Gardening for change
toward an ecological economy, by elisa rathje
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as to what to do in the face of so many seemingly insurmountable challenges and crises facing us, so I’ve long been grateful for Elisa’s steadying and steadfast presence in the cacophony of social media. She reminds us that taking small, incremental steps is possible, doable, even joyful. Each seemingly small step contributing towards something larger. Gardening, and how we garden, can be meaningful. It may appear gentle, yet there’s an urgency, a connection, an insistence there that speaks to the seriousness of what is necessary. That is, nothing short of system change.
toward an ecological economy, by elisa rathje
it is only after a thorough education in abstraction that we can think of ourselves merely as gardeners. to say we are into gardening, into nature, to be encouraged by whole industries to pursue it as if it were some random option easily substituted with other entertaining hobbies, is to confirm our separation from the living world, from our lineage of intimate, reciprocal, abundant connection with the biosphere we are embedded in.
this abstraction is no accident, though we live and breathe it through dominant culture, systematically schooled in separation til it feels as natural as the air.
we know, of course, that something is very wrong, we feel it, though it may express in quiet ways. illnesses, depressions, longings, frustrations, unease.
when we plant something, sow a seed, tend the soil, we have an inkling, as that plant and that soil enter into exchange with us. we know we feel better, though the gardening magazine may put it down to beauty and order, the psychologist, to soothing the nervous system, the biologist, to the soil science of some joy-inducing phytochemical released to our senses.
it’s actually the historian and the economist who helped me to understand. to comprehend the force of desire that drew my family on a curious journey from city flat to island smallholding.
when the economist and the historian look back at the beginnings of capitalism and tell a story of a post-feudal revolution that restored people to the land, how biodiversity burgeoned, nutrition deepened, life-spans lengthened, equality rose, the commons grew lush, well tended, in a word, abundant, it sounds familiar. it sounds like the sort of reciprocity that existed, that still exists amongst first peoples along the margins of the colonised world. to hear a story of the systematic, violent removal of the common people from the land, of the enclosure and privatisation of land, of an elite aristocracy driving the other to hunger and forcing them into labour as the only alternative, well. there it is, the original colonising force.
when we work for wages, glad not to be enslaved, glad for an education so that we are not mere labourers, glad to save a bit to finally get a mortgage on a corner of land, when that in itself is enormous privilege, it is the enclosure of the commons that we are breathing each day. to make private what belonged to all, what we all belong to, is the system. to dominate, to take the land and to extract from it and from all life living there, to give nothing back, to make us dependent consumers of a shadow of what we really need and finally to bury the enormous excess as waste in the land, that is the domination economy.
to tell the story that we were rescued by this system from being subsistence farmers is to forget the tremendous abundance that the earth gives with even the slightest care. subsistence is an unfortunate word, to my ear, implying a scraping by, somehow subpar, mere existence, which plays well into a narrative of progress, of improvement, of the land and its people as a blank slate to be filled, educated, designed, civilised, as if nothing were there.
nothing of the sort. when permaculture, circling back to draw on indigenous wisdom and living patterns, gives us principles to nurture life, when the abundance it yields is staggering, we know. we know why the fences went up. if we each had a share in the commons, we wouldn’t need much else. we wouldn’t need to be wage slaves, not like this, because we could make so much of what we need, we could provision enough, in reciprocal care.
when we go out into the gardens, here, on land that was itself stolen from indigenous peoples and converted to real estate, bought and sold for exponential amounts until only those who have succeeded by inheritance and privilege will live here, well, the earth still shows us what was always true. we were made to be in relationship with it.
we grow independent from the domination economy through interdependence with the biosphere. here, the staggering abundance of a 125-year-old apple that gives more fruit than our family alone could eat, the nut trees that thrive wherever we propagate them, the plum saplings that spring up near their mother in the thicket, the dense wildlife that throng to the seed-heads standing in winter thicket and sleeping meadow and now to the flowering trees and bulbs springing up, the geese grazing and goats browsing on verdant, enthusiastic plants that would take over without their voracious hunger, the ducks rooting out slugs in the rain and the chickens finding bugs in the old orchard-turned-food forest, as a half-century of budding and leafing and fruiting repeats as the grape shades and feeds and becomes the house, there. we can see clearly that the domination economy is not providing for us so much as we are providing for it.
when we return to our roots we know this is true. to restore our connection to the biosphere, call it gardening if you like, is to turn to another economy, one that makes more life.
elisa rathje lives, writes and films the small work at appleturnover, a small farm on a small island. follow her new series on regenerative living, the journal of small work* at https://www.patreon.com/appleturnover in film form and in accompanying small works both written and in audio streams.
you can also find elisa on Instagram and at appleturnover.tv
Elisa donated this article to Radicle.
Photo credit: elisa rathje
Beautifully said. So much abundance artificially rationed through wealth hoarding. Thank you for your writing!