I used to think that technology would set us free. But it didn’t. It simply served to enslave us to a treadmill of empty promises and planned obsolescence.
I used to think that if I worked hard, then I would be rewarded in proportion to that effort. But I was not. I worked harder and harder, and each time being offered less.
I used to think that art would save the world, but it hasn’t done so far and I’ve made a lot of art.
That’s why I took up gardening.
Have you noticed that they are no birds? Not literally zero, but when I was growing up, our suburban gardens were alive with sparrows, robins, blackbrids, great tits, blue tits, bullfinches, chaffinches and crows. But no more. When was the last time you saw a wild chaffinch? The only birds I see regularly in Heeley, Sheffield are magpies, and in the city centre; pigeons and occasionally starlings. And what do magpies, starlings and pigeons have in common?
They are all scavengers. They can live on human waste.
And why are there no birds? Because there are no insects. And why are there no insects? Because we humans have made our environment so sterile, so hostile to living things that not even common houseflies can survive.
And they live on shit.
Only a few weeks ago, I was at an outdoor festival in rural farmland, just outside Sheffield. I watched people spraying themselves with insect repellent. I didn’t bother, no need. There weren’t any any insects to repel.
I learned about the inter-dependency of species at junior school, before I was eleven. My parents took me to the Centre for Alternative Energy in Machynlleth, Wales when I was a pre-teen and I grew up under the misapprehension that everyone new about global warming and peak-oil (although I don’t remember that term from the 1970s), and I am ashamed to say that I just always thought that “we” would take care of it because “we” already knew about climate change, approaching resource scarcity and potential ecosystem collapse.
I was wrong, and now we are witnessing the greatest die-off of species since the dinosaurs looked up and said “What was that loud bang?”.
And it’s my fault as much as anyone else’s.
My parents still live nearby, in a dormitory village where I grew up, mostly populated by middle-class control-freaks. My mother told me about the recent chafer beetle saga scandalising their neighbours and how many of them have had their lawns pumped full of insecticide to combat the creeping terror that anything less than the green, green grass of home should exist outside their picture-windows.
Sure enough, chafer beetles are a bit of a pest if you desire a perfectly manicured lawn, but they used to feed the swifts that nested in the eaves of my parents’ bungalow. But no longer.
A reported 80% die-off of bees is what either a professional ecologist or even a junior school student might characterise as A VERY BAD THING.
I’m sorry to confuse you with technical terms but this shit just got real.
Build it and they will come, so they say. Well, that is a paraphrase from the film “Field of Dreams” (1989 Philip Alden Robinson) in which a farm owner razes his crops to build a baseball diamond. Unfortunately, aspirational optimism, unlimited urban development and competitive sport are yet to save our ecosystem from its imminent collapse.
But I’m sure your get the point. Sure, build it and they will come, just make sure you build the right thing.
And here is the hope. Two years ago, we dug up our own lawn and planted vegetables. We didn’t have much of an agenda except a policy of growing food with no chemical fertilisers and no pesticides. That same year, we had wolf spiders mating in the insect garden I built, and bees in the neighbour’s tree.
I haven’t done a survey, but this year we have at least five different species of spider, four species of bee, along with weevils, mites, ants, butterflies and moths that were not present only two years ago. And that is in a cultivated garden.
Build it and they will come. And sure enough they did. All we had to do was not kill every living thing that moves on the earth.
And this is where I get to the point. I have volunteered to be the lead in a rooftop garden project at DINA Venue in Sheffield city centre. The idea is not my own, but I have put myself forward to be the hands and feet to make it happen.
DINA is the old Cutler pub & Stardust bar on Cambridge Street (behind John Lewis). Friends of mine, Deborah and Malcolm, have negotiated use of the building on an indefinite basis until it is demolished, as part of the much-delayed retail redevelopment of Sheffield city centre. They (with the help of many volunteers) have reclaimed the building from the squatted squalor it was left in and made it into a usable venue again. On the second floor, there is a large, flat roof. It’s a sterile space, but is sheltered on all sides and has abundant light and pitched roofs on three sides for rain collection.
The garden might be a one-year project or it might go on for several years. Whatever the timescale, we will be building an insect-friendly, zero-pesticide rooftop garden to foster wildlife and grow vegetables and flowers, and when it ends, the plants and resources will either be moved to a new location, or distributed to other gardens.
And this is where you come in. We have no money, and because there is no practical access for the general public, we are not likely to be eligible for any funding. So we need to beg, steal or borrow, well, everything. We need planters, water butts, garden tools, compost, seeds and soil to turn this nadir into a zenith.
Please get in touch if you have anything to contribute, no matter how modest. We will be gathering equipment and resources from now on, with a view to starting planting in February next year and a full growing season spring to autumn 2017. I’m a novice gardener and only in year two of my experience, but I’m taking advice from landscape professionals and experienced gardeners, and I am the go-to grunt on the job.
We hope that this project (and there are no doubt others) will be an awareness-raising focus for bio-diversity, sustainability and food quality, and will make a tangible contribution to fostering inner-city wildlife.
There are those who believe in the “magic bullet” of some unspecified innovation that will happen at some unspecified point in the future that will solve all our problems. It hasn’t happened so far and there is no precedent to believe that it ever will. Innovation has brought us glyphosate, GMOs and factory farming. And now we have tasteless food, infertile crops and the decimation of our ecosystem.
I used to think that all the answers were in the future, but now I realise that they were already in the past.
Advanced technologies, ideological politics, complex financial instruments and even participatory art have, so far, proved worthless in avoiding our imminent demise, so let’s go old-school. We already have all the technologies and techniques needed to establish and maintain a sustainable environment that can feed and shelter everything and everyone. We just need to stop destroying and start rebuilding.
Build it and they will come. But make sure what you build is not a Primark the size of a castle, or a 20-storey ghetto for Chinese students, or a car park over a casino.
Build [a garden] and they will come [back].