When I tell people that I spend my days teaching elementary school children how to farm within the urban density of Chicago, I often get some variation of this reaction:
“That’s great. Kids need to get their hands dirty.”
It’s true, I say. But rarely do I take the time to share the questions that come to mind next: What kind of dirt stains the hands of children in this place? What is its composition, its history, its vital signs? How does urban dirt reflect the composition of our own bodies? What is our intention when we practice something as ancient, something as essentially human as agriculture, on tiny dirt lots that steal slivers of daylight from the shadows of corporate grocery stores?
My wife decided to have the dirt in our home garden tested for toxins. I pleaded for her not to, because I already knew what the results would be, and I didn’t want to lose the sight of our son digging his fingernails indiscriminately into the patches of black earth that dot our garden beds. I wanted to stay nestled in the suspension of disbelief that this primal act could make him sick or worse.
She persisted with the testing and the prognosis came back inconclusive, in a way. The levels of lead in our soil, resulting from decades of peeling paint and settling clouds of vaporized fossil fuels, were considered safe within the metrics of our own government’s environmental standards. However, the same soil would be considered dangerous by our neighbors to the north in Canada. We opted to err on the northern side, and my son now wears gloves when he digs in our dirt.
Getting one’s hands dirty, even when wearing a layer of protection, can be therapeutic. When one assumes the position of the gardener—crouching or kneeling on the thin crust of soil that blankets our planet, head tilted into a bow as the eyes trace infinite cross-hatchings of textures, particles, mycelia, and microbes—we are in fact expressing something so inextricably hardwired into our DNA it predates conscious notions of the spiritual or the sacred. To lower ourselves and scrape at the soil is to allow our mother’s gravity to cradle us, and we show her our gratitude by seeding the continuum, the ongoing ritual of cultivation. These proto-religious prostrations are both gestures of love for our life-giver and offerings to the germinations that are to flower into our contemporary ideas of the “future.”
What are the implications, then, when the gardener’s pose is assumed several stories above the earth, held aloft by an architectural framework of steel and concrete? The school where I teach urban farming is currently constructing such a garden on the top of a new addition to the main building. Once completed, children will plunge their hands into “soil” that is able to cover an entire roof because it is formulated to weigh forty times less than actual soil. When they show me their dirty palms they will ask “What is this?” To which I will have to answer, “I honestly don’t know.”
I don’t know, and I can’t know, because what will streak their palms isn’t soil at all, in fact. It’s referred to with the cryptic term growing medium, and is created in a lab and protected by a patent. Unlike actual soil, which is the end result of thousands of years of disintegrating rock and organic matter, this invention is a product. The old mysteries of soil—its dark universes of interlocking tiny ecosystems—are now superseded by trade secrets, intellectual property, and that bastion of neoliberal capitalism: innovation.
Innovation, in this sense, is the prerogative of the upwardly mobile, and innovation is what we do best as urbanites with means. As life on the ground level becomes inhospitably cramped and toxic, we build up. As we ascend, our ancestral memory of literally being tied to the earth becomes a kind of nostalgia, revealing itself in flickers of recognition. It appears to the child who tugs at his mother’s hand to stop and pulls a dandelion from a crack in the sidewalk, and the moment of awe as he peers into the dark crevasse left by the plant’s uprooted stem. The child catches a passing glance at human history, a millennia before swift currents of traffic dictated where and when a child could wander, and before birdsong and tree-shadow ceased to mark the passage of a day.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of human history spans eras that were not under the ultimate jurisdiction (either real or imagined) of Homo sapiens. Our obsessive throttling and objectification of the soil, air, water, and interwoven life forms leaves us heartbroken over the dismal state of our biosphere. We are firmly planted with both feet in the shock of the Anthropocene. This is not news to us, or at least shouldn’t be. What we are just now coming to terms with, as consumers, as city dwellers, as farmers, is that we must respond to the ongoing assault on all species, as well as the very real threat of our own extinction within a few lifetimes, unless drastic measures are taken.
Historically in this country, farmers famously revolted during the Whiskey Rebellion over unfair taxation. Such images of angry agrarian protests often come to my students’ minds when they see a pitchfork. Inevitably a kid will be unable to resist the urge to wield the tool over their head with sharp tines pointed to the sky, shouting “angry mob!” With global crop yields threatened more than ever due to hordes of hungrier insects on a hotter planet and human populations on track to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, farmers will soon be forced to stage their own angry mob. They will be angry over the loss of an entire year’s worth of harvests because of climate change-induced floods and droughts. They will be angry over their industry’s coerced addiction to weed killers like glyphosate. And they will be mourning the loss of their lifeblood, their history, and their place in society. When farmers are forced to rebel, their energy shifts from growing to organizing, making it impossible to balance both pursuits simultaneously. I now find myself in the same position as an educator and agroecologist.
Since I’m seen as the “nature person” at my job, children increasingly come to me with questions about global warming, about microplastics showing up in our blood and urine, about melting glaciers, about sea-level rise. One twelve-year-old girl looked me straight in the eye during a lesson and asked, “Farmer Joe, I heard on the news that we’re all going to die in 2070. Is it true?”
Children are listening. They are absorbing the bad news whether we like it or not, and watching for our response. In this case I responded carefully to protect her sense of safety. I told her that many, many people are suffering and will suffer greatly from climate change, and that we should do all we can to prevent it from happening.
“But, if you say suffering is going to happen,” she said, “and we should all do what we can, then why isn’t everyone freaking out right now?”
It’s these moments of clarity that have shifted my focus from one of growing food to one of growing a movement. Freaking out is precisely what we should all be doing right now, if we are to preserve a hospitable planet for generations to follow. I have now added activist to my list of job titles and am the Local Coordinator for Extinction Rebellion in Chicago. Our movement is part of a network of chapters in every continent, and it operates as a decentralized holacracy in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy. Our structure is not unlike the webbing of mycelia that connect trees to one another under the forest floor, prioritizing the whole over the individual and building a regenerating culture that replenishes whenever there is loss.
Our central tactic is nonviolent civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo in relation to the perils of the climate crisis. I was arrested recently after chaining myself to the doors of a fossil fuel conference. I don’t expect to make any systemic changes by my own individual actions, but I do expect more people to put their bodies upon the gears of late-stage capitalism with every individual action acting as a catalyst.
Children are striking during school hours as well. They are getting their hands dirty by fighting for their own lives. And the seeds that they start now will grow into something beautiful, giving future generations a reason to be nostalgic.