"You can't eat your sidewalk" (On civil disobedience pt. 1)

How can you think of eating what is growing along the sidewalk? It is polluted!

We in SPURSE get this comment every time we present our Eat Your Sidewalk project and advocate for urban foraging. Here is a excerpt from the second chapter of the cookbook about the first time we went foraging with a group in an urban environment. This takes place in the summer of 2011 in the Bronx:

"After an hour of foraging along rail tracks and overgrown lots we were sitting down. Dandelion, Chicory, Chickweed, Poor-Man’s Pepper, Clover, Curly Dock, Pigweed, Shepherds Purse, Wood Sorrel, and Pokeweed. Our old wooden salad bowl was passed around and slowly—tentatively...

Not surprisingly, as we sat on the water’s edge and at the margins of the incomprehensibly large Hunts Point Cooperative Market with our foraged sidewalk salad all prepared and ready to eat, everyone was skeptical. Who in their right mind would forage here and eat this? As we all bit into the dusty astringent leaves of the hardy weeds that had managed to thrive in this urban industrial sprawl, we were full of doubt. It would have been difficult to feel any other way. And, yes, as we chewed hesitantly on these bitter weeds we did wonder to ourselves: was this just a stubborn exercise in proving a point? Were we being merely symbolic in all of the wrong ways?

While we understood how easily this event could be misconstrued as a hollow symbolic act, we, nonetheless, felt deeply compelled to forage and eat in and of such a place. For us rethinking the idea of place as an eating-place meant that we had to begin to entangle ourselves with actual species and environments in as direct a manner as possible. We needed to struggle with eating-place as actually eating of a place. 

But it is one thing to say that people should eat from their immediate environment; it is another thing entirely to try to do this. At the Hunts Point industrial site, we viscerally understood that what had happened to these weeds was now happening to us. It was a disturbing realization. Looking around, this was not a healthy environment. And it is not just this specific place, for most of us our urban sidewalks are not healthy places. We understood by ingesting these leaves we now shared a common history and composition with these plants—we were ingesting our legacy of poisoning this environment.

It did not take long for the people who joined us to speak up: “This is a valid idea in principle—but given how toxic the streets are, isn’t it obvious that there are better alternative answers to your question “how to be of a place”? Why not support and buy from local growers? Wouldn’t planting a community garden be better than attempting to eat from these streets?”

For us, building community gardens, or engaging in virtuous consumption as alternatives to foraging-as-eating-place crucially misses what is at stake in rethinking our connection to place. While urban farms and edible gardens (at home our entire yard is one) are necessary and serve many important functions, we need to look critically at their underlying ethos. For us, the ecology of nibbivik/eating-place begins in intra-dependence. When you pick and eat a weed growing underfoot your health and it’s health are fused. Your health will only improve to the degree the environment’s health improves. In this model there is no elsewhere to go, you and your immediate environment are fused together in an intra-dependent cycle. The difference between this ethos and that of urban gardening is made clear by looking at first steps involved in developing an urban garden. The garden begins with the removal of an ecosystem: The ground is cleared, the existing weeds dug up, the soil is scraped off and it is all sent away—away to where? A barrier is laid, new soil and plants from elsewhere are put down and only then one can begin. Guarantees of purity are made, ribbons are cut, and the community is invited in to participate. Sure, this is a pragmatic solution, but this act of removal should give us pause—why would anyone begin an ecological project of place-making by first ignoring and destroying what is already in place? What is the cost of this continuous practice of eradications and going elsewhere? By continuing this deep pattern to begin farming with a pristine imported environment we end up reinforcing and extending our problematic recipe for Nature. It is this recipe’s powerful divisive logic of Inside versus Outside, and Pure versus Impure that has effectively perpetuated the making of toxic and unhealthy environments in the first place. It is this set of practices that produces and maintains the distinct worlds of pure wilderness areas, clean gardens, and organic farms, and in doing so necessarily produces its (also carefully managed) opposite: wastelands and dump sites. It is a partitioned world that leaves most of us living in an uninhabitable in-between zone. It’s a recipe for a system of Elsewheres that profoundly displaces us from where we really are.

In saying this we got quite a bit of push back:

“The soil isn’t being removed to destroy an ecosystem; it’s being removed because it’s soaked with toxins!”

“We’re not removing weeds because we deliberately want to ignore an ecosystem; we’re removing weeds because we want to grow food! “

One of our participants responded by passing around the salad bowl. “What of the “weeds” that we are now eating? Why do they not count as a viable ecosystem?”

“Why don’t we consider where we walked as a type of edible meadow? While foraging through Hunts Point, did we not see evidence for a complex and viable ecosystem everywhere we looked? What might seem abandoned, overgrown, destitute, blight ridden or simply “weed infested” was in fact a rich urban ecosystem—birds sang, insects swarmed, the tracks of other animals were visible. Very distinct patches of plants and trees could be seen springing up everywhere from the cracks in the parking lots to growing out of the back of abandoned truck trailers. Ironically for those who want edible urban gardens—this is a landscape already full of edibles—and bounteous amounts of them.“

Matthew articulated our basic sense of things, “We are sleepwalking through the recipes that organize our spaces, practices, and framework such that we uncritically look for and reinforce only what either looks wild and pristine (Nature), or groomed and organized (Garden). From our Nature/Culture framework we cannot see what is right under our own feet as anything but a failed state of Nature (Blight). “

That response was thoughtfully, if skeptically, received. And so people came back to the second part of the question:

“What’s really wrong with being conscious shoppers? Aren’t we helping create more jobs, healthy environments and more opportunities?”

“Again our idea of urban foraging is not against buying locally from farmers markets. But, foraging what is right under ones feet allows us to participate in something quite different: having for a rare moment a non-monetized, non-consumer experience of directly ingesting and joining our world”.

Our question back to the group was: “What happens to how we see and sense reality when our framework is an economics of cost and benefit, products as solutions, and citizenship as consumerism? What do we lose when we channel all of ethics through the prism of the virtuous consumption of the local? Is it really wise to understand ourselves as “independent consumers”?”

Ultimately, we had no interest in railing against urban farms, or gardens, nor did we need to make farmers markets the target of our false self-righteous scorn (after all we participate in all of these).  But, this approach comes at a real cost. The questions of eating-place and foraging underfoot had awakened in us a different curiosity and a different ethos—we were not ready to suggest solutions or answers but we had become actively skeptical of the underlying framework of the old certainties of our own worldview. We identified with this edge of the Bronx (not toxic enough to kill, but toxic enough that we’d better not fully engage with it) as being the type of place most of us actually live— it was our sidewalk. Your sidewalk or block might not look like the Bronx, perhaps it is much greener or even totally lacking in any plant life—but either way you can be certain it is a similar in-between zone—just as toxic and just as privatized.

The gallows humor of eating our sidewalk (salad) was not lost on us. Obviously, there is good reason not to eat from our immediate environments—many of these places are most likely so polluted that they could, as our fellow foragers that day had strongly suggested, possibly kill us. But not eating from them, and not claiming them as our eating-place allows the places where we live to become ever more toxic, and ourselves to be ever more removed. In claiming the right and necessity for eating-of-a-place we also claimed for ourselves the pleasure of being more than consumers who can joyfully evolve unmonetized habits. For many of us who were eating the weeds that day by the water’s edge in Hunts Point, building a community garden, or shopping at a farmers market would not have replaced the complex joys of eating those first few tentative bites taken communally in shared concern and pleasure. And so on that day we were at least going to try to sense what it might mean if we were to eat our way into dependency on the place where we were: we ate our salad, talked, and sat back on the warm rocks of the debris pile at the river’s edge as the afternoon drifted towards evening."

End of excerpt. To see more on the  Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook

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