The art of digging as protest

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The Independent Online

What are these spring bank holidays if not gardening holidays? Days once devoted to celebrating the resurrection of God or dancing round the pagan Maypole have become sacred to the trowel and the seedling. As the days lengthen on the long weekends, in every road in Britain the lawnmowers are humming and the secateurs are clicking and cars at the garden centres are being loaded up with pots of delphiniums and bags of bonemeal. But what makes this May Day holiday a little different is that gardening is not just the social ritual of choice, it is also being feared as political subversion. Anarchists "armed with trowels and seeds" are expected in London today, ready to dump manure on Parliament Square and plant apple trees in the Strand.

What are these spring bank holidays if not gardening holidays? Days once devoted to celebrating the resurrection of God or dancing round the pagan Maypole have become sacred to the trowel and the seedling. As the days lengthen on the long weekends, in every road in Britain the lawnmowers are humming and the secateurs are clicking and cars at the garden centres are being loaded up with pots of delphiniums and bags of bonemeal. But what makes this May Day holiday a little different is that gardening is not just the social ritual of choice, it is also being feared as political subversion. Anarchists "armed with trowels and seeds" are expected in London today, ready to dump manure on Parliament Square and plant apple trees in the Strand.

When I spoke to activists in Reclaim the Streets, the main group involved in organising 'Guerrilla Gardening', they were keen to explain that with this gardening action they were moving the new wave of anti-capitalist protest up a notch. One articulate man in his thirties told me, "It's important because it shows that we're not just against things. People often say, OK, we know what you don't want, but what do you want? The gardening action is an experiment in taking back urban land and using it freely - as a meeting space, as a provider of food."

When you hear activists talking like that, you can see why their movement is growing. The gardening action may be a flop or a brief successs, but many people who aren't down there with trowels and saplings will be watching with sympathetic interest.

The use of gardening as a protest tool is a particularly powerful one in Britain. It has been seen before in many anti-roads, anti-housebuilding and anti-GM crop protests, where the activists mark out little patches of land on wasteland or pavements, and start trying to plant vegetables and fruit trees until they are moved on. It can have a peculiarly potent effect. Why is that? Partly because Britain is so much a nation of gardeners that anyone who knows how to make a garden, how to coax seedlings and saplings into life, doesn't look much like a crazy thug.

On the contrary, gardening has always been the most conservative and mainstream activity around. Even before Charlie Dimmock and Gardens Illustrated came onto the scene, the love of gardening has long held Britain in thrall. Way before gardening became taken up by peak-time television, the careful ordering of those tiny patches of land with their smooth lawns and brilliant borders was the quintessential look of solid, respectable Britain. If you take it seriously, the 'Guerrilla Gardening' action raises many questions about the way we live now. And one of those questions is why gardening has become such an intensely private activity. When we roll our trolleys around the garden centre, we are fixed on our own little space, with making our very own patch as colourful and impressive as possible. At the same time we live in cities where public spaces are being eroded, where despite new additions of smart galleries or shopping complexes, we make our way from home to work through crumbling, dirty, often dangerous squares and subways, dodging heavy traffic and breathing the pollution.

For people who have no gardens, there is often no local outside space where they can feel safe. I remember recently meeting one single mother who lived in a tower block in south London. She spent almost her entire life inside her flat with her nine-year-old daughter. "She has to stay in with me - the estate is very dangerous, and I haven't got the money to go elsewhere," she told me. "When she was a baby, I'd go in, shut the door, and I wouldn't talk to anyone for a week at a time." This is the dark side of a society where private spaces constantly become more and more beautiful, and public spaces less and less cared for. Our love of privacy, of our own little patch, can feel so benign, and yet it can also reinforce inequalities and our loss of faith in shared, public, community action.

By turning gardening into a campaigning rather than a conservative activity, making it a public rather than a private pursuit, protesters are helping us to think again about how we really want to use the land around us, both private and public land. Four years ago exactly, I remember going down to a swathe of derelict land in Wandsworth earmarked for brutal redevelopment. It had been taken over by a group called The Land is Ours who wanted to see it turned over to social housing and community gardens. It sounded so intriguing that I quickly got swept up into helping on what looked like an allotment made by hyperactive moles, with spirals and circles of raised beds that had been completed in a couple of days.

What do I remember most from the day I spent pushing celery seedlings into warm earth under the direction of experienced organic gardeners? Not the groups of journalists who were circling around the plot, but the people who lived locally and had dropped by to have a look, and stayed with their kids to chat and sit in the sunshine. The commonsense ideas of the activists struck an immediate chord with many of them, as they talked about wanting to find affordable housing, safe play areas for children, and places where they could grow their own flowers and food. Were these impossible dreams? Here were people prepared to start trying to sketch them out on the ground.

On another occassion, I remember visiting a squat that had been set up opposite the Model Farm in Oxfordshire where GM oilseed rape was being grown. In front of the little house where the activists were squatting they had, in the space of a few days, created a pretty, sustainable garden, with its existing hawthorn and nettles mixed with new herb patches and vegetable gardens. There, in the sunset, the activists were sitting around, drinking organic apple juice in the soft evening light. Again, for local residents who dropped by to visit, it was a compelling advertisement for the activists' ideas, as they looked at the open squatters' garden with its wooden boards explaining sustainable agriculture, and compared it to the Model Farm across the road, with its fields of GM rape and burly guards to keep them out.

However successful 'Guerrilla Gardening' is today, even if it descends into violence or farce, it should have a similar impact to all these other protests. Although these garden actions are usually quickly swept aside as the activists are moved on, they often have a longer term effect on the people who participate or who just look on. They make us think again about why it is that so much city space feels alien or downright dangerous. They make us wonder why, despite our endless attempts to turn our own gardens into private little wonderlands, we often feel angered or confused by what goes on in the land around us. Those issues are worth pondering as you take your geranium cuttings or pot your seedlings, whether you're doing that in Parliament Square or in your own back garden.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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