Dr.Dawg

The war on gardens, and what it means

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conform1.jpg

Those choosing other than well-cropped turf to adorn their properties are finding themselves pursued and threatened by city by-law enforcement all over North America.

Item: In Memphis, Tennessee, a schoolteacher’s garden—in his own backyard—is cited as a “public nuisance.” When he asked the judge just what a “public nuisance” was, he was told, in effect, “anything that generates a complaint.”

Item: In Oak Park, Michigan, a woman faced a 93-day jail sentence for growing a vegetable garden on her front lawn. The ordinance she was supposed to have violated refers only to “suitable” plant material. When city planner Kevin Rulkowski was asked to explain the meaning of that word, he replied that suitable means “common.” A public campaign, largely on the Internet, forced the authorities to reconsider. Well, for now, anyway.

Item: In Lantzville, BC, a man faces a six-month sentence for converting a gravel pit on his property to a vegetable garden. The most up-to-date report indicates that the municipal council is vigorously pursuing legal action against him.

Toronto tried a similar move in the 1990s, and the case went all the way up to the Ontario Court of Appeal—which sided with the family involved. Didn’t matter: Toronto city officials kept zealously pursuing vegetable-lovers as late as this year, when, under public pressure, it relented, and will allow gardens on its sidewalk boulevards.

Ottawa, too, has its share of officials who were obviously told too many times as children to eat their carrots. But Hank and Vera Jones stood their ground, threatening to take the matter to court, and the city backed down.

Pettifogging city bureaucrats with too much time on their hands—or something more fundamental? I would suggest the latter.

Failure to conform is viewed with deep suspicion in many quarters. We are used to the notion of state-enforced conformity—think North Korea—but we need to be reminded, perhaps, that members of society demand it as well. Every case mentioned above arose from a complaint by neighbours. The machinery of municipal government was then wheeled into action by officials with little or no judgement, acting on the basis of by-laws vaguely drafted enough to permit these abuses of authority.

I’m old enough to remember the pure hatred that was directed against young men who decided to grow their hair long back in the ‘sixties. Objectively, a few extra inches of hair threaten no one unless their bearers are working in an industry that would make it hazardous. But the synecdoche was obvious: long hair indicated rebellion, a refusal to conform, a questioning of authority. Every move against it, however, simply made the young people’s point and reinforced their anti-hegemonic attitudes.

Obviously refusing to grow the legal kind of grass on your property and keeping it nicely trimmed presents the same sort of threat. A few veggies never hurt anyone, of course. But being different means it is possible to be different. That’s intolerable to those who either fear to act in a similar fashion, or resent the freedom of those who do.

The optimistic rule-breakers among us will observe that there was public pressure in all of the anti-gardening cases noted, and sober judges here and there who don’t like catch-all by-laws. The lessons are manifold. Break the mould. Refuse to conform. Always question authority—that’s how you make authorities accountable. Stand your ground, and enlist support, because you can win.

And the social media are our friends.

Lest anyone think I’m suddenly partaking in the ideology of the right-libertarians and the property-rights folks, guess again. I’m all for laws that force property-owners to remove noxious weeds from their property, for example, or forbid owners in the downtown to slaughter pigs in their garages. I’m not fundamentally opposed to expropriation for the common good, either. But where no demonstrable harm to the commonweal can be shown, the callused hand of officialdom has no place.

That’s a key issue, of course, but it’s also a matter of public attitudes. Too many want us to join the sleepwalking procession, and object when we insist that they wake up instead. I would imagine, and hope, that those among us who know how to think and speak for ourselves—whatever our politics—might find in our various reactions a moment of complete agreement.

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[H/t Sabina Becker]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on September 19, 2011 3:01 PM.

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