Tomato Plants

New metaphors for sustainability: the soil in my family’s garden in Yorkshire

photo: David's hands, his grandfather's rake, Hackney soil

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David Harradine is an artist working across performance, installation, publication and film, and is Artistic Director of Fevered Sleep. His metaphor for sustainability conveys his love for the transformations of soil.

We don’t even know what to call it, whether it’s soil or earth or dirt. ‘Earthy’ seems nourishing, homely, but we generally don’t like things that are dirty or soiled. Dirty implies sex, which is getting to the heart of the matter: productiveness, creation, fecundity.

I keep an allotment in Hackney, inner London. For seven years I’ve been digging kitchen waste into the ground, applying horse shit gathered on Leyton Marsh, and bagging up leaves from the London Plane trees by the children’s playground, waiting for them to break down into humus (brown nectar, nourishment, life). This soil, heavy London clay, grey brown, full of pebbles: this is sustainability. It’s what sustains me.

Everything I know about gardening – a knowledge that resides in my fingernails, the callouses on my palms, the ache in the small of my back, the blunt edge of my spade, and the dirty Tupperware box in which I keep my seeds – I learned in a garden in Yorkshire when I was a child. My grandfather was a market gardener. We grew gladioli, tomatoes, chrysanthemums, dahlia, potatoes and the spring onions for the market in Leeds. I remember one afternoon, my fingers stinking of tomato plants, when I asked him if one day the garden would be mine. I could not imagine how the life could continue without it. The very idea of family took root in that garden, with our hands and spades in that dark, scented, sensual soil; knowledge sown like seeds from generation to generation.

Soil: mineral structure fleshed out with the detritus of life and death. Wondrous recycler. Transformer of things into other things. As a child, it was unfathomable and miraculous to see the yellow-white flower of a double-headed chrysanthemum be created from heavy black soil.

Working my allotment in Hackney, I pull on the rake I brought from my grandfather’s garden. I have started to plan what I will do when my parents die, when that garden may no longer be ours. I think I will sack up some soil and bring it to London, because it carries time in it, and memory in it, and it carries my family in it, and I was grown in it. And I am sustained, here in the city, by the memory of the texture of it and the smell of it. And by the life, the life, the life that turns on an infinite cycle in the hidden dark depths of it.

 

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Artists Create Edible Gardens/Curated by Amy Lipton

Update on Down to Earth: Artists Create Edible Landscapes. Artists: Joan Bankemper, Knox Cummin, Ann Rosenthal/Steffi Domike, Stacy Levy, Habitat for Artists (with Simon Draper, Jeff Baily, E Odin Cathcart, Cathy Lebovitz, Todd Sargood) and Susan Leibovitz Steinman. For background information on this exhibition please scroll down the blog to see the last post on May 28th for descriptions of the projects.

It had been 3 weeks since my last visit to see the development of the artists’ gardens in Philadelphia at the Schuylkill Center and the new growth was lush and overflowing. Philly has a warmer (and more humid) climate than the Hudson Valley where I live, and I was shocked to see how much was growing in comparison to my home garden which produced very little in the way of veggies with the exception of cucumbers and lettuce, plants that don’t mind wet and cold conditions. My tomato plants got early blight, but the red and yellow heirlooms planted in the American Roots Garden by Ann Rosenthal and Steffi Domike were healthy and delicious if not a bit overgrown! The rain barrel water collection system by Knox Cummin has done a great job til now, but on this visit the barrels seemed to be clogged and we had to resort to the hose off of the farmhouse. Ann did a kids’ camp workshop in July at SCEE to create a series of art banners depicting the various plants, they came out beautifully and are now hung on the tubing for the irrigation system above the garden.

Water issues have been the biggest area of troubleshooting during the course of these projects and the artists have all had to be ingenious at working out ways for the gardens to be watered in their absence. Urban Defense by Susan Leibovitz Steinman is being watered from the house spigot, five hundred feet away with a soaker hose and timer system installed by Susan’s assistants Fern Gookin and Scott Torr from Philadelphia University’s Sustainable Design Grad program. Since Susan lives in Berkeley, CA, maintaining her garden from such a long distance has had its logistical challenges, but Susan has a great team in place and with added gardening expertise and help by her close friend Fredda London, a Philly resident – things are looking great. Many of the plants in both of these gardens are ready to harvest and will go to local organizations that distribute fresh produce to the needy.

Simon Draper and Todd Sargood of HFA were working when I arrived mid afternoon in the hot, sticky August weather, they looked wilted but happy. Todd was adding some recent art tiles as siding to the shed. These tiles have been painted by kids, campers at SCEE and from local schools. They will continue to make more art tiles to be added before the opening day. The 7 garden beds around the shed were tended, weeded and in some cases re-planted, as the earlier part of this summer was rainy and somewhat cooler than normal. Not great conditions for seeds to thrive.

Joan Bankemper’s medicinal herb garden, Willa, was thriving and the soaker hose system she buried throughout her 7 chakra beds seemed to be in good working order. The tobacco plants in particular were enormous and had beautiful flowers, something I had never seen on these plants in fields that are not allowed to flower. In the photo to the right Joan is harvesting some flowering hyssop. There will be a complete list of all the herbs planted in each chakra and their medicinal benefits to those areas of the body available for the public at the opening.

This project has been a real learning process for all with many successes and some frustration, but the results are already worth the effort. The artists have met with challenges during this “garden growing art project” that they probably have not encountered before, but took them on with dedication. They have had to depend on many volunteers and deal with the unpredictability of weather, animals, insects and soil conditions. Like gardeners they have been willing to experiment and to cope with these inherent risks and lack of control, all for a temporal public art viewing experience.

Everyone will be back to finish up the first week of September in time for the opening day on the 12th. August 30th will be a volunteer day organized by Zoe Cohen and Rachel Dobkin, managers of the SCEE environmental art program. The gardens will be harvested, re-mulched, pruned and mowed around the edges to be ready for public viewing. A gallery exhibition related to all of the projects will be installed indoors at the Center. Stay tuned for a report then.

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