The Mindful Bard – Urban Fruit

Film: Urban Fruit
Director: Roman Zenz

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary, How Does Your Urban Farm Grow?

“Hey farmer, farmer,
Put away that DDT now.
Give me spots on my apples,
But leave me the birds and the bees?

don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
?Til It’s gone?
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.”
– from “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell

An endless growing season, ample water, and fertile soil rendered Los Angeles a prime agricultural region and a highly desirable destination for European settlers for centuries. But you wouldn’t guess this today; when you see the miles of gimme-a-burgers and hear about how far the locals have to go to buy fresh lettuce, you just have to ask: what happened?

What happened? The free market happened, covering prime farmland with concrete and moving farming to the city environs, where large corporations now oversee sprawling tracts of monoculture, and shareholder profits take precedence over health, happiness, and social justice.

Those without green thumbs sometimes view urban farming as just another instance of hipster posing, but on closer inspection we see these diggers and harvesters as a vast underground army undermining the power of the very industrial food complex that brings us fatty fast food, cancer-causing chemicals, genetically modified produce, and economic dependency.

Ron Finley inadvertently launched an impromptu public awareness program by showing the absurdity of a law forbidding him to grow food on the little strip of land beside his house. (His Tedtalk is well worth a listen.) His t-shirt reads “Plant some shit,” and many of the young people in his neighborhood are taking the mantra to heart, seeing urban farming as a cool way to self-actualize. For Ron urban farming isn’t just a way to become self-sufficient; It’s a political statement, an active refusal to be a victim of Big Food.

Watching Ron pick ripe lemons from a tree in the yard of a neighbor that didn’t even know how many lemon trees she had reminds me of recent memories of walking through a New England town and seeing trees packed with apples that no one thought of picking, as if getting food directly from its source had become perversely unthinkable. Ron is slowly turning this line of thinking on its head.

Rishi, who gave up a programming career in Silicon Valley to move in with his upper middle class parents and plant a garden in their backyard, highlights the blessings and pitfalls of trying to turn a beloved avocation into a means of prosperity. If he can support himself in this way he can prove the holistic value of this kind of work, justifying fulltime urban farming to his more skeptical family members. But the difficulty of making this a feasible career goal leads us to fear that the very conditions that ploughed the small family farms under might now lead to the demise of the urban farming movement.

For Adam and Jenna the process of becoming urban farmers was as slow and organic as farming itself. It all started with Jenna’s hankering for the delicious tomatoes of her childhood. Adam’s attempt to help her with her growing obsession with growing became a catalyst for a gradually expanding city homestead (including laying hens).

Through the development of Adam and Jenna’s little home farm and their deepening relationship with each other and their community, we see that relationship itself is the ghost in the machine. The reason why the industrial food complex is the enemy is that it has eroded the cement that has bonded human beings to each other and to the earth for millennia.

The look of this documentary is unusually simple for such a complex topic, as if the tranquil nature of the urban farmers? lives casts its glow onto the film itself. Zenz addresses his subject matter by selecting a small handful of urban farmers in Los Angeles and getting them to tell their stories.

There’s only a smattering of expert commentary, but what we find of it is spot on, pointing us to the wider significance and repercussions of urban farming in the world at large.

Seed activist Vandana Shiva puts it all in a nutshell by pointing out how growing organic food in the city is an enlightened activity that bonds and strengthens humanity and underpins the growth of social justice and equality.

The cinematography brings out the tactile, sensual quality of gardening; the images of dirt, leaf, and loving hands are lovely, detailed, and sun-washed. Rather than bombard the viewer with dogma, the deeper meaning of urban gardening is brought to the fore because of the oasis of simplicity that the director has created.

It’s a happy ending. Ron wins his fight against narrow-minded municipal planners, Rishi starts making a living teaching others how to garden organically, and Jenna and Adam’s home becomes a hub for urban gardening awareness, a place where city dwellers? minds can be opened to the joys of growing and eating food from one’s own backyard and growing closer to each other in the process.

Urban Fruit manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.