Marcella Marsella: Greensgrow Farms seems to have a wide-ranging mission with human connection and education at the forefront. How is that mission concerned with local ecology? And does it go beyond that local focus into the territory of “big picture” ecology?
Megan De Brito: Greensgrow is an urban farm in an urban environment. One of its superpowers is that it's connecting, it's a physical manifestation of new possibility, right? And so you're walking down the street, and there's all these dense buildings and then it's like, whoa, these greenhouses, and it's a whole city block. So, there's this place of novelty already– you walk into the site and you're ready to connect in a novel way. That's why the intersection between ecology, education, and connection can lift people up into a new perspective. On a macro-ecological scale, it's really easy to lose a sense of your own impact. But when you spend some time with soil, with a plant and with produce that came from the plant and from that soil, you cannot only see the relationship between yourself and your food, but also your relationship between the food and the land, and then even the relationship between the land and the micro critters, the insects and the soil ecology. There's this fractalization that happens. There are so many layers to the claiming and acceptance of sustainable lifestyle that are hard to unpack. This is an especially difficult issue in our urban environment. Greensgrow is looking to impact people locally, but those people move, and they take those ideas with them, right? We sell plants and produce to people and we educate people. They can come and be accepted here, to learn, to make food choices and environmental choices all in one place. And so I think that the impact of that can be: I eat differently, my brain works differently. I can see new things; I can think differently about the fractalization of my impact. If everybody's using their roof space, their sidewalk space, and their patios to plant native varieties of holly that feed a particular type of bird, for example, we're creating a swath of land that can now be a stop on that migration pattern for this type of bird. And what if the whole city actually offered more capacity to support these migrating species, and to support some of the pollinating species and some of the soil enriching species. And the more that we build that, we start to “re-culturize” the physical landscape in the urban environment.
MM: What I think I hear you saying is we start with everything that's right in front of us, in our hands, in our vision, and then through our own creativity, our own actions, coupled with other people's actions, it creates a ripple effect. From the local as in me, my body, my person to my block to my city, and beyond.
MM: I’m glad that you brought up the different kinds of events that you hold at Greensgrow. Do you feel that your events, whether they're educational, recreational, or simply just designed to gather people together, do you feel like that they're more impactful when they have an aspect of creativity tied to them? That could be an activity where people work with their hands, or prepare food together, or make music, or they just sit down and put their heads together to brainstorm ideas. Is creativity something you think about when you organize those events and workshops and classes?
MDB: Yeah, actually I've been trying to shift our funding model, even for some of the education programs like for the seed keeping program–I funded that as a residency. I made the argument that there's an intersection between craft, artfulness and science that happens in agriculture and that's actually the forefront of agriculture. We are the oldest operating urban farm in the country now, and I've been thinking about how to turn this into the urban farming museum. I’m asking myself how do I shift towards storytelling because I think that there's just so much space for investigating our environment and our food through creativity. We’re running a seed keeping program this year. We have ten fellows who will be growing out seeds from their diaspora and learning about that process. And then writing and talking about the food ways, and the personal exploration, and having a creative writing process alongside the ag process. That loops more people into the creative response and into who each of us is as a person. For example, if I'm from Haitian descent, and I'm watching someone grow out Haitian peppers, that's one relationship. Okay, I see that pepper, but how can I, the person, identify with it and be accepted with it? That’s through creativity.
MM: I’m glad you brought up storytelling because it's something that's been on my mind in my own artistic practice. I’m really grappling with how I can connect with people through my artwork. One way I’ve figured out is through storytelling. I wonder what role does the creative practice of storytelling play in your work at Greensgrow and in your personal life? Stories about origin, stories about identity or future horizons, stories about why we care, not just as individuals, but as communities and cultures.
MDB: Yes, I’ve identified so deeply as a storyteller ever since I was really young; it's so integral in my person. In my personal storytelling, I find that telling stories is a way of reframing and remapping. It allows for a playfulness of truth. It allows us to come up against, “what is true?” And when we connect that to our physical environment and our natural world, we can think about “what is the truth there?” There are some things that I think we tell through story that sound like magic that may be an unexplored place in the physical environment that is real, that is truly manifested in a concrete and scientific way that no one has taken a microscope to, and the reason we ever took a microscope to something is because someone told the story about it and it impacted us.
We tell stories about the things that land in our heart, and I'm finding this to be very relevant in the type of role that I have right now as director of Greensgrow. My interest in storytelling, but also my craft and ability and skill, is what supports other people to join, is what helps draw money. Storytelling is the basis of Greensgrow. Mary Seton Corboy (the founder) was a storyteller. That's how she funded Greensgrow. That's why people still revere her. I also revere her in those ways and think she's amazing. She knew about growing food enough to tell stories about it, which is the same for me. I do want to take this a little bit further into storytelling and the environment and just thinking about what you were talking about with your own artwork and your own storytelling in relationship to that work.
How do we get more people of different strata to tell a similar story for cultural change? Because actually changing the amount of waste we produce is deciding, for example, that we're only going to buy one pair of pants for the next six years and we're just going to invest in paying people better which means we're going to charge more for our products which means we're going to throw our products out less which means we're going to sell less products which means we slow our world down, right? All of that is the story. It's an environmental story really, but it is starting in industry. And it has to attach to someone's heart, and industry usually doesn’t. Maybe art is what opens the corridor to someone's heart and makes them feel something, and they can tell you the story about it. And then I can tell you the story about how that impacted me and my decisions and my change.
MM: So, once I figured out storytelling is a good path, it’s gone a little bit further where I am realizing the storytelling has to involve my personal story. One way that you can really connect with people through your work is to just make it as personal as you can. I'm a big believer in “the personal is political” and also “all art is propaganda.” I put those two things together. But there’s this voice in my head which keeps telling me that the story I'm telling is not my story. This story of what's happening to the ocean, for example, it's not my story. But it actually is my story because it's the ocean on my planet, you know? The air I'm breathing right now is there because of the ocean, right? So that is my story. Also, my relationship to the ocean started when I was very young, when I learned how to scuba dive and I really started forming a relationship with this massive living thing and all the living things in it and making these very vivid memories of diving when I was a kid. Also, my story is one of violence because there's been a lot of violence in my life. So, my personal story of violence and trauma intersects with the ocean’s story of violence and trauma. Reminding myself that those things are not separate helps me tell these stories together, which I think is very powerful.
MDB: It is. I think we see that in social media all the time. I saw the difference in Greensgrow’s social media when I started putting myself on there more. There’s faster change that happens around people feeling involved and connected. You’re right, there is something really interesting about being able to claim our stories, and I wonder where that really comes from, saying, “this isn't my story.” It's been really hard for me to come to a place of being able to tell my story at Greensgrow. I thought that there's probably people who are going to judge me and maybe that's where it comes from. But the reality is that people connect more than the people who judge or the people who are putting up a barrier. Most people are actually finding a connective forest in hearing someone else share and hearing a certain vulnerability that you're already putting out there when you make art or when you take on a crazy project or when you devote yourself to anything. Encapsulating it in a story gives it a place. When you connect art to your story, then I can jump into Marcella's heart and know her as a young child and see her through the lens of her own eyes. And that makes me absorb the artwork in a different way. Then we feel connected to you. And now I'm looking at your art and understanding who you were, you know, all of this triangulation which is all just relational in the end, which goes back to the original thing I was saying about the fractalization of relationships in both directions. Stories are the current of that fractalization.
MM: I love that. I want to make sure I get a chance to ask you this next question before we move away from narratives. The story that's being told and has been told for a long time about the environment on our planet, the story of the way things are going and that they're not going well–that’s a narrative I struggle with a lot. I recently read the introduction to this book Imagining Extinction by Ursula Heise. She writes,
“Whatever the concrete ecological crises at hand, modern environmentalists, like their nineteenth-century forebears have tended to rely on a similar story template: the idea that modern society has degraded a natural world that used to be beautiful, harmonious, and self-sustaining and that might disappear completely if modern humans do not change their way of life. In postcolonial societies, this story often contrasts an indigenous, ecologically grounded past with the degradation of nature European imperialism has brought about. Environmentalism inside and outside of recognizable social movements and organizations has relied on such ‘declensionist’ narratives, as historians and literary critics call them. In these stories, the awareness of nature's beauty and value is intimately linked to a foreboding sense of its looming destruction. Environmentalist writers and thinkers have skillfully mobilized literary and aesthetic concepts and genres such as the sublime, the picturesque, pastoral, apocalyptic narrative, and what one critic has called ‘toxic discourse’ about polluted landscapes and deformed bodies so as to convey a sense of a precious, beautiful, and fragile natural world at risk.”
It often feels like there's no room for any other stories because we just have this one big story that's been handed down to us. And there isn't another one being told. And so the thing that I'm struggling with is what is an alternative narrative that I can turn to that doesn't participate in the doom and gloom of this “toxic discourse"? Do you ever think about alternatives to what I'm describing, either in your personal life or in your work at Greensgrow?
MDB: I completely agree with the author's perspective. And think about this often, that there's sort of a purist approach to nature outside of humans. The story that nature would just be so pure, but we destroyed it. Even the way that we want to engage nature is through this very purist approach. It's like “this nature over here is clean and perfect. That over there is not clean and perfect,” right? And the truth is that everything hangs in a balance. And I think the story that is potentially healing, in my mind and for me and for my soul, is that the extremes set us off. It’s really about being able to find the acceptance of multiplicities, like whole systems of interactions of community instead of individualism. That brings us back into a scope of balance. And that scope of balance is actually environment. There's a whole segment of ecology, human ecology, which is all about how we, as humans, balance ourselves and balance our interaction. And if we were just to leave nature to itself it would go out of balance.
If the world was giving us more opportunity to make multiple choices of community and for us to see more connective opportunity, and for us to not just see the message of “every time I do this, I destroy everything,” I think the balancer is being able to continually have a reciprocated relationship with choice. It’s all about the slower, smaller scale reciprocation in the storytelling and the choice making that goes back and forth. The biggest problem with capitalism and globalization in our markets is that we can make a choice and it has no impact on us personally; we never see it. There's no reciprocation. And so I think that change in story is about balance, reciprocation and choice.
MM: Something I think about often, which others bring up in conversations with me is, what role do you think artists or creatives play in having a positive impact specifically on the climate crisis? And is it the creative community's responsibility to save the planet? Do we have some kind of obligation or responsibility to step up?
MDB: This is a good question. One of the professional roles I played in my life was working as a designer for public interest movements. That's using art to connect with people to try to change policy. Artists are held as people who are willing to put themselves out there to change culture, and so our culture changes. And I think that's true. But I also don't think that the onus can be or has to be or should be on the art artists to make any change really, because the true beauty of art is to not know or try for the end result, right? The exploration of the conception and then the manifestation of that produces new understanding and new perception. As soon as you try to link “you make this and it changes that” it can get really wonky. Design is really much more couched in the end goal result-based production of art. And yet when you try to force it too deeply into a hole, you miss the explorative manifestation which actually connects deeper to the heart and produces new ideas. I would always have to put blinders on and shut down to make the most compelling things that would go into campaigns because if I was trying to hit the target it's almost impossible. I think that message put out there to artists is actually a degradation.
MM: I totally agree. I can relate in my own artistic practice, when art is presented to me as problem solving, it feels so stifling. Where do I go from there? I'm not a problem solver. As you said, I'm an explorer, right? But I know because I've done it time and again that if I just trust in my own creativity and femininity and artistic process, I will reach a target. I don't know what target it is, but it's out there. And hopefully at least one person will be touched by it.
My last question comes up frequently in conversation, in interviews and essays and talks: “what can I do as one person to create positive change?” I'm wondering, do you ever get this question in your work at Greensgrow? If so, what do you say?
MDB: Yes, I do get that question. I often say, “donate to Greensgrow”. I think that this goes right back to the beginning of our conversation. I can do things in my small environment that help to create impact on a larger scale. And I can also accept myself in the sense that I can't change it all, and I'm not going to change it all. I think that we get so upset about what’s happening to out planet that sometimes the question “what can I do?” comes from guilt and not from action or alignment. People must decide to be more aligned in themselves to go inside and slow down. Some of it is just being really connected to your day-to-day in your world and your life and not obsessing about buying the environmentally sustainable blahdy blah spray, because that is not going to solve it. You deciding to go at your own pace, seeing other people and accepting them holistically and what they're doing, even when it's not aligned with you. And knowing where you're aligned. Those are the things that actually impact our environment. When we put ourselves in bubbles and we're focused on sustainable consumer choices, we’re not actually getting to a more sustainable place in itself.
MM: So in the future when people ask me that question I'm going to tell them “step one, go to therapy”. [laughs]
MDB: [Laughs] It’s true! I think that is the biggest truth. It's like, where is trauma starting? In our interpersonal relationships, and then we do it in the land, and then we do it in everything.