Letting Go and Coming Back

“If you want to keep a plant, give it away!” Brian Holden rejoiced. We were in the Growing Communities’ Springfield garden, about ten years ago, where for some time sithe, a kind of perennial scallion, had been cultivated in the alium round of the rotation. Brian had cultivated these from a few bulbs gifted to him a further few years previous by Sari, whose partner had cradled them over the ocean from his – and its – native Caribbean island of St.Kitts. We’ve picked up the story at the point where Sari enters the garden for the first time, and is thrilled to find a whole bed of sithe growing, having lost her original stock to some disease or pestilence.

My mind has returned to this moment, and Brian’s profound utterance as, a year on from our planting out the wee rhizomes of the endangered Walthamstow Yellow Cress (see May 6, 2013 entry), it has established well enough for us to propagate, and send it out into the wide world. As we reach the end of the Waltham Forest Cultivate Festival, there are now five guardians of this freak East End watercress, making its survival in this part of the world more certain, just as its original sole habitat on the Walthamstow reservoirs appears less so. Furthermore, I’m proud to report that Slow Food UK have ushered this shy leaf into the hallowed ranks of “Forgotten Foods”, one of only nine vegetable foods to achieve the distinction. Forgotten but not gone, if our release strategy works.

Such selling or gifting of plants and seeds, the letting go in order to keep, is a common practice that might be variously seen as generosity or enlightened self-interest. Or, to use the term popularised by Peter Kropotkin, “mutual aid”. In his 1902 book of the same name, he presented extensive examples of how nature cooperates, within and across species, for shared benefit. Written shortly after Darwin, the concept provides a sane, rational and rich response to the tendency to reduce the notion of “survival of the fittest” to “every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost”.

Today as in Kropotkin’s time, this tendency has a powerful lobby. That’s why the EU is seeking ways to outlaw the distribution of “unregistered” plants like sithe and the yellow cress. That’s why genetic modification technology continues to be pushed, though it is failing in its own supposed objectives of reducing pesticide use and increasing yields; and it is driving small farmers into extinction; setting brother against sister and children against Mother Earth.

The garden in spring speaks of different possibilities, of working together for sensual and material abundance. In the glasshouse afternoon, the broad bean flowers emit a heaven-scent perfume better than any bottle. The bumble bees bumble about them, as bumble bees do, feeding themselves and performing the vital act of pollination. So we can eat, the beans can reproduce to fight another day, and, going underground, bacteria at the roots fix nitrogen for the following crop, whilst worm casts its dark magic. “The earth is made a common treasury for all”, the Diggers proclaimed as they set about establishing their outlaw agricultural communities as the English Revolution reached its climax. They may have been naïve, still they weren’t wrong.