Athen: gardening in community with people and pollinators

What was your journey towards gardening?

I started gardening around 1996, in San Francisco’s Mission District. My partner was a landscape architect, and we lived together in a queer shared house. She introduced me to gardening. At that time, in my mid-twenties, I was just learning to put things in the ground and watch them grow. Just beginning to notice the beauty of flowers. Learning that you could grow tomatoes, but you also had to stake them. One of the things I really appreciated about gardening with Cat, was her attention to creating space for people to be in the garden. Later, I was inspired by the community gardens of the Lower East Side in New York, and then by some of the community gardens closer to home, in San Francisco.

How would you describe your relationship to gardening, today?

I garden pretty constantly, and I cycle through the seasons. I’m fortunate to have lived and gardened in the same place for a decade now, which is such a gift. I live in an apartment building in North Portland, and when I moved in, I wasn’t aware of the garden behind the building. I think I started gardening back here in 2010, and then became gradually more active over the next five years. I’ve more or less stewarded the garden since 2016 or 2017. Over these years, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from being and working in this garden. At first, I learned from Meera, who was the doyen of the garden when I moved in. I remember Meera suggesting to me that I shouldn’t just take out the dandelions, for example, because they were an important food source in early spring. These days, I leave in the dandelions and let many other plants go to seed over winter. The garden is a favorite grazing spot for many varieties of birds in the early spring, including goldfinch, who love dandelion thistles.

How do you see your personal identity in conjunction with gardening?

My family are farmers on both sides. I don’t know as much about my father’s side, the family that raised him, but I do remember being on their farm in North Carolina. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a third-generation farmer in Woburn, Massachusetts. I remember sorting tomatoes for market with my uncle and grandfather when I was 10, and many times walking through and photographing the fields and greenhouses as I grew older. I remember my great grandmother Florence’s rhubarb plants down the field, and my grandfather’s four tomato plants under the clothes line.

How do you see gardening and a queer identity intersecting?

I think I’ve always been drawn to community gardens as queer spaces. Many of those gardens in the Lower East Side, for example, were started and tended by queer people. Not only queer people, but queers were in the mix. My favorite garden in the Mission was a few blocks from my house, and it was started and tended by a queer person named Tree. That garden was attached to the Kaliflower commune, which was co-founded by Hibiscus, who was a member of [the legendary drag troupe,] the Cockettes. I didn’t know anything about the Cockettes or Kaliflower at that time, just that there was this incredible garden that took up half of the block and had volunteer days on Saturdays. In both the gardens of the LES and the Kaliflower garden, an incredible amount of community organizing went into making them so vibrant, even making them happen at all.

For me, at that time, community was something that I could see and feel, lived in the midst of and sometimes participated in, but was still trying to understand. Today, I learn community, and community organizing, in parallel with gardening. Gardening is really a relationship with plants, and a garden is really a community of plants, along with birds, bees, other insects, and of course humans and other animals that migrate through those spaces. Learning how to be together, notice each other, live with each other, accept and tolerate one another, learning who can and cannot live alongside each other, cultivating acceptance, practicing forgiveness for oneself and others—those are all powerful lessons both in and out of the garden. Whenever I put my hands into the soil in the garden, whenever I turn compost, plant seeds, pull weeds, whenever I make a mistake, and certainly as I watch things grow and flourish together over time, I am also thinking and learning about the community and communities that I am part of. Often, the garden is where I come to heal from what hurts and what I cannot heal in human community. As a queer and trans person, and also being hard of hearing, I do sometimes find a sense of ease and belonging in the garden that I don’t find elsewhere.

More photos, videos and stories about Athen’s gardening journey are here.

Photo by LeAnn Locher

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