Monday, May 22, 2006


there's a vacant lot in south philly that a bunch of folks are cleaning up on saturdays. in a few weeks, we're going to have a poetry slam there, and we want to make it habitable for all the guests. there used to be two row houses standing there, but they've been razed, and for the most part, cleared. over time, the space has been weathered by rains, snows, and winds... and when people started cleaning it, it had trash all over. when i got there, so much work had already been done, but there was so much more work to do! i put on a pair of working gloves and set about the task of weeding a corner of what is now called "the grass roots garden." i would grasp whatever green things i could get my hands on, pull, and twist at an angle, to really get the plant up and make sure that the roots came out.

while clearing this space for the mulch which was to follow, i found out first that roots are serious - so serious that when you pull them out, they insist on bringing dirt up with them. resilience. all over this patch of urban ground, in the wake of the demolition of someone's former home, on top of the ruins of what remains of a basement structure, there is a lot of stuff - glass shards, brick rubble, a doorknob or two, a decomposing sneaker, bottle tops... but in the midst of all of this man-made hardness and deadness, you can still smell life in the dirt. spend enough time on the ground and you will encounter creepy crawly little things with lots of legs... or no legs at all, as the worm friends i made yesterday would probably interject right about here. these little ones live in the midst of what we look at and see as an eyesore and as a mess with no value. resilience.

we inexperienced urban gardeners tossed a lot of things, including whatever trash we found and whatever weeds we pulled. but there was a lot left behind that we used to our advantage, most especially the very stuff we were standing on. the dirt and the leftover bricks were our primary building blocks for making a weedy mound into a nice place to be. we took advantage of some of the basement structure to edge out a section of the lot where we would put down our mulch (which was free from the dump! we worked with what we had from necessity, being students and starving artists, and all.) then we started raking out whatever debris would cooperate with our efforts... but the ground was low in some places and the existing basement wall didn't extend for the length we needed. so we broke up dirt and moved it around. we took bricks and extended that wall - no mortar and trowel, mind you, just packed dirt, spades, and shovels. if a shovel hit hardness instead of dirt, we'd move it - tap it 'til you find the edges, then get the shovel in there good and get that lever action going - it had me thinking of my physics class taught by mister sciscio years ago. the bricks and slabs would just pop right out of the ground.

it occurred to us that we weren't really creating anything new - the feeling of doing so that we had was an illusion. all we were really doing was moving stuff around to suit our sensibilities of what "nice" is. "nice" wound up being a section of mulch, edged out by brick pavers and some funky abstract shaped slabs of rock. very cool stuff. as i was helping to weed, break up dirt mounds, and construct brick pavers, i couldn't help but to think of some of my favorite scripture attributed to solomon:

to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven... a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted... a time to break down, and a time to build up... a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together...

i kind of think of our work as similar to what the worms and bugs were doing - making the best of our environment. finding value in what things are within your grasp. even if it's not necessarily the most natural or organic way to go about it... just working with what you have, and thriving because you will it to be so. resilience. any child growing up with limited means... any recovering substance abuser, anybody with a record who goes straight after lockup, they all have the same task ahead of them. they have to rearrange what is already a part of their experience into something functional, even if the tools they have to work with aren't the easiest ones or the prettiest ones to build with. but it can be done. thank God - it happens every day. resilience.