This morning I tumbled out of bed and made my way to the Concrete Beet farm, where I have been learning hands-on urban farming. On Thursdays and Sundays, the Concrete Beet harvests vegetables for ten CSA shares. When I got there today, Emily and Emily were strategizing the order in which the produce would be picked, cut, dug, etc.
Tall Emily got out her steel snips and started the process of un-furling the wire-fencing around a potato tower* while I picked the kale from the top of said tower. I was not expecting much from this particular potato patch, because of previous weeks’ harvesting of underwhelming spuds. This week was different. As soon as the tower was unbundled, we started pulling out huge round red taters.
When Anna, another S.O.S. participant, showed up, we were left to dig through the mound of soil and plants. I noticed how dark and rich the soil was as I ran my fingers through it, disturbing the tiny creatures that lived in it. They scattered as Anna and I chatted and pulled clumps of earth apart.
My hands and fingers are the same as my father’s mother’s. She died in 2008, and I wear her rings, which fit my fingers perfectly. As I was reaching my fingers into the earth, I thought about her, and about the hands of all of my ancestors who put their hands in the earth and brought food from their efforts. Some were German, some English, some Irish, but most were farmers.
I said something to Anna about my Irish ancestors, since we were digging potatoes. I associate potatoes with my being in this country; since my primary education about immigrant history is that the majority of Irish influx to the United States was due to “potato famine.”
Lost in my reverie, I thought about the recurring themes that have lead people to leave their homelands and seek out a new beginning thousands of miles away.
The Irish Potato Famine was exacerbated by (English) absentee landlords who charged a premium to poor tenants for small pieces of land on which only potatoes could be grown in enough abundance to be a staple food throughout the year. When the potatoes failed, everything toppled for the Irish. Millions starved as landlord’s evicted people from their land—their only source of living—and destroyed their homes.
For many people, this neighborhood, the Phillips neighborhood, is a haven. People have fled conditions ranging from simple suburban wage-slavery, to limited opportunities, to war, to certain death for themselves and their families. This haven, however, is not without its faults. Absentee landlords take advantage of those with little social clout, loan companies and banks have had their way with people who want a stable home (which has resulted in rampant foreclosures), and much of the land is an EPA superfund site (don’t let your kids eat the dirt without testing it first).
In the face of these challenges, Phillips is often defiant. Phillips plants gardens full of flowers and food. It holds Pow-wows, follows Ramadan, goes to Mass on Saturday night, has halal options, dollar tacos, Native foods.
It bikes, walks, buses, skateboards, and shares a car. It reads the neighborhood rag.
It speaks Spanish, English, Somali, Anishinaabeg, Dakota, Arabic, Hebrew, and many other languages.
It breaks down and sobs in despair with the loss of each and every one of its youth to violence and darkness.
It celebrates the coming of spring and light together, every year. It rises and grows.
When I think of myself as part of this community, I envision lines on a globe that concentrate here, but span out like a root system to the places people and their ancestors have come from. These roots draw nutrients from many sources, and like a plant, grow stronger because of the diversity and breadth of heritage that they are tapping into. We create the Tree of Life in our own image.
At the Concrete Beet, with my hands in the soil, I felt connected to this idea, this image of a connected community of corporal and spiritual entities of shifting and changing relations.
Anna, Small Emily, and I washed and weighed the CSA shares and put them into storage for pickup later that day. I started weeding the walkways and felt the sun beating hot on my arms and back. By the time I was done, my hands were green and my nail beds were black with dirt. My body ached with the slight contortions of kneeling and weeding. Physical work produces a satisfying effect on my body. To be happy and connected, I work the soil.