Malve von Hassell – The Struggle for Eden

Malve von Hassell, a translator, writer, and anthropologist, was raised in Italy, Belgium, and Germany before moving to the United States. Published in 2002, The Struggle for Eden: Community Gardens in New York City was her second book.

She has also written fiction for children, young adults and adults, most recently The Falconer’s Apprentice. She lives in Southampton, New York.

UPDATE June 2020 – this beautiful book is now also available as a kindle E-Book!

Suppose you could make the world a better place, but only for a moment…   Would you do it?

OK, not the whole of the world. Just a tiny corner of it. Could you make a garden?  I’m not talking about the kind of private space that comes attached to a house, defended against Other People by walls or fences.  I’m not even talking about a public garden in some nicely endowed space, that might serve as a legacy for you. 

I’m talking about making a garden on land you don’t own, may not be able to defend.  A bit of wasteland full of rubbish and old shopping trolleys.  Or a derelict building plot.  Or a place where the druggies and the homeless people and the dispossessed hang out.  Would you clear the rubbish (it might take a lot of work…) engage whoever you found there (they might not make easy partners…) plant stuff (it might not grow in this poor polluted soil; if it does, people might steal it…) Would you, with all the effort it would take, for as long as it would last, make something beautiful? 

Don’t say yes blindly.  However much you try to make a go of this garden, there will be no security in it.  Around the edges of your tenure you might place a little barrier, as a rhetorical flourish, but it will be no more than that.  You might obtain some kind of temporary license, a contingent approval of your being there, just for the moment, but you will, from the start to the finish, be powerless.  You are gardening on borrowed land, living on borrowed time. It might take ten years for the bulldozers to come, but they could come in any moment.  Would you risk pouring your heart into such a project?

OK. I’m hoping I’ve not lost you already.  I’m hoping it’s a ‘maybe’.

If so, I’m writing this review because you may never see Malve von Hassell’s beautiful book In Search Of Eden – first published by an academic publisher in 2002, but now available as an e-book.  But if it is even a ‘maybe’ to the questions above, I’d like you to read it.  The copy I have was a gift from the author. I don’t know her at all – I was reviewing one of her fiction works, The Falconer’s Apprentice (also a lovely book, I recommend it…) and I expressed curiosity about In Search of Eden which I saw on Amazon beside it., at that time only available as a hard copy, at north of $100.  By return of post she sent me a hard copy as a gift. 

This is a work that sprang from the author’s research and it has a bookish, scholarly tone; (though if she meant this tone to disguise her passion then I have to say she failed…) It is a book about community gardens in Lower East Side, New York.  Gardens built by ordinary local people on empty lots and unused bits of land, back when Lower East Side was a largely immigrant, working class neighbourhood, before gentrification set in. 

The gardens that von Hassell describes came in many forms.  Some were havens of flowers and wild-life, celebrations of natural beauty squeezed into gaps between blank buildings.  Many were essentially allotments where a little food was grown and harvested – food that carried many meanings in a poor and deeply urban environment. A few were curated social and cultural spaces where art and performance happened.  Most were a bit of a mix, ebbing and flowing with the seasons and the mood of those who worked in them.  All of them embodied a lot of passion, commitment, hard labour.  Almost all of them enhanced the urban landscape in which they sat, humanising it, bringing a little colour.  A tiny number were even – like pretty foreign children – ‘adopted’, and incorporated into the regular fabric of municipal life, as protected public spaces.  A few survive, and since this book was written, others have sprung up.  On such basis it is tempting to sentimentalise them, as if they were no more than a pretty leavening in the concrete as Lower East Side evolved into what it is now.

Don’t fall into this trap.  This is gardening that will exist always and only on the edge of destruction.  The bulldozers aren’t going away.  At the end of von Hassell’s book there is a simple ‘Necrology’ – a record of the 91 community gardens in New York that were bulldozed in the period of her research.  This is gardening as a political act, a spiritual statement, a declaration of resistance. 

It’s gardening as a dangerous endeavour. 

Despite the occasional temporary victories in battle, it’s a war that can’t be won if you stick to the terms of the dominant paradigm.  In all the political futures that seem likely, the corporate value of building land will trump the value of a garden built on borrowed land, by little people. David isn’t going to beat Goliath.  Capitalism will outlast all of us and the community gardens that von Hassell describes did not dent that. The one I am asking you to build will not do so either.

But why does this matter?  The myth of capitalism is so woven into our consciousness.  We will work hard because we want to own stuff, more and more, and we want the power to defend it.  We tell ourselves that by hard work we can achieve ownership and by ownership we can achieve permanence, security.  If thoughts of our mortality intrude into this Eden, we can take flight into the idea of a legacy.  Something of our effort can live forever! But this desperate flight from our own mortality is an illusion.  When we want our gardens to be secure, permanent, a legacy to the future, we are buying in to that. 

So close your eyes. Change the paradigm.  Take a deep breath and let go of the illusion.  We live, all of us, in a moment.  We come with nothing, we take nothing with us.  We are all dying.  Even what we leave to our children is transient.  Even our children will die.  Nothing is permanent. Embrace that.

Embrace that, and then make your garden.  The moment when your hands are dirty and you plant the roots of a seedling into the ground and pat it down, or the moment when a flower opens, or the moment when someone runs through our garden and laughs: these are moments that will always have happened.  They are good moments.  In those moment, the world is a better place.  It’s worth the hard slog of digging and the delicate planting of the seedling, even as the bulldozers appear at the end of the road.  Bend down. Get your hands dirty. Make a little hole in the ground.  It’s worth it. That’s all the Eden there is. That’s all the Eden there ever was.  

Later we will all join the necrology. This is gardening as a celebration of the human condition.

.

The Struggle For Eden; Malve Von Hassell; Publisher: Praeger; 2002

Update! Since writing the paragraph below, this lovely book has been published as a kindle e-book!

If you would like to read this book, let me know. You can mail me at degevallene@hardhatbook.site. In the same spirit as Malve von Hassell gave the book to me, I will give it to you.  Perhaps you will do the same when you have read it.  You can’t keep it forever, after all.

The Hard Hat Book Site

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