The Solace of Shared Place

A ramble from Emy, the new Community Gardens Outreach Coordinator…
At the recent Wintergreens event, Josh Slotnick, one of the co-founders of Garden City Harvest and environmental studies professor at the University of Montana, gave an inspired speech about a walkabout he once took around Washington DC. He led us through the free museums, the streetscapes, eventually relinquishing the inspiration which led to Garden City Harvest’s humble creation; gritty landscapes in need of rebirth. In welcoming a group of nearly 150 supporters, dining on the once sowed seeds of last year’s harvest, Slotnick spoke not of farming, gardening, nor sustainable agriculture, but rather, he spoke of place.

On my first day at Garden City Harvest, my coworker Patrick gave me a tour of all ten of our community gardens, scattered across Missoula. We drove the breadth of this town through the lens of communal and shared places, from one garden located in a new condominium development parking lot, to one in the rear of church grounds, to one in a public school’s sports field. What became apparent was the adaptability of the community garden.  These places shared a purpose, to cultivate community development while connecting a variety of otherwise separated locations.

This is not a topic unfamiliar to me, but I come to Garden City Harvest with a different lens in how we construct place. For my master’s degree, I studied historic building preservation at the University of Oregon. While applying to work  at Garden City Harvest, I couldn’t help but think that surely I don’t have the background for this: I don’t have a degree in environmental studies or non-profit management, I’ve never worked on a farm,  I only recently moved to Missoula. Or so I thought.

I grew up in Bellingham, WA in a house that was rumored to be Tom Robbin’s inspiration for Another Roadside Attraction (1971), a once hippie commune known throughout the Pacific Northwest. My parents subscribed to the free- love era to an extent, and in the 1980s, they purchased the property from the city days before it was slated for demolition. For $40,000 they got a ramshackle 1906 cedar shingled house on 12 building lots with a chicken coop the size of the house, hailing from the same era. It was located less than a mile from the bay, and enveloped by Himalayan blackberries. While the inhabitants of the commune were replaced by my mom, dad, me, and our two golden retrievers, the communal garden remained. Turns out, maintaining a garden big enough to feed the once 20 something inhabitants was a lot to keep up with! Over time, our family, friends, and neighbors began to pitch in, planting and harvesting together. I have memories of running around our yard with kids of the neighborhood, while our parents planted. Of my British-Fijian grandmother frying homegrown tomatoes   and kipper snacks for breakfast (yep, fish for breaky! Seriously delish I swear, a recipe I’ll share in another post). The commune lived on through the auspice of the garden.

While perusing Garden City Harvest’s website in preparation for my interview, reading the mission and history, educating myself on the fundamentals of this organization, it became clear just how cross-disciplinary Garden City Harvest is.  I wrote my graduate thesis about defunct post- industrial landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, and their inherent connection to sense-of-place, the shared meaning of that place, and the identity associated with such sites. I advocated for the protection of even the grittiest of sites, that a beautification of place is possible through preservation, rather than demolition, that adaptive reuse of historic buildings is the greatest option in terms of carbon emissions, the use of skilled labor and craft, of economic development. Primarily, I advocated for historic preservation’s unique connection and ability to foster community development. Looking back on it now, I’m sure the history of my home, of growing up in a quasi-community garden, in a relic which at one time stood as the pinnacle of shared place, subconsciously influenced my passion for the old, the ram-shackled, and the adapted  sites, and all the good that can come.

Community gardening builds community through agriculture and shared place. Historic preservation builds community through shared meaning. Both facilitate the observer, visitor, gardener, to cultivate their own sense-of-place. Both tie cultural landscapes together. As a new member of the Garden City Harvest team, my past in historic preservation has lent me an appreciation of the local place and a specific lens in which to view our mission. Yet, this organization has taught me more – - GCH has taught me the many other ways of building community, and most importantly, it has cemented my belief in the solace of shared place. Whether a green garden or a defunct industrial ruin, both serve as reminders of community, and undergirds the process of place-based progress. Both bring us all together.