Jul 122011

The Rosa Parks of Sustainable Gardening?

Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to accommodate a white passenger. That act of civil disobedience resulted in her arrest, and quickly became one of the defining and most memorable acts of resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.

It might be a stretch to describe Julie Bass as “the Rosa Parks of sustainable gardening”… but not by much. Bass is no activist. She’s just a homeowner living in Oak Park, Michigan, who planted a vegetable garden in her front yard — like the one Michelle Obama planted on the front lawn of the White House, she notes — and who now faces arrest and jail time if she refuses to tear it down.

Why? Because of a city ordinance which reads, “All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material.” And a complaint from a neighbor to a city councilman that the front-yard garden looked like a “New Orleans cemetery.”

Since when is a vegetable garden not considered “live plant material”? The debate turns around the meaning of the word “suitable,” with city officials arguing that, “If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard.” Of course, the word “suitable” does not mean “common” (no, not even according to the dictionary), and Bass’ attorney Solomon Radner argues that the term is intentionally vague, allowing the city to enforce arbitrary policies, and therefore unconstitutional. Even if city officials were correct about the meaning of the word “suitable,” however, Radner points out that the ordinance itself also lists several exceptions, including vegetable gardens: “Exempted from the provisions of this article, inclusive, are flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots.”

This confrontation over property aesthetics might have remained a local matter if it hadn’t been for Facebook, where multiple fan pages in support of Julie Bass’ cause have sprung up, spurring broad international criticism of the Michigan suburb’s position. City officials complain they’re being misunderstood. “We’re not against people having gardens,” said City Manager Rick Fox. “Just not in their front yards.” Sure, and it’s fine for African-Americans to ride the bus… as long as they sit in the back, right Rick?

Of course, that comparison’s a bit of hyperbole — but again, not by much.

This summer, the U.S. continues to face devastating floods, droughts and fires that threaten large swathes of midwest farmland and bring the consequences of human-caused climate change into inescapable focus. Political and cultural leaders all over the world acknowledge that environmental destruction has become so dire and so wide-spread, it is perhaps the single most difficult, most vital challenge we will face in our lifetimes, on which the continued existence of the human species itself might depend. If the rights of our fellow human beings to live freely and equally continues to be an issue of immense importance, how much more so the rights of the earth and its ecosystems on which we depend to live free from pollution, exploitation and destruction?

Yet cases like Julie Bass’ illustrate how unsustainable, un-”green” practices and lifestyles are not only culturally ubiquitous, but sometimes even dictated by law. It has long been known that expansive lawns of perfectly-manicured grass are not only exceedingly expensive to maintain in many areas of the country, but that monocultures of non-native plants are unhealthy for the local environment, depleting nutrients in the soil and disrupting the careful balance of local insect and wildlife populations leading to problems with disease and pest control. Environmentally-minded individuals might wonder, in such cases, if maybe we should take a long, hard look at what else the word “suitable” might mean (which the dictionary actually defines as “right, appropriate or fitting for a particular person, purpose, situation or place”).

Loving the Earth is a Political Act

All across the U.S., as well as internationally, people are beginning to do just that, and discovering that seemingly common-sense steps to make their homes and properties more eco-friendly often run up against antiquated property laws meant to enforce aesthetic values often based on underlying, unacknowledged classism, racism and industry profits. The result? A growing movement of eco-activists taking matters into their own hands through sensible, everyday acts of civil disobedience. Far from the “eco-terrorists” who blow up buildings or destroy property in protest of exploitation and pollution, many eco-activists today are ordinary citizens working on a local level to overturn outdated laws that keep them from living gently and respectfully with the earth.

Though Julie Bass and her family might not consider themselves such activists, they’re part of that movement, too, in defending their right to grow their own vegetables on their property. The trend of growing sustainable, eco-friendly “Victory Gardens” has picked up steam among green-minded (and green-thumbed) Americans in recent years. Modeled after the wartime vegetable, fruit and herb gardens grown during the World Wars of the last century by private citizens trying reduce pressure on public food supplies, modern-day Victory Gardens combat climate change on several fronts. Using sustainable gardening techniques to grow local food means relying less on factory-farmed produce fertilized with petrochemicals and sprayed down with damaging pesticides that then must be shipped across country. Hands-on gardening helps to reconnect us with the local landscape, the local community and our own physical bodies. Michelle Obama sees her White House Victory Garden as a step in her campaign against childhood obesity, by encouraging healthier eating habits and a renewed enjoyment of fresh fruits and vegetables. As the interest in Victory Gardens increases, cities like Oak Park will face the task of re-evaluating ordinances which seek to protect property values by enforcing a specific value judgement about the aesthetic and practical concerns of landscaping and gardening.

Another way individuals are quietly embracing acts of civil disobedience is by line-drying their clothes. In many cities and towns all over the country, it is actually illegal to line-dry laundry, despite the obvious ecological and personal benefits of this age-old practice. Why? “Many homeowner associations seem to believe that the act of air drying clothing present their developments as being low-income,” saying that for some “clotheslines connote a landscape of poverty rather than flowering fields.” The advocacy group Project Laundry List works to overturn this classcist attitude by supporting a “Right to Dry” bill and helping to educate individuals about the benefits of line-drying.

Perhaps one of the neatest and most committed ways people are engaging in eco-civil disobedience is through the Small Living or Tiny House Movement. In the wake of the housing bubble and bust, people are turning their backs on the dream of a McMansion with private drive and in-ground pool, and are looking for homes with smaller ecological footprints — both figuratively, and literally! Tiny houses are small cottages or cabins built from sustainable, natural materials on trailer beds or permanent foundations ranging between 65 and 140 square feet. Not only does it take less energy to heat, cool, light and clean such a small residence, but folks who choose the tiny house lifestyle choose to live with fewer material possessions and a greater reliance on community spaces and public amenities. Some build tiny houses in gorgeous natural landscapes, trading spacious indoor rooms for amber fields, majestic mountains and spacious skies.

The problem is that the small size of tiny houses breaks many conventional building and zoning codes concerning the appropriate size of a single family permanent residence. Some cities have even gone so far as to make it illegal to camp in your own backyard, to prevent homeowners from setting up tiny houses as permanent “camps” for themselves or others. Such laws are in place for a variety of reasons — including concerns for safety, aesthetics, over-crowding and property value — though many of them were determined by the housing industry itself as a way of ensuring what Jay Shafer calls “mandatory consumption” of larger-than-necessary residences. Shafer, founder of the popular Tumbleweed Tiny House Company which designs and builds tiny houses, lists civil disobedience as one of his primary motivations for his and his company’s work, and is committed to proving that house size is not a requirement for safety, prosperity, or happiness.

The nonviolent, community-oriented principles of civil disobedience have been used effectively in some of the most profound cultural movements in the world, including the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements in the United States. And the idea of civil disobedience is not new. In 1849, the famed naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau published his essay “Civil Disobedience” encouraging individual citizens to act in good conscience as “a counter friction” or resistance against the institutional “machine” of any government that produced injustice. As the writer of Walden, a book of reflections on simple living in harmony with nature and a deeply influential text for the modern environmentalist movement, I like to think Thoreau would be particularly pleased at the role of civil disobedience has played in recent years in expressing our love of the natural world and our willingness to work to protect and care for it.

This post was originally published at No Unsacred Place.

May 212010

“If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”—Thomas Jefferson

When I was younger (and had spiky, multicolored hair) I had a very romantic vision of myself as a rebel. One who lives by her own bad ass rules. As I’ve grown older I have discovered to my chagrin that I am, by nature, a rule follower. It is rare for me to break the rules, even when I disagree with them. Work to change them, yes. Voice how idiotic they are, yes. Violate them, probably not. The ethics of Hellenismos have only intensified this trait.

While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.
- Pericles, the Funeral Oration

Others don’t seem to share my inhibitions and joyfully break laws they feel are unjust. So while I (probably) won’t break these asinine laws, I will highlight a few groups of people who do in the hopes that more people can become involved in either changing these restrictive laws or stop more of them, like HR 2749, from becoming a law. Or hell, perhaps you may want to join in the flagrant violating as well.

Guerrilla gardeners are people who garden on another person’s land without permission. They trespass. The gardens could be planted on public property like a median strip between lanes of traffic or in a city park or it could happen on an abandoned plot of private property. Guerrilla gardeners believe that who actually owns the land isn’t as important as how they are (mis)using it. If the land if being abused or neglected they see nothing wrong with planting food or sometimes flowers there.

The goal is not just to plant a few things and then forget about the area, the goal for most guerrilla gardeners is to beautify and tend the secret plots and eventually harvest and eat what they have planted.

Guerrilla gardeners are not usually arrested by police or charged with trespassing since they are careful to pick only neglected areas to practice their green activism on. Plus, most police and public authorities are either amused or bewildered when confronted with a mob of people armed with plants and seeds determined to garden.

So “out” is this group that there is a web community where you can post a photo and a location of a plot of poor land and ask others to help you plant it on a specific date.  They also tell you how to construct and use “seed bombs.”

Students at Köln International School of Design engage in guerrilla gardening

The next two groups are far less “out” than guerrilla gardeners.

The Poultry Underground are city dwellers who raise chickens – either legally or illegally. I would love to link you to an on line community for those who raise chickens illegally, but I’ve yet to find one that wasn’t “locked.” People within legal and illegal urban chicken farming groups exchange information on how to properly care for chickens raised in apartments, how to avoid ticking off your neighbors (so they don’t call the cops on you), the locations of good roosters for romantic dates with your hens, and how to get laws changed in your city to allow legal chicken raising.

It appears very few chickens are raised for meat, but are valued for their abundant and tasty eggs and for the companionship the chickens provide to their owners.

To get an idea of what urban chicken farming is all about, you may want to see Mad City Chickens.

Mad City Chickens is a sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical look at the people who keep urban chickens in their backyards. From chicken experts and authors to a rescued landfill hen or an inexperienced family that decides to take the poultry plunge—and even a mad professor and giant hen taking to the streets—it’s a humorous and heartfelt trip through the world of backyard chickendom.

Click here for a list of upcoming movie screening dates. And yes, they are showing the film overseas!

Raw Milk drinkers believe there are health and taste benefits to drinking unpasteurized, non-homogenized milk. Some think it helps protect against allergies, can ward off arthritis, and cures certain skin conditions. Most of raw milks devotees are also part of the natural foods movement whose members try to only eat foods that are minimally processed and don’t contain hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, artificial sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings.

In half of the states of the USA selling or buying raw milk direct-to-consumer or in a store is illegal due to valid concerns over the safety of consuming unpasteurized milk. The FDA strongly advises people not to drink raw milk due to possible Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria contamination. Raw milk drinkers say this danger is grossly overblown and that no food is 100% safe. If raw milk is banned, why is risky sushi allowed? Or E. coli laden tomatoes or lettuce? After all – the largest outbreak of E. coli to date was from pasteurized milk. Over 200,000 sick and 18 dead. In over 10 years 800 people have become ill from raw milk or cheese made from raw milk and there have been no deaths.

Even more than the urban chicken movement, raw milk sellers and buyers are underground. The names of farmers willing to sell raw milk are passed around only to those whom you personally trust. Raw milk drinkers are warned not to let doctors know if they drink the milk or give it to their children for fear that the doctor will alert the authorities. Don’t laugh, it’s happened. Secrecy, to protect the farmer, is paramount. I know I could score a dime of pot faster than I could score some raw milk.

But raw milk proponents are becoming more vocal and organized about making or keeping raw milk legal.  The Organic Consumers Association has launched a  campaign to save raw milk and Boston was the site of a raw milk “drink in”.

All three of these groups have something in common. They are filled with people who desire a food or a way of producing food so much that they are willing to break the law to do it. And if the Senate approves S 510 as the House has already approved HR 2749, there will be many more foods and ways of producing food that become illegal.

HR 2749 – The Food Safety Enhancement Act and S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010
HR 2749 passed in the House, after some moderate changes were made, and now sits ready for the Senate to tackle as a sister Bill, S. 510 the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. The Senate hasn’t been as quick to move on it as first thought, but it could gain priority after the usual summer lettuce and tomato E. coli season picks up.

Proponents of the Bills say this is a measure to improve food safety both from food produced within the USA and for imported foods. U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich explains why the Bill is needed.

“The legislation requires foreign and domestic food facilities to have safety plans in place to prevent food hazards before they occur, increases the frequency of inspections. Additionally, it provides strong, flexible enforcement tools, including mandatory recall. Most importantly, this bill generates the resources to support FDA food-safety activities.”

Opponents say this Bill will end small scale farming and sustainable farming practices in favor of harmful and unhealthy industrial methods. While there are other portions of both Bills that small and sustainable farmers and their supporters see as worrisome, these are the main objections.

  • They say that the Bill requires the use of approved pesticides for crops and drugs to be used on animals to keep the food supply “safe”. That corporations like Monsanto had a major role in writing up the pesticide and animal feed guidelines and they are not known as champions of food supply ethics.
  • Animals cannot be on the same farm as crops. So rotation farming and other sustainable farming techniques like using animal manure for fertilizing the fields would no longer be allowed.
  • If a farm wishes to use sustainable or organic farming techniques they must register and be certified as an organic farmer – a process that is costly and would hit small scale farmers hard.
  • Failure to abide by this law results can result in fines, prison terms, and loss of land.

For further reading on these two Bills – go here for the cliff notes version and here for a longer article.  Here is a PDF version.  All articles urge you to call or email your Senator to urge them to not pass S 510.

These two Bills, HR 2749 and S 510 would make criminals of even more people for the crime of wanting to produce and eat natural, sustainably grown, locally produced food. For those of us who like a bit of junk once in a while, bad news - salt is in the federal cross hairs, too. The collateral damage of the war on salt could be bacon. Now THAT could get me to lead an underground, illegal food movement.