This is a review of City Wilds, edited by Terrell Dixon. This review is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
City Wilds is a collection of 35 essays and short stories that range across the US from New York to Los Angeles, and from Miami to Seattle, via Colorado. The authors also represent a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds including African American, Native American, Mexican American and Asian American writers – something that has been sorely missing from the Small Rain series to date.
City Wilds is about urban nature, but more than that it is about the ways in which people connect with nature. One of those ways is through gardening, and gardens crop up in many of the essays and stories. The gardens range from large and suburban, right down to a flower on a fire escape.
In the short story ‘The Moss Rose’ an old man catches glimpses of his former, rural life through the city around him. In particular, the sight of a moss rose takes him back to his childhood. He observes how the flower offers comfort even to city dwellers who are disconnected from nature:
Little moss rose! he thought. The same patterns do exist all over the world, in cities and towns, wherever people live and arrange life around themselves, a bridge over a creek or a tunnel under a river, there is a way to manage. And a sudden sight of this human pattern in one place restores a lost recognition of it in another, far away, through an eternal image of a simple flower, in the hands and care of both; and in a moment’s illumination there was in him the certain knowledge of unity forever working to stitch and tie, like a quilt, the human world into a simple shape of repetition and variation of what seems a meaningless and haphazard design whose whole was hostile to its parts and seemed set on disordering them.
Gardens also play an important role in the essays by bell hooks and Rebecca Johnson. Both of their essays centre around the theme of black people’s connection to the land and the ways in which this connection can ultimately lead to black self-recovery and healing.
As hooks points out, in the first part of the twentieth century the majority of black people in the US lived in the agrarian south. The migration of black people to the industrial north therefore had a huge impact on their connection with nature. Whilst some black people, such as Johnson’s father, continued to grow their own food in the north, others sought to distance themselves from “old-timey stuff from the South”. However, both hooks and Johnson have revived this old-timey stuff through their urban gardens. hooks grows vegetables and when she puts food on the table that she has grown herself, she feels a sense of connection with her ancestors and, in turn, the land they felt so connected to:
Before I understood anything about the pain and exploitation of the southern system of sharecropping, I understood that grown-up black folks loved the land. I could stand with my grandfather Daddy Jerry and look out at fields of growing vegetables… and know that this was his handiwork. I could see the look of pride on his face as I expressed wonder and awe at the magic of growing things.
hooks states that this connection was largely lost when black people migrated to the north. Instead of finding greater freedom and material well-being, black people became cogs in a machine that exploited their bodies. They came to see their bodies as little more than a tool and, in turn, they learnt to feel contempt for their blackness. hooks believes that this made it possible for black people to abuse their bodies and damage their psyche.
For hooks, healing and connection to nature are synonymous. In order to heal the mind and the body a person needs time to use their mind, to think, to contemplate, and be able to engage their body in the world. Nature offers both those possibilities and it is something hooks argues black people can do wherever they are: Even in my small New York City apartment I can pause to listen to birds sing, find a tree and watch it. We can grow plants – herbs, flowers, vegetables. hooks quotes Wendell Berry, who makes a literal connection between health, the land, the body and the food we grow:
In gardening… one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak.
hooks also adds a further dimension – the spiritual: When the earth is sacred to us, our bodies can also be sacred to us.
Johnson, on the other hand, makes a link between capitalism, the commodification of black people, and ecoside. For Johnson the three are intertwined. It was capitalism and European imperialism that sanctioned the commodification and waste of black lives: The loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the Middle Passage from Africa to North America is a reality we don’t acknowledge, yet it is a powerful reminder of the waste capitalism inflicts on all it touches. And it is capitalism that has fed the rampant destruction of nature, fueled as it is by the wholesale destruction of integrated and functioning ecologies.
Cities are a link in this triangle of capitalism, commodification, and ecocide: Cities are the cause for and creator of much of the destruction of the natural world. They reflect artifice and decay and an unholy chaos. Johnson encounters this unholy chaos herself in the soil she tries to cultivate in the city, soil that is full of dangerous toxins. She also encounters it in the lives of black people, particularly black women, that have been murdered. She mentions the case of Kimberly Harbour, a street person and prostitute who was gang raped and murdered by a gang of men:
These young men have come to see their lives, and everyone else’s life, as expendable. They have absorbed the larger culture’s media messages about the worthlessness of certain lives – natural life, coloured lives, women’s lives – all up for grabs, to be conquered and consumed.
Yet, despite the city’s link with capitalism, the destruction of the environment, and commodification, Johnson has chosen to stay in the city because cities are full of people who want to cooperate with the rhythms of nature, they are also the place where much progressive activism originates, where people of color increasingly live, and where fundamental change must be enacted if the natural ecology of the world is to survive. If we care about nature, then we have no choice but to change the way we live in, build and care for our cities.
Johnson also identifies the class divides that exist in cities:
Middle-class urban life permits illusion and ignorance. For those lucky enough to have secure incomes, city life becomes very simple. All can be bought, including the ability to ignore the magnificent complexity of the built and natural environments which make privileged lives possible.
In one of the short stories in the City Wild collection, ‘Thank God It Snowed’, the narrator brings this class divide starkly to life. The narrator is a boy growing up in a Chicago ghetto. Despite his bleak surroundings and the virtual lack of nature, he finds a sense of connection with the natural world through the weather, and snow in particular. But the snow also reveals the deep inequalities evident in urban life:
There were other parts of the city that hated to see the snow come, and their snowplows worked almost daily trying to set the calendar back. But we prayed for it in our neighbourhood. There were no landscaped gardens for us. There had been no year of fun on the golf course. There was no grass to be covered up, only broken glass and pages of old newspapers dancing in the wind with the leaves from the big cottonwoods that were always shedding something. There were no rose bushes that had to be protected against the subzero temperature, only weeds that were more than strong enough to fend for themselves. There was really not much beauty at all, only a gray, dirty, sad world we had lived in for nine months, and we were delighted to see it changed.
Ultimately, this complex set of themes in both essays comes together in gardening. Historically black people were connected to the land, especially through the food they grew. The migration of black people to the industrial north and the impact of capitalist commodification on their sense of identity led many black people to distance themselves from their ancestors and their relationship with the land. With this generation a link in the chain that Johnson refers to – [the land] was a resource to be conserved, protected, passed to the next generation with its topsoil, its clean water, its stand of trees intact – was broken. Concurrent with that loss of connection to the land was a ramping up of capitalism and ecocide that has ravaged much of our natural ecosystems.
Gardens might seem like a small, humble solution to these massive problems of inequality. But consider that research has shown that obesity rates in the US are higher among African Americans than whites. There are a number of reasons for this: lack of supermarkets in predominantly black neighbourhoods; less safe neighbourhoods and fewer parks, swimming pools and green spaces in which to exercise; and a higher prevalence of advertisements for high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. The old man’s words come to mind: a meaningless and haphazard design whose whole was hostile to its parts and seemed set on disordering them.
Think how powerful community gardens could be – access to healthy, nutritious food, access to green space, and physical activity. And perhaps those gardens could also act as a bulwark against capitalists who prey on the poor and vulnerable. Perhaps gardens can create, sod by sod, a meaningful and coherent design whose whole is hospitable to its parts and seems set on giving health.