Radical Gardening

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* Book: Radical Gardening. George McKay. France Lincoln, 2010


George McKay:

"Radical Gardening is about the idea of the ‘plot’, and its alternate but interwoven meanings in the garden. There are three. First there is the plot of the land, the garden space itself, how it is claimed, shaped, planted, and how we might understand some of the politics of flowers. Then there is the plot as narrative or story, whether historical or contemporary. The book draws on a small but persistent tradition of writing which sets itself against the dominant narratives of gardening. I trawled through many old and new anarchist and socialist magazines and leaflets to find some of these. Third, there is the notion of the plot as the act of politicking, sometimes a dark conspiracy but more often a positive, humanising gesture in a moment of change. So the ‘plots’ of Radical Gardening are the land itself, the history of the struggle, and the activism of the political conspiracy.

These plots show us how notions of utopia, of community, of activism for progressive social change, of peace, of environmentalism, of identity politics, are practically worked through in the garden, in floriculture, and through what art historian Paul Gough has called ‘planting as a form of protest’. But not all are positive—some are sobering, or frightening, for within the territory of the politically ‘radical’ there have been and continue to be social experiments that invert our positive expectations of the human exchange that occurs in the green open space of a garden. So I write also about fascist gardens, of how for the Nazis the land and its planting were pivotal to their ideology, of the notorious herb garden at Dachau concentration camp (run on the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner favoured by many senior Nazis), of the SS ‘village’ at Auschwitz, as recalled by Primo Levi, with its domestic normality of houses, gardens, children and pets—and the garden paths paved with human bones. Such a fetishising of the land bolstered a murderous ideology: the suspicion towards Jews or Gypsies, as wanderers and nomads, were confirmed precisely because of their lack of a relationship with land or soil.


My book is modest in its ambitions: all I want to do is to convince the reader-gardener that those notions of a horticountercultural politics you suspected were in your earthy practice and pleasure (I agree that you probably didn’t called them horticountercultural politics) have a rich and challenging tradition, a significance, as well as a trajectory of energy and import that makes them matter for our future. ‘Why’, asks writer-gardener Jamaica Kincaid, ‘must people insist that the garden is a place of rest and repose, a place to forget the cares of the world, a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility with being a human being?’ I follow Kincaid, and other writers like Gough, Kenneth Helphand and Martin Hoyles, each of whom has helped shape my own understanding of the garden as a place that actually confronts and addresses the cares of the world. Helphand’s Defiant Gardens in particular, a study of gardens in the most unlikely of wartime settings (such as planted by troops in First World War trenches or in Jewish ghettos), with a stunning set of archive images from military and holocaust museums, made me completely rethink what might be definable as a garden. Martin Hoyles’ several books about gardens, class, history and politics were wonderful sources for me, too.

My position is not a forced juxtaposition of plant and ideology. Think only of the English radical writer William Cobbett, who declared in 1819 that ‘if I sowed, planted or dealt in seeds; whatever I did had first in view the destruction of infamous tyrants’. Or the early twentieth century revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht who observed, with startling accusatory power, that ‘famines do not occur, they are organized by the grain trade’. Or the Peace Pledge Union’s white anti-war poppy, or the 1960s hippie placing a flower down the barrel of the National Guard’s rifle—these are moments of ‘flower power’. Or the female Colombian activist speaking recently to western buyers on behalf of the 40,000 women working in the pesticidal Colombian flower industry: ‘Behind every beautiful flower is a death. Flowers grow beautiful while women wither away’. Or street artist Banksy, one of whose most famous images is the masked rioter throwing not a petrol bomb but a bunch of flowers. Or the simply expressed ecology of Richard Mabey in his new book Weeds, in which those despised and targeted plants are championed for their green resilience: in fact, weeds ‘may be holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart’. These horticultural and cultural snapshots illustrate a compelling and enduring connection between plant and politic, a radical gardening.

In his recent book Nowtopia, Chris Carlsson writes of a politics inscribed in the very act of ‘slowing down the gardener, making her pay attention to natural cycles that only make sense in the full unfolding of seasons and years. In a shared garden [especially], time opens up for conversation, debate, and a wider view than that provided by the univocal, self-referential spectacle promoted by the mass media’. Climate change, peak oil transition, community cohesion, the environment, genetic modification, food production and policy, diet, health and disability—the garden is the local patch which touches and is touched by all of these kinds of major global concerns, whether it wants that kind of attention or not. In a sparkling collection of autonomous essays from a decade ago called Avant Gardening, Peter Lamborn Wilson comments wryly that ‘“Cultivate your own garden” sounds today like hot radical rhetoric. Growing a garden has become—at least potentially—an act of resistance. But it’s not simply a gesture of refusal. It’s a positive act’.

Community activist-gardener (my book is full of these kinds of casually ambitious combinations) Heather C. Flores has written of being as ‘radical as a radish’. For Flores (I’m guessing that’s a pseudonym) ‘radical’ (like radish, from radix, Latin, meaning root) is an essential attribute of gardening, in the sense that ‘it comes from, and returns to, the root of the problem: namely, how to live on the earth in peace and perpetuity.’ A simple enough problem, and one in Flores’s view the garden can help solve. While Churchill stated to Siegfried Sassoon that ‘War is the natural occupation of man … war—and gardening’, I am more interested in the peace garden movement.

Rather than what Helphand calls the ‘antigarden’ of a war-ravaged landscape, I explore the CND-influenced peace garden of the type produced by left-wing local authorities in public parks in the 1980s, many of which are still around in some form. You could make a standard peace garden in a public park with a modest pagoda, some Peace roses, maples, cherry trees for spring blossom, and one or two small pine trees clipped in cloud shapes—this cluster of plants and structures signified a political statement of anti-nuclearism, bringing a piece of Japan to the British park, as a gesture of solidarity and memorialisation. A real political planting is in operation here—the design and construction of a polemic landscape. There is a wonderful recent example of a peace garden commemorating Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in Berkshire. Perhaps post-Fukushima we will revisit and freshen up some of our remaining peace and anti-nuclear gardens.

Curiously perhaps, the cosy and familiar space of the British allotment is a profoundly political—and in fact, I argue, anti-capitalist—environment, and an enduring success story of radical gardening. In their classic book The Allotment, David Crouch and Colin Ward point out that the very term contains a political position: ‘the word “allotment” implies deference and allocation, qualities that indicate a relationship between the powerful and the powerless’. Yet the fact remains that this willfully anti-capitalist state-sponsored horticulture is as radical a practice of gardening as any in government policy. The allotment’s anti-capitalism is most clear in two fundamental features: first, the astonishingly low rents charged for plots by local authorities, which is a powerfully consistent rejection of spiraling urban land market values; second, the legislative fact that, by and large, produce grown by allotmenteers cannot be sold commercially for profit. The standard treatment of a surplus or seasonal glut is to give it away: the allotment is predicated on a social and economic practice defined by, in Crouch and Ward’s term, ‘the gift relationship’. In their view, an anarchistic ‘combination of self-help and mutual aid … characterizes the allotment world’. Furthermore, in a nationwide public socio-horticultural experiment that has endured and transformed itself for over a century, it is on the allotment, among the bean frames and sheds, the DIY glasshouses and the patchwork of dirty labour, that we should look in Britain for a quiet seasonal radicalism." (http://stirtoaction.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/sod-it-radical-gardening/)

Author Bio

"George McKay is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, UK. He has written extensively over the years about alternative cultures and music, the cultures of radical politics and social movements, in books like Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties (1996), DiY Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain (editor, 1998), Glastonbury: A Very English Fair (2000) and Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (2005). His latest book, Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden, was published in May 2011 by France Lincoln. His next, Shakin’ All Over: Rock, Popular Music and Disability, is published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012. He maintains a website at http://georgemckay.org"