I forgot my camera so I will have to record the day with my words.
I arrived at the apartment complex at 9am. Summer Place. It is a place of diversity and refuge. All of its 130 families that reside there are refugees from countries all over the world. English is not their native tongue. For all but the young English is their second language.
For the last week I had been knocking on doors and filling out garden registration forms. For nearly all the residents, the desire for a garden is strong. For many it is coming back to their farming roots. Generations of farmers, now in a new land, longing to connect to the land. Others it is a place of community respite, a fresh breath of air, new life, hope. Yet others still, it is survival, sustenance for their families.
The field lay freshly plowed. The people gathered in expectation and excitement. Garden day had arrived.
Measurements were taken. Multiplied and divided. A plan was drawn out. Pathways devised. Considerations made. Trying to be as fair as possible on a piece of land that was not a perfect rectangle, rather odd shapes pieced together. Yet a plan was made, plots for all 96 registered gardeners were determined. Measuring tapes came out as stakes went in and the plan was put into action. Words of encouragement as the plots came into being, quarter of the way, half way, almost finished. As the plotting was finalized the gardeners lined the sides in anticipation.
I sat down for a few moments to draw up a map which I used to put family names and apartment numbers on. It serves as the main tool to keep the peace and eliminate boundary disputes. It was also the last time I sat down for a long time.
With map in place and eager residents. I began the monumental task of assigning all 96 plots to the people. I had a few special request during registration, which I honored. Then I had people stand next to the plot they desired and from one end of the property to the other, we filled in the spots. With an amazing Americorp member, Hilliary, by my side. She marked the stakes as I marked the map. Slowly, deliberately, we made our way. After our first time through, we stopped for a brief drink, then went back over it again.
Just as we finished our second pass, with a large majority of gardeners placed, the compost arrived. I have witnessed this event before, yet it always makes me smile. As the property manager describes it, "All the worker bees are at it." For the next six hours, the property was abuzz with activity.
The sun beat down. People beat the earth with maddock, hoes, and shovels. Compost was added. Boundary lines more clearly defined. Some with string; others with trenches.
I witnessed the human condition; compassion, greed, cultural divisions, cultural unity, team work, resourcefulness, hard work, satisfaction.
I settled disputes as they came. One woman insisted she have the plot already assigned to another family. Over and over she insisted. Over and over I insisted that she could choose any other plot not yet assigned, one directly next to the plot she so insisted she have. In the end she relented and took the spot I recommended.
Another came over a cultural difference. An elderly African woman had asked her friend, A Burmese if he would help her grow food, as he had previous years. When the other African women saw that he had plotted their spots together they were furious. The women told me to change the boundary without her present, yet I had witnessed the exchange in the morning. The women herself had said to give her spot to the man, explaining the arrangement. I refused to do anything without the women's direct consent. When she came, they tried to convince her that he had stolen from her. He had not, for he is a man of integrity and great compassion. When the man arrived, with such kindness and gentleness, he defused the situation. All was well. He was growing her food, he would share all that he had. Later, in the day I found out he is well known in his country. A famous poet. A man whose words have caused revolutions, resolve and change. Although at a price, he has been imprisoned three times and is currently in exile. I am thankful he has found refuge here in Lansing.
As the hours ticked by I was brought gifts of bananas and oranges. Much appreciated as I did not pack any food. I sat with a young woman and had hand-ground tea of fresh herbs and spices on her porch.
As soon as the school bus came, the grounds were overflowing with children. Many went to work in the garden with their parents. A small group of them gave me hope for the future. An Iraqi boy, whose parents were still working, claimed their families spot. He had the desire to get their spot ready as he was witnessing all those around him doing. After being chased out of the compost by a well-meaning woman, I encouraged him it was fine to take some for his family. As soon as this happened. A group of 7 or 8 kids of four ethnicities, came to help him. For nearly an hour, the small group worked together, ages most likely between 9-12, encouraging each other, smiling and laughing as they worked. It was beautiful.
Some residents came hoping to get a spot at the garden. This is always hard. I worked so hard throughout the week to make sure everyone was given a fair and equal opportunity to get a spot. I knocked on every door at least twice, sometimes three times. I drew up forms with final notice stamped on it in red explaining they must register by Weds. May 13. Yet still, people came saying they did not have a spot. I wonder if some of these were people who refused to open the door and no matter how many different ways I tried to explain the garden, they said no. I do not want. I do not need. Only to find out that yes, they do want. They do need. Language barriers are tricky. For those who did not receive, they will wait one week to see if other spots go unclaimed. If all are claimed they will be given a raised bed on the other side the property. Thankfully we have this option.
The day went on. So much was accomplished in such a short time. I was fed rice with bean soup for dinner. My daughter came and entertained the younger crowd while their parents toiled in their gardens. She taught them how to do somersaults, cartwheels and back bends. They played hide and go seek. Between her and my mother they had the littles laughing and having fun.
At 7:30pm, our family friend arrived to return the tools back to our garden. It was a long, rewarding day. I arrived home, exhausted with a sunburn. I arrived feeling accomplished and grateful for the time well spent.
Kudos to the property manager, Ray, for providing the space, resources and opportunity for the garden. I know his passion to reach this community of refugees is greatly appreciated. Also, thanks to the Garden Project for the support in placing the garden plots, seeds, plants, compost and encouragement. My mother, whose presence is always appreciated. Bob for transporting tools. My kids for their help at various times of the day. And the people of Summer Place. As I see your faces, learn your names, hear your stories, and fellowship with you whether at the table or the garden, my heart grows with love and appreciation. THANK YOU!