Gardening Essentials / in Uncertain Arrangements with Ghosts, Among Others

[Published in Judith Wielander & Gilly Karjevsky (eds.) Parckdesign 2016: Jardin Essentiel, Parckdesign, Brussels, 2020. The book documents Jardin Essentiel, a public art project with medicinal herb garden and distillation lab in Parc Duden, Brussels, on which I worked over the summer of 2016].

In the beginning there was a lawn. But that wasn’t really the beginning. In the beginning there was a forest. At least, that’s what people often said (… and before the forest?). In their introduction to Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, Heather Swanson and Elaine Gan write of the multiple temporalities entangled together in any one moment, of the myriad kinds of ghosts haunting those unstable multispecies assemblages we call landscapes.[1] There are many ghosts in Parc Duden, where that lawn used to be. The lawn itself might now be something of a ghost, creeping up as tufts of grass on dry patches of earth between mint and calendula roots. Without forgetting its overgrown pasts, even those stretching back into deep times that we can never know, or its pockets of secreted futures, this text has a special interest in one rectangular piece of ground at a particular conjunction of times, a summer when the lawn became a garden, and brought with it other co-becomings too.

Not long after arriving in Brussels, I found a scallop-edged postcard on which a group of young men were gathered around a hut under tall pines, beeches and oaks. Captioned “25 Forest. — Parc Duden”, this image would have been taken in the public park’s earliest days, having passed from a wealthy lace merchant’s country estate into the royal domain around the turn of the 20th century. I wondered what the densely forested park had felt like then to these boys in summer shorts and buttoned shirts, some sitting high on an enormous felled trunk with legs dangling, and also to the smaller critters not visible in the picture but surely just as present in the shadowed corners of the scene, in the treetops or under the soil.

The lawn in question used to stretch from the base of a wide, curving staircase at the foot of this park out towards the Palais de Justice. You can see the dome of the Palais from here because once it was built, the Belgian King requested the newly opened Parc de Forêt, still adjoining this pointy end of Parc Duden, be modified to accommodate such a view. The ghosts of those formal aesthetic ambitions – long, straight, symmetrical lines demonstrating the royal (divine/human) subjugation of “nature” – found their way into our garden quite comfortably. As the weather warmed, negotiations around its curatorial transformation made way for rows of selected herbal and medicinal species marching neatly from one end to the other. This is no wild permaculture food forest incubating unruly or suspect activities. But neither is it a lawn.

July 21

Our first public gardening day, not counting last month’s plantings in preparation for the opening. We had planned to do some weeding and watering along with Rudy, the artist who was invited to design the garden. In fact, being July, it rained like we were underwater. Fabienne, a retired teacher living nearby who three years later would still be turning up to take care here, had turned up regardless, so the four of us sat inside Licia’s van, where she sometimes lives, and poured cups of fresh mint tea instead. I had brought the postcard with me, and Fabienne and Rudy took turns inspecting it with damp hands, trying to see if they could identify its location within the park. When the sun came out, we were joined by ten-year-old Marguerite, whose mother would return for her later with cookies, and Martine, a local master composter and stalwart volunteer. As we stepped spades into the wet earth, we talked about unusual love arrangements and came across an interesting spotted worm.

Tsing and her co-authors refer to what ecologists call “shifting baseline syndrome” to illustrate how a reshaped landscape simply becomes the new reality, how forgetting can itself remake landscapes.[2] One resident of a string of tall, stately homes adjacent to the garden declared defiantly to us how pleased she would be when the lawn was restored, as if this was the site’s true and original state. Indeed the garden was not guaranteed to outlive the three-month festival, though its curators certainly wished their temporary intervention to produce a lasting social infrastructure. In the process of struggling to make it this far, the garden had demanded from visitors and neighbours the formation of a new net of multispecies socialities and relations, which as it turned out, were not so easily dismantled.

This was, in the first instance, simply about being present – answering the questions of passers-by curious to know why people with spades and hoes were suddenly working the land here beside a roundabout between two parks. They also wanted to know, of course, what was growing (“et ça c’est quoi? Les tanaisies?”), and why these species had been chosen. Most were happy to see the lawn become an invitation, a possibility for new kinds of conversations and ways of being in the city, which they themselves could step into if they wished. Translating that casual interest into a willingness to cross the low fence, built at the last minute to keep out wayward dogs, and actually take up a spade was a task as important for us as keeping the plants alive and the butterflies fed.

In mapping an ethics of obligation, Elizabeth Povinelli suggests seeing all entities in a given encounter as “variously embanked regions, each built up and sustained through its relationship to other regions.”.[3] In such a terrain of “extimate” existence (wherein your insides are outside), embodied obligation takes the form of “ongoing efforts of attention to often-nuanced interactions between human actions and other modes of actions”.[4] Whereas the lawn had appeared to look after itself – the park’s official gardeners (and their gear and herbicides) quietly performing the labor of care in early mornings – this new situation was messy and unstable. Its flourishing entailed a sticky web of responsibilities, commitments and attentions to others, both human and non-human, including the most basic questions like “who’s watering this week?” or “how much lavender can I take home?”

To further complicate things, for the garden’s time to continue past summer meant simultaneously crafting – from the very outset – another set of relations that did not depend upon the infrastructure, daily momentum and busy hands of the festival team, nor its cross-pollinations from associated activities in our pavilion at the top of the stairs. Without us, the garden as string figure[5] would need to be held by local volunteers interfacing with both the bureaucratic powers-that-be and the lively stuff in the ground, with the weather, all manner of critters and each other.

August 6

Filip, one of the festival artists, is leading a plant drawing session. We’ve been holding these every week or so, and there’s a nice community forming around them, people of different backgrounds and ages hanging out together, looking closely at plants, drinking infusions, mixing watercolours and chatting. This morning Filip has brought a bag of crystals for us to draw instead, which will later be buried in the garden as part of a “locality grid”, an alignment of site-specific quartz crystals charged with some kind of magnetic healing energies, spread across different locations in Brussels. The crystals came from a dealer in Poland, they are pinkish and translucent grey and unlike plants do not wilt over the course of being drawn. Their time is of a rather different order.

Through collective ritual, we make space for belonging and becoming-with. Most of the things a garden requires need to be done over and over, in time that is shared with soil microbes, insects, plants and other humans. Those tending it have to be attentive to all this and together work out ways of responding and taking care. It could be, for example, that the line of lavender seems to be shrivelling or that the calendula flowers are starting to lose colour and should probably be dried soon. The more visitors joined in with watering, collecting seeds or plucking petals, the more invested they became in the wellbeing of this scenario; to be enmeshed in such a tangle is inevitably to be both implicated in and changed by it. This is perhaps what Donna Haraway has in mind with the term “response-ability”, the capacity to notice and shift in subtle webs of co-becoming with others, an imperative in times of cascading anthropogenic damage to widespread ecologies and the ways of being that they support.[6]

We could also call this the formation of more bio-diverse publics. For the atomised modern subject, spending time with others (human or not) outside of work doing something that does not involve consumption is itself unusual. In a city rippled with the same waves of xenophobic nationalism sweeping across the rest of Europe, and facing the unprecedented trauma of a terrorist attack that spring which had left 35 dead and 300 injured, spaces for collectively imagining and shaping common resources become critical in all sorts of ways. At such a moment in time and place, it would seem particularly worthwhile to cultivate modes of being in/as publics that build arts of listening, of attending and tending to that which may appear as outside ourselves but with which we are in fact intimately co-constituted.

July 15

My friend Jonathan has hitchhiked all the way from Vienna in less than 24 hours to cook everyone on site a lunch of bright pink beetroot porridge, with blobs of white goats cheese, luminescent beets and tiny lilac-coloured sarriette flowers. The beetroots are market discards and the flowers come from the garden. The porridge takes its time, our kitchen is somewhat makeshift and there’s a lot going on in the pavilion. Two Italian architects are running around trying to outthink the incessant rain that insists on joining us inside – though there isn’t really an “inside”, just a retractable fabric roof between three points (the distillation laboratory, the seed library and the gardening shed), marking a space more like a clearing in the woods, with thickets of tall trees on either side.

People passing are always baffled by the tansies, but they do tend to know a little about more familiar species: that chamomile has calming properties, that sage tea is good for sore throats, that nasturtiums help rid the soil of nematodes. There are elderly Sicilian men who stop by in the mornings and tell Licia, in dialect, what they grow at home. Though these are all plants with rich and intimate human histories far more ancient than the lawn, knowledge around their various gifts and proclivities is, for the most part, patchy – even for those of us at the festival charged with collecting and passing it on. Almost nobody has any idea how to use our complicated distillation equipment, though certain visitors return often and try to become familiar with what it can do. Some with special expertise or interest are vast wellsprings of information and intuition; Aude, for example, leads a workshop every Sunday transforming our plants into balms, oils and other alchemic forms in the distillation lab. We watch and interact with the plants over time and make do with what knowledge and skills can be caught, circulated, experimented with and remade into something else, taking care to be attuned to what new relations are made possible in the process, what potential futures are brought into being by ghosts present in the here and now.

The place where we do this, Parc Duden, is itself a remnant piece of a forest that was once much wider and denser, covering a large swathe of western Europe in the footsteps of the last ice age. Other fragments of what today is called the Forêt de Soignes still cling to the southern tip of the city, beginning incidentally at the park in Boitsfort where Licia and I live as Villa Blanche residency hosts to the festival’s visiting artists. From our front door we have only to walk a short distance into woodland before coming to an archaeological site where agricultural and other tools used some 2-3000 years ago were de-interred from the earth. Traces of past entanglements between people, plants, animals, and soils can also be seen in other ghostly forms within the forest.[7] In the Middle Ages, when botanical knowledge held together all manner of more-than-human relations, this woodland was shared with other large animals long since disappeared: aurochs, moose, brown bear, wild boar and lynx. Jens-Christian Svenning explains how addressing these deeper histories helps us to understand the ecosystems in which many extant plant species co-evolved, where megafauna acted as “constant gardeners”. Trees like oak, for example, may have developed their ability to regenerate from stumps through regular trampling by straight-tusked elephants.[8]

The co-becomings at work in our garden in the park where the lawn was, as we perform them day after day, are without doubt more modest in scale, but they also make ghosts that will continue to inhabit the air and the soil and everything in between.

July 24 / September 9

Carlos, a medieval enthusiast who often visits us, is holding a purification ceremony in the distillation lab, a kind of mystical geo-prophylactic by which participants can equip themselves to be “prepared for the worst”. People come up one-by-one from the garden, clutching their collected stones to be passed through fire, water and smoke before being wrapped in a small handmade leather pouch. It’s a simple ritual, invented and without situated cultural significance that seems nevertheless to imbue the smooth, speckled rocks with sincere – if cloudy – shared intention. On the other side of summer, Agata, a curator who has been attending the drawing sessions, and I will feel out a similar attentiveness with our exhibition Certain Stones (a title stolen from that iconic and mystical lover of rocks, Roger Caillois). This temporal display of selected spectacular matter unearthed while weeding, one of our last public events in the pavilion, shifts over the course of several hours in decidedly uncertain arrangements, aided by dogs, gusts of wind, the usual unsupervised kids and our own watchful, listening hands. Later, the stones wind up back in the garden or on our kitchen table at home.

The grey, lumpy stones in this soil look more or less ordinary on the outside, like small potatoes, but those that are broken apart reveal milky interior worlds streaked with blue and shimmering violet. Annie Pringle notes that the first thing a farmer does when working a field is dig the rocks out of the ground.[9] When we’re out gardening they seem to turn up everywhere, and it’s hard (for me at least) not to be distracted from essential tasks by them.

Tsing and her co-editors propose that in the Anthropocene, “multiple conversations with stones are necessary”, pointing to Ursula K. Le Guin’s call via the poem Marrow to “listen to stones without forcing our will on them”.[10] In a period where humans have effectively become the clumsiest of geological actors, even planetary-scale spectres of an involuted future,[11] it makes sense to enter into conversations begun long before we arrived – and that will far outlast our lifetimes. How such listening translates into concrete practices and ways of being might be a question of openness to immersion with many kinds of others, in permanently shifting relations in which the human is not at the centre. Learning to attune to the specific entanglements of present formations and to the possibilities for reconfigurations that necessarily change everything within it, cultivating or becoming the right kinds of ghosts, will be an essential task for the nimble gardener.



With thanks to Sepideh, whose readings aloud of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet thoroughly haunt this text; also to Licia, Gilly, Judith, Rudy, Fabienne and all others we garden among.

Drawings and photo by me, 2016.

[1] Anna Tsing, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt, Heather Swanson (eds.), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017)., 2017)

[2] Tsing et al (eds.),p. G6

[3] Elizabeth Povinelli e-flux visible interview

[4] Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Capitalism (Durham, NC:Duke University Press, 2016),p. 79.

[5] Donna Haraway uses the metaphor of the children’s game of string figures to conceptualize fragile, interdependent multispecies assemblages. See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[6] Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[7] Andrew Mathews, “Ghostly forms and forest histories”, in Tsing et al (eds.)

[8] Jens-Christian Svenning, “Future Megafaunas: A Historical Perspective on the Potential for a Wilder Anthropocene” in Tsing et al (eds.)2017). . See also the introduction to this volume, Introduction: Haunted landscapes of the Anthropocene”, p. 8

[9] Annie Pringle, Establishing New Worlds: The Lichens of Petersham” in Tsing et al (eds.), p. G159

[10] Anna Tsing et al (eds.) ‘Introduction: Haunted landscapes of the Anthropocene’ in Tsing et al (eds.), p. G11.

[11] Bubandt uses the term “paleontology of the present”. See Nils Bubandt, “Haunted Geologies: Spirits, Stones, and the Necropolitics of the Anthropocene” in Tsing et al (eds.),, p. G136.

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