Isla Horton, Director of Grow Cardiff and Bevan Exemplar explores how we can re-think when the unthinkable just happened
Today at the start of another week in lockdown, I flicked through our church Whatsapp group messages, that source of inspiration and spiritual refreshment for the week ahead:
‘Not another ****ing Monday morning,’ a good friend had written (without the asterisks).
Followed several minutes later by, ’Oh no, sorry I thought I was posting in another group’. ‘So, so, sorry’. The mortification... and she’s a Sunday school teacher. As I write this, my kids have just finished screaming – and I mean scream the house down screaming – about baggy trousers. I share this, to say from the outset that I suspect almost everyone is struggling in some way. Perhaps many of us feel like my friend this morning, we just aren’t always so accidentally candid. These thoughts then are offered not as ‘Here’s how to do it, aren’t we fantastic, why aren’t you?’, but as one weary baggy-trouser, embattled traveller to another in the hope that they might offer new thought, fresh ideas, or spark a new connection.
"At this time of year, our projects should be buzzing with people coming together, wildlife and raised beds burgeoning with fruit and vegetables."
Like many of us, I suspect, we weren’t ready for Coronavirus. At the start of the lockdown, I really felt as though we were approaching some sort of lobotomy. I head up , a community gardening charity that brings people together in local communities to create, grow and sustain their own edible gardens across the city. We had recently been ecstatic to receive a Comic Relief Community Fund in Wales grant for organisational growth. How on earth could we grow and develop when we were being forced to retract and close? At this time of year, our projects should be buzzing with people coming together, wildlife and raised beds burgeoning with fruit and vegetables. Covid-19 is an antithesis to all that we stand for and do. How could our gardens be tendered or cared for? More importantly, how would our volunteers cope, many of whom use community gardening to support their mental and physical health and to reduce their feelings of isolation and loneliness? What we do and how we do it – ‘together’ and ‘in the community garden’ - are the brains of our operation. How could we function if we weren’t allowed to function – if our brains had been removed?
I remember reading a fascinating article in the New York Times, ‘How the Brain can Rewire itself after Half of it is Removed’. Scientists discovered that if the brain is deprived of input from one source in the body, for example, a limb, it reorganises its neural map and reroutes the function to another part of the body that is still working – the remaining limb. Talking about children who had had half of their brains removed as infants, one doctor commented;
“Whenever we looked at their brain scans, we’d go, ‘Wow, this brain really shouldn’t be able to work,’” said Ralph Adolphs, a cognitive neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology and co-author of the study. “If you take any other system that has a number of parts whose functions all depend on one another, like the heart, and you divide it in half, it’s not going to work. You take my laptop and cut it in half, it’s not going to work.”
"What if we re-wired the brain of our operation and offered to post seeds to people, so they could grow at home?"
One night at the end of March when lockdown was just beginning, I sat and discussed our response with a colleague from our Grow Well project, which works in partnership with the SW Cardiff GP Cluster providing therapeutic community gardening sessions to local patients, through social prescribing. All of our community gardens would have to close to patients, but what if we re-wired the brain of our operation and offered to post seeds to people, so they could grow at home? We would hold on to a central tenant of our mission to support people to grow - just at home, instead of the community gardens. The growing packs we sent out would need to contain everything so there would be no need for people to venture out. We looked into compostable, foldable pots, coir compost plugs (super lightweight), had a chat with the post office and we were ready. Perhaps a handful of people might respond. In a few days over 250 people responded – please could they have a seed pack for their grandchild, their elderly mum stuck at home who could not go out? When an old friend turned up at the end of my drive with two decades worth of his stamp collection to support postage for the idea, I knew we were on to something. And so it began – people, many of whom had not grown before at home, started to grow.
We were reaching new people, people we didn’t even know about before, from one simple idea, from re-wiring. Many of the people who contacted us were supporting children. We started to think about other children who might be able to benefit from growing. What about vulnerable children or children of key workers in Hub schools? Our schools work programme looked like it was dying with all the schools closed, but could we re-wire and work in a new way and support these children instead? We spoke to a digital artist about creating an interactive website that children could share photographs of their plants growing, nature they had discovered – their creativity, secured some funding and the ‘Sow Some Sunshine’ project was launched, currently supporting 650 children across the city to grow sunflowers and veg.
Our seed of an idea – sending seed packs out in the post has developed too. We’re now offering doorstep deliveries of grow bags and plug plants to enable people with underlying health conditions to grow tomatoes, courgettes and cucumbers at home. We’re really proud that we have been able to do something that is reaching people by being forced to re-wire.
Re-wiring makes new connections in other ways too. At the start of the lockdown Cardiff Council’s nurseries were face with having to bin hundreds of plants they could no longer plant. Green Squirrel, a local community gardening organisation brought together other like-minded organisations such as Grow Cardiff and others and organised redistribution of hundreds of plants destined for the skip. They went to care homes, housing projects, and people with health conditions at home. Our re-wiring has inspired re-wiring elsewhere. One family who received some violas from the nursery and who had never gardened before, went on to re-landscape their entire front garden and paint the front of their house! Re-wiring hasn’t just happened at an individual level, but a city-wide, organisational level too. We’re now working alongside several other organisations as part of a ‘Growing Hope” project, supporting several thousand people to grow seeds and plug plants, and in particular reaching out to those who need it the most, plugging in to existing emergency food relief schemes to distribute growing kits.
This crisis has also re-wired us to pay attention to what is right under our noses. I was just so busy going about my everyday business, I hadn’t noticed. My neighbour, in her dressing gown, spotting me with trays of plants, asked for some and then asked me about growing herbs. ‘Of course I wasn’t going out before the lockdown – and I won’t be after’. Waiting for an operation, she has been housebound for months and will continue to wait. There are many people for whom growing something at home, could be a lifeline. Our Grow Well project supports people with underlying health conditions to come to therapeutic community garden sessions, but what about those who aren’t well enough to go out? Could we re-wire and go to them instead?
And so amidst the baggy trouser wars and far, far worse, we are learning to re-wire. Our enforced brain surgery has led us to find new neural pathways through which we have unexpectedly been able to reach new people in new ways and refresh our thinking about what is possible and what works. We are in the very fortunate position of being small, flexible enough and supported enough by funders and trustees to be able to re-wire.
But in the end, so what? Many people have died in my local community from Covid-19, many have taken their own lives. My own loved ones are struggling. In the end, so what if we re-wired – will it make any difference in such dark days? Martin Luther is credited as having said, ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree’. To re-wire is an act of defiance, emergence and hope in a world that has gone to pieces. A seed of an idea that may grow into something that brings light into the world, is a seed that is worth sowing.
Isla Horton is the Director of Grow Cardiff.
The Grow Well Project is part of the Bevan Exemplar Programme 2020, with the aim of improving patient health and wellbeing by bringing together people in the community experiencing mental or physical health issues, loneliness or isolation.