I am a traveler who relies on serendipity and grace. I’m a fundamentally optimistic person and frequently procrastinate in making travel arrangements (odd, since I’m not a procrastinator in general). It always seems to work out. This week was no exception.
I was slated to deliver a talk on the Victory Garden movement of World War I at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library (National Heritage Museum) in Lexington, Massachusetts on Saturday, with plans to fly to the Boston area Friday. On Wednesday evening, I decided I should finalize my lodging. The museum had recommended two B&Bs. The first I called had no availability, but I enjoyed a long conversation with the innkeeper, a Virginia transplant named Mary Van. She recommended another inn – Morgan’s Rest – and suggested I call the owner, Alix Bartsch. So I left a message for Alix and crossed my fingers.
Thursday morning, Alix returned my call. She indeed had a room available, and I was welcome to it. She inquired about the purpose of my visit and I told her. And that conversation led to one of the most interesting and insightful weekends I’ve had in a long time. In addition to being an innkeeper, Alix – a biologist and environmental lawyer by training – is the volunteer lead for Dunback Meadow Community Garden in Lexington. Dunback – along with a second community garden, Idylwilde – is operated by Lexington’s Conservation Commission. Dunback is located in an area that borders on a wetland that provides vital bird habitat…and that is raising a question about whether the garden will need to be relocated.
Late Friday evening, I arrived on Alix’s doorstep. She greeted me warmly and we chatted for a bit about gardens. Saturday morning bright and early, she fed me breakfast (eggs from a local farm). We looked at habitat maps from UMass, which helped orient me to the community’s landscape and footprint. Alix lent me some boots and we set off for Dunback Meadow Garden. We parked on the road and walked down the garden path in a light rain. Waiting there were three of the community gardeners: Ping, Marita and Winnie.
Ping is a Lexington resident who is finishing her fourth season at the Dunback garden. She’s a software engineer in Boston. The garden’s convenient location enables her to stop by either on her way to work or her way home. In her 20′ by 40′ plot she’s been growing an incredibly large and diverse array of fruits and vegetables, including purple yams, melons and vegetables she uses in Asian cooking. This year, she has cultivated lablab beans with seeds from the Cary Memorial Library.
Marita has been gardening at this site on and off for 30 years, sometimes in partnership with friends and sometimes by herself. Like Ping, she grows a range of things, including asparagus, bee balm, kale, squash, garlic and raspberries. She’s worried how a garden relocation might impact her large blueberry patch, which has taken a couple of decades to establish. It has yielded up to 100 cups of blueberries in a single season.
Winnie was another gardener I met. She grew up in Lexington and returned here from Connecticut. She’s been gardening since her years at Lexington High School. She’s in her third season at Dunback, having transferred from the Idylwilde site. She also has concerns about a potential garden move. “Building up soil takes time,” she told me.
The wetland area that borders the community garden certainly provides an amazing habitat for birds. There are cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, tanagers, goldfinches, orioles and more. Marita is incredibly knowledgable about birds and pointed many out to me. While the city has raised the possibility of a garden move, no decision has been made and thus, there is no definitive information to respond to. But the local gardeners would value hearing from others who have had experiences with organic gardening near wetland or other sensitive habitat areas; please email Alix Bartsch directly at albartsch at rcn.com.
Dunback has an eclectic feel. The gardeners represent a diverse cross-section of the community and a range of gardening skills. No two plots are the same. The group clearly values recycling and they use materials creatively. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Alix and Winnie later took me to the Idylwilde Garden, which is equally wonderful but which has an entirely different feel. We also took a quick look at a meadow restoration project.
These women shared stories. What I heard and saw reminded me that one of the single largest challenges that community gardeners face is simply in securing space for their work. One of the most compelling lessons for me from the World War I and World War II Victory garden movement was the ethos that encouraged individuals and groups to garden in all kinds of spaces, both public and private, urban and suburban. We need more of that ethos today in terms of providing the space and resources for people to organize gardening activities.
After a quick shower, I was off to the museum for my talk. I wondered who might turn out on a cold, wet day to learn about community gardens in WWI. If you’ve attended one of my talks, you know that I lure the audience in with the promise of the historical discussion – including the fantastic poster art of the era – but that I quickly get into how these historical gardening and local food production models could help us solve the seemingly intractable problems we face today.
I was delighted with the audience. In addition to some of my new community garden friends, there were members of faith groups who garden in Lexington. A school nutritionist who has worked on a variety of community food projects for the Cambridge Public Health Department joined us. A human services organization that has just purchased a 70-acre farm to provide opportunities for their clientele had a representative there (and I hope to share more about their work as that project evolves). A fellow historian familiar with my work – as I am with hers – showed up. We chatted, hugged and agreed to meet next summer. And there were others. Our group conversation post-talk was about facilitating connections with one another and with those doing similar work in other parts of the community, the state and the nation. It was an absolutely stupendous afternoon.
It was one of the best days ever. And then it got even better.
My cousins, Mary and Ron Christie, live in Brookline, New Hampshire, not too far from Lexington. Ron works part-time for the University of New Hampshire as an Extension educator. He also works full-time as an organic farmer at their family’s small but growing enterprise: Living Earth Farm. Their son, Steve, was home for the weekend from the University of New Hampshire, where he is studying sustainable agriculture and food systems after an earlier course of study around culinary arts. We had a marvelous visit.
As we walked around the property, accompanied by the family’s perfect farm dog, Moose, Ron shared all kinds of information and offered me wonderful things to taste. I sampled fresh tomatoes and a Concord grape that was one of the most flavorful bites of food I’ve ever tasted. We collected tomatoes, spinach, peppers and more for dinner. As we warmed up in the kitchen after our walk and dinner preparation got underway, I sampled dried tomatoes. We shared slices of an apple that I am convinced is the best I’ve ever tasted. We drank hot tea with honey provided by one of the Lexington gardeners from her home apiary. And I had a growing sense of the vital – but sometimes all too invisible – web of relationships around food that sustain us, the web of producers that can feed us deeply, on many levels.
Dinner consisted of several home-made pizzas, with a whole-grain dough perfected by Ron over the years, sauce made by Mary from their Friday tomato harvest, a salad featuring their greens and a couple of locally produced hard ciders. Ron and Mary could tell me where every bite of food I was eating came from, and I began to feel even more connected to what I was eating through the stories they shared.
And every bite was incredibly flavorful, just knock-you-out flavor. We sat at the table by candlelight for a couple of hours, talking mostly about food and sustainability and how the values we hold around those things continue to shape (and re-shape) our lives. But the stories we shared were also about family: the family you are born into and the family you choose. It was a profound experience.
Early the next morning, Mary picked raspberries, which were folded into pancakes and served with maple syrup from the trees on their property. As we finished eating, customers began coming up the drive to make their weekly purchases. And this web of relationships extended further into the community as they left, food in their hands.
In terms of insights, these things: no “aha” moments, but affirmation that interest in sustainability and the food system continues to grow among all ages. And people are connecting to food issues from different angles: health, cultural, social justice, social services, community development, youth development, economics and more. It’s a values-driven impulse, much like the Victory Garden movements of World War I and World War II. It is also an inquiring impulse, a creative one, a generous one, and a movement that values – and thrives on – relationships and story telling. And I was struck (yet again) by the power of the deeply felt and personal stories people told/tell about how they came to this life/work/belief system.
And in the stories, and in the food, and in the relationships, I am deeply fed.