Community Garden Open Day – May 23rd

Come along to help us celebrate!

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Getting back down to earth

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Environmental Engineer Eckhard Ferber testing soil at the garden with cleared site in the background on 6th November, 2014

I’m delighted to report that the garden site is cleared, and our environmental engineer, Eckhard Ferber, has tested the soils and is waiting to hear back on the results. Once we receive those results, we can apply to Council for Developmental Consent, and then hopefully get planting early next year.

All this shifting of soils has me thinking chthonic thoughts! And the “real world” hurdles of dealing with potential contamination, clearing land, making sure we follow Council procedures correctly has definitely brought me back down to earth too.

It’s hard to run away with ideas and flights of fancy when the earth-bound reality of a situation means that you have to keep coming back to what is physically possible, what you can ACTUALLY do. This material grounding is good for me, I think. It helps me keep my feet on the ground, reminds me of limitations, and keeps my written and spoken words in contact with what Debbie Rose, via poet Peter Boyle, has called the “creature-languages” of the world (Rose, 2013, 103).

I recently watched a very good TED talk by Ron Finley who works on community garden projects in South Central LA. He said in the video: “if you want to change the community, you need to change the composition of the soil”.

It’s a tenacious observation and has been stuck in my head for weeks, as we work through the challenges of the possibility of contaminated soil at the garden site. If you want to change the community you need to change the composition of the soil is a statement that says a lot about multispecies communities – about the connection between people and place – and about the host of organisms that define how we relate to one another. It brings ideas of community, too often focused only on the human at the neglect of the more-than-human world, back down to earth.

But what does it mean to be down-to-earth? To be grounded? To think with the soil?

Soils are situated, and they situate us in an ecological community. Soils contain pasts and futures. There are burial grounds in soil, but soil also needs to be healthy because new life grows from it. Soil is the space where death transforms into life, where the dead become ecological gifts to the living. And soil itself is a heaving multiplicity of life– a rhizomatic underworld of roots and microorganisms invisible to the human eye, but fundamental to the health of terrestrial critters. We are all so intimately connected to soils, to their more-than-human stories of life, and of death. Deborah Bird Rose (2002: Dialogue with Place – Toward an Ecological Body) has beautifully written on the importance of soil in an Australian, (post?) colonial context, where soil and earth is often evoked through a concept of belonging – the dirt of home that gets “under the skin” :

The country that gets into people’s blood invariably contains the blood and sweat of Aboriginal people as well as settlers. It may contain convict blood, and the remains of the dead. It will contain the blood of childbirth, and the blood and bones of massacres. It will contain the remains of animals, of extinct species, perhaps… the same soil gets into our blood, the same waters quench our thirst, the sweat of us all resides in the ground.

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Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory, 1975.

With the recent death of Gough Whitlam social media has erupted with reflections on his legacy. The powerful photograph of Whitlam pouring soil into the hand of Vincent Lingiari is an image that reminds us of the connection between people, places and soils; the connection between social and environmental justice; and the connection between the present and the past that resides in the land.

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Eckhard battling with very tough soil to get some samples

When I first saw the garden site filled with refuse and piles of soil, I naively saw surface obstacles. I didn’t think about the subterranean, or the impacts of the past on the present and the future. I just wanted to clear up the top of the land so I could build something good there. What my eyes couldn’t see, I didn’t register, and even though I was thinking about digging and planting and growing it didn’t occur to me that what sat on top of the soil might get inside it somehow. Contamination? You’re kidding right?! It was a disturbing revelation.

As Eckhard tested the soils last Thursday I thought about the different ways we come to know and learn to be affected by the ground on which we walk. As a child I often ate it! From mud pies to sucking rocks to chugging down plain old handfuls of dirt, soil was something for direct ingestion. I’m not sure when that changed exactly (hopefully before the age of 10), but it seems that since this time soil has largely been something that exists beneath me, rather than inside me.

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Soil sampling – samples are sent to a lab and analysed for compounds.

I watched Eckhard collect and test the soil and asked a series of questions which he kindly answered with patience. Things like – “What’s with the gloves?” (to stop cross contamination) And “what’s that in the bucket?” (water, of course). This procedure of soil testing was a molecular and scientific way of rendering soil and contaminants, but there are also situated soil knowledges. A farmer or gardener might know if soil is good or bad by kicking it, smelling it, looking at it, feeling it. These sensorial engagements with soil are a science too – based on years of empirical data gathered from working with a living and connected world. We might know soil through the beings connected to it – the way plants grow tells us something about the conditions of the soil. Deleuze and Guattari observe, plants, even as their roots dig deep into earth, always have an ‘outside where they form a rhizome with something else – with the wind, an animal, human beings…’ (A Thousand Plateaus: 11). In this rhizomatic assemblage of relations we might come to know soil as it journeys through roots into the bodies that make up a multispecies community. Eduardo Kohn, in his inspired How Forests Think explains the way a ‘multispecies assemblage captures and amplifies something about the differences in soil conditions precisely as a function of the greater number of relations (relative to other ecosystems) among kinds of selves that exist in this ecology of selves’ (83). Through this network the differences that make a difference (Bateson) are layered, so that differences in soil come to make differences in plants and the other life forms connected to those plants too.

Despite the necessity of testing the soil we are hopeful that the soils are not contaminated, precisely because of this extended ecology of selves. If soil is contaminated it’s structure changes, upsetting ecological balance. Contaminated soil presents hazards to human and environmental health, meaning that the soil can no longer support many forms of life. Essentially, contaminated soil stops being nourishing.

The situated impact of contamination on a particular site of land which becomes an ecological wasteland reminds us of the very real local impacts of human development and waste on the environment. Contamination forces us to recognise the disturbing relationship between mobility and situated, tangible effects because contaminated materials move around, travelling with waterways and wind. Thom Van Dooran writes about the impact of this waste in his recent book, Flight Ways:

Making their way through rivers and streams to the ocean, or traveling in the atmosphere, these toxic residues of our industrial societies circulate endlessly through the environment, accumulating in those unfortunate places where particular constellations of temperature, wind direction, water current, and landform deposit them (2014: 31)

What’s more, these substances are not only radically mobile, but enduring:

while… toxic substances have a short past… their future is not limited in the same way. Rather, there is something almost immortal about them. In Timothy Morton’s apt terms, they are “hyperobjects”: objects that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (2014: 33).

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Shard of glass embedded in soil

In the era of the Anthropocene soils are infused with the detritus of our development and progress. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history can look at the wreckage that piles up in the past by looking no further than the landscapes of the present. In this world, Narcissus in the form of the self-enclosed human can see himself not only in the reflection of a stream, but in the composition of the soil.

Recently Donna Haraway made a plea for us to focus on the chthonic as a source of revolutionised environmental thinking and action. Compost, not posthuman she says! The last line of her talk is a call for the “the activation of the chthonic powers which are within our grasp, as we collect up the trash of the Anthropocene and the exterminism of the Capitolocene to something that might possibly have a chance of ongoing.”

I’m hoping that the garden will eventually take up and respond to this call.
Even if the site is not contaminated (which I really hope it isn’t!) the garden will still be a form of ‘gardening in the ruins’ (Tsing) because the site is empty of vegetation.

And yet, despite the empty feeling of that barren flat dirt, as I knelt down to look more closely at the soil I noticed lots of ants, animating the stillness with their little bodies. They trailed after one another, crawling into holes in the earth, becoming mysteriously hidden.

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A bull ant at the community garden site

I took a photo of a bull ant, and Eckhard laughed at me, as I attempted to get close enough to get a good shot, but avoid being bitten. The piercing ache of a bull-ant bite is viscerally stored in my body’s memory. That’s certainly an experience that brings one down to earth!

There are so many minds in nature, so many ways of being in and of the soil. As Eckhard put handfuls of dirt into little plastic tubs, and I stared inquisitively at ants, a horse watched us from the neighbouring block of land. I hope she sticks around to see what happens next 🙂

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Correction: In my last post I mentioned that we were having a community day in November. We have decided to wait until Developmental Consent has been confirmed, and we have had time to install some basic infrastructure at the garden. We anticipate that we will hold an Open Day at the site in February.

Anyone needing a good environmental engineer contact Eckhard Ferber at Ferber Environment and Waste.

© Kate Wright, November 2014

Meet the gang and hear the stories!

Left to Right: Danielle Hunt (Careers Network Inc), Rob Waters (Aboriginal Employment Officer, UNE), Peter Hall (Project Manager), Katherine Worthing (Lecturer, Oorala Aboriginal Student Centre, UNE), Debra Bennell (Director, Oorala Aboriginal Student Centre, UNE), Colin Ahoy (Chair, Local Aboriginal Land Council), Steve Widders (Project Manager), Kate Wright (School of Arts, UNE). Behind the camera: Veronica Walford. Missing from the frame: Bruce Dennison (Clontarf Academy) and Kerrie Nixon (Jobs Australia).

Left to Right: Danielle Hunt (Careers Network Inc), Rob Waters (Aboriginal Employment Officer, UNE), Peter Hall (Project Manager), Katherine Worthing (Lecturer, Oorala Aboriginal Student Centre, UNE), Debra Bennell (Director, Oorala Aboriginal Student Centre, UNE), Colin Ahoy (Chair, Local Aboriginal Land Council), Steve Widders (Project Manager), Kate Wright (School of Arts, UNE). Behind the camera: Veronica Walford (Local Aboriginal Land Council). Missing from the frame: Bruce Dennison (Clontarf Academy) and Kerrie Nixon (Jobs Australia).

So we had our first meeting of the core team about the garden yesterday, and it was so wonderful to get together to map out a direction forward. A few people couldn’t make it, but there was still a strong group there. Over some sandwiches and quiche we chatted about what we hoped the garden would bring to the community, and how we could make it a place that draws together younger and older generations, people living in different areas of town, and people from different cultures to dig, grow, eat, talk, learn, and share. Everyone was in agreement that there is so much potential in this little block of land, and we can’t wait to get started!

 

One of the things that struck me were the amount of stories people already have about this place – how connected to community the land has been for years. When the site was part of an Aboriginal reserve, many families lived in the area, and so at our meeting some of the garden team began sharing their childhood memories of the site and the surrounds. Underneath all that building refuse are peoples memories and connections, borne along generational lines and held in the land. It’s these kind of entanglements between people, community and place that I think the garden can enliven. And I think so many people in the Armidale community would love to hear the stories.

 

So we are planning a garden get-together at the site on November 8th, open to all. At this day Elders and community members will share some of their memories of the place.We’ll be filming and sound recording some of the stories, as well as people’s hopes and thoughts about the garden site as it is now and what it can become. We’ll also provide some information on the environmental impacts of illegal dumping, and how we can rehabilitate the area. This will be an early opportunity for community members to become involved, and find out about the different training and education opportunities that will be running through the garden.

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Even though it’s frustrating to have to wait to hear back from funding organisations to get the money we need to have the soils tested and the site cleared up, it’s also kind of nice to dwell in the dirt, and to think about this rubbish and refuse and what it conceals. I think the rubble hides the ties of memory and time that bind people to place, but it certainly does not destroy them. Clearing out all the piles of rock will be about more than making space for a garden. Tilling that soil may bring up chthonic histories that have been buried by change and the passing of years. I can’t wait to get my hands dirty and see what’s in the ground!

A great little film about community gardens!

A wonderful short film by Armidale City Public primary school students about Jo Leoni’s community garden out the back of the New England Regional Art Museum. Jo’s been a really helpful supporter of our garden plans so far, and I’m hoping we can do more together once we’ve started planting. She’s a legend! Great job on the film kids!

Ant Stories and Citizen Science possibilities in the garden

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An ant eating honeydew. Photo by Dawidi, licensed by creative commons.

For the past five years or so, I’ve been really fascinated by the vicissitudes of childhood memory. The Proustian journeys that take us back to schoolyards and peanut butter sandwiches and parents’ fights so viscerally that sometimes you actually feel your body transforming into some earlier self – a small person – looking up at this strange and big world.

This is intensified for me by the experience of moving back to my hometown. I went for a drive to my primary school last week just for kicks, and it brought back a jumble of memories – walking timidly through wide green corridors, shaky visits to the principals office for minor offences, the schoolbags in the hall that smelt of over ripe bananas. One memory was a little traumatic, and like many memories I have of my childhood, involved contact with nonhuman life (I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, we obviously live immersed in more-than-human worlds).

It was a memory from one of the more difficult times in my life, when I was about 8 or 9, and had been ostracised from a peer group. I was lonely and desperate to fit in, but I was also quite odd! I wore my shoes on the wrong feet, cried quite a bit, looked like a boy – you know, all the good stuff that ensures childhood popularity. Anyway, I was up on this big hill near the edge of the playground, past the monkey bars, and I was squashing ants with gleeful abandon. I’d like to say I was imagining childhood tormentors, but I don’t think I was, I think I was just getting off on killing stuff. A boy who I wanted to befriend, a boy not plagued by playground unpopularity, pulled me up on this saying:

“Stop squashing them! You’re being cruel”… or something to that effect.

I quickly retorted, “I’m only killing the injured ones that I accidentally stepped on, to put them out of their misery.”

This other kid could see straight through my weak façade, and said “That’s a lie, you’re enjoying it, you like killing them.”

And I felt this deep sense of shame, because he was right. I was a sadist, and I loved that I could exert this God-like power over these small and indiscriminate creatures.

You could pathologise this – get all Dr Freud – say that it was symptomatic of some deep violent urge or a reaction to disempowerment, and maybe it was, but I tend to think it was far more simple than that. The ants didn’t really mean much to me. They were plentiful, tiny, and disconnected from my world – I never thought that they had any relationship to anything that mattered. They were at best a minor inconvenience, and at worst, a series of disposable bodies on which I could play out life and death games like “how long does it take a magnifying glass + the sun to make an ant shrivel up?” or “can an ant that’s missing three legs still walk?”

My world was empty of ant stories. I had no narrative lines to weave ants to other lives, and to the places I was living in. The bodies were isolated – and instead of their movement making beautiful patterns of connection, they made a mess, because I didn’t see anything but disjointed little black dots. I didn’t see the intricacies of their antennae, even as I held a magnifying glass to their heads, because the magnifying glass wasn’t there to see with, it was there to burn with. I didn’t see their complex sociality, and I certainly didn’t see their connections to our shared world.

And maybe it’s not just that I lacked ant stories altogether, maybe I had heard ant stories, but they weren’t very good ones. Stories of ant “workers”. Stories of industry. Stories of efficiency. Stories of economy. Stories of armies. Stories of colonisation. Stories of multiplicity without difference. Boring stories. Neoliberal stories.

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Martins Gully Primary School students performing ants at NERAM, with Kirsti Abbott, a scientist who works in the Insect Ecology Lab at UNE.

This is why it was such a pleasure to attend the opening of Little Things that Run the World at the New England Regional Art Museum on Saturday afternoon. Having met with UNE entomologist, Nigel Andrew, working with the fabulously named School of Ants Citizen Science Project the day before, I was well primed for some anty explorations – ready to get my ant on! Citizen science is such a fantastic public science engagement, and I am so excited about the possibility of using citizen science in the garden as it develops.

What might community documented changes in what plants flower when, what insects visit, whom interacts with whom, tell us about phenology in a time of climate change? And how will these kinds of engagements link up with other stories, not just scientific tales, but cultural stories of plants, animals and insects, as well as personal and autobiographical stories?

These storied encounters could create a net of stories that, like ants following an ant trail, migrate beyond the garden, trace scented paths into other worlds, forage at the periphery of deeper narratives. It seems to me that citizen science data collection is just as much about supporting scientific studies as it is about storying the world, about making visible rich connectivities that are buried in reductive thinking about nonhuman life. And this could help us respond to the dark times that lay ahead.

At the exhibition at NERAM all kinds of ant stories and ant modes of being proliferated. Out the back were ant hotels for “real” live ants, inside was a giant ant nest designed by artists Jonathon Larsen and Benjamin Thorn. There were electronic ants moving about the place, cardboard ants made by kids, chimerical ants made of light projections, kids in ant costume doing ant performances, ant themed food, and ant infused tea (delicious, trust me!)

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Ant hotels behind NERAM

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Ant rockmelon!

I got into quite an engaged conversation about insect recipes with an honours student at UNE (who’s name escapes me) working in the insect ecology lab (a place I can see myself repeatedly visiting throughout my postdoc). She’s been making quiche and banana bread with all kinds of insects – a wonderfully sustainable source of protein. So if you come to visit, as I hope so many of you will, we might be able to dine out on ant quiche and grasshopper soup in the garden, as we regale one another with insect tales!

But it’s not only the patterns of connection between ant lives and the world, and ant stories to other ant stories, that excites me so much, but the way that patterns are embedded in the sociality of ants themselves. Deborah M Gordon writes of this in her book Ant Encounters, and the way she describes emergent networks of interaction is fascinating. She writes:

‘In its ordinary meaning, ‘network’ evokes a fairly regular array of connections, like chicken-wire or a honeycomb. But to speak of a network of interactions in an ant colony (or a brain or an immune system) is not to say that the interactions are patterned in any simple or regular way. It is colonies, not ants, that behave in a predictable way. In a particular ant species, colonies perform a standard sequence of tasks each day. Colonies respond to disturbances in much the same way each time. A colony’s behavior transforms in predictable ways as it grows older and larger. One colony’s relations with it’s neighbours look much like another’s. Although there is variation, and noise, there are clearly patterns in the behaviour of an ant colony. 

The patterns or regularities in ant colony behaviour are produced by networks of interaction among ants. The networks of interactions are complicated, irregular, noisy, and dynamic. The network is not a hidden program or set of instructions. There is no program – that is what is mind-boggling, and perhaps why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is so much we do not understand about biology. It is very difficult to imagine how an orchestra could play a symphony without a score. It takes an effort to avoid slipping into thinking that there is an invisible score hidden somewhere.’

And now I am trying to reconcile these emergent networks, with this: 

Anyone got any ideas? 

Settling in…

Well, I’ve made the move to the chilly Tablelands and I’m settling in, enjoying seeing family and old friends, and spending my nights by open wood fires eating stew! Over the next couple of months we’ll be putting together a steering committee to guide the gardens development and frame the research project. The support from the Armidale community has been overwhelming, and I’m so excited I can’t sleep some nights, because there is so much interesting stuff going on, people to meet, places to be!

At the moment the site we are using, a block of land leased to us from The Armidale School, is being used as an illegal dumping ground for building refuse, tyres and general household waste. Illegal dumping has been shown to erode land, degrade plant and animal habitats, and damage soils

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Over the next few years we are planning to clean up the site to turn it into a nourishing place, where people can come together to grow food, connect, share knowledge and stories, and promote healthy and community engaged lifestyles.

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Later in the year we’ll be engaged in some fundraising campaigns, so if you’re keen to support the project – stay tuned, as there will be lots of creative opportunities for involvement, even from afar!