a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The Sorcery of Place
We carried on like old friends even though we weren’t. Michael and I had met just a few months before and it was the first and only time I would meet Patricia. But there we all were, in my kitchen, finishing each other’s sentences and bringing scandal on our afternoon tea with a bottle of whiskey.
A few months before, in the summer of 2011, Michael McDermott and I had spent a week at a multi-generational leadership retreat at the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont where, no matter what, gray heads seemed to gravitate toward one another. “You’re too easy to talk to,” he told me then. “Stop it until I get to know more of the others.”
Michael is a retired doctor whose career had slogged through Chicago’s public hospital, Cook County, where I imagined his direct approach and riptide of compassion alternately healing and scolding bodies into better behavior.
“I like your Patricia Monaghan,” I told him once.
The retreat leaders hoped we would immerse in a distinct collective experience, and had done everything but dip us in the farm’s pond. But the lives we had brought with us were insistent. With Michael, though we talked about many things, some conversations seemed enchanted by a woman who wasn’t on the participants list.
Patricia was Michael’s partner, which alone could explain a persistent attachment. She was also a sorceress.
Her occupation, as I later saw it listed on Wikipedia, was “poet, writer, scholar, professor, grape farmer.” But as Michael hinted about her journey through feminist philosophy, social justice politics, and creative expression, and her tracing of the alters of mysticism, divinity, Goddess spirituality, earth spirituality and more, awe crept into his voice, and tears into his eyes.
I thought: Sorceress. The good kind.
Several months after the retreat, Michael called me to say he and Patricia would be visiting his son who lived not far from my neighborhood on the southern edge of San Francisco. Would it be okay if they came up for a visit?
Moments after the steep climb from the sidewalk to my front door, they walked in, rosy-cheeked and breathing hard. As they panted and poked about, I observed that neither of them showed the fidgety relief I often see in visitors who arrive after witnessing god-knows-what along the path to my house. I live in that sort of neighborhood, a place you have to know pretty well before the despair that is evident everywhere like stains on the sidewalks discloses hopeful tints, and before actual threat can be extracted from fear.
That may be common in lots of places. When I worked for a family violence prevention organization, I began writing some poetry about the nature of violence, and found that trying to uncover something hopeful was like sweeping a dirt floor. Violence like weather gets under the skin, I wrote in the poem Everyday Peace. Just can’t fight it/City Hall, the river. Violence was a place no one could escape, or so it seemed at the beginning of my poem. What can a person do?
Now, reading on into the same poem, I can spot either hope sprouting through resignation. …you do what folks have/Always done: Talk about the/Weather, how the day will turn, and/How the seasons change. And how an/Everyday peace will root in the fields and/How we can talk about something else for a/Change. And here and everywhere, my brother/My sister, we can talk about something else.
Patricia and Michael soon settled into chairs at the kitchen table in my home as though they knew their ways around. Had they watered my plants or made a sandwich, it would have seemed perfectly natural.
We sat closely, as people do in the deceptive Victorian cottage I occupy, a smallish place that somehow makes you look for the steps to an upstairs that doesn’t exist. We nibbled on this and that, saluted all things Irish, Scottish and pagan … then piled into Michael and Patricia’s rental car to see as much of the gardens and art projects in my neighborhood as possible before the car pointed toward the airport.
I remember our drive, however brief, as the swell time of comrades. I prattled on even more than usual.
I often give tours of the community gathering spaces that my neighbors and I have created, but usually give them to folks who live nearby, and who know firsthand how bizarrely unusual it is that neighbors would paint pictures on walls or plant flowers in San Francisco’s tightly-controlled public spaces. In my neighborhood, one literally left off most San Francisco maps, it once seemed impossible that anyone would bother trying.
We call the work Quesada Gardens, after the street I live on where Annette Smith and Karl Paige first started to push some blight aside to plant a garden on an urban median strip irregularly dotted by Canary Island Date Palms. Quesada Gardens has come to represent a sort of community magic that is conjured when people who are radically different from one another and suspicious of everything decide to come together and connect with each other and their environment in new ways.
I didn’t have to say all of that to Patricia and Michael.
When in 2002 neighbors first began planting, painting and building together, a columnist in our local paper wrote: “It’s about the gardeners, not the garden.” She was right. A garden alone, beautification by itself, would never have transformed such a dangerous, gritty place into the safe and lovely route through town.
A block away, in fact, where massive infrastructure improvements and public investment were being made, bullets still flew. The social and physical landscapes seemed to observe different seasons elsewhere in this, the city’s most historically underserved neighborhood. Residents have witnessed gazillion dollar public projects seemingly drop from the sky, and have mostly just dodged them to go on living life as always.
After the first Quesada Garden was established, other projects emerged nearby where neighbors had gotten tired of waiting for governmental systems to help, where people who are vastly different from one another joined together, and where just plain folks insisted on blazing independent paths through the tight terrain of sustainable urban design and good intentions.
Quesada Gardens’ projects are sometimes funky and always genuine in a way that, for example, a pocket park designed and built by contract is ever likely to be. They are like call and response with slick efforts constructed around agendas and schematics drawn up in a head office somewhere. They are refreshing for residents who have done too many “key stakeholder” interviews.
In a place under design, a person who already lives there can end up feeling like those well-behaved simulated citizens you’ve seen in computer-generated drawings of build-it-and-they-will-come improvement projects.
The people you see in Quesada Gardens’ homespun projects are really there. They were there before the project got started. They remain because they were decision-makers instead of advisors or witnesses.
Patricia and Michael understood they were seeing much more than improved landscaping. Their comments reflected the swift undercurrent of community strength that, frankly, can muck up the brave new world that policymakers and urban planners want to build where my neighbors and I live. For them, it seemed, my prattle confirmed what they already knew, and was surprisingly unsurprising.
Later I wondered if Patricia and Michael were simply attuned to a general spirit of place, that atmospheric condition generated between land and people that can’t be designed. In my neighborhood, that spirit is a shy, suspicious one. It asserts randomly when bulldozers turn their backs, and government officials throw up their hands. But my friends sensed it, and with them I began to feel the spirit of other places I’d never actually seen.
That may sound like Patricia had cast a spell on me, or like I was jerking around the backseat of the rental car speaking in pro-feminist tongues. No. But I could picture Michael sinking his hands in the dirt around the grapevines he told me he tended in Brigit Rest, Wisconsin. I could see Patricia putting fruit to her lips. I sensed their faith in wine. I knew so much I could not have known then, in the recycled air of the car.
There in that pristine vinyl interior, our separate personalities and the million places each of us had known intersected, maybe, just for a second. Familiar sites drifting outside the windows sparked with something new. It was a little like stargazing … a solitary act that, if you think about the strangers a thousand miles watching at the same time, can poke holes in loneliness.
I wonder if Patricia and Michael had a sense of me in places not on the tour. I’m from rural Ohio, a place not too different than how I picture their part of Wisconsin. I feel sure I carry my hometown and its Appalachian landscape with me like birthmarks. Ohio is just in me. Thinking about it can turn the west coast sea air sticky, and the creeks muddy.
On my way to the retreat in Vermont, I stopped in Ohio and my hometown. It was an expensive excursion that involved extra flights, a rental car and motels, and was hard for me to justify. I hadn’t been back since my mother had died six years before. She had been the last of my family there, and there was no new reason to visit. Yet, I was compelled.
My mother died in Mount Vernon, the town she grew up in, the town her father and his father grew up in, the town where I was born and raised. When she died, my connection to the place became unreasonable, committed San Franciscan that I am, but persistent. When I wrote about her passing, I found that my mother and the place we shared were simply inseparable.
Lilacs will always remind me of mother as
Spring turned early to summer and the Kokosing
Valley turned drunk as a skunk on humid air.
She was perched on a bed that teetered from
clinical hustle and bustle to stretch of
green and blue beyond the window. The
last of the lilacs wilted in a mason jar and
mom took the finest of breaths lingering
perhaps like scent or gone like flowers
ready to abide by nature. Ready?
Yes. A moment when blossoms best knew themselves and
mom made of a single option a decision.
Bayview Hunters Point is the place I now call home. While it teamed with life long before I moved here, it came alive for me through shared struggle with other people who do the gritty work of building community where they live. I’ve learned that blended sweat is potent, and that a place that would never be my hometown of origin can still worm its way into my psyche.
Or did I worm my way into it? That was the sort of question we talked about on our tour, talking faster as we became more aware of time. After a meandering loop around the neighborhood, Patricia and Michael dropped me back at my house and drove off toward the airport.
I sat on a step halfway up the climb to the front door, where I wouldn’t have felt safe a few years before. An alert drug-runner across the street looked at me through the flowers and fruit trees as though respectful that the old ways had been updated by the active community around the urban garden.
Sitting there, I wrote these lines:
Mothers we have forgotten
Friends we have yet to meet
Spirits, hard to see but
Swooping between us and
The place we are
Like needle and thread.
Later, Michael reported that Patricia had been impressed by my hospitality. That was quite a complement, I thought, coming from a sorceress who could conjure millennia of nurturing Goddess energy. It caused me to want more of what the three of us shared that day. But that moment had, like Patricia herself soon would, like each of us one day will … passed.
I am often asked if Quesada Gardens is replicable and scalable as a community change strategy. Even those who already know the answer will still ask the question, starved as we all are for solutions.
It’s not. Anyway, it’s no more replicable than friends touring a changing place, or the vegetable patch that helped feed Michael and me on that farm in Vermont. Even if the tour sites stayed the same, tourists and time create fresh experiences. That vegetable patch had to be planted anew in overturned soil each season, and plants had to grow around the vagaries of weather and gardeners.
Each Quesada Gardens project looks and functions differently than the last, and is different than it was the year before, or will be next year. They each are shaped by the collective muscle, passion and wisdom of people who are building, in the shifting wind of urban change, modest reminders that people live here.
You can’t bottle this stuff.
True, the conditions for grassroots urban change in the shadows of cranes are replicable. The community building process has its timeless and placeless principles. But it’s still easy to roll out a garden that gardeners don’t use, paint a mural that speaks to few, or build a soulless structure.
Now Patricia has passed. She, Michael and I won’t have another magical time together in my neighborhood. But in the afterglow, I can find my way to something close. I can see my next step toward neighbors I don’t yet understand, and take that step with faith that we will find something we already have in common, even if it is just living in the same neighborhood or once noticing the same constellation of stars at the same time but from different places.
Such is sorcery, I suppose. How magical that Patricia is alive.
She and Michael, like other strangers I know so well, are here now in the Quesada Gardens. If only through me, whole crowds share a root wriggling deep in Bayview Hunters Point. When we neighbors gather, we squeeze crowds upon crowds quite comfortably between the palm trees.
Even if I’m not mindful of the connection, when Michael harvests his Wisconsin grapes, my life gets sweeter. When, in Ohio, lilacs scent the air, at least one Californian starts sniffing. And Patricia, a whisper in the choral wind, sings a song of change that I can, that listeners anywhere, can hear.
I like that Patricia Monaghan. Always did. Always will.
Jeffrey Betcher lives and works in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood. He is a community organizer and writer who believes that strengthening the social environment, from the grassroots up, is the surest path toward a sustainable and just world. He worked in the national violence prevention movement before his current focus on hyper-local social change strategies. He co-founded and leads the award-winning Quesada Gardens Initiative (www.QuesadaGardens.org) in the heart of Bayview, a network of trusted neighbors who provide the structure that new leaders and informal community groups need to grow. Jeffrey was a fellow at the Center for Whole Communities 2010 leadership retreat at Knoll Farm in Vermont.