Tag Archives: hayes valley farm

The Gifting Society

9 May

“The idea of a productive protest is happening and I believe it is the start of a new paradigm in collective action.  The urban gardening and guerrilla gardening movements are some more obvious examples of this new trend.  It seems difficult for many to see the political nature of gardening, but for the people involved in these approaches, it is a gesture to raise awareness of what a piece of industrial waste ground should be.  Choosing to plant life and feed people in a neglected area is a way of publicly and productively making an opinion heard in an attempt to influence public opinion or government policy.  It is also a community attempting to directly enact desired change themselves.  This is protest.” — Robyn Waxman, “Rethinking Protest: A Designer’s Role in the Next Generation of Collective Action,” FARM, 2011, page 30

On April 13th, a young woman held up a copy of this publication from The Future Action Reclamation Mob (F.A.R.M.) during an evening of song and spoken word at the reception for The Green Arcade bookstore’s art exhibition, A Night of Surreal Superstition.  She explained to the audience the project’s overall aims bringing together students of California College of the Arts San Francisco and the homeless of the vicinity.    Her call was an invitation for others to join in this act of revolution.  Not only does the farm aim to produce crops for anyone in need of food, but it does so by participating outside of a capitalist system of commodity and exchange.  Thus, gifting becomes the exchange medium wherein the individuals of the community involved carry equal status.

Certainly during earlier depressions, in an unending recurrence of depressions which constitute the life of capitalism, jobless and starving American citizens have sought the means to produce and consume outside the capitalist system.  The Hoovervilles of 1931, so-called because of President Herbert Hoover’s continued denials that an economic depression would last, involved people who had become homeless building structures from discarded materials.  The aggregate structures were shanty towns where homes tended to be built in rows and the pathways between took on the form of streets with given names.  The inhabitants were people who had become jobless.  A large self-help movement developed in California where, at various times, 500,000 families were affiliated.  By the end of 1932, thirty-seven states followed the example set by California.  In Seattle during the summer months of 1931, an organization called the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) began organizing a self-help movement that centered around mutual aid.  Its membership rose to 80,000 in 1933 as it spread through the state of Washington.  The UCL negotiated with the fishermen’s union to lend boats for fishing.  Farmers were persuaded to allow UCL members to harvest fruit and potatoes that would not go to market, borrowing trucks to transport the food.  Bartering became widespread and highly organized.  By the winter of 1931, it was apparent that mutual aid would not be enough for the needs of the jobless  (Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808-1942, pages 277-81).

Whether or not today’s economic crisis has initiated current experiments in collective action based on alternative economies, the fact that a growing number of people seek non-capitalist solutions for the exchange of goods and services is notable.  Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE) (http://timebank.sfbace.org/) offers a system of time exchange in which one member may “buy” an hour’s time from another member, receiving a particular service, giving the service provider an hour that can be used elsewhere.  This system values everyone’s hours equally, eliminates the use of paper and coin currency, and builds relationships between participating members.  “…This is a system for people who are undervalued in [the] traditional marketplace,” according to co-founder Mira Luna.  One off-shoot of the BACE model is the effort by People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) SF to serve residents of the Mission and the Excelsior with a similar program.  Where BACE has perfected digital and Web-based mechanisms to enhance operation, PODER prefers community gatherings where people meet face-to-face (see Yael Chanoff, “Bank Your Time,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 2-8, 2012, page 9).

Around the time I read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (2009), a humorous and endearing narrative of a guerrilla farmer cropping on a vacant lot in an economically depressed neighborhood of Oakland (Carpenter maintains a blog at http://ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com/), I became involved as a volunteer at Hayes Valley Farm.  Located on 2 1/4 acres where a set of freeway ramps once absorbed toxic waste from heavy traffic, the Farm was begun by a group of visionary permaculture enthusiasts who contracted from the City of San Francisco at no cost for 3 1/2 years.  I could no longer afford the cost of courses at City College of San Francisco’s Environmental Horticulture department, an excellent Associate of Arts degree program where graduates are guaranteed employment in the field.  Volunteering at the Farm, the roof garden of California Academy of Sciences (a native flora laboratory), and Bay Native Nursery, run by Geoffrey Coffey and Paul Furman, provided an excellent alternative education.  Hayes Valley Farm operates upon the principle of regenerative farming.  In this case, soil is built rather than shipped in; urban gardeners do not consider the fact that when they buy soil they are robbing another environment of its most precious commodity.  We started with recycled cardboard.  Upon that we dumped and mixed donated waste chipping from regional horticultural activity and donated horse manure from a San Francisco stable.  The next stage involved planting the nitrogen-fixing plants fava bean and clover.  Once the fava bean was harvested and its stems and leaves returned to the ground, other crops were planted.  Marigold was used as a natural pest repellant.

Life has not been as kind as I would like it to be, so I could not continue indefinitely with the Farm because of a changing employment situation.  But the time I did spend there was invaluable.  Anyone was welcome to join in the creation of the farm.  The food that was harvested was shared amongst volunteers and given to people in need.  Since that first year the Farm has built a greenhouse, compost pits, sheds, a stone and cob community meeting area, and conducted classes on permaculture and bee keeping in a straw bale seating area (http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/).

The land will revert to the city.  The city will then turn it over to commercial development.  There is sadness in endings, especially in a case like this, where an idyllic but achievable dream will be replaced by housing units for the more affluent.  I was speaking to an acquaintance named Kevin about the Farm recently.  Committed to the redistribution of wealth, his imagination of late has been fueled by theoretical acts of taking.  He condemned the organizers of the Farm for not resisting the impending commercial take over.  He also dismissed these same individuals for being from a social strata of the privileged (he had concluded this after working for one month only at the Farm).  We had a heated discussion about it; I could not agree and we are both passionate debaters.  I happened to tell Todd, a work colleague at a temporary job site, about the argument.  Todd is the conservative type.  He loves statements like, Name a Communist country that hasn’t failed!  (His father served as a public relations man, not a soldier, in Vietnam during the late 60s, so I can guess his indoctrination to authoritarian views began early in life.*)  Todd was impressed that I had a “conservative” side myself.  But I corrected him to an extent stating my belief that any conservatively minded person would simply laugh at a project like Hayes Valley Farm, where everyone is on equal footing and the fruits of this collective labor is equally shared.  After all, the conservatives of this country love the capitalist system for its sheer competitiveness and some-people-will-win-over-most-others rewards.

The Hooper Street garden siding California College of the Arts was also begun in 2009.  Like Hayes Valley Farm, the ground was toxic, in this case from what was once a Greyhound facility.  Waxman’s husband terms the project a “Slow Protest” (“Rethinking Protest,” 34) because FARM is remediating an environment that took decades to form.  Waxman set out to determine how the youngest generation, the so-called Millennial Generation, would respond to such a project as a form of protest; she observes the California College of Arts participants’ background as part of “a generation who has lived a fairly comfortable life…young, educated, upper/middle-class students, who perceive no obvious change in their civil rights” (ibid).  Looking at generational use of forms of protest is one of the  more interesting aspects of Waxman’s essay.  Like Mark Bauerlein, whom Waxman quotes — “…we’re about to turn our country over to a generation that doesn’t read much and doesn’t think much either” (“Rethinking Protest,” 12) — I have not put faith in this newest generation’s ability to challenge the world, because of my perception that they are additionally apathetic and self-absorbed with the consumption of social media and gadgetry.  Waxman finds positive attributes: a preference for group-oriented activities, participation as opposed to spectatorship, and a desire for experience as authentic.  Waxman believes that Millennials “could be strong participants in collective political action and social movements” (13).

It is the form of protest that must be addressed in terms of effectiveness.  With the Hooper Street project in focus: “[g]rowing a farm is a prolonged engagement through time, not a one-hour vigil at the trolly car turn-around on Market Street.  While both activities merit credit, building a farm is arguably more sustainable, more productive, and more engaging” (“Rethinking Protest,” 35).  Folsom cites historian Clark Kerr’s finding of California’s self-help organizations or “productive enterprises”  in 1932 (Folsom, 278).  And I do believe it will be the necessary enterprise of collective hard work and example that will lead us to a desired state of justice for the environment and the social world.  Capitalism is a dead-end in terms of the betterment of this world.

* Because I did not want to open discourse on nation states and political ideologies while at the job site, I did not engage Todd in clarifying how communist states had all failed.  But the implication is that anywhere communism is attempted it does fail.  Perhaps he meant that today’s communist states have integrated some form of capitalism into their structure.  If that were true, then I would have to say the reverse is equally true: all capitalist states have failed.  After all, our own country has integrated progressive forms of socialism in order to ensure health and well-being for some of its inhabitants.  And corporations are unable to profit, as obscene as those profits may be, without forms of governmental assistance and subsidy.  A pure state of economics exists only on paper.  The relationship between corporations and government over citizens and their government are as true today as they were at the opening of the Great Depression.  Observations about Hoover’s expulsion of the Bonus Marchers from Washington, D.C. in 1932 still resonate with meaning.  The approximately 20,000 World War I veterans had marched on the Capitol to demand payment for a promised and Congressionally legislated supplement to their $1-per-day service during the Great War.  Congressman C. Wright Patman reminisced about the expulsion to Studs Terkel: “Who were the so-called bonus marchers?  They were lobbyists for a cause.  Just like the ones in the Mayflower Hotel.  They didn’t try to evict them (italics in place).  Why the poor come to town, and they’re put in jail for stepping on the grass.  The Mayflower crowd, they don’t have any problem at all.  They’re on every floor of every building of the Capitol Hill all the time.”  Heywood Broun also wrote of the expulsion, contrasting the reception of business lobbyists and their success in garnering massive aid to banks and businesses by Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the use of tear gas against the veterans: “For the banks of America Mr. Hoover has prescribed oxygen.  For the unemployed, chlorine.” (Both quotations appear in Folsom, page 321.)

Planet Home: Part II

12 Nov

“…a staid old house, where hoops and powder and patches, embroidered coats rolled stockings ruffles and swords, had had their court days many a time.  Some ancient trees before the house were still cut into fashions as formal and unnatural as the hoops and wigs and stiff skirts; but their own allotted places in the great procession of the dead were not far off, and they would soon drop into them and go the silent way of the rest.” — Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“The negro [sic] has an artistic charm that the white man has not.  The negro has inherited the charm of music, the love of nature and the simplicity of life.” — “A Talk Given by Mr. Louis P. Wilson in the Salon of the Art Center Association,” typescript, 2 pp. Scrapbook 293: Exhibit of work of negro artists (first of two scrapbooks), The Records of the Harmon Foundation (Box No. 121, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

I have come to detest lawns.  My step-father decided that a rock garden with shrubbery was preferable to a lawn as he designed the front landscape for our home in Southern California.  Still, the back yard featured a lawn with lovely jacaranda trees and a border of mint.  Very few neighbors on the block understood that an arid climate would not naturally support the production of lawns, and so, also cultivated rock gardening with heat and drought tolerant plants.  With an unlimited supply of water diverted from and piped in from sources hundreds of miles away, what resident would think about their use of an absolutely precious commodity?  Los Angeles and the history of its misuse of water is widely known.  Still to this day, over a century since it exhausted its own water tables, the city and county consumes water from afar.  The battle for the survival of Mono Lake (http://www.itvs.org/films/battle-for-mono-lake and http://www.monolake.org/about/film) is epic in proportions, a water source that, quoting the second website cited here, underwent dramatic change: “From 1941 until 1990, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) diverted excessive amounts of water from Mono Basin streams. Mono Lake dropped 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity.”  Activists were able to stop the death of this lake.

The problem of natural resources is not confined to the illogic of pumping water to a naturally waterless terrain.  Communities across the planet are now fighting against the incursion of global corporations that have usurped local rights to water, begging the question, “Is water a human right or a commodity to be bought and sold in a global marketplace?” (http://www.thirstthemovie.org/).  Waterways have been besieged for decades by pollution at our hands.  When I was a child growing up, the use of natural gas seemed absolutely benign.  It is only now, in very recent time, that I understand that the extraction of natural gas through “fracking” pollutes water tables and waterways (http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking).

My interest here in the extraction of resources, though, cannot be separated from man’s desire to transform environments into aesthetic and fashionable enclosures for the pursuit of comfort and pleasure.  Man has separated himself from nature during a very long history.  The separation between civilization and wilderness, between communal ecosystems and forest and other natural ecosystems is age old and universal.  Man’s fear and abhorrence of nature runs deep.

Within the United States, the encroachment of industrialization produced an irrational formulation of a pre-industrial man representing a oneness with nature.  By the 1920s, finding a symbol for this mythic being was directed at African Americans.  Observing the effects of the industrial age, Daniel Gregory Mason, in his book The Dilemma of American Music, wrote: “Perhaps the  most insidious one is the jaded emotional state…The fatigue-poisoned mind and body, too dull to enjoy quiet beauty and true thought, crave the crude excitements so abused among us; restless speeding in motor cars from nowhere to nowhere;…violent plastic arts using harsh angles and garish colors; noisy, mechanical, over-accented music.  The ‘jazz age’…is a joyless age, incapable of the happy serenity of creative leisure.” (William Heard Kilpatrick quoting Mason in Our Educational Task As Illustrated in the Changing South [Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1930], pages 61-2).  Thus, the Negro, to use the term applied extensively at the time, long before popular usage of Afro-American or African American, was singled out for being an emotion-centered being, childlike, “primitive,” and, so, as close to nature as man could be.  The evidence of this belief could be found in the extensive writings of the period praising the qualities of Negro spirituals.  Never mind that popular music such as ragtime and jazz were also cultural products of African American creativity.  Music critics and musicologists before 1930, such as European American song collector William Francis Allen or European pianist and folklorist Albert Friedenthal, predominantly found in this output of musical creation another type of the “primitive,” an expressed belief by some in a “savagery” that could be linked back to Africa.  African American writer Benjamin Brawley perceived even in the spiritual something akin to the primitive.  Critiquing London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Brawley found his music based on Negro folk-songs to be “characteristic of the melancholy beauty, the barbaric color, and the passion of the true Negro music” (Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States [New York: AMS Press Inc., 1971; reprint of 1930 edition published by Duffield & Company, New York], pages 164-5).

The modern Western mind has been searching for the primitive font of wisdom for several centuries.  Frances S. Connelly’s book, The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics, 1725-1907, is a good source for reading about eighteenth and nineteenth century attempts to derive inspiration from “primitive” cultural sources.  The cultures of Archaic Greece, Gothic Europe, even European folk cultures, served towards this end.  By the advent of Cubism early in the twentieth century, the artifacts of non-Western cultures were already being aggressively plumbed for aesthetic borrowing. Two occasions in New York during 1985 redirected my thinking about the use of cultural artifacts.  With the occasion of Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections, an exhibition organized by The American Federation of Arts, the process of interpretation was no longer a Western enterprise.  Maori writers and spokesmen shaped both the exhibition and catalogue.  I saw this incredibly beautiful show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Through the catalogue, I learned of a Maori oral tradition, which accomplished the feat of recording Maori history for posterity over centuries.  By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) offered “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: The Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, with a team of cultural analysts seemingly replaying the tropes of Western cultural appropriation and manufacture.  Although both exhibitions were breathtaking, MoMA’s show stirred considerable controversy, with criticism, such as Thomas McEvilley’s now classic essay, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art,” questioning the very basis of placing Western and non-Western cultural objects within a comparative analytic framework.  The entire enterprise of colonialism in a post-colonial world had become suspect, and the narrative of great Western artists deriving inspiration from the forms of colonial subject manufacture had become hollow.  As much as I love African art, I knew then that, taken out of cultural context, objects considered art by Western standards did not speak for the culture from which these objects sprang.  The standard art history textbooks at the time relegated African art to a minor chapter.  These objects were described as fetish objects without any clues to the nature of the spirits they supposedly represented nor the character of the ancestors they supposedly worshipped.  The only obvious factor involved was that Westerners were fetishizing objects from outside their realm of experience.

This is why I greeted the film Oka! with mild concern.  That I wanted to see it was certain.  I just did not want my enthusiasm to be distracted by the burdens of representation.  The film was recently playing here in San Francisco for a very short time.  Based on ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno’s more than twenty-five years among the BaAka, or Bayaka, (“Pygmy”) in Yandoumbe, Central African Republic, the story tells of one Larry Whitman, played by Kris Marshall, who travels to Africa to record the music of this community.  The BaAka play the characters of this story, characters who represent people in Sarno’s life from an earlier generation.  Directed by Lavinia Currier, and co-written by Currier and Sarno, the film is filled with rich acoustic and visual textures.  The performance by a group of non-actors is excellent.  I am reminded of earlier attempts to film stories within traditional cultures using non-actors.  Director F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (1931) advertised the fact that only native-born South Sea islanders, “half-castes,” and Chinese played the roles portrayed in the film.  Michael Powell directed The Edge of the World (1937) at Foula on the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland, focusing on two families that are torn between preserving their native island culture and younger members leaving for a modern world.  Powell did use professional actors but drew the acting corps from true islanders.  Salt of the Earth (1954), directed by blacklist victim Herbert J. Biberman, involved actual Mexican American miners and their families in telling the story of the 1951 strike against Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico.  Director Gillo Pontecorvo strove for realism in The Battle of Algiers (1966) by employing Algerian non-actors.  Rolf de Heer’s production of Ten Canoes (2006) involved an Arnhem Land, Australia community casting themselves as actors based on a 1936 photograph taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson and shown to director De Heer by actor David Gulpilil.  The BaAka are master storytellers, as Sarno relates in his memoir, Song from the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjellé Pygmies (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1993).  The acting demanded of them for the film ushered in a new dimension of story telling and required a different understanding than their familiarity with the documentary film process (refer to http://okamovie.com/).

My only experience with Pygmy music was through Deep Forest, Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet’s 1993 debut album.  The musicians combined New Age electronics with UNESCO field recordings of music from Zaire, the Solomon Islands, Burundi, Tibesti and the Sahel.  The vocal recordings of the Pygmy on the album are enchanting.  In the film Oka!, the title taken from the Benjellé meaning “listen,” the music of the people and the sounds of the forest merge and separate in subtle ways, an orchestration that makes this film an aural pleasure.  Steeped in the love of music, having once had the boyhood ambition of later becoming a composer, Sarno was reawakened by a song heard on a Flemish radio station.  Leaving from Paris with a one-way ticket and what remained of his savings, Sarno traveled to Bangui in Central African Repulblic.

The journey that Sarno (and Whitman) take is problematic for its exploration of an exotic people.  Sarno’s first impression at the camp where the BaAka live, is that “the Pygmies of Amopolo had strayed far from their roots and had degenerated into a decultured people” (Sarno, 46).  But, like the narratives within Tabu and The Edge of the World, there are forces from the outside world greater than a people can merely deflect.  Amopolo is a government-directed community, the BaAka considered uncivilized by their Bantu neighbors.  They have been forced to leave their ancestral home in the forest in order to live a civilized life, which also does not permit them to hunt.  Amopolo is near the Sangha-sangha village Bomandjombo, where the BaAka depend on a steady supply of manioc, cigarettes, marijuana, and mbaku, a locally produced moonshine.  In exchange, the Sangha-sangha depend upon the BaAka for meat (illegally hunted) and raffia.  Sarno’s relationship to his hosts is problematic for the fact that from the beginning he provides money and other goods in exchange for the privilege of living with and recording the music of the BaAka.  As Sarno himself muses, “Yet what, I now wondered, could I have brought such a culture but corruption, jealousy, and rivalry, with my cigarettes and gifts?  What could I have been to them but a kind of Pandora’s box, unleashing hungers that could never be satiated?” (Sarno, 291).

Sarno’s place within his adopted community gradually changes, so much so that he enables the BaAka to return to the forest.  In the film, shaman Sataka and wife Ekadi, played by Mapumba and Essanje, respectively, live continuously in the forest, refusing to partake in the Bantu’s terms of civilization.  They function as a mythic ancestral couple.  Unlike Adam and Eve of the garden who did not know their god, they know the forest and the spirits within.  It is their wisdom that draws the BaAka away from conditions that are unhealthy.  In Sarno’s narrative, the forest-cleared, sandy encampments that the BaAka live in are rife with mosquitoes and chigoes, sand fleas that burrow into human flesh.  Malaria kills a number of people.  Excessive mbaku consumption and other forms of aberrant behavior are rampant.

Another thread within both Sarno’s narrative and the film’s focuses on the destruction of the forest by non-African logging interests.  When Sarno first arrived in Bomandjombo, the logging company was run by Yugoslavians.  Their business eventually failed.  An attempt to revive the sawmill failed in 1989.  In the film, the Chinese businessman Mr. Yi, played by Will Yun Lee, who manages the mill, has a keen interest in hunting animals, and hopes, through a corrupt Bantu mayor, to implicate the BaAka in an elephant hunt, forcing them permanently off the reserve for the crime of poaching and, thus, opening the land to unlimited logging.

I recently attended a SF Debate event hosted by the Commonwealth Club.  The resolution posed to the group was: “This House supports the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”  Opening pro and con arguments were formally presented by two members.  Thereafter, discussion was opened to attendees.  One of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street Movement was that the movement’s concern over income inequality was misguided.  A young person, by my consideration, of little practical experience or knowledge of history, offered his insight to correct this.  Outside of the homeless, a “miniscule” portion of people in our society (those apparently dispossessed of possessions), people in poverty still had many consumer goods, including flat screen TVs.  Obviously this was a sign that our economy was healthy.  Of course, as a person who is temporarily housed, but still homeless, I challenged the ability of anyone present to accurately assert the number of people homeless.  But I also challenged the notion that wealth could be measured in terms of the production of consumer goods.  Where is our moral compass when a health prognoses upon our society is based on common access to  a select group of goods within a steady stream of consumption?  The poor in this context are so much like the BaAka under the civilizing terms of Bantu supervision.

I often think in mythic terms when questioning the viability of an earth mastered and run by a human population with an unlimited appetite for its resources.  In San Francisco, I see signs of engagement with the earth that envisions a symbiosis not based on exploitation for the material consumption of plastic goods and electronic gadgets.  During many Sundays in 2010, I participated in communal activities at Hayes Valley Farm, a volunteer-run farm on land temporarily leased by the city (http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/).  The push there is to regenerate soil through practices that do not take healthy soil from other areas of the state; the products of the farm are simply handed out.  There is a green movement afoot that I want to see succeed, that will take us, in Joni Mitchell’s words, “back to the garden.”  A garden conceived in our own moral health and the health of the natural world surrounding us.

Untitled, digital photograph, Felton, California, 2006.