Quarter to ten in the morning; we’ve just arrived in front of a neat wooden fence, at the foot of a slightly run-down, unsusprisingly hideous 1970’s building nested between two motorways, in one of the least attractive parts of the city. There are three or four people already there. We apologise for being early.
‘Oh no, not at all! Come on in. You must be Cécile… Cristo…?’
Introductions are made as we take in the little haven we’ve just walked into. Straw and mulch cover the ground; vegetables and flowers grow everywhere in tidy little bunches, although rarely in rows. Permaculture is the keyword here. A pergola has been built near the wicket gate, but the trumpet vines still barely grow high enough to cover the main posts, let alone provide some real shade. At ten o’clock in the morning, we’re already sweating.
We all gather around a table with coffee and biscuits, and introductions begin, everyone explaining what we’re doing in this little haven, the shared garden of Lou Grillet, a subsidised housing complex. Some leave nearby and come everyday to tend their little plot of land, others supervise gardens in other places and have come for a chat, others, like me, are complete novices wishoug to set up their own garden one day. When my turn comes, I explain that I don’t have the slightest idea how to do it (I don’t disclose that so far, my greatest gardening success has been to keep a little sage bush for almost a whole year without seeing it die), or where to do it for that matter, the only sizeable piece of land in my neighbourhood being reputedly unavailable, but I want to try anyway and I have three million questions (the lady in charge soberly tells me that three million is a lot, but if I start now, yes, she will answer them all).
And questions we all have. The morning is a fascinating moment, especially for someone with absolutely everything to learn: how people made the garden together, with successes and failures, the bumps along the way, and we end up digging up all over the place to make a water-retention system using buried wood, and to build a lasagna of cardboard, wood, freshly-cut grass, compost, earth and straw (in that order: it’s a sophisticated device used to filter the pollution out of the groud you will plant your crops on, and retain water as well). We all sit together for lunch and share approximately five tons of food between the twenty-or-so of us. We exchange addresses, tricks for making homemade mint cordial and telling wild spinach apart from poisonous mini-tomato-something (nobody was sure what that particular plant was, only that it’s a solanacea, and that it makes fruit that look like tiny tomatoes and are extremely toxic, so I’m going with killer-mini-tomato for the time being). We rub on litres of sunscreen and taste omelettes made from chards grown in the garden. Above all, we talk.
The people who have come to the meeting are mostly women. And I notice a very special thing: everybody waits for their turn to talk, without needing anyone to remind them that they’ve been taking up a lot of space in the discussion and now it’s time to listen to others. Opinions are voiced, ideas exchanged, but no one talks louder than the others, no one tries to drown others in their knowledge. When time comes to take up spades and garden forks to break up the ground, women start digging without making a fuss. All right, a couple of jokes are exchanged when it becomes apparent that only women are digging while men watch, but they soon stop. The men go back to ripping out weeds and wheeling them to the compost heap, the rest get to work on the lasagna. And that’s all. No pathetic jokes about men and women and football and shopping. No one taking the load out of anyone else’s hands because it’s ‘too heavy’ for them. No awkwardness. Everything seems taken straight out of a little feminist paradise.
I have no idea why that is. All right, perhaps I do have an idea, maybe a silly one but I’ll say it anyway. Sometimes there are things that men and women will do differently, because of their bodies of because they’ve been taught to, and then that will be the object of endless attention and comments, about men being stronger or women being better at noticing things, and it will be established that there has to be a gender difference. Sometimes there are things that men and women can do exactly as well as each other, like video games or playing flamenco guitar, and then some men will feel threatened and won’t rest until they’ve managed to harass every woman out of their playground, and what could have been an enjoyable activity for everyone becomes a boys’ club for absolutely no good reason. But perhaps you can’t harass women out of a garden. First of all, more often than not, women are the ones building it. Secondly, those beans won’t grow themselves, and if it’s a woman telling you how to water them so they stop dying, you can’t really afford to pretend she’s not entitled to knowing how things work. Thirdly, if her plot overflows with produce while you struggle to get a single ripe tomato, maybe it’s just going to become obvious to everyone that she knows what she’s doing.
Or maybe this is simply because gardening is one of those very necessary, and yet entirely disregarded activities that we’re taught have no value because they don’t make money. We disregard housework because most of the time it’s not paid for, even though taking care of the house is essential to our sanity if not our direct survival. What society disregards it has left to women. Growing vegetables for the family’s everyday use brings no money either, it might as well be just another kind of housework, to be done while the men take care of important things. Yet when you sit in a garden nested between two motorways, in a drab, unappealing part of town, and you realise that you feel like you’re taking a lungful of fresh air in the countryside and that makes you want to smile so hard it hurts, you suddenly see that, in the most litteral sense of the phrase, gardening has just changed a part of the word.
Am I dreaming, or are we just now understanding that things that are not bought have the most power?