For the past year we have been lucky to have Dartmouth College Environmental Studies student Margarita Ren working with us at InterIm and in the Danny Woo Community Garden, researching agroecology and resilience practices for her undergraduate thesis. Ren conducted 29 official interviews in the past year with gardeners, and also spent time helping gardeners in their plots, listening to their stories, sharing meals with them, and consequently creating meaningful friendships. Ren’s work has deepened our understanding of what the Danny Woo Community Garden provides our community in the C-ID and how the cultural and ecological benefits gardeners provide are inextricable to each other.
Her research “examines the role of the entangled interaction of biodiversity and cultural diversity—biocultural diversity—in fostering resilience in the Danny Woo Community Garden, against the backdrop of continued local Asian American activist histories in resisting gentrification.”
In her preliminary research she has examined how gardeners share knowledge and seeds with each other, how cultures of care and self-reliance create resilient systems, and also how issues of displacement and housing affordability have affected the biocultural diversity of the garden.
We are pleased to share some of her preliminary research with you on our blog.
[The following are excerpts from Margarita Y. Ren’s UGAR Summer 2017 Research Summary Report]
“In Winter of 2017, I interviewed 10 Chinese-American gardeners utilizing a semi-structured interview script. I found that the biodiversity cultivated in these plots of the garden has been highly relevant to Chinese American food cultures. Gardeners have planted a mix of majority familiar plants grown in China, such as 莴笋or celtuce, but also plants that have become familiar through their interactions with American food, such as snow peas. Gardeners share these culturally relevant produce and gardening habits with their neighbors, teaching each other about the provincial similarities and differences in Chinese diets and experimenting with growing unfamiliar vegetables along these lines.
Gardeners view gardening as a culturally relevant way of taking agency in caring for their own health, physically through consumption and the physical exercise of gardening as well as emotionally through building strong social ties fostered through the act of sharing knowledge and produce.
….These gardeners spoke Mandarin Chinese, Shanghainese Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Toisan Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese, seven of the nine languages and dialects within the garden.
My preliminary research suggests the following emerging themes... the importance of self-determination in the diverse linkages that comprise a resilient system. For example, gardeners often described the importance of the garden through their sense of self as continuing to be caregivers, rather than how they are constructed as requiring caretakers due to their age. Most noticeably, this self-determination socially can be seen in fostering the reciprocal care integral to this community’s formation and continued flourishing.
Gardeners have often echoed the phrase “互相帮忙” or “helping each other” as descriptive of the community found within the garden.
Helping water a neighbor’s plot that had been looking dry has been one of the more common examples of “互相帮忙”. Furthermore, the phrase is often invoked in the community trying to settle any conflicts between gardeners.
The second theme concerns how biodiversity is contingent on these systems of care that have expanded community. Not only has the garden provided a space for community building across ethnic boundaries and language barriers, the primary way this bridging has occurred is through the inclusion of cultivated plants in thought processes on reciprocal care.
Gardeners ask about each other’s plants similarly to how people ask about how family members are doing. One gardener agreed that she viewed her plants has her children.
On the other hand, these plants physically nourish the gardeners nutritionally and mentally nourish the gardeners as this garden is the only green space in the district. One gardener told me that her favorite thing to do was to sit on a stool in her plot after the day’s watering and weeding to just enjoy observing the plants.
The third theme considers how higher scale political tensions involving environmental justice issues of gentrification constrain community formation and biocultural diversity in the garden. The Danny Woo Community Garden’s existence as the only green space in the district has attracted another potentially vulnerable population within the district—the growing population of “regulars,” a mix of individuals who spend time in the shaded areas at the garden’s peripheries. Some of these people have been currently/former homeless and/or houseless and/or unemployed. While definitions of community have expanded to include cultivated plants and different gardeners of ethnicities and languages, the gardener’s various descriptions of the “regulars” demonstrate this expansion of community may be limited.
I am considering how the histories of transnational immigration, American racism and classism, and the constant threats of gentrification that have stressed the district’s ability to distribute resources adequately may nuance this discussion. How might garden practices to create solidarity and continue to expand understandings of community? How do these current constraints affect biocultural diversity in the garden?"
We thank Margarita for her tireless and passionate work ethic, and for her attentive interest in the Danny Woo Community Garden and its gardeners. We have learned so much from her research so far, and we look forward to further developments as she finishes her thesis!
The Danny Woo Community Garden is a 1.5 acre edible growing space located in the heart of Seattle's Chinatown/International District. The garden has been a place for elders to grow for over 40 years and is also home to a children's garden, chicken coop, and outdoor kitchen. Visit us at 620 S. Main St., Seattle, WA 98104.