The Education of an Urban Environmentalist

My grandmother grew up on a homestead in 1930s Kansas where she helped grow, raise, process and make everything. I’m trying to live a similar life in a big city. My grandma thinks I’m crazy.

City life doesn’t make a lot of sense. We build empires at the expense of the natural world but fill our museums with preserved specimens. We grow exotic gardens under glass roofs and champion farm-fresh food in our restaurants. I live in the city because I need music, art and community like I need clean air and water. My grandmother’s example inspires me to be resourceful and intentional in my quest for a balanced life.

 Growing up in a small Midwestern town, I scorned the miles of cornfields that surrounded us, preferring to lead expeditions to the local convenience store and the playground across town. Like many kids of that time and place, I grew up searching for something to care about. Laura Ingalls was my first hero. I spent hours playing pioneer, scratching for survival in the unexplored reaches of my backyard.

Things changed during high school. I traded out Ingalls for The Monkey Wrench Gang and tried to convince friends to help me stop development on the cornfields outside of town. I idolized the radical environmentalists of the ’70s and ’80s, made bad tree-hugging art and derided the gas guzzling, non-recycling citizens of my town. As a teen, I was angry that I’d missed all the action of previous decades and frustrated that the environmental movement seemed to have died in the face of the oil lobby and inefficient government.

Fast-forward several years: I’ve just dropped out of NYU’s art school, disillusioned by the lack of craft taught in my classes. I take a job as a baker in a tiny café. After our chef gets me an internship in Manhattan’s renowned Danube-Bouley pastry kitchen, I spend my days experimenting with butter creams and soufflés in my tiny apartment kitchen and my evenings working pastry service with two crazy Austrians. I eat fois gras for the first time. I labor for hours decorating a single cake. As I struggle to make ends meet, my meals become relics of restaurant scraps and coffee.

Some people can live like this for years, but I’m not one of them. So I end up in Seattle in 2003, burned-out and in need of a change. I learn to feed off the energy of beautiful views, lush landscapes and a food culture centered on simple, fresh ingredients. I start to make art again, but the raw anger of my teenage years is gone. I grow mushrooms out of an armchair and install living moss and ferns in the floorboards of an abandoned storefront—an effort to even the score between man and nature. I’m thrilled when a plant survives under these outrageous conditions. If the plants can do it, I can too.

As my installations become more elaborate, I hit the limit of my amateur gardening skills. I decide to apply as a farm intern, thinking I’ll gain the knowledge to figure out what to do next. The farm’s owner calls me: “I’ve been looking at your art,” he says. “It seems like you’re using plants to take revenge on the city. To grow food you need to have a relationship with the soil. I worry that you won’t be a good fit here.” I stammer something about looking for insight on the farm and, reluctantly, he accepts.

Soon I’m on the Kitsap Peninsula, learning to pack as many plants as possible into a tiny two-acre farm. In the evenings I read about urban farming—Novella Carpenter’s blog and the agro-anarchist how-to guide Toolbox for Sustainable City Living. I’m nurturing a new idea, thinking about how to turn my artistic practice into a lifestyle. Exhausted and inspired, I return to Seattle and break ground on a vacant lot around the corner from my home.

Four years later, that lot has become a farm with close to 30 varieties of herbs, flowers and veggies that keep my husband and me fed all year, despite occasional theft and raccoon attacks. Strangers stop by to chat and neighbors I’d otherwise never met help with watering in exchange for fresh greens.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been growing corn in planting strips around the city, hanging gardens from trees in milk jugs, using found materials to grow food wherever there is sunlight. I scatter these tiny gardens hoping someone becomes inspired to try it himself. This month, I’ll attach a vertical herb garden to Capitol Hill’s Sound Transit Red Wall to underscore the idea that you can grow food almost anywhere in this town. This is a way to keep the city alive.

When you grow food in a parking strip or on your balcony, you declare your commitment to the future of the land, the city and yourself. It’s a means to urban coexistence with the natural world, a direct challenge to the course of history. It’s re-defining what it means to be human. n


Joanna Lepore is an artist, activist and product development manager at Theo Chocolate.

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