Last year, right about this time, I was determined that my family and I were going to move. I desperately wanted to get out of the suburbs of my city and live more centrally. The main reason for this is that I wanted to drive much less and so wanted to live in a more walkable, bikeable neighbourhood. I also wanted to be in a neighbourhood with more ecological and social justice-minded activities. Additionally, I hoped to find a place with more space to garden. I know this seems counter-intuitive for many cities but in my mid-sized city it is not impossible to find centrally-located residential properties with big backyards. Plus my backyard was (and is) quite shady so I was especially hoping for more sunshine.
However, the dream of moving was quickly halted by angry teens who didn’t want to move away from their friends, a realization that I’d be driving even more (taking those teens to school and to see friends), and an unwillingness of my credit union to offer a “bridging loan” to low-income home owners. So I decided to make the best out of living in the suburbs. This is something I’d attempted to do before, but this time it felt particularly permanent (at least until the teens grow up or someone in my household has a well-paying job).
What did we do in order to further our permaculture life in the suburbs? We made a plan to drive less and bike more. We took a small amount of savings and ripped out our in-ground pool, replacing it with vegetable gardens. We cut down a couple “weedy” trees (Manitoba Maples). We tried to grow as much of our own food as possible. And something amazing happened in our space. Not only did our new vegetable gardens grow abundantly, but several patches of native perennials I had planted years ago that I thought had died, suddenly bloomed! Our backyard in 2019 was a riot of flowers.
I felt especially humbled by these native perennials. If we had sold our house, I never would have seen them flourish. In fact, they likely never would have flourished at all because I imagine that a new home owner would have replaced some of the gardens with sod. This realization has given me a deepened sense of responsibility to nurture the perennials I have planted over the years. I have four healthy Paw Paw trees that are too young to flower and fruit. If I left, I would have removed the possibility of ever eating their fruits. In fact, they likely would have been cut down by new home owners, mistakenly thinking of them as “weedy” scrub.
The thing is that we never know when the seeds – or even the seedlings – we plant will begin to grow and flourish. Not everything is under our control. Sometimes we have to spend time nurturing things even though we don’t know when and if they will flourish. This is true for gardens and it’s also true for social change and social movements. Maybe there are movements that, like my native wildflowers, seem to have died but will grow back stronger and more beautiful than ever. Maybe there are forms of social change that I will nurture for years like my Paw Paws, possibly never getting to eat the fruit myself but creating the conditions so that others can.
My garden taught me that radical changes are important for flourishing (ripping out the pool) but so is patience. In 2020, I will try to take this perspective into my social justice organizing: to take action that facilitates radical changes but, at the same time, have some patience. Some movements will flourish in unexpected ways and places after years of careful nurturing. One of the best ways to carefully nurture social movements and change is to cultivate collective imaginations about the other worlds we can – and are – creating. We may only get glimpses of those other worlds but we must believe that they are on their way!