Getting Better

The transformative and healing power of radical, alternative spaces.

THE LIVES OF PLANTS have kept me sane this year and a half enduring long Covid. The world of YouTube gardeners has soothed me and our postage-stamp-sized garden has been a sanctuary. But most potent of the healing plant encounters have been visits to OrganicLea, a cooperative community farm on the edge of town.

These trips were rare victories. One, around four months in, stands out. For whatever reason, the gods of illness parted the clouds that morning, and I managed 30 minutes on the bus and the 10 minute walk there, a feat for a mostly housebound long hauler. When I got there, I thinned peaches, chit-chatted with other volunteers, and took four breaks, sitting inhaling woodchip. I was part of things again. It was good shit.

The workers at OrganicLea are proving that a better way to grow food is possible. Image courtesy of OrganicLea.

To recover from long Covid many things have to line up simultaneously. The illness is a sticky, funneled web of inflammation, fatigue, depression and a raft of other mysterious physiological forces teaming up to ensnare you. That mid-summer trip wasn’t quite enough to launch myself out, but to witness the endlessly repeating — endlessly changing — cycle of sowing, mulching, and reaping restored a thread of hope in me.

It’s seductive to see a crisis of personal health as part of the many crises of social health unravelling all around us. The connections between our ridiculous economic system and our overburdened bodies are too frequent to ignore as much as they are too complicated to fully untangle. There’s no argument that work-based stress means heart attacks, that food processed for profit means diabetes, that pollution means cancer and so on, but figuring out what particular configuration of capitalism’s coordinated attack on the habitability of the Earth’s surface is doing to your body specifically… that can be tricky.

I have my theories. They trade places daily in the rankings: stressful organizing work, a lifetime of eating miserable animals, a disturbed microbiome, and so on. Presiding over all the many possibilities, however, is the undeniable psychic stress caused by not really having any clue how the hell to respond to all this.

This applies as much to my personal illness (there is no cure for long Covid) as it does to the collective one (what is the cure for capitalism?). Not only do we have to endure the various ways that this economy crushes our capacities, but, in the aftermath of the 20th-century crusade against alternatives to capitalism, we have to navigate an enormous, disorganized and incoherent landscape of possible responses. This was the other part of the comfort of a trip to OrganicLea: they know what their response is.

They are a worker-owned cooperative that grows fruit and vegetables where the outer suburbs of North East London meet the ancient woodland of Epping Forest. Since a group of friends, with a vision of rebuilding their relationship with the land, convinced the council to let them take over the abandoned site over 20 years ago, OrganicLea have been putting together a vegetable box that goes out to dozens of houses every week, growing about 13,000 kilograms of organic fruit and vegetables annually, on just 12 acres (about 9 football fields). They run courses on organic horticulture, workshops on land justice and traineeships for new growers. On Wednesdays and Fridays, volunteers can come and help out. Last year 370 different volunteers came through.

Every time I bring someone new here, I’m reminded of the magic of the place. Each enters a sort of awe-struck hush. You can hear their blood pressure dropping. Everything from the noises and smells of the plant world, to the generous atmosphere of the human one, startles and then soothes our London-frayed nervous systems.

The folks at OrganicLea are proving that a better way to grow food is possible. Despite calls for efficiency and cheapness, the costs of over-packaged, pesticide-drenched and poor-quality fruit and veg (80 percent of topsoil lost in the last 150 years, 40 percent of food nutrient density and so on) are too high. Growing food can be good for the land (the soil here practically hums with life). Workers can be paid well. And the people who eat it — should they want — can be connected to where their food comes from.

In sort of the same way that when someone claims to believe in anything they open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy, OrganicLea’s diversion from mainstream farming invites in the big questions. What do we need to focus on building now for the long struggle ahead? How might personal healing relate to collective healing? What is the best way to respond to being a citizen of a country right at the heart of the global capitalist order while it wreaks havoc around the world?

DESPITE ITS CALMING atmosphere, thinking through this stuff at the farm hasn’t been as easy as I’d like. One of the least pleasant effects of long Covid is the inflammation it can cause to the outer mitochondrial membrane of your brain. This can cause memory issues, fatigue, insomnia and depression. For me, it has led to a moodiness I can only describe as a sort of cognitive polarization.

In one moment I’m Greg the Inconsolable and there is nothing but the flaws in everything. No project has considered all of its limitations adequately, no group has quite the level of sophisticated class/gender/race/historical analysis needed. Everyone is too dependent on X or too disconnected from Y, too naive or too unimaginative, too boring or too unrealistic.

In another, I’m Greg the Helpless Optimist, more pleasant but less grounded in reality. This version of myself wants to believe in the radical potential of everything. He uses phrases like “the most radical thing you can do is…” and insists on the revolutionary nature of his 60-second chat with the check-out clerk at Lidl.

As a dutiful student of self-help culture, I chose a strategy of making space for both of these tendencies. All the same, it is jarring to be inhabited by such opposite worldviews at the same time. For example, one glorious Monday morning at the farm, I’m strolling back to the main building by myself gazing up at the clouds, when it occurs to me that most everyone else in London was sitting inside at a screen. I was filled with joy and horror.

Is OrganicLea likely to impact the conditions that make this true? Or is it simply a nice place for a select few to hide out from?

Generous Greg will tell me first that if things are pure and right enough, by some magical force they will ripple out and affect the world. As with the fractal qualities of plants, he muses, a seemingly small intervention at a detailed layer can change the entire pattern. How this happens is not fully knowable. Bless his goodwill.

Within a few moments, Greg the Inconsolable takes the reigns with a different view. The 20th century back to the land movements failed because they cut themselves off from society, he laments. What if the nearly 11 million people in the US who went to ‘be the change’ in their communes had formed an organized political movement? What if they had sought to methodically disrupt the machinery of capitalism? How much of their stagnation stemmed from their insulation from the world?

To escape the inevitably passive conclusions of these two drama queens (or at least bring them into a better kind of conversation) it’s helpful to pull away from the abstract and return to what is actually happening.

winter vegetables

​In its own way, OrganicLea is transforming the local food economy. Photo via Rawpixel.

Let’s start by looking at who comes through the place. There are many white hippy drop-in types (guilty); and there are also people who have lived in Chingford their whole lives; people fleeing war and persecution, unable to legally work, finding meaning and community; there are addicts, isolated and unwell people prescribed by the NHS; there are burnt out desk workers looking for something new; young people exiting their hedonistic twenties looking for connection; and there are radicals who know that ending capitalism requires practicing something else (also guilty). It’s hard to see it as a disconnected utopia with this much variety involved. Meanwhile, around all the planting, weeding and sowing, there are members of the coop dedicated to supporting new projects to start up in the area (our own included), helping to build the Landworkers’ Alliance and lobbying the council to shift its food strategy.

And, in their own not-insignificant way, OrganicLea is transforming the local food economy. When people subscribe to their veg box scheme, they share the risk involved in growing food. It’s a long way away from the unstable and extraordinarily wasteful set-up of a supermarket. Instead of producers and consumers, miles away and pitted against each other, there’s a recognition of the shared dependence of both: farmers need eaters, eaters need farmers.

Subscribers are also invited to contribute different amounts depending on their ability to. This means that everyone is working to break the despicable situation where working class and poor folks are forced to eat shit food because anything better costs too much. They are transforming the local food economy from one based on competition and scarcity to one based on solidarity and abundance.

The other important thing to say about OrganicLea is that they are a workers’ cooperative — one of only 500 in the UK — which means that their organizational structure mimics the kind of economy they are trying to build. There are no bosses, everyone shares decision-making, and they prioritize autonomy and pay everyone the same.

This may seem like a cute detail — how nice, they’re practicing what they’re preaching — but the workers’ cooperative model is such a powerful organizational form that many radical organizers are putting it at the heart of their strategy to fundamentally transform society.

Cooperation Jackson are the shining example of this. These folks, a group of Marxists who moved to Jackson Mississippi in 2014 to organize an anti-capitalist movement, are weaving together workers’ coop farms, cafes, tech hubs, community land trusts and credit unions to bring the economy back into the control of the majority black working class. As well as workers cooperatives, what OrganicLea and Cooperation Jackson have in common is that they are both building what’s become known as the “solidarity economy.”

It’s worth taking a moment to get into this because the solidarity economy is one of the more meaningful visions of an alternative to the capitalist economy being fleshed out by anarchist and leftist grassroots organizers over the last 15 years. Its beauty is that it can contain a vast world of practical implementations without losing coherence, and that as well as being a vision of a more just, equal and exciting world it is also a strategy for getting there.

The academic Boone W. Shear does a good job defining it without shrinking it, he says the solidarity economy includes, “things like cooperatives… community land trusts, alternative currencies, time banks, and so on—that privilege cooperative rather than competitive, behaviors, that are democratic rather than hierarchical, that seek to bring together rather than individualize, and that reveal rather than conceal sociality and interdependence.”

Unlike OrganicLea, Cooperation Jackson’s solidarity economy is part of an explicit plan to bring the productive forces of the economy back into the control of the city’s proletariat. Their strategy to do this — to “build and fight” as they put it — is to create adequate autonomous community institutions that can begin to wean the oppressed classes from their dependence on capitalism for survival and create the institutions that could replace it.

This comparison raises some questions for OrganicLea (which Greg the Inconsolable gladly fixates upon). Where is OrganicLea’s political culture? Who exactly is our “enemy” here? And what’s the plan to fight them? Beyond a flyer for Earth First! and a poster of the radical history of land rights in the UK on the noticeboard, there’s not much that would indicate that capitalism in England — the system that has now taken over and destroyed much of the world — depended on the mass eviction of people from their land for the industrialization of agriculture. The Enclosures, as this period is known, was a founding moment in the history of capitalist imperialism, reconnecting people with the land is arguably a central part of undoing its harm.

Greg the Helpless Optimist is of course quite happy with this absence. After all, isn’t what matters the actual work that’s taking place? If your politics is woven into your actions, why go on shouting about it? What would more superficial claims to radicalism do for this space other than alienate the uninitiated?

Even now, healthier, calmer and more able to find space between inner extremes, this question is less easily resolved than the first.

A vociferous radicalism can take the place of meaningful work. And it’s a culture that can thrive where an insecurity around the group’s commitment and impact lies. When I think of the ‘radical spaces’ I’ve been in, squats, occupations, etc., there’s often a sense of temporariness — that the foundations aren’t solid. And yet, passivity, cooption and ultimately a failure to “beat” capitalism haunts us.

ORGANICLEA CHANGES CONSTANTLY, it grows and evolves ceaselessly, it continues to surprise, confound and thrill even its oldest stewards. And all the while it remains well and truly there. It is a solid place. Between a gurning London, charging around feverishly, high on its own inflated housing market, and the long, deep quiet of Epping’s ancient forest, OrganicLea operates a different timescale.

What might I, 27 years old, physically demobilized, emotionally drained, have to learn from this land and its stewards about longevity? Or about political maturity? Or about healing an inflamed polarization?

Helping out in the fields one day, I and three other volunteers, are weeding the last runner beans of the summer, when one of us asks what restorative justice means. We all begin to share what we know, piecing it together with each of the little understandings we have to offer. The day is baking, we’re all under hats and are having to pay attention to separate out the pernicious bindweed, and because there is no pressure to find The One Right Answer, a very subtle, very intoxicating collective joy creeps up on us.

I find this a rare experience for a political chat with strangers, where the pressure of our enormously high stakes tends to crystallize opinions into hard things with sharp edges. Here, instead, the soil, and all its millions of life forms -perfectly balanced between too heavy to allow roots or water in, and too light to hold itself together- can’t do anything else but welcome our differences.

I recently read Rebecca Solnit’s writing on George Orwell’s love of roses. Despite critics from both sides, Orwell was one of the few left-wingers to reject Stalinism in the early 20th century, and remained committed to the antiauthoritarian socialism he’d learnt from the Spanish anarchists. A flawed character in lots of ways, Orwell nevertheless still represents a benchmark for committed radicalism without dogma. Solnit finds the source of this militant tendency in his connection to the land. Planting roses in his garden in 1937 was, for Solnit, just more evidence for his self-professed love of “solid things” and the living “surface of the earth” over abstract ideals. It’s worth saying he was also incredibly unwell for most of his life.

Back in the field, one of us interrupts the conversation to point out the beauty of the flowers in the bed one over. I don’t know their name but they are tall, daisy-like, gleaming white and yellow, utterly adored by the honeybees. Lovely we all agree.

The middle ground is assumed to be the safest place. But there is also a dangerous safety in the extremes. Ideas grown in the absence of place, community and participation can be life rafts for the lonely rather than tools for emancipation. And they can be both. To be in the world is always riskier, always messier, usually more interesting.

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