This is the second time I’ve visited my cousin’s property at Ohana Gardens in Detroit, Michigan, an urban garden that emerged out of a need for health and wellness in a food apartheid community. Last time, one of the workers showed me how he gardened by the phases of the moon, incorporating traditional ecological knowledge from his youth as the son of sharecroppers into an urban landscape. We sweated in the greenhouse, pulled weeds where they needed to be pulled, left the ones that were nitrogen fixers, and placed crystals and minerals among the plants to strengthen their growth. I spelled out my grief in the soil.
This time, I am walking alongside my cousin, whose cancer has progressed rapidly, but I’m not supposed to say anything about it: today is meant to be a happy day. Instead of garden work, we take pictures together, unsure of which ones will be our last before he’s bedridden. The garden became a sacred space for me once more—a place to cultivate memory. I am witness to the colliding urgency and expansiveness of the present.
Black people of the diaspora have been healing fractured relationships with the land since our seizure from Africa. From guerrilla gardening and food cooperatives to urban farms and vertical gardens in city apartment complexes, the small plot has been a central location for Black people to assert our autonomy and build community. Unfortunately, these garden projects, particularly those on private property, are often met with outside disdain. When orchestrated by Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, these gardens are considered illegitimate, not state-sanctioned, too wild. They are wildness trying to creep back into organized space, the critics say. We’re just not doing it right.
At last month’s European Union summit in Prague, E.U. Commission Vice President Josep Borrell Fontelles called Europe a garden compared to the rest of the world, which he described as a jungle. He specifically said that it is important that the jungle does not invade the garden. Fontelles finished the speech with a rallying call to young Europeans to “keep the garden, be good gardeners. But your duty will not be to take care of the garden itself but [of] the jungle outside.”
While Fontelles was speaking specifically about Europe, many Americans hold a similar worldview. We look at devastating images of the waste that has accumulated in the Global South. We weep at the refugees made from war, climate change, and genocide, but we make sure they stay outside of the fence. We don’t have enough resources to accommodate their suffering. In fact, their suffering may rub off on us—and inside the garden, wildness should be expunged. Wildness is to be feared, tamed, and terminated whenever possible. This is the civilizing force of the garden.
When displaced human traffickers brought Africans to the Americas by force, European colonizers brought over specific tribes that had agricultural expertise that was essential to successful rice production in the U.S. South. Displaced Africans wove seeds into their hair, eventually bringing yams, specific strains of rice, and varieties of melons to the New World. African encounters with Indigenous people in the Americas brought forth new knowledge and relationships that made emergent gardening between the two groups possible. New ways of gardening were born out of necessity.
After the plantation project had taken over, it was imperative to the biodiversity of the Americas and to the survival of the displaced to cultivate their own plots. The local garden within a garden of violence became a place of gathering and possibility for enslaved Africans.
Wildness is to be feared, tamed, and terminated whenever possible. This is the civilizing force of the garden.
Long before Africans were violently displaced in droves to the Americas, Christopher Columbus landed here, carrying colonial visions of deserved abundance. Upon first landing in what is now known as the Bahamas, Columbus marveled at the lush landscapes, temperate climate, and richness of the island’s resources; he believed that he had discovered the Garden of Eden. What was omitted from his romanticization of this garden were the people who had maintained it.
The idea of the West as an earthly paradise has been a major influence in Western literature, conservation projects, urban planning, and other world-building aspects of Western life. Still, the garden as we know it exists because of Black and Indigenous land stewards: these communities protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The spoils of their labor have funded and continue to fund the West’s prosperity.
In the European mind, there has been one proper way to garden: a way that prioritized cleanliness, privatization, and an affinity for the lawn (which is one of the most environmentally unfriendly cultivars known). But gardens, when they maximize biodiversity, are messy. They do not follow clean-cut boundaries. They attract wildlife. They are not insular.
Plants and plant communities have long been invoked as metaphors or allegories for cultural differences. Xenophobia and anti-Blackness show up in the naming of plants, between plant communities as colonizing forces themselves, in the constant delineation of “invasive” versus “native” plants. As philosopher Tomaž Mastnak wrote in a 2014 paper, “planting necessarily involved displanting,” meaning that in order for one thing to thrive, something must get removed or transplanted elsewhere.
I extend this analysis to people, my ancestors, who were first displanted from Africa and replanted in the Americas, and I extend it to the colonial project that pillaged the Americas, Africa, and Asia and built up the European garden as we know it today. The reason Europe gets to enjoy its garden is because of the stolen labor, resources, and bodies from the Global South. The West is obsessed with creating insular communities that can weather the burdens of the outside world while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the pain our insularity creates.
White denialism and a sense of national vanity perpetuate climate issues in the Global South and places that are deemed “uninhabitable,” as theorized by Canadian scholar Katherine McKittrick. Some geographies are deemed uninhabitable and, thus, geographically inferior because of their untameable, unruly landscapes. As McKittrick has written, the result is “global segregation.”
This perspective may be indicative of the West’s general apathy toward climate change as something that affects “those people” as a symptom of their inferiority, not exacerbated by the burdens that colonization, globalization, and otherization have put on these communities. This, too, connects to how predominantly Black and Indigenous spaces in the West are also considered sites of inferiority, reflected in what surrounds these neighborhoods that have been redlined, neglected, and underfunded. Yet it is assumed that these neighborhoods are inferior because they predominantly house Black and Indigenous people.
In this way, the colonial project naturalizes itself. It begets extinction and expulsion and creates environmental issues while attempting to hold onto some semblance of nationhood and power. And those wild countries, filled with dark, untamed people, should be kept out of the garden for fear that their unruliness will spill over and infect our garden.
It takes knowledge to cultivate a garden, but it also takes knowledge to navigate a jungle.
But a garden cannot thrive on insularity alone: biodiversity is needed in order for species to thrive and become resilient. Industrial civilization (a key gem of the garden) has wiped out 70% of animal populations in the last 50 years—not to mention the massive loss of human life as people are forced to wager their health for a paycheck. Many scientists believe that we are living through the world’s sixth mass extinction. Is this the pride of the garden? The colonial process asks: how can we engineer our way out of the climate crisis? How can we mechanize nature in a way that serves us? How can we continue to delude ourselves that this veritable garden of Eden can be maintained by sheer plunder?
At COP27, the climate summit in Egypt that concluded this weekend, Western leaders arrived in style, many on private jets. These leaders walked away establishing a fund for loss and damages, the compensation of Global North nations to Global South nations for climate-fueled disasters the latter had little hand in causing, but they must now take urgent steps to get these delayed dollars into the hands of those who need it.
For years, many Western leaders have focused their energy instead on projects that funnel money back into the pockets of those most responsible for climate harm—whether that’s subsidies for fossil fuel companies or contracts with private tech companies destroying the planet. There is also Prince Harry’s 2017 appointment as the president of African Parks, a conservation NGO that currently encloses and privatizes almost 50 million acres of African land. The crown’s history of colonialism is directly tied to the ongoing climate crisis.
Meanwhile, even on their own continent, African environmentalists and leaders could not attend COP27 due to financial barriers—a form of racist exclusion. Indigenous African people, like the Maasai of Kenya and northern Tanzania, are pushed out of the homelands they have been stewarding for centuries and forced to adopt a Western form of conservation, which removes land stewards from areas they have kept healthy for decades. This form of conservation is ill-equipped to address the specific place-based needs of the region, making room for further Western land grabs and enclosures.
This is the new project, making sure the jungle doesn’t reach the garden’s fence, but also extending the garden into the jungle, no matter the social or environmental consequences.
These so-called leaders’ response to the climate crisis is less about mitigation and more about maintaining the garden—aka keeping poor and non-white people at bay through exclusion. I am here, standing at the edge of the jungle and the garden, attempting to make sense of the messy entanglements necessary for survival. By Western standards, I live in the garden. But if you look out my window in Oakland, California, and see the I-580, the cars that blow their dust and debris onto my balcony, and the concrete that suffocates any water-retentive plant, you’d be hard-pressed to agree.
So what lessons can we learn from rewilding the garden? From the process of restoration that has been cut from these spaces? Does insisting upon this dichotomy of wildness and uniformity continue an incomplete analysis of the messy entanglements of nature, humans, and race? How can we work to rewild our communities that have been siloed into a narrow image of the garden? Where do the messy gardens I’ve grown to love and appreciate make themselves known?
It takes knowledge to cultivate a garden, but it also takes knowledge to navigate a jungle. I watch plantain, ivy, and oxalis emerge through cracked concrete as trees envelop metal and rust into oblivion. Plants resurface in urban gardens, overtaking vacant lots and asphalt cemeteries where the Western world buries most of its ignorance. The jungle returns, regardless of how much Western leaders try to keep it at bay. It is our job to help restore it.