Little note in my inbox today drawing attention to a feature about guerrilla gardening in this weekend’s South African Sunday Times, a paper for which I write occasionally. It’s a great story about the movement gathering pace around the country, with traffic islands and neglected municipal land being planted with various indigenous species in the true spirit of the practice.
And yet I always feel a twinge when I read features about guerilla gardening. One sticky summer night at the end of 2005, in one of Durban’s boozers, a friend, a proper journalist at the local paper, announced that he needed stories to fill pages on a supplement. Having spent the afternoon trawling the net on my rather less dangerous and time-pressured magazine job, I proposed guerilla gardening, having just found Richard Reynolds’ site. My friend bit, Richard was gracious enough to answer some questions and a week or two later we ran the piece. Here’s the pic we used, taken in my parent’s vegetable garden (still on trannie with the slim edge of the film just visible):
At the same time, I forwarded the link to an old London friend who had (forgivable) connections to the Mail on Sunday. The MoS paid him a finder’s fee, he paid his tax bill, Richard was ‘found’ and the rest, as they say, is history. There are books, YouTube clips, probably a TV programme and, the best part, many, many more abandoned urban spaces put to better use.
Upon reflection, however, the arguments around guerilla gardening highlighted for me the luxurious approach to land use wealth affords. In South Africa, as on a global scale, a gulf divides those who have and have not. In a new, multi-racial, middle-class suburbia, as in other affluent neighbourhoods around the world, sprinklers irrigate immaculate lawns, hosepipes fill swimming pools and rubbish bags – set out on pavements each week – bulge with supermarket packaging, while verges remain untended.
At that time, my daily commute took me past a fast-expanding informal settlement that had become one of the first ports of call for rural migrants entering the city. Hand-built, wattle-and-daub shelters had sprung up on either side of the motorway: land was at a premium and so was food. In the mornings, as I prepared to spend the day behind a computer, women planted up the verges not with flowers but with maize, beans and squash as a means of survival. They didn’t need a brand, a book, or a social media campaign to validate their activities – they just did.
I am not sure what the conclusion is, today, as I live on the other side of the world, where it is easy to get caught up in a wildly consumerist economy. Ought we not to be planting flowers beneath lamp posts to foster bee or butterfly activity? Surely not, but perhaps sowing beans is a better idea. Ought I to mobilise the other tenants in my building to give over our little-used lawn, which cannot be built upon, to vegetables? Probably. Ought I to consume less? Most likely, but that still won’t stop British supermarkets throwing away perfectly good food simply for it having reached a manufactured sell-by date. Ought I to be wearing a hair shirt? I am certain those at London Fashion Week would say absolutely not.