Gardening, Technology, Living Well, and Growing Food (or something from the chaos of growing)

Gardening, Technology, Living Well, and Growing Food (or something from the chaos of growing)

I think I embarked on this journey of exploring the intersection of technology, people growing food and gardens near their homes, and the potential jobs of the future because it seemed to align with my inherent desire for a healthier lifestyle. It's like a thread that makes sense in my life, but it's also a thread that is now pulled taut by a kind of blindness and competing interests that have taken over in the American food system.

To make sense of this, I took some time off this past year from my career in technology and returned to my roots, a small town in the Midwest. Here, I recall that as a child, my father taught me how to garden in the most literary and organically intense manner (learned from the books he read). He was a man stuck in a small town without any kindred spirits interested in the regeneration of a landscape, and our half-acre lawn became a large admired garden (many who would drive by just to see it). He practiced a wild and creative alchemy (as an example he had us get up early on a Saturday morning to go to a riverbed to dig up alluvial soil because he noticed some of the plants were missing certain minerals and figured out how to find those minerals). To be fair, he followed this trip with giving us a candy bar and soda, so not everything was about what we now consider a "healthy organic" experience, but rather, it was his never-ending fascination and experiment, constantly challenging himself and family to think about how nature and our lives interacted. It was so early in the understanding of how important this would be in my lifetime that it still stuns me that I had such a father. We were surrounded by family farms auctioned to the highest bidder in the '80s, and then it simply all collapsed into what it is today.

My mother also came from a family that had very little lawn remaining on a quarter of an acre of land in town. Her father (my grandfather) dug up any patch of land near their log cabin and planted food so he could feed 10 children. Chickens ran hither and yon among the hollyhocks he planted near the kitchen window for my grandmother to look at while she did dishes. My grandfather was a displaced son from a farm given to older siblings, but he never lost his love for growing plants anywhere. If there was a patch of soil in town, my grandfather put plants there. So prolific was his green thumb that it is said my grandmother poured hot water on the tomato plants while he was at work because they would grow so abundantly. She told him they looked like small trees, and there was no way a family of 12 could preserve and eat everything he grew (they even gave much of it to people in the town).

Undaunted by my grandmother, the responsibility of caring for many children, and his job at a factory, he expanded. He discovered a "secret" piece of land near his workplace a few blocks away. Years later, my aunts told me that he grafted fruit trees there and should have truly been an arborist at the university near our town, as he loved grafting and creating various fruit tree amalgams. Fantastically, when I was a child and we moved back to that small town from Denver, Colorado, one day I was walking along a stream and stumbled upon a fruit orchard full of plum, apricot, and apple trees behind a thicket of tall weeds that opened to this orchard. It was hidden behind the granite foundry building (where he worked) and the stream. Many years later, my aunt told me that my grandfather had started a "secret" orchard in the town without telling my grandmother. To this day, I wonder if he informed my grandmother where the apples, pears, and plums she turned into jellies and sauces came from, or if he made up a story that someone had given them to him. But his secret orchard is the same orchard I stumbled upon as a child. I still remember the sense of awe and amazement I felt when I saw the plums on the trees. I got my mother, and we picked the fruit, and she made jam, and it was delicious.

My grandfather would have been very happy pruning and grafting fruit trees for the rest of his life. It still brings me joy to think of his garden and how, for some reason, anything he touched just grew. I do not know how that happens, but it is how it seemed when I was a child.

So, I suppose I come from a lineage of urban farmers as a legacy—or rather, men who were displaced from farms but never forgot the joy of growing food and took that to the urban landscape. They both taught me many things, and in different ways, but mostly, they taught me that you really do need to know something and stick with it for a long time to understand it.

When I moved to New York City, I started a garden behind the brownstone in Brooklyn where I lived on Carroll Street. The landlord was very thankful and called me regularly, laughing about how it reminded him of Italy, where his family immigrated from. I was in my 20s and very social in New York City, and large groups of friends would come over, and we would make fresh pesto from the basil in the garden. Some nights we would just sit in the garden and talk. The electrical company chopped down the corn because they thought I was growing trees, as they had never seen a corn plant before. The landlord told me he called them and "let them have it." It made me very happy to know people cared about such things. The same landlord and his family gave me a piece of furniture that they had carried on a boat to America with them when they immigrated.

Until that moment in my life, I never realized how important and social gardening really is, how it reminds people of something very vital and important, and even fosters a type of interaction that I feel very comfortable with trying to create for everyone.

Throughout my life, and moving to different cities, it went like this in almost every place that I lived. In Long Beach, I started growing tomatoes and vegetables around the apartment building where I lived. Neighbors would come by to talk with joy just to tell me their stories of growing something. Some were simply in amazement when I would give them a fresh tomato or plant. They accepted it with the most grace and gratitude, and it made me really happy. These are such simple things but they are so vital to a community. And that is when I realized that not every child has the opportunity to plant and grow vegetables or flowers. In fact, in my experience between the West and East coasts, I was shocked to find that many people did not grow-up this way. What I realized is that the knowledge and acceptance of growing food have been lost in most urban landscapes, and it is no longer normal nor accepted to dig up large patches of lawn and refuse to participate in the silliest of wastes, which is to disregard the food networks that could exist within every community, and thereby create a very large swath of connected communities that trade and barter in the most meaningful and healthy manner around growing food and flowers, daily physical activities, and sharing.

I will not detail the potential qualitative mental health and longevity benefits, nor even the increase of natural health in the landscape gardens give us, but it is a shame to me not to have this everywhere, especially as we are on the cusp of machines able to do some of our labor, freeing us to pursue a higher quality of life and health benefits for ourselves, children, and grandchildren.

As far as I can tell there are reasons for how we got here, some of them difficult and have to do with control and monopolies, but also some of them beneficial. There is the idea of disease in plants and animals that are our food source, and a fear of this going back to the earliest days of the founding of America. As America was growing from a few colonies on the east coast and spreading, food was not equal in quality. In fact, using ketchup and sauces originated from this era when covering the very food we eat with something helped to cover meat that was almost rancid and/or discolored vegetables. Freeze drying was a boon to a growing country and allowed food to be stored and shipped. Even Native tribes knew that you could starve in the winter if you were unable to store and gather enough food, so we also created transportation to distribute that food, whether through ships on major rivers, trains or simply in better canning and freezing methods. When it spun out-of-control and we became so disenfranchised from growing our own food is unclear. It is also unclear when it became a bad thing to dig up your lawn and make it into a garden (which is highly nonsensical for many reason I will not detail here), but it has become so. It is highly frowned upon in the small town I moved to to dig up a major portion of the lawn and turn it into a garden. So much so that I have been nearly stalked by a few people in the town, had the Chief of Police visit, people have driven by on a Sunday saying they work for the city and I have to get rid of the garden, and mostly, besides a few people who dare to compliment the riddance of lawn and introduction of a garden, it has not been a positive experience. How did we get here?

Given that I took a year off from working on technology, I very much wanted to find what I really wanted to do, and in this last year, I think, finally, I have found it. In this experience (which, honestly, I wanted to leave many times as it has been difficult and unexpected), I realized there is something in dire need of help for many reasons, including the health and well-being of the American population.

I could list the benefits of gardening, growing food, and figuring out ways to introduce fewer chemicals onto the natural landscape that our children and pets play upon, but I think it's time to leap very far forward. Simultaneously, I do think we need to start preparing ourselves for the direction we want to go when AI is able to do quite a bit of work, and I do not think we should delay in considering what is most beneficial.

I think it is time to simply create a technological layer to help people start to grow food, create gardens, and interweave this with a way for them to make money doing so, share, and potentially become connoisseurs of a social and natural legacy. What else are we planning to do with our time in the future? Wouldn't it be nice (citing studies of blue zones and other longevity studies helps much in considering how vital this would be to every town, city, and person).

Over the next month, I am going to start writing blog posts about the phases that I believe will be important in building an AI system with the goal of helping people grow plants again in their urban or rural areas, sharing the surplus so my grandmother does not need to pour hot water on anything. I will also discuss how it will help everyone see clearly that we can start something from the ground up, and if it fails, so be it. Additionally, I will begin pitching for funding because I have learned that bootstrapping anything cannot be done when it is larger than selling items in a store or working at the glacial pace I have been going. I am willing to take the risk because the situation feels rather dire at this point when digging up a lawn and starting a garden in a small town is no longer a coveted benefit for nature and humans.

It would be nice to throw my hat in the ring and say maybe this is a direction we can go as a solution for the future social-technical-nature challenge. I like that idea. Otherwise, I'm not sure I am hearing a lot of new job solutions for living much longer, not needing to work as many hours, and finding sources of entertainment with beneficial health and economic outcomes for individuals and communities in the AI future.

In this, I suppose, I have finally changed my mind about something else. I used to think that reading, writing, thinking, and traveling the world were the most powerfully positive things a person could do. However, after spending years being a grouch from a sense of helplessness in not knowing what to do, I realize that maybe starting a business is the most positive statement a person can make. Whether I can balance the stressors of such an endeavor gracefully, I am not sure, as I have not done it before, but it is not a helpless feeling I get anymore at the thought of building something like this.

I truly believe there will be a need for new types of jobs in the future, better quality of life discussions, and simple interactions in everyday life that are beneficial for all of us. Why else build anything? If we have come this far with technology, then that is a clear opening to also develop better quality of life situations. I wonder if people will specialize in growing certain heirloom vegetables in their communities, as I would very much like to be able to order heirloom tomato paste this evening made specifically from a few varieties of tomatoes (Amish Paste, Brandywine, splash of Yellow Pear) as they all taste differently but are delicious combined. I hope that is our future, as some wild dystopia just is not on my menu.

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