I'm working my way through a neat stack of books adopted from the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, which I recently had the opportunity to visit, and explore. I say 'explore' because this bookstore is something of a wonder. Labyrinthine is a word invented just to describe this converted theater bookstore. And so, wandering between the stacks, one gets the uncanny feeling that despite all efforts to find a particular book (on tea, in my case) it is much more likely a book will find you.
Without looking for it, I found Grass Roots Gardening by Donna Schaper among the "Botany" books. The clever title and the brown fist holding a little flower spoke to the artist in me. My curiosity was further peaked by the books strange relationship with it's neighbors: on one side a collection of boisterous how-to-style gardening guides full of glossy pictures, on the other, environmental science textbooks -dry and mighty. In contrast this little green book seemed unassuming. It lacked the colorful illustrations, the tables of plants in their seasons, and smiling women in straw hats - yet it promised ritual, guiding wisdom, sustenance: sentiments that spoke to the tea drinker in me.
Grassroots Gardening is more of an extended metaphor than a gardening book, or activist toolkit. To Donna Schaper, the garden is change, growth, work, the reality of time, reward, connection - ritual that recharges the spirit. Wisdom, she posits, that every gardener intimately knows. Schaper admits in her books introduction that, despite the promise of the title, the book is more memoir than anything else. Still, the anecdotal rituals laid out are useful for guidance, if not specific instruction. This is unmistakably the work of a spiritual leader - each chapter is a sermon: the lesson, live by example.
At the same time I took in her lessons, I appreciated the authors restraint - the book was not preachy, or aimed at conversion. The meditations within are rooted firmly in the garden, not God, not Liberalism. And so, the material is accessible to anyone with experience moving earth. The author's work as a community worker shows here - her priorities are connection rather than difference. There is room in Donna Schaper's garden for a little bit of everything - including critique of her own ideals. Point of view is valuable, pointing the finger, not so much.
Schaper is a key figure in the feminist movement within the church. In her writing, she acknowledges her privilege and tries not to dwell in it. If I didn't know of the long work she's done as an activist minister she would read as quick to dismiss her own complicity in the systems she seeks to dismantle. Her prioritization of acceptance over awareness is sometimes detrimental to her message. There are places in Grassroots Gardening where this tone deafness undermines the larger message she's trying to communicate. Most glaring was her liberal use of the word "gypsy" to describe herself, and other free spirited white women with the freedom to travel. That she uses this racial slur as shorthand for a key concept in a chapter subtitled "The Ritual of Thinking" is, well, less than thoughtful. Even if this chapter was meant to "reclaim" the word (and I have my doubts about that) I do not think the author has the authority to do so, especially without acknowledging it's roots - as a word used to oppress the Romani people. More likely the author is entirely unaware of the implications of the word. Either way, this is a glaring oversight.
Grassroots Gardening was not what I expected, but I'm glad to have found it when I did. In increasingly polarized times, Donna Schaper's voice is a great comfort, and a great reminder - to take care of yourself, but to also, be open. "Long ago I stopped using the words 'liberal' and 'conservative' because they didn't describe most of the people I know. Instead I started using 'open' and 'closed' to describe both my red and blue friends. I have many closed liberal friends and many open conservative friends as well as a lot of closed conservative "friends" and open liberal friends. Gardening opens -- and therefore is a good ritual for activists."