What can weeds tell us about community?
My Nan was a wonderful gardener. She would spend her days bent over picking, thinning, admiring and chatting away to her flowers, shrubs and veg. She would curse the weeds. Ripping them out of the ground or later when arthritis had taken over her hips whack them back with her “sticks”.
She never used weed killers. Frowned on them. I never remember asking her why, so I don’t know if she had concerns about damaging the earth, its water sources, or bugs and such. As a child I was just aware that she just didn’t appear to like them. Much later when I took over her garden, I discovered I had much to learn from her practice and from books. The notion of a weed being a flower in the wrong place. The importance to butterflies of having nettles around. The role that dandelions played in herbal medicine. The fun of learning their names and their uses.
Why was it that I could find this information relevant and worthwhile, when others merrily sprayed and poured poisons with a gay and wilful abandon? What creates the openness in some and blocks another. How does this translate into living communities of people?
Who in community are the weeds and pests we want rid of. In this country we have a proud tradition of sending away – Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, mental hospitals. We send people to prison rather than try to understand their issues. That the largest prison in the state is peopled with men from a handful of working class neighbourhoods in Dublin is so obviously an indicator of a social/housing issue as to be practically obvious. But we prefer to look for other reasons? Or do we think this deeply at all?
Recently I had the occasion to speak with a child psychologist about a particular child. She has been troubled, going through a difficult time. He listened more than spoke. Exceptional ability kept coming up as a potential area of exploration. I was confused for isn’t this rare. Not to him, of the hundreds of children he sees most are just that – exceptional, gifted, and bright. So bright that they can process a situation and react in the time that their parents/guardians/key workers take to get the opening lines of their thinking out of their mouths.
These children are powerless however. They live in an adult controlled world. Their giftedness therefore becomes a curse. Because even though they need adult support, the assistance they most regularly receive is to be told, ordered, and quietened. They get labelled as difficult or troubled. They get medicated. I know these techniques in other areas of my life. Paulo Freire called it the banking method of education. Kathleen Lynch of UCD’s equality Studies dept calls it the deficit model of education. In community work we call it disempowerment. In gardening terms, I guess we call it control!
Nils Christie, a Norwegian academic, has opined that to be part of any community is a privilege. Now that’s a very different perspective. An example from his writing, which spoke to me on many levels, was that even a criminal in a community, is more than just a criminal, he has a history, a past, present and hopefully a future. Community suggests caring, suggests interest in, suggests guidance. A person may do wrong, may go wayward, may slip, may just be plain fed up with us all, but they are still part of us.
It is perhaps easier to dismiss and to label such a person when they are not from among us. A criminal is to be mistrusted, shunned, not given a chance. But when we know a criminal, when we know the story, when we remember him as a boy, remember what he has endured, he becomes more than just an action. He has an identity, a name and a place in our reality, a context.
Being in the midst of those who make us uncomfortable, who we disagree with, who we mistrust, and who perhaps we don’t think we want or need, is part of living in a community. They don’t have to be criminals; they can be the person next door, the priest, teacher, and our family. We are forced on some level to come to terms with such people. We cannot escape. We pass them on the road, queue with them at the shop, and maybe pray with them at church. This facing of, this coming to terms with, this acceptance at some level is good for us.
I f my garden can tell me anything about my community, it’s that everyone needs to be respected and to have a voice. Each person has a part of the solution in them. It’s only by creating the space for this piece of solution to be offered, that a person can take a next step.
Just like our garden, maybe I need to try creating spaces that are less controlled, managed or planned.