, will be a tiny shield around us, an Urban Homestead Light of Elendil to cling to when all sanity seems lost and the ork zombies come marching through.
I look around my fair nation (and perhaps beyond – I have readers in Europe and Asia and Australia on the same journey, though I cannot say if their underlying motivations are similar) and I see many people pulling the same protective coat of gardening around them.
We insulate ourselves from financial bumps by growing shock absorbing beets and cabbages and beans in our backyard. We rebuff the feeling that community has gone all to hell by reforming inner cities around community agriculture and inner-city youth work programs. We smile at the brownish male teens who sell us the heirloom tomato starts at the community agriculture fair because they are on our side. Fellow gardeners cannot be intimidating, cannot be the other, because the quest for a short season Brandywine is more unifying than the ability to hold a tan.
There is fear all around: the economy, the environment, the moral fiber of our country all seem to be at stake. The fear can be paralyzing, and it certainly sells advertising. In between the latest scenes of urban self-destruction, political scandals, financial ruin in Small Town America and anthropogenically-enhanced natural disasters, we are reminded that hot chicks still like guys who drink Bud Light, iPhones still make you cool, and the people behind Axe Body Spray have branched out to scrotal cleansing.
Is it any wonder that the whiplash insanity of images we see sends us running to the soil, to feel something inarguably real between our fingers, to grow something of demonstrative value for our dinner table?
I believe there is light in the darkness, and I believe proverbial fruit can grow in the most unlikely spots. We urban homesteaders claim our patch of soil for many reasons, but one is surely to shake off the fear that is thrust upon us by those who would profit from our anxious paralysis.
Many new gardeners have picked up the spade for the first time this year because of fear. Keep hold of it in the years to come because of hope.1