Through spring, the grey shrike thrush could be heard whistling from up in the poplars on the edge of peaches and cream. As summer hit, the thrush grew quiet, making space in the morning song for the galahs and sulphur crested cockatoos that dart across the sky we share – their reciprocal tweets reminding me of joggers chattering and chirping away to one another on their morning laps.
Since starting my internship at Gung Hoe five months ago in late September, seldom an hour has passed without being reminded of the intricate web of relationships intertwined with this land.
Following a string of jobs in community development in the city, I came to this internship with a fire-in-the-belly passion for growing food in a way that builds and nourishes communities, and shifts our society away from the exploitative qualities of conventional agriculture (of both labour and land) and toward regenerative, life-supporting (agri)culture.
That fire still burns strong. But what I’m learning is that challenging the industrial food system doesn’t just mean using compost instead of synthetic fertiliser, or using low-till, low-impact equipment rather than big machinery. Nor does it involve importing fixed ideas about agriculture from faraway places, as has been done since colonisation.
What I’m coming to understand is that to grow food radically is to honour the relationships with all beings of a place, and to grow in such a way that does justice to the past, present and future expressions of this land.
But, what does that actually mean in practical terms?
At Gung Hoe, it means having ‘living’ green pathways between beds (grasses instead of woodchips or bare soil), to honour the relationship between perennial roots living in the soil and the beneficial soil microbes that feed off them.
It means taking the time to stretch together each morning, a daily ode to our bodies who give us so much to make this work possible.
It means planting shrubs and trees for the wrens and the robins and the weebills to seek shelter in return for keeping insects (mostly) under control in the patch.
It means lots of meals, cuppas and stories shared with the coop community who we share this land with.
It means pausing for quiet moments of reflection to really sit with the glory and the grief of what this rich land was, and is, to Dja Dja Wurrung people over millennia.
It means ‘paying the rent’ and creating space for indigenous-led food initiatives (such as the current partnership with Murnong Mamas).
Working this way, with conscious thought to the layers of community and history that we farm amongst, I feel my sense of self as an isolated individual shift. As the soil tucks herself under my fingernails and the very matter of my body becomes more and more of this place with each bite of food grown here, each breath exchanged with the trees, the notion of interconnectedness with place shifts from an abstract concept in my mind to an embodied experience.
Perhaps then, the greatest gift of my time here so far is remembering that nothing exists in isolation. That beauty is born from cooperation with the land, with other humans, with who has come before and who will come after us.
As I water our seedlings under the shade of a big gum, I watch skinks scurry between the plastic trays, seeking shelter from the torrential rain coming from the hose, and give my silent thanks to them. Thank you for eating the bugs that would otherwise eat our seedlings, I say to them in my mind, and sometimes aloud. I’m reminded of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s words, “All flourishing is mutual. Soil, fungus, squirrel, boy – all are beneficiaries of reciprocity.” (Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013)
A few months ago the start of my internship, I was keeping a detailed journal with notes on things like soil preparation and irrigation processes – and I probably should keep doing this – but my attention has since shifted.
The reflections and lessons arising now bring more questions than answers (which feels at once daunting and refreshingly humbling), and seem to come back to a central wondering – with whom and how are we in relationship to this place? What would farming look like if we acted as participants rather than protagonists of place?
It feels that beneath my thank you to the skinks is a timid prayer – that if we can grow (incredible) food with this attention to ‘mutual flourishing’, what other potential futures could the principle of reciprocity make possible?