On Good Intentions, Gardening, and the Political Left

By Max Fawcett | June 4, 2005

The road to hell is supposed to be paved with good intentions. Like all clichés there’s some truth to that, along with a deliberate compression of the truth. With respect to this particular cliché, what has been left out is that the road to hell is rarely straight and the hell it leads to is rarely apparent to those who are heading towards it. I witnessed one such road this past Sunday, at the corner of Euclid and Queen Streets in downtown Toronto. One wouldn’t expect to find hell in a derelict private lot sandwiched between a bank and a residential/commercial duplex, and you had to look awfully hard on that rainy Sunday in May to find it. But the hell was there, and it was inhabited by a group of people with the best of intentions.

The particular hell is the inability of this country’s political left to exert a discernible influence on public policy and, more broadly, on the national discourse. I’m sympathetic to this hell because I live in it, as a self-described social democrat and a child of two ardent “lefties”. I believe, as most social democrats do, that societies should be judged by how they treat their least fortunate citizens, not their most successful. I believe in the importance of publicly funded education and healthcare and I am embarrassed by how badly we treat our poor, our homeless, and the underprivileged, whomever they are, while fervently cutting taxes for corporations and multi-millionaires.

The left has, over the past twenty-five years, been downsized – to use the language of the right – from an important cultural voice and political force to a position of marginality and insignificance. The left’s biggest victory of the 21st century, same-sex marriage, was driven largely by the courts, and has little effect on the lives of the majority of its practitioners and supporters anyhow. On matters of economics, the distribution of wealth, and the establishment of national priorities, the left has been utterly silent. It now speaks the language of deficits and balanced budgets, gives ground on taxation and environmental policies, and seeks symbolic small victories instead of real ones. I arrived, along with a stubborn but sympathetic friend, at Queen and Euclid to participate in a “guerilla gardening” plant-in. I was at a party the previous Friday evening with some of its organizers and they seemed hopeful and energetic.

The idea, in principle, is promising, and the problem it seeks to address is a worthy target. Whether by aim or by accident, the gardens and greenery that occupy public spaces in wealthy neighbourhoods – say, Forest Hill – are far more abundant than those in poorer neighbourhoods like Regent Park.

I looked, both in the library and among appropriate faculty members at the University of Toronto and York University, in search of empirical data that supported my instincts. The closest I came was confirmation of my anecdotal evidence by Gerda Wekerle, a professor in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, who said that “I also have observed this difference in expenditures/attention/complexity of plantings (I go around the city muttering about this).” It wouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, if this were indeed the case. The next time you’re driving in Forest Hill, take a look at the traffic calming devices – speed bumps, minus the euphemism – and compare them to those in a less affluent neighbourhood. In Forest Hill, they’re made of bricks and high-quality concrete. In Cabbagetown, for example, they’re made of cheap concrete that usually starts to crack and chip within two years. It’s hardly a great secret in Toronto, or for that matter any Canadian city, the government spends more money in neighbourhoods that have more money.

My friend and I arrived at the prescribed time of 2pm, and found three people milling about without any identifying signage or other features that would distinguish them from the thousands of people that walk up and down Queen Street daily. Worse still, the site that they had selected for improvement was fenced private property and it had a headstone for, I suspect, a homeless man who had lived and perhaps died there some time ago. I brought this to the attention of the organizers – and I use “organizers” loosely – who admitted that they hadn’t noticed this. It was, to say the least, an auspicious start.

There are a few simple rules to gardening that, if respected, can transform even the most clueless individuals into moderately successful gardeners. Gardening is a lot like cooking that way: success is determined almost entirely before the actual act begins. Good cooking requires fresh ingredients, proper levels of heat, and tools of a quality higher than IKEA sells: without friable soil, plenty of water, and the tools to cultivate the soil, the garden will dry up and die in days.

These “guerilla gardeners” intended to plant an assortment of bedding plants and, worse still, seeds, in badly contaminated soil. They were equipped with cheap hand trowels, spoons and a few bottles of water. Sensing disaster, we hopped into our car and drove out to New Canadians lumber, a yard on the corner of Dupont and Shaw streets, to find the materials we needed to build them a soil screener. We bought the three foot clip of chicken wire, picked up some scrap wood in a back alley, cut it down to size and assembled it with the help of sixteen three inch wood screws. This screen was the most important tool they needed if they were to have any success.

When we arrived back at the site an hour later, the plant-in was in full effect.

It was, from a distance, nearly an impressive sight: a small army of people, both young and old, devoting their Sunday to restoring a derelict space from neglect and beautifying the neighbourhood. We gave them the soil screener, showed them how to use it, and pitched in for a few minutes ourselves. We soon realized the futility of their, and our, efforts.

While they had energy and goodwill to spare, they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. They had only dug three inches beneath the surface–understandable considering the only digging tools they had were flimsy hand trowels, spoons, and a snow shovel. The plants they’d placed were doomed before they hit the dirt, because plants require at least 8 inches of friable soil to establish the kind of root structure that allow them to collect and hold the water and fertilizer necessary for survival.

The group’s leader readily admitted that nobody had any gardening knowledge and that no one had bothered to do any research on it. Anyway, they were, as he put it, making a statement.

Worse still, they were taking a perverse pride in their own incompetence: in an interview with CITY TV’s Adam Vaughn several days before, this same leader had bragged that they were using spoons instead of shovels. It is one thing to play the underdog, and the left is certainly experienced at so doing. It is quite another to sabotage one’s own goals with willful and avoidable ignorance. It is also inexcusable when it is practiced by otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people, as these guerilla gardeners were. I suspect that there were, on average, more university degrees on that neglected lot on Queen Street than there are in most corporate board rooms today. Their ignorance, then, wasn’t noble or dignified. It was pathetic and self-defeating.

I imagine that, if this project were being carried out by the right, it would have gone much differently. They would have arrived with a virtual armory of shovels, picks, axes, and saws. They would have secured the delivery of a fresh batch of topsoil as well as the dump truck needed to haul away the rocks, glass and other debris. They would have fed their volunteers, entertained them with music, and perhaps even obtained corporate sponsorship in order to attract more attention. The finished product would have been beautiful but, more importantly, equipped to survive. If I can say anything good about this country’s and indeed the Western world’s amorphous coalition of conservative forces, it is that they get things done. I may note agree with what they’re trying to accomplish but I do admire what my conservative grandfather would call their “stick-to-it-iveness”.

In hindsight, I should have been able to see this train wreck coming. When we first arrived they handed us a pamphlet that, in theory, described what they were trying to accomplish. But the practical knowledge these pamphlets contained was, as discussed above, incomplete at best and incompetent at worst. It was, instead, a thinly veiled attempt at placing a neo-Marxist spin on gardening. Take, for example, this passage from Eye Magazine’s Nicole Cohen:

Night falls on Grange Park on a cool Sunday in late spring and a small band of urban guerrillas embarks on its first operation of the summer. Their mission: to sow the seeds of a green revolution. Henry Martinuk wears a navy blue bandana, tied pirate-style. He crouches in the shadows and pushes some stones aside with his hands. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he plunges his trowel into the soil and drops a columbine plant in the shallow hole. This summer, Martinuk and other guerrilla gardeners will continue to liberate drab spaces, vandalizing the city with nature.

All the standard neo-Marxist jargon is present here – vandalize, revolution, arsenal, liberate, and so forth – and it’s clear that these guerilla gardeners are more interested in being perceived as rebellious by someone–the state, the “man”, or other figures of authority–than actually growing plants.

The guerilla gardeners would, I suspect, level at me the accusation that I don’t “get” what they’re doing. They would be completely correct. I don’t understand the point of putting flowers into the ground, however well-meaning and principled the planters may be, if they’re not committed to doing it properly and getting results. I don’t understand why they would, in the future, expect people to devote their free time to a project that is doomed, not because of some oppressive external force but rather because of their own incompetence.

By the way, I returned later that same Sunday, ostensibly to buy some ginger for dinner at a nearby green-grocer but also to check back on the work they’d done. I discovered that they had left the soil screener we built for them on the side of Queen Street like a piece of unwanted garbage. That, to me, said it all. We’d provided them with the tools and the knowledge that they needed, and they had dismissed us with a flick of their collective hand.

This is a sad but familiar theme for movements of the left. They are rarely short on ideas, and a lot of their ideas are pretty damn good. Their idea here – to build gardens and create a sense of communal ownership – represents the best qualities of social-democratic thinking. But they lacked, as the left often does, both the expertise and the commitment to see their project through. Good ideas, like plants, are not immediately self-sustaining, and they can’t draw the sustenance that they need to survive from good intentions. The plants that these revolutionaries put into the ground that Sunday are already failing. It’s a shame, both because the idea of guerrilla gardening is interesting and relevant and because, with some planning and execution, those plants could have survived. Instead, they don’t stand a chance. Neither, I’m afraid, does the guerrilla gardening movement.

Toronto, June 4th – 1929 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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