The last year has demonstrated just how razor thin our margin of survival is—from the brutality of the police to the viciousness of the virus, from the absurd ups-and-downs of the economy to the glaring incompetence of the government.
Now that they've been forced to send some cash our way, we'd like to propose a little something they maybe didn't expect. The idea is simple: what if we took our stimulus checks and put them towards collective use?
In recent weeks Inhabit has been collaborating with groups around the country to put together a series of kits called the #1400challenge. The result is a handful of introductory guides for a variety of collective projects—from soundsystems and meshnets to pop-up dwellings and community gyms.
Each project is based on a proven and replicable idea, a working model that has already seen action in the streets and in neighborhoods. And each could be a jumping off point for new designs, new skillsets, new encounters, and newly expanded frontlines in the battle for the future.
No doubt many of us will have to spend our checks on necessities like groceries, rent, medical bills—all the bullshit it takes to stay alive in this bullshit world. But for those who can, and especially for those who want to pool resources, the opportunity is clear: invest in collective infrastructure that increases our shared capabilities, that augments our ability to live and to fight.
Here's our wager. We have to translate isolated, temporary solutions to individual problems into the material and ethical basis for building collective power. We need autonomous solutions that scale at the level of neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Our power together unlocks more potential than we have alone.
It'll take more than a stuck container ship to break the hold of the economy over our lives. Design and build new ways of living together, that lessen our dependence on their system at the same time that we cultivate trust in one another. Leverage all the means at our disposal—including their cold hard cash—to bring out the beauty, dignity, and creativity of our shared existence.
Portland Sound Bloc has the specs on a portable soundsystem ready for protests, parties, and more.
Welcome to Grow, a special edition of Territories. In this month’s newsletter, we share stories and skills from partisans involved with food production, land stewardship, and rural organizing.
What does it mean to grow food and care for one another in a warming world? How can we organize ourselves as friends, neighbors, and communities while the broken promises of politicians accumulate? How can we develop meaningful attachments to place and also stand with those everywhere defending the earth?
As winter begins to thaw, we look for new growth everywhere. To love this world is the same as to fight for it.
Learning to care for each other in new ways is more urgent than ever. In this short video, we take a look at sunchokes—a root vegetable with a partisan history and full of rhizomatic potential. By providing for ourselves together, we can build a way out of this world and into the next.
The Gulf isn't just being inundated by rising seas—average temperatures are rapidly warming. As people alongside animal and plant communities face displacement due to these new conditions, are there beneficial roles we might still play in ecosystem transition? This in-depth essay looks at regional attempts to cultivate bananas, a plant suited to the changing environment and which provides abundant food as well.
Lessons from Bloomington’s Neighborhood Planting Project
In this small Midwestern city, neighbors are coming together to plant food-bearing trees in yards, public spaces, and abandoned lots. By emphasizing both the relationships built and the saplings planted, the Neighborhood Planting Project has become a model of community resilience and food autonomy. In this essay, several participants share their vision of an abundant future and relay lessons learned across the years of this ongoing project.
Deep dives on agriculture, ecology, climate, community, & more
This reading list collects a wide variety of articles and other resources submitted by friends of Inhabit. From practical tips on growing tomatoes and foraging wild plants to longreads on carbon sequestration and degrowth, the essays, videos, and podcasts gathered here can serve as both reference and inspiration for those engaged in the earthbound arts.
There is a narrow band along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in which banana cultivation is possible. And it’s growing, moving northward with climate change, despite occasional havoc by arctic vortices. The Gulf South region of the US is becoming subtropical. At some point in our lifetimes, large parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia will experience freezing temperatures for the last time.
The consequences for plant communities will be drastic. Even in 2011, a NASA computer model predicted that by 2100, 40% of land ecosystems would shift “from one major ecological community type—such as forest, grassland, or tundra—toward another,” while essentially all land ecosystems will undergo significant changes in plant communities. As models have consistently underestimated the rate of change, the catastrophes that populate the imagined “2100” of climate futurity appear closer every year.
Plants do migrate, but at varied rates. Without assistance, the slow ones, particularly trees, will disappear instead. In this catastrophic era, the category of invasive species will be less relevant than that of refugee species. The US Gulf Coast is badly positioned for natural migration. Compared to those emerging subtropics of the Anthropocene which are contiguous with existing subtropical forests (such as parts of the Chinese provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Henan, Shaanxi, and Gansu), the region’s most diverse subtropical forests grow on islands in the Caribbean or on the other side of a border wall and an expanding desert, facing their own disruptions by drought & storms.
We can imagine future solidarities that might develop between regions. People in the mountains of a Caribbean island rush to gather seeds and cuttings from the junque before the season of mudslides and hurricanes begins, sending them in care of migrants who sail past abandoned deepwater platforms in the Gulf and are welcomed at the shore by the keepers of another doomed forest. Mangroves sinking beneath the waves in the Yucatán go to the salt-sick ancient cypress swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin of Louisiana. Cypress seedlings are sent up the Mississippi to populate former cornfields in its expanded floodplain.
The metric of invasiveness may be increasingly useless in this epoch, but we still have a certain moral responsibility toward any living ecosystem. As with ourselves, the fact that the cypress are doomed does not make it okay to cut them down a day sooner. At the same time, so much destruction has already occurred that migrating species need not displace any ancient forests or wild ecosystems. There are about half a million acres of sugarcane in Louisiana alone (doubled from 265,000 in 1981), averaging 1400 acres per plantation. Nothing is more invasive than a sugarcane plantation—not because sugarcane originated in Africa, but because biodiversity is so low in a sugarcane field that it’s closer to factory than ecosystem. Invasiveness is best defined not by a species’ geographic origin, but by its behavior and impact in an ecosystem. Native species can become invasive in disturbed ecosystems under certain conditions. The pine bark beetles destroying forests in the western United States are not foreigners; they are locals exploiting disturbances wrought by mild winters.
In any case, the dream of assisted migration of entire subtropical ecosystems remains far away, not only blocked by borders but obscured by our ignorance of these systems. Even more important than a deepening of ecological study will be a widening of what is already known. It is hard to imagine a society in which only a tiny percentage of the population has any personal connection to plants or the soil succeeding in such a project. The process of planting the forest is also the process of becoming the people who live in the forest.
Here in so-called Louisiana, we have participated in motions in this direction. We share two of these efforts, one rural and one urban, to invite collaboration and elaboration.
To be clear, neither project holds subtropicalization as a goal to be worked toward, but simply as an imminent shift in the terrain of our struggle to live well and in good relation to the Earth and those we share it with. We are planting many temperate native trees as well, like cypress, tupelo, live oak, and sycamore. Our task is not to reconstruct the ancient forest nor to "design" the forests of the next century, but rather to support both endemic and migratory species as they adopt their own strategies for navigating this shift. The thriving forests of this century will be complex communities including migrating plants and endemic plants, each evolving to meet an ever-changing situation which includes human habitation.
Our rural example is situated on a dozen acres surrounded by agro-industrial wastelands: petrochemical infrastructure crisscrossing commercial sugarcane, rice, and crawfish production. It is an effort to transform a monoculture field into a multi-layered food forest, free nursery, and propagation hub for bananas, fruit trees and other useful plants.
Now is probably a good time to mention that banana trees are not trees, botanically speaking. They’re the world’s largest non-woody plant, basically a big perennial grass. This is one reason why bananas are useful in this transition. Since they sprout from the root even if they’re mowed over or the aerial parts die from frost, and because each stalk dies after fruiting anyway, an arctic vortex or hurricane-force winds doesn't represent a major setback. They grow fast, able to either shade out grasses or reach tree canopy height to access sun in a forest. Ecologically speaking, we hope they will act as a mid-successional species in the transition from either temperate forest or grassland to subtropical forest.
Each stalk produces fruit after 10-15 months without a hard freeze. In other words, the narrow band on the map where it’s easy to grow bananas is accompanied by a much larger area in which they grow well but don’t fruit. This is another reason why bananas are an ideal messenger species for the coming subtropical forest; in the hills of Georgia or the Piney Woods of east Texas and western Louisiana, banana plants can thrive and multiply but don’t fruit due to freezing weather. Increasingly popular as ornamentals, their eventual fruits will bear undeniable truths about climate change.
Cloning a banana plant is less of an operation than it sounds like. The banana is busy cloning itself without our help. Left to its devices, one banana plant will form a circular clump, spreading year after year. Baby bananas plants are called pups. A sharp shovel is used to separate them from the larger clump. As long as one or two roots stay connected to the pup, success rates are very high. A little math: start with ten bananas. Take five clones or "pups" from each tree per year. At the end of year five, you’ve got…77,760 banana trees.
It’s worth asking, before anyone tries to grow seventy-seven thousand banana trees: where will they be planted? The simplest option would be to find about eighty acres somewhere and plant as many as possible. Commercial banana plantations average 800-1000 plants per acre. We could fit all seventy-seven thousand on just five percent the land area of one average sugarcane plantation. To explain why we won't be doing that—and to understand the system we hope to desert—let's take a brief look at life under the regime of a modern banana plantation.
In an article in Feral Atlas, Alyssa Paredes, author of Plantation Peripheries: The Multiple Makings of Asia’s Banana Republic, describes visiting a woman living adjacent to a multinational-owned banana operation in the Philippines, in Mindanao: “Geronima had built a hiding place on the bottom level for her and her children to run to when the crop dusters came, but she found that it provided little respite. In the middle of our meal, she disappeared into the garden time and time again, picking up leaves covered in white spots as proof that chemical drift had invaded her property. It made the moringa plants curl, the cacao trees stop bearing fruit, and the chicken in the yard drop dead, she mentioned—midway through our lunch of rice and tinola, a gingery soup made with, well, chicken and moringa.”
The chemical mixture is always changing as growers lose an arms race with fungal evolution. As such, the exact composition of the poison dropped from a particular airplane, drifting onto one’s home, is unknowable. From Feral Atlas again: “Filipinos living in the vicinity of banana plantations do not know the chemicals by name but instead refer to them only by color or with the generic term hilo or ‘poison.’”
The commercial banana plantation sows the seeds of its own destitution more blatantly than most institutions today, spurring the evolution of the fungal pathogens which threaten the entire industry. Paredes explains: ”Empowered by the conventions of plantation agriculture, Sigatoka’s causal pathogen, Mycosphaerella fijiensis Morelet, becomes a formidable foe. The densely planted, highly susceptible Cavendish variety provides it with a convenient setting to hop from one host to another, while strong wind currents over the plantation’s manicured, low-lying canopy disperse its spores over long distances."
Pathogens thrive in a banana plantation for the same reasons they spread in prisons. And as with prisons, this is not our central critique. Prisons which are built to prevent the spread of disease are not what we want. Similarly, even if a universal anti-fungal treatment were developed tomorrow, we have other reasons to avoid recreating the industrial model.
Monoculture is only efficient if your goal is to produce as much fruit with as few people as possible, centralizing production in order to control the harvest. Our goal is different: to produce as many human-banana-plant interactions as possible and decentralize production so that it's within everyone's reach and cannot be controlled.
As such, many of the fruit trees grown at the rural project are being sent to New Orleans to be planted along sidewalks, in lawns, churchyards, and empty lots. This effort is coordinated by Lobelia Commons, an open collective of gardeners which formed early in the pandemic. They deliver free vegetable seedlings, build micro-nursery stands to distribute free plants, help people grow edible mushrooms, and generally try to build a living food commons in the city.
Part of the joy of planting a fruit tree is knowing that the tree may outlive you, providing fruit for many generations. In New Orleans, we content ourselves with the other joy of planting a fruit tree—the part about eating and sharing the fruit during your lifetime. If anything, the looming exodus from the city is motivation to learn collectively how to live and eat well in this region. When the waters finally come to claim New Orleans, the resulting migration will carry with it whatever practices and ideas of communal life are widespread in the city, dissolving the rural-urban divide and determining whether the wider region's process of subtropicalization leads to forests and grasslands which are lush, diverse and densely inhabited, home to a thriving people, or if it will lead to deserts and wastelands, a deeper alienation of people from the land and its continued domination by extractive agriculture and industry.
In the meantime, we are leaving the planting of trees that only fruit after 10-15 years to our friends at higher elevations, and we are propagating banana plants, which fruit in a year or two.
On a chilly March afternoon, a few dozen people with bundles in their arms listen as a local poet and co-conspirator reads a poem about figs. The bundles look like massed twigs, some of which are only as long as a chopstick, but they are infant trees. It’s a poem about figs that’s not just about figs. The poet describes the shared joy of eating fruit directly from the tree, then takes into his hands a small pine sapling and a shovel. He demonstrates to the small crowd how to correctly plant a tree.
You don’t just dig a hole and insert a tree, as he shows them. You should be mindful of the size of the hole and where the soil hits the base of the tree. He takes the shovel and stabs small cuts along the walls of the hole to help the threadlike roots more easily assimilate into their new home. Before deftly holding the tree in its aspirational spot in the empty hole, he adds a small bag of soil amendments to the hole: gypsum, rock phosphate, and green sand. A neighbor gently pushes the soil back into place around the tree. Those gathered can’t help but give a little encouraging cheer to the new tree.
In a similar vein, you don’t just give away trees and expect a community to build around it. But the Neighborhood Planting Project is trying to accomplish exactly that. The project has given away tens of thousands of trees and other edible perennials across Midwestern neighborhoods over the past four years. Each spring, neighborhood liaisons canvass their streets, knocking on doors and signing people up for native, food-bearing trees. The organizing group is rooted in these low-income communities on Bloomington's west side. With a species list that includes pawpaw, plum, hazelnut, elderberry, persimmon, and a variety of berries and medicinal plants, liaisons have a short checklist they use to sign people up for plants, assess if they need assistance with planting or maintenance, and gather contact information for future initiatives. Those who sign up for their free trees are a self-selected group of people tethered to a shared place, with an eye toward building a world there together.
Reforestation is one of the best ways we can halt runaway climate change, and in contrast to technocratic geoengineering schemes, tree planting can be done autonomously. But as we have seen around the globe, when it is instituted from above, tree planting is often ineffective or serves as a landgrab for forestry or tourism industries. The Neighborhood Planting Project is an effort from below, by those familiar with the ecological and social characteristics of a given territory. The success of the project relies on it being rooted in community, which means sharing stakes with human and non-human neighbors. Neighborhood liaisons generally knock on doors in their own immediate area, making contact with those who live near them and offering an excuse to meet that includes a shared effort to sustain the livability of the place they call home.
The Neighborhood Planting Project was inspired by the Nacogdoches Food Forest. Founded in eastern Texas in the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Tar Sands Blockades, the food forest project aimed to overturn historic inequities in food access and to create communal abundance. This abundance, however, was not conceived as a parochial matter. With fresh memories of massive and frequently racist dislocation by Katrina, it was clear that local, perennial abundance would ease the future prospect of offering refuge amid coming climate disasters. This mixture of meeting immediate needs while pursuing long-term plans is instructive for anyone planting trees. One of the Nacogdoches organizers describes their vision and founding:
We are gardeners working alongside residents, churches, and community groups to transform our shared landscape by planting edible and medicinal ecosystems for free in low-income neighborhoods and on a sliding scale elsewhere. We care for the gardens indefinitely while sharing skills with those residents who wish to garden… The program addresses wealth inequality by installing gardens on a sliding scale based on wealth, and giving families access to nutritious food in exchange for sharing the harvest of their garden plots... The Nacogdoches Food Forest started with a micro-nursery in a volunteer’s apartment with a tarp, 400 tree pots, and an LED grow light.
In some places, the major tree source is a state nursery that sells subsidized trees primarily to farmers. In this case, a planting project can cheaply redirect some of those trees to emerging neighborhoods-turned-food forests. In others, a DIY nursery nurtures thousands of young trees. Sometimes the local permaculture community is strong enough to contribute seedlings and extras. Many planting projects use a mix of all the above. Regardless of plant sourcing, soliciting donations of woodchips, potting mix, amendments, and soil eases the whole process.
The agricultural system is structured by massive flows of state cash, subsidizing the production of “staple” commodity crops like wheat and corn that are processed into mass market foods. These are overwhelmingly annual crops, encouraging farmers to employ practices which mine fertility from the soil, before letting it wash away after tilling and harvest. These cash flows have also been deployed to determine who can farm, with the USDA loan system historically biased against Black farmers, driving most of them off the land. Planting fruit and nut trees on a large scale chips away at the dominance of annual commodity crops, while building food autonomy for the dispossessed.
Reforestation not only takes carbon out of the atmosphere, it can also restore the health of the soil and broader ecosystems and provide human communities with more food security. The Neighborhood Planting Project is a more intimate process, where people are encouraged to coordinate with nearby houses to ensure effective pollination and to solve shared landscaping issues. This coordination helps restore the health of neighborhood dynamics and empower people to think about their role in food security. For instance, persimmons are dioecious, with both female and male trees, and the North American species is large. To guarantee pollination, it’s often necessary for neighbors with small backyards to talk to each other and plan on persimmons being planted on multiple properties. And along with offering trees for private groves, neighbors are given the option to take trees for communal plantings. This has produced everything from 100-bush food hedges bordering a neighborhood commons to squatted orchards seized from major landowners.
A key element to the Neighborhood Planting Project is the community planting days, when a neighborhood hosts a collective event in a shared place—an abandoned lot, community garden plot, or someone’s yard. It’s a festive afternoon, with someone demonstrating the proper way to plant, prune, and assess the health of a young tree. Warm food and drinks are offered alongside seed starts, plant care guides, and donations from friendly nurseries of herb starts and soil amendments. Small-scale growers have a stake in participating, contributing spare mulberry, fig, or blueberry plants, and connecting with people who wouldn’t be able to buy their stock.
“The future for us holds many more gardens, parks, and shared life. We will be opening a social space soon with its own food forest, free and open to the community.”
The Edible Parks Development Collective in Evansville, Indiana
From the beginning, the Neighborhood Planting Project was designed to be reproducible between places. A half dozen other cities have joined in on the planting days, each with their own local flavor. Some places, like Evansville, Indiana, had been tending perennial food gardens on urban lots for a decade. “An inspirational moment affecting all of these ongoing projects,” they recently explained, “was a talk Grace Lee Boggs gave at a housing co-op conference outside Detroit. She said that the plant life was reclaiming the city’s architecture and grids and we needed to reclaim a relationship with plants as accomplices.”
Participants in one small city in Ohio said that the structure of the Neighborhood Planting Project “truly had a massive impact as now that has led us to a point of trying to become more self-sufficient for this project and to carry it in our own direction.” Through an ever-evolving process, tree planting projects have begun learning from each other.
Now in its fourth year, some of the trees from Bloomington’s earliest plantings will fruit this spring. Until now, the primary yield has been berries—and community engagement. Once more of the fruit trees mature it will be a game changer in terms of creating a commons in which many working class people will have free access to a huge amount of fresh fruit and nuts.
One of the challenges we face is redeveloping familiarity with some of the native plants that were never appropriated by the colonizers for commercial food production. Some of these non-commercial fruit are delicious raw, like pawpaw, but cannot be sold because they are too fragile to ship to stores. This is what makes them perfect for neighborhood consumption. Others however are best enjoyed with processing, like the so-called chokecherry. Concentrating on native plants has also been an exercise in training ourselves to produce new expectations of our food. We need to learn to be satisfied by a small, unsweet homegrown hazelnut rather than the massive and mellow commercial hazelnut. A pawpaw can live up to its nickname of the “Indiana banana” only when we stop expecting it to taste like a banana.
As often noted, you plant a tree for the future and hope you’ll be around long enough to see its fruit. Tending a food tree can’t help but lead you to think about the other people who will enjoy the fruits of your labor. The shade we cultivate in fig groves will hopefully shield others from sunburn and hunger, even as we find shelter under them too. In this sense, the personal element of gain—free trees for those who will take them, either for a public planting or their own private yard—becomes irrelevant. Each planting is instead a contribution to “our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendors,” as the Artists’ Federation of the Paris Commune described their own contributions to public space. The planting project model also lets us avoid making a choice between building collective capacity immediately or constructing a future that is resilient, verdant, and welcoming. As Carbondale, Illinois’s project stated: “Collaborative relationships are rewarding and increase capacity—it makes it easier to scale up and easier to imagine making real change.”