Fences and Walls

Vandalism is pain to an urban garden. We’ll put up a stake or post in the evening for vines to climb up, only to have it ripped out of the ground, broken in pieces by the next morning.  Footsteps small and large cover our precisely prepared plots, our fledgling seedlings stamped to death. Trenches dug out are caved in within days.  Onions and garlic are chopped off and uprooted. The frustration is beginning to mount and we’re just over one month into the growing season.

It isn’t surprising that most gardeners bring ideas to us of how to better prevent theft and vandalism from destroying the everyone’s hard work and precious produce. Hostility has grown towards these punks in the community intent on destroying what we have cultivated. Many have left the garden over the years because they didn’t want to deal with the theft and vandalism.

There are two theories of community gardening–produce-first and community-first. When produce is first, the gardeners construct whatever barriers or deterrents are necessary to ensure that their crops are protected from unwanted pests.  Sometimes partitions between gardeners themselves are required, because some gardeners (or their kids or pets) don’t understand the concept of “what I grow in my plot is mine, what you grow in your plot is yours.”  This theory of community gardening usually requires very tall fences, barbed wire, flood lights, and heavy locks to keep unwanted guests from visiting the garden. It constructs barriers between members of the same community to protect the fruits of our labors.

The community-first approach puts kale and broccoli second, instead, focusing on growing a more thriving neighborhood and stronger relationships. It is harder in the short-term, but that’s the nature of taking the long-view. It means sacrificing some produce now, for a more plentiful future. But it requires more work. It requires us to be present, not just to ‘guard’ our garden (you can’t be there all the time anyway), but to engage with intention the youth and community members that surround the garden, to become friends. People don’t steal from themselves or their friends (usually); so we try to befriend and give them ownership of the garden and park. Even if they steal or destroy, especially if they come to the park without parents, we’ll be their friends, because it’s not just about the vegetables.

Constructing walls (the centerpiece of the “us”-first approach to community gardening) alienate us from others. We should be leery of walls; they don’t have a good track record–the Berlin Wall, the monumental Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, the walls of Jericho, the walls of the Alamo–few have proven to be very effective in the long run. A higher wall may just be a bigger target that provides only marginal or fictitious short-term benefits. The wall keeps us safe and private in the short term, but longer-term it destroys those inside along with those outside.  Insulated living hurts those within the barriers as much as it hurts those outside the barriers. Are you helping yourself or anyone else by hiding your gifts from the world?

In ancient times, the greatest cities were surrounded by high, well-fortified walls. The walls protected them from enemy-invasion and provided inhabitants with a comforting feeling of safety. (Of course, the commoners living in the surrounding area were often out of luck when it came to enemy invasion.)  But every great, walled city had to have gates too.  And the gates had to be open for any productivity to occur. The gates are where everything went down–commercial transactions, judicial hearings, meetings of the elders, international trade, cultural exchange, and public announcements. If the city gates were shut, it meant all commerce and civil society ceased and you were under siege by an enemy about to starve to death. The gate is the weakest point in the city’s defenses; it’s how an enemy would seek to penetrate the city’s walls and conquer its people. The ancients wrestled with this paradox of needing to keep the gates open for growth but wanting them closed for a sense of safety.

To experience advancement, prosperity, community development, cultural exchange, and friendship, the ancient cities had to make themselves vulnerable to attack, disease, and pain. In community gardens, if you construct walls between you and the surrounding community, you lose the opportunity to integrate into the culture in which you live, you set an example of division for your children to follow, you miss the opportunity of using your gifts, you lose out on the perspective and experience of your neighbors, and you can forget about tasting their delicious bar-b-que.

A couple years ago our sister and her husband were considering inviting a foreign student into their home. They were worried about how she might impact their young children and disrupt their comfortable family life. They opened up their door anyway. The first few nights they didn’t sleep a wink as they lay in fear; now, Doris is a part of the family as much as we are.  Ultimately, that experience brought more joy, love, and fulfillment into their home than they could have ever imagined. They Doris has blessed them as much as they have her.  You have to take the risk of opening your gates to reap the benefits that are outside the wall. The alternative is to waste away inside the false security of your compound starving to death.

Do you remember when you fell in love? If you’re like me (or just a man), you may have been hesitant to commit to that special someone, thinking of every reason why this love affair would be a bad idea. If you’ve been in love though, you made the decision to lower your defenses, opening your gate and risking extreme pain.

Ever lost someone you love?  It hurts.

In Shadowlands C.S. Lewis reflects on the experience of finding the love of his life and then losing her to illness a couple years later. He says “We can’t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today.  That’s the deal.”  That’s love. It means marrying an amazing woman even if you know she is going to die. It means enduring the worst so you can taste the best. For me lately, it means opening yourself up to a client who is seeking political asylum even though becoming his friend will bring an unbearable sadness into your life as you relive his surreal experience with torture and the murder of his family. But you also receive strength from his living faith and inspiration from the resilience he exhibits in the face of harrowing challenges, you see your own life differently with him as your friend and, when you embrace, you know you have a brother for life.

The joy and the pain go hand-in-hand; it’s the only way.

And so we see community gardening as a metaphor for life and love. If you want to experience the value of community, if you want to grow and prosper in relationship, if you want to experience God, you have to open yourself up to vandalism, theft, and pain.  That’s the deal.


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