The skyline beyond the garden.
NOTE: From April 11th, to, well, sometime in July, Serving the Story is taking a road trip from coast to coast, exploring the role of service in people’s lives. Below is the fourth post from the trip so far.
The four of us sink our blades into the dark topsoil piled waist high near the garden’s edge. Some of us forget that, unlike the mulch we’ve been carting for the last hour, the finer soil stands to be far more dense, and thus far more weighty. I do remember this – but it doesn’t stop me from overloading, out of sheer stubborn investment in the task. This might be altruistic – I want to give as much as I can to the endeavor in the few hours I have here – but it’s also plain out-and-out macho stupidity. When my supervisor starts to push his wheelbarrow away, I follow him with my own; 13 years my junior, and in far better shape, he lopes along easily, abundant dreadlocks bouncing behind him.
He exits one garden plot and starts angling downhill to the other; I feel my belt slip, pause to readjust and take in the scene – only to feel a whoosh off my right hip; I twist, expecting to find a large dog, only instead it’s a sleek and shiny black sedan, its driver staring with annoyance.
She was entitled. Who stands in the middle of a street in downtown Atlanta with a wheelbarrow full of topsoil?
The answer, of course, are the volunteers and staff of Truly Living Well, an organization devoted to the promotion of organic urban gardening. The non-profit operates gardens in various spots around Atlanta, but this one is deemed the most dramatic – ahead of me is a deteriorating graffiti-splattered brick building; behind me, just one block away, the rush hour traffic on I-85. Only a block or two beyond the interstate, the big convention hotels of downtown Atlanta thrust upward into the grey late-afternoon sky.
If I wasn’t refocused on avoiding getting clobbered by downtown drivers, I could pick out my hotel, the Sheraton – opulent by my standards, twice what I usually pay for a hotel. Ironically, I shelled out the bucks for a little luxury because of its very proximity to an inner city urban garden. Since the relative rootedness of my 36 hours in Wilmington, I’ve blown through city after city at far too past a pace, reduced to being a typical tourist, only able to speculate at what interesting people I might meet volunteering in Baltimore, in D.C., in Greensboro and Charlotte. In Richmond VA I stared wistfully at the city’s food bank, in another city I glimpsed the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. But instead I had to sit through traffic jam after traffic jam, forced to make up for lost time. So when I finally reached Atlanta late Monday afternoon, I was determined to (1) garden and (2) get to said garden without sitting in morning rush hour. Despite being located near broken-down buildings and the occasional worn-down person pushing carts overloaded with recyclables, the garden’s only nearby hotels were among the most expensive – the ones people flock to for mega-conventions on the corporate dime. The conference taking up much of the Sheraton was called Vision 2014; the logo was a guitar, the slogan “Bank Like A Rock Star.” In 15 minutes, the bankers could stroll up to the nice restaurants up on Peachtree Street; in the same amount of time, I could walk in the opposite direction, pass beneath I-85, and wind up here at this garden, ready to work.
This was the dream.
Then, as is often the case with dreams, I woke up.
Lying on a poolside lounge chair this morning, I stared in denial for a few minutes before coming out of denial – those were definitely raindrops, and lots of them, spattering the atrium’s transparent roof. I meditated on my agenda – family was awaiting my arrival three hours west, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – but I couldn’t let myself leave without doing some gardening. And the first rule of any gardener, I reckon, is to set aside human arrogance of my personal agenda and instead respect the schedule set by Mother Nature. Never mind that three hours west waited my mother’s banana pudding with my name on it – not to mention a sister and a father, who would entirely understand not being mentioned until after the banana pudding. Confined to apartment living in a frigid New England climate, I now had a jones for gardening – a task that might require more brawn than making those palm crosses in Wilmington, but hopefully a lot less manual dexterity.
Mind made up, I dried off, and walked straight from pool to registration desk in my absurdly flowered swimsuit, extended my stay. Then I dressed for breakfast, sat down in the hotel restaurant, eager to step back from interviewing long enough to type up notes from the road trip so far.
Only, once you start noticing others’ acts of kindness, it’s hard to shut it out. Even in the hotel restaurant, talking with my attractive waitress, a black woman a little on the tall side with close-cropped hair, my eye drifted from the name on her silver tag to the words beneath it: “Connected to: Volunteering.”
Of course, I had to ask. She explained that the hotel asks them to list interests, and since she takes her daughter to volunteer at a couple of agencies, one an animal rescue shelter, she had listed volunteering as a hobby. I, of course, explained my mission; the rest of the meal, she rotates through my area ever so often, feeding me yet another tidbit of background or asking another question. I’m guessed she was good at volunteering, if only because of how well she served others in the restaurant – she never lingered so long that she neglected other customers, yet she had a flair for connecting and joking, making folks feel welcome. Turned out she grew up in Haiti and the Bahamas; in the Carribean, her family was often on the receiving end of charity, so now she wants her daughter to grasp that reality.
“Instead of take, take, taking all the time,” she told me as she moved toward another hungry customer, “it’s important to give something back.”
A couple of hours later, I caught another break – the rain cleared out early, the sun started to poke through. Despite my walking dream, I drove, as I was going to visit more than one spot. Wheat Street garden is one of several urban gardens Truly Living Well operates in the Atlanta are; because of the sharp juxtaposition of city and country, it receives the most attention. Friday is normally the volunteer day, Tuesday a day more for trainees in its urban gardening program. The first person I noticed was the dreadlocked man; wearing cargo shorts, t-shirt and a camouflage jacket (the better for hiding among the collards and kale?), he seemed to be pruninga fruit tree with a small blade, while nearby a woman dressed for the unseasonably cool air seemed busy raking up loose mulch back into the enormous pile at the edge of the parking Based on the specialized nature of his task – I was not even sure exactly what he was up to with the tree – I guessed the man was faculty, and I was right.
The man’s name was Kurt Reinhardt, but he went by Chin; he was happy to take a break long enough to share his thoughts on the enterprise. He’d gone to one of the elite black universities, Howard in D.C., where his classmates seemed far from the organic gardening, sustainable living types. (Then again, how many undergrads at any college are?) “A lot of people went to school with didn’t wear Birkenstocks, didn’t know anything about kayaking, weren’t exposed to long-distance bicycling or swimming or hiking or rock-climbing – the things I was exposed to because of family I was raised in.”
Chin working with old senior apartments beyond.
But in studying anthropology and sociology at Howard, Chin came across the work of architect and urban designer Paulo Saleiri, who championed the philosophy “arcology” – a dynamic combining of ecology and architecture. According to the website Arcosanti, Saleiri encouraged an “evolutionary journey of aesthetic, equity and compassion.” The elegance of the idea seized Chin’s imagination; even though didn’t finish college – in class he learned enough about finance to decide he didn’t want to owe the established system with student loan debt – what he had learned became the foundation for the life he wanted to live. This lead to his desire to help transform urban environments through gardens, as well as educating the younger generations about the importance of fresh food and organic gardening; now 43, he said he’s been a vegetarian since college.
I observed that he seemed to need work driven more by ideas and ideals than making large amounts of money. “As long as you’re building someone else’s dream, you’re not building yours. So I’m on twofold path. But without service I’d feel empty. There has to be a giveback.
“What makes me feel good? As young person I wanted to be a ranger. This is about as close as I can get to being a ranger while living the urban life – teaching people about gardening and plants and rotating crops.”
One of Chin’s early service projects was working in an inner-city rap effort; the goal was to use hip-hop, then in vogue, as a way to connect with and teach young people. As with many careers fueled by social vision, the pedagogy of rap has found his way into how he teaches kids.
When I ask to hear the rap, he launches into it.
This is my garden, this is my garden
Food that grows in the garden, year round and longer
Will help make me and my community stronger.
This is my, this is my, this is my garden.
He pauses and I laugh, but there’s more – he has yet to get to the specifics of the lesson, after all.
Happy in the dark, covered in the vale,
so plant more spinach, collards, legumes and kale,
too many trees, a shade garden no doubt,
so set aside greens and grow some Brussel sprouts,
broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and beans,
even in the shade I can grow my leafy greens
lettuce, arugula, endive and cress,
grow local with the veggies that past the shade test.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
No sun don’t matter gotta grow in the shade.
He grinned. “Basically anything where you can get them clapping or bopping their heads helps,” he said. “They may not remember all 16 of the vegetables, but they gotta remember something.” But in addition to the sound teaching technique, it seemed apt for this garden, in the shadow of the city, reminding folks of a bigger, better world.
Ford-Hawse in front of the Truly Living Well office in East Point.
I’m tempted to get to work now, but the founder, Rashid Nuri, had suggested I also see the East Point central office. This, of course, was setting me for just what I’d hoped to avoid today – a rush hour traffic jam. But “they also serve who sit and wait.” I’m not sure the poet who wrote that line was thinking of I-85, but it seems as good a rationalization as any. The route took me past the massive Atlanta airport, but the rumble of 737s lifting off the runway does little to take away from the lush, green suburban neighborhoods. A different world. Amid that world, I found a small house bearing the sign for “Truly Living Well” – behind the building, the gardens stretch away from the road.
Inside, I found not Rashid – despite all our phone conversations, it seemed we were not fated to meet – but a woman with short hair and glasses, appropriately green blouse and coat. Smiling, she introduced herself as Amakasu Ford-Howze, the organization’s camp director and garden educator. While Chin hailed from Kentucky, Amakiasu came from even more northerly climes – growing up in Pontiac, Michigan, she finished her undergraduate degree at Fisk in Nashville, then went home to earn a social work degree at the University of Michigan. But it only took one year of interpersonal family practice for her to decide her true calling was in organizing communities.
Not that the communities are any less imperfect than the standard dysfunctional family.
“Conventional communities are sort of geographical locations that don’t have anything to do with the people who live in them,” she told me. “The people aren’t living in community, they aren’t making decisions together, often they don’t know their neighbors. I’m interested in people working together, creating bonds.
“Now there are these intentional communities, I think that they could solve some of our problems, reduce some of stress we undergo, some of the isolation we feel.” When I offered that gardens could be part of that, she of course agreed, but didn’t claim victory just yet. “Well, I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we are able to embody that as part of our work. But I think that gardens are a central organizing points and can help facilitate that kind of connection, by woreking together in a garden, having more of relationship – I think that’s why people love coming to our gardens – particularly the one downtown, that’s the one that gets the most attention. We have tour groups and schools and city officials and all those kind of things, and people are excited about the beautiful green space and the food that we’re growing, but also think there’s room for structural changes in communities.”
She told me that while the upper and middle class is attuned to the benefits of fresh organic food, the lower-income community near the downtown garden may need more of a values shift. “There’s an educational gap,” she said. “People in the community know we’re there, but they haven’t come to check it out, don’t realize, No. 1, the benefit of fresh organic food or, NO. 2, the detriment of the current food system we’re participating in.”
Driving back downtown, my mind drifted to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota – there the population of Lakota have depended so long on processed food doled out by the government, it almost seemed I saw more diabetes-related clinics than I saw casinos. Horrific. But I reminded myself that for all my book learning and financial resources, my own diet isn’t much better. By the time I pulled back in at the Wheat Street Garden, I was beginning to wonder if I had any right to be there. Sure, I was 6-foot-5, but easily 50 pounds overweight – pounds you probably don’t gain if you root your life in vegetarian principles. Forget about race or age – it’s my sheer bulk that tells them that, in very many ways, I’m not one of them.
But the mark of a great volunteer site is the ability to take in willing workers at whatever level they’re at, perhaps in hope that, in the inevitable pun, they’ll have planted a seed that’ll later sprout into, if not a mighty oak, a nice head of collards – which I will then choose NOT to boil with bacon.
Maybe so. That’s certainly one hope for the trip. For now, it’s enough to give whatever I can, and learn some things in the process. Of course, as always, I learn about the people – if you ask me about dinner with a friend, I’m likely to remember almost everything she said, but have totally forgotten what we ate. In this case, I stay on task, but I pick up details nonetheless.
Joya Green and Kelley Lockman show off the biceps of veteran gardeners.
For instance, Joya Green , 31, grew up black in Atlanta; her family’s participation in volunteering through Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church was one factor in her choosing a life of service, but as a student at Cornell, she also suspects coming from a relatively privileged life also gave her the confidence. Classmates from poorer background, she noted, had more pressure to make money with that Cornell education. Then came AmeriCorps back in Atlanta, followed by the Peace Corps in Costa Rica.
“The Peace Corps helped me see that it’s not about how much money you make, it’s’ about your life choices and how they makes you feel. I’m always glad to say that I’ve still gotten to do what I wanted to do. That’s been about faith. I thank God for that.”
One thing she wants to do, and is doing, is applying the ideals of Truly Living Well to HEARTH, the shelter for homeless boys where she works part-time. Joya’s helping the boys there create a raised garden bed atop the asphalt.
What strikes me, again, is that in the Truly Living Well universe, it’s not enough just to feed people – it’s to feed them with the right food, while teaching them to know the difference. There’s an elegance to the design, to the idea, to the way that, for my fellow volunteers, the very basic choice of what you put in your mouth connects to your philosophy of life, even to the manner in which they serve others. They have a way of life they believe in, and they want to spread the word. With the garden next door to crumbling buildings in one direction and an interstate clogged with people in too much of a hurry to eat anything more than a drive-through burger, the impact of Truly Living Well might seem intangible. But even here, amid the raised boxes of vegetables that might hide old porches or concrete foundations or asphalt, we have to trust that roots are still running under the ground.
So we keep working, and laughing, Chin and Joya and Kelley and, unlikeliest of all, this lumbering old carnivore, putting my bad back at risk as I keep loading and unloading the topsoil and mulch, bending over to power the wheelbarrow through the aisles between raised beds of kale and tomatoes, collards and green garlic, and more plants I can’t even name. We keep filling the furrows while Chin explains why we’re doing what we’re doing.
His reasons sound good enough to me.
Maybe some day I’ll make them my own.
Chin and I parody the Green Acres parody of American Gothic.