Four hundred gardeners from across the globe laid down their pitchforks and converged on T.O. last weekend, October 1 t0 3, to show how growing together could rehabilitate ex-cons, rescue impoverished ghettoes, promote nutrition, democratize the food system and generally make the world a more grounded and secure place.
The gathering, called Gardens Of Diversity, Growing Across Cultures, at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel on Yonge, included workshops on increasing butterfly abundance, preserving heritage seeds, community harvesting in the Arctic Circle, going organic in Turkey and a truckload more.
In a field of amazing projects from Cuba, Brazil, Germany, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and North America, I was struck by the mission of many gardeners to see their plots as peacemaking operations, expressed most clearly in a session called Bosnia Gardens Of Reconciliation. "When I look at the horrors in Iraq today," sighs the heavy-set and shaggy-bearded Davorin Brdjanovic, Sarajevo-based lead gardener for the project, "I cannot help thinking that their nightmares are just beginning."
War wounds from the early-90s ethnic cleansing campaign - bombed-out ports, roads and homes; farms that rank among the least productive in the world; widespread unemployment; chronic physical and psychological disabilities; unresolved grief; and war crime prosecutions - still haunt Bosnia and Herzegovina as if the war were yesterday, he told the audience.
But the media headlines and emergency aid donations have gone to other trouble spots, he says. His country's 13 multi-ethnic community gardens, with 1,200 participants, aided by the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee, are designed to feed those who otherwise face desperate hunger, and to help victims of cruel acts of war work through bitterness, hate and isolation and thereby end the cycle of revenge.
"The garden is a place to leave behind war memories. People sign on as Bosnians or Serbs or Croats, but within a week they all call themselves gardeners," Brdjanovic says.
This evangelical gardener had no experience with growing food until the war, when his native Sarajevo was under siege, cut off from outside water, food or electricity. He survived some days on leaves and grass from a nearby park. "I put some tomato seeds in the windowsill, and how they grew I don't know," he says.
After the war, he linked with the Friends. Community gardeners, he says, "come to realize that they are all the same, and that most of the murders of their relatives and friends were done by criminals and profiteers who are not like the poor people who are with them in the garden. An empty stomach doesn't choose," he says, repeating an old piece of local folklore.
He has some gardens aimed at mixed communities of displaced people and returnees and some for specific communities: people with disabilities, or marginalized minorities like the Roma. His passion right now is a series of new plots in prisons, where prisoners, including war criminals, meet with and work alongside members of the nearby community.
Bill Pierre, a director with the Philadelphia-based Friends, says he was drawn to the project by its sheer down-to-earth practicality. "The people there had nothing. The only thing they had was lots of vacant land. It really was pragmatic," he says.
He relates that Quakers pioneered horticultural therapy as well as prison and asylum reform during the 1800s, all part of their commitment to find the "inner light" that glows in the most damaged person. Gardening is a form of contemplation in motion "that allows you to empty yourself while being fully occupied," he says, and to worship in silence while feeling free to speak when the spirit calls.
Of course, community gardens can't address a half-million displaced people, revive a decimated tourism economy that attracted people to Dubrovnik, "the pearl of the Adriatic," reverse the emigration of young people or raise the productivity of rural agriculture.
Nor can community gardens hope to address the double-dislocating whammy whereby the people of a formerly united and Communist Yugoslavia faced both civil war and economic privatization in the same period of the 1990s. Still, the combined experience of living through the siege of Sarajevo and planting gardens has changed Brdjanovic's approach to life. "I don't believe in material things any more," he says. "In a war, you can see how they can all be destroyed in one second."
Brdjanovic's attachment to gardening may also hint at the role gardens play as "transitional objects" that people use when weaning themselves from once secure habits, even destructive and dysfunctional ones, and starting to form new identities.
That's the view of John Ferris, a social geography professor in England's University of Nottingham, a participant in his own neighbourhood's garden that serves many Bosnian refugees, and a consultant to the Bosnia and Herzegovina project.
To get over depression, part of what people need is a chance to do something with others in the fresh air, he says. What makes these projects work, adds Ferris, is more than activity and friendship.
"It's part of the process of identity formation" after a wide range of crises, from earthquakes and fires to war. "To survive and heal, people need to overcome their victim status and grow a post-victim identity," he says. Community gardens provide the soil to grow the new self.