At first glance, community gardens might seem like an unlikely place to explore nonreligion. Digging deeper, however, we realize that there is much more we can learn through a study of community gardening than might meet the eye. Community gardening offers a window into how humans relate to the natural world and to each other: How, for example, do community gardeners deal with the intrusions of weeds or garden pests? How do the gardeners think about the needs of the plants they grow? How do they interact with each other and manage personal conflicts in the gardens? Is there a ritualistic aspect to community gardening? Is there a political aspect to it? What do people gain on a personal level from community gardening? All of these questions relate to how we understand nature. They can also shed light on individual lifestances.
Why Community Gardens?
How does the research work?
To go about answering these questions, we interviewed 120 people (and counting) at 45 community gardens across our eight research sites: Argentina (16), Australia (15), Brazil (17), Canada (28 as well as one focus group), Finland (10), Norway (14), UK (3 and counting), and US (18).
Religion or nonreligion were not the primary selection criteria for participants. Rather, we were simply interested in people who are active in community gardens. Some of them were managers or employees, some were allotment holders, and some were volunteers. Using this “sideways” examination of religion and nonreligion was critical to getting at the complexity of people’s lifestances.
What are some of the highlights so far?
While there are a number of differences between the sites – in terms of geography and climate, plus culture, politics, and economics – we also observe similarities across all of the gardens. One of our key findings is that this study of community gardening reveals the positive content of nonreligion. Rather than thinking about what is lost when someone is not religious, our study of gardening shows the practices, relationships, ethics, and worldviews of the gardeners. Ultimately, through this study of community gardens, we’re learning about how humans, both religious and nonreligious, get along with each other and how human and non-human worlds intersect.
Here are 5 key themes we’re seeing so far:
1. Gardening Shapes Our View of Nature
Gardeners often express a horizontal view of nature, rather than a vertical one. This means that they do not see humans as necessarily superior to nature, but rather as one part of it. This leads to reimagining relationships with non-human animals in the gardens, such as slugs or rabbits, as well as the plants themselves. Such a horizontal conception means that humans are not the centre of all things, but that other forms of life matter too and that they have their own agency and their own claims to space on the planet. Despite this horizontal view that humans are part of nature, gardeners also suggested that there is something that makes humans distinct from nature as well. Interestingly, we find this sentiment expressed both by those who identify as religious and those who identify as nonreligious.
2. Gardening Presents Ethical Challenges
While gardening can help people to rethink their relationship with nature in a more equitable way, ethical challenges remain. How, for example, should weeds be dealt with? Should they be pulled out – since they don’t “belong” there – or should they be allowed a place in garden? Some gardeners might want a “pristine” garden with no weeds, while others might prefer a wilder, “messy” garden. And how to manage these competing lifestances among gardeners presents yet another challenge.
A related ethical issue concerns garden pests. In Finland, an invasive Spanish slug species has entered the country in the past decades and gardeners there grappled with the ethical dilemma: Should they kill the slug to preserve their gardens, as well as the wider ecosystems? Or was this a contradiction to the egalitarian values toward nature that they otherwise expressed? In cases like this, gardeners feel profound ambivalence as a horizontal relationship with nature presents distinct challenges.
3. Gardening is Political
Working in a community garden is often political, though not in the limited sense of belonging to a political party or canvassing for votes. One community garden we studied in Brazil, for example, is associated with an anarchist collective who uses the garden to empower marginalized groups. Many gardeners likewise spoke about the importance of food sovereignty: providing everyone access to healthy food that is grown collectively with sustainable methods and without a profit motive. Through their gardening, gardeners engage with political issues such as land reform, Indigenous rights, food security, education, and environmental activism. They see their gardens as potential places of resistance to the political and economic status quo.
4. Gardening is Part of Wellbeing
The rituals of gardening and the community it provides mean that gardening can be a part of individual and collective wellbeing. For example, watering the garden every day can almost take the form of a ritual, or, as one gardener from Finland said, “It’s therapeutic when you weed a carrot bed.” Another gardener from Brazil said, “The garden is my escape valve in the pandemic.” There are also reciprocal benefits that participants realize: that they give to the garden and in turn the garden gives back to them, in tangible ways (like the fruits and vegetables that are harvested) and intangible ways (the sense of purpose that comes from gardening). Through gardening, one can tend to the self, as well as to others.
5. Gardening Can Help Us Imagine a Better World
Community gardens also give participants the opportunity to think about their ideal world. The idea of making the world a better place was one theme that ran through our interview with gardeners. What kind of world do we want to live in? And what would ideal relationships between humans, non-human animals, and nature look like? In their gardens, on a smaller scale, participants have a chance to enact these ideals. Community gardens open space for thinking about these big questions.
Who is involved?
Results and Publications
Lori G. Beaman discussed early findings from the Community Gardens project in her
Results from the Community Gardens project are also discussed in Lori G. Beaman and Lauren Strumos’s article, “Toward equality: Including non-human animals in studies of lived religion and nonreligion,” Social Compass (2023)