In partnership with LA Nature for All, Earth Share is a series of conversations on IGTV with the goal of sharing knowledge and inspiration with local organizations and individuals caring for the Earth. The following is a partial transcript of our conversation with Rishi Kumar, founder of the Sarvodaya Institute and Healing Gardens Co. It has been edited for length.
Paloma Avila: What does nature mean to you?
Rishi Kumar: I have come to realize that nature means everything. In some sense, to me, it has become a word that … we have chosen to limit the meaning of. And a lot of times, in my view, we have used inappropriately. Nature is everything: nature is everywhere. What we are doing as urban gardeners is really realizing that you don’t need to go anywhere to find nature, it’s in front of you, or it’s with you because she is you.
Healing Gardens Co(mmunity) is all about connecting people with the healing power of gardens, especially people who do not have access to gardens in urban areas.
Levi Brewster: How can people learn more about Healing Garden Co?
RK: Gardens have an incredible healing power and are big, complex metaphors for us to understand the same processes we go through in our own lives and see them physically represented in the garden.
What I have found is that what really draws people into gardens, what really keeps people in the gardens… is being in the garden. There are all these hidden metaphors [in the garden], compost being on of the ones that is really pertinent to our world right now. Compost being this … recognition that everything has value. A recognition that even what we call “trash,” even what we call “waste,” has value, and that really, there is no such thing as trash and waste. That’s this concept that we have invented in our society to denigrate and degrade others.
There’re all these important hidden metaphors for us in the garden that we can only see by spending quality time in the garden.
LB: You said that you came to gardening and farming through food, what were you doing before that and what led you in that direction?
RK: I was a computer science major in college and fascinated by technology and really thought that that was going to change the world. When I got to college and ended up doing what I thought I wanted to do, and being on the computer all day and not have a whole body experience in my work, it was draining and felt a bit extractive. I was looking for something more holistic.
I didn’t realize what I was looking for back then, but I wanted to get outside, do something that would contribute to my health… If I want to learn about health, I need to grow some food to understand what that process is, to understand what healthy food looks like, how is healthy food grown? That’s how I got into gardening at the very beginning.
PA: We like to ask everyone on [Earth Share] how they describe community. And I love that everyone has a completely different answer, if you want to talk about the community you feel you work within and that supports you and the connection you have, with how you describe community.
RK: Community is really important. Community is all about relationships, and what I’m learning is that relationships are our very existence. Our body is a community of relationships among cells. What we learn in our schooling and our culture, we have this concept of “I think, therefore I am”. We have this individualistic self-conception. Community is all about understanding that we don’t exist without others, understanding that we are constantly in relationship and constantly in exchange of energy and that we need the support of others, others need our support and that we don’t exist without these relationships.
Community exists beyond our relationships with people…. You can find some form of community with plants, community with soil. When I’m feeling lonely … I’ll just go out and check on my worms, hang out with them, I’ll sit and watch the butterflies flapping around and that is a sense of community.
LB: One of the conversations that I know we have all been having in a lot of the organizations we work with about equity and access, and in what spaces people feel safe. This is definitely something we are talking about at Arlington, as a public garden that is free for anyone to come to, do people actually feel taken care of and safe and welcomed. How do you see that manifesting in the work that you do?
RK: Right now we are in a very special moment, I think, when large parts of our society are expressing the pain that they’re going through and the pain that they’ve been going through and expressing very clearly that we’re not listening. And I see the power of these urban gardens to help people reflect and understand that people don’t cry out for no reason. People don’t feel neglected for no reason.
Our culture has this very abusive [sub-layer] to it. If we can start to see that in soil, we can start to see that in people … I understand through gardening how to treat soil, I understand how to care for soil, I understand how to express my love for soil. When I think about a person, I think “OK, this person is feeling abused or feeling closed up, if I was thinking about soil, how would I treat the soil, if the soil had been abused?” So I respond to the person in the same way.
If your soil has been abused, it doesn’t help to be like, “you suck soil, it’s all your fault.” What does help is saying, “I see what’s going on, I’m learning about your history, I want to offer some care to you. On a very simple level: I’m going to feed you, provide you with water.” And then getting into more complicated forms of care: “What kind of relationships are you looking for? Who do you want to hang out with? What are the ways I can meet your needs? What are your desires? What are your deep desires?” That’s where I see urban gardening providing us with lessons with what’s happening in our society today.
PA: Do you feel that right now there is a shift going on culturally to express that desire to be around more gardens, to be able to farm anywhere: at your own house, or space, or empty lots?
RK: Yes, I think that’s happening in a huge way right now…We have seen a tremendous increase in an interest in urban gardening. At this moment, it’s a really powerful way to understand the moment that we’re in.
I really hope we can start to recognize the value of everyone…. We need to stop seeing the world as a collection of dead things that sometimes come to life. We need to start seeing this world as a living being expressing Herself in many different ways. If we can start to recognize that and understand that everyone requires care and everyone requires love. We can’t help people heal and we can’t help people grow by force.