Sussex Roots society runs a communal garden behind Brighthelm halls of residence. Everybody’s welcome: they meet on Sundays at midday. (Photo: Suki Ferguson)
Sussex Roots society runs a communal garden behind Brighthelm halls of residence. Everybody’s welcome: they meet on Sundays at midday. (Photo: Suki Ferguson)

“Let’s Dig for Victory” was the motto that British politician Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith called to be adopted soon after World War Two had begun. He wished to promote food self-sufficiency within the British community. Current issues of peak oil, food miles and even the perceived “global environmental crisis” mean that this motto still resonates today. Here at Sussex, the battle to get those within our own community to reconnect with food and growing suggests that the same motto is pretty apt.

After the aftermath of last December’s United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Poznan, Poland, where no real breakthrough was made on carbon emissions, commentators and NGOs are calling for an increase in actions on the local and international level. It is with immediate and practical lifestyle changes alongside political lobbying that individuals will feel self-empowered again.

Sussex Roots, a society, based at Sussex University, evolved from a campaign to promote practical solutions for sustainable living. During the summer of 2007, the society’s founders adopted a disused allotment on campus and transformed it into a communal garden. The society provides students and staff with a place to grow their own food and explore practical sustainability within the framework of permaculture. After working hard for over a year getting the foundational structure in place, the society is now providing opportunities for the wider campus community to get involved.

So the Sussex Roots society is using their allotment plot to explore permaculture. But what does permaculture entail? Simply growing food with respect for natural energy cycles and in a way that: (1) doesn’t damage the environment, (2) uses the least amount of land possible, and (3) attempts to minimise required human effort. Armed with the knowledge that the total calorific value of woodland is higher than that of wheat fields, shouldn’t we drive agricultural production away from such large-scale, single-crop trends? And how about the potential for cultivated herb gardens adjacent to campus flats both increasing convenience and helping reduce our dependency on supermarkets?

Exploring these ideas practically, rather than just intellectually, can be refreshing. When I visited the site, I spoke to a student who was there for the first time. She said, “after spending the week thinking, it felt great to get my hands dirty. It was incredibly refreshing to be up at the plot. Uni can be so cerebral, but when you’re gardening you can abandon all of that thinking. Having a direct, physical effect on your environment is a great antidote to a scrambled brain.”

Mischa helped to start the society. He’s studied permaculture and brings a lot of direction and commitment to the project. I asked him what “Roots” was all about and he seemed very clear in his answer: “Lots of people don’t have anywhere to grow stuff. “Roots” provides students and staff with a place to grow.” There are all sorts of other great things about the garden, it works towards self-reliance, it’s good exercise, you feel connected to nature, it builds good relations between staff and students – but this fundamental idea of growing is definitely at the heart of it. “We live in an age of disempowerment,” he said. “We are disenfranchised from being able to affect change. Growing food can be a revolutionary thing.”

Mischa was brought up in London. His family wasn’t into growing plants. He recounted his memory of their typical city garden, made up of a handful of simple bushes that didn’t need much love. I ask him what he remembers of growing – if it isn’t based in this family gardening experience.

He says he remembers sprinkling cress seeds on cotton wool in primary school. “Even though it’s a pretty universal experience, there’s still something miraculous about it. And then nothing until a couple of years ago.”

I asked him what happened to make him start gardening. “I started getting into alternative ideas of living. There are so few right livelihoods.” He says he wants to find a way of using his energy that isn’t destructive. The garden certainly fulfils that and it seems to give him a real pleasure. I think he finds it energizing, even though it’s hard work. He says he feels like an inner city person awakening. I have to admit, there’s something about the fresh air – especially on this blustery Sunday – that totally invigorates you. It makes me want to take up hill walking!

I think that the thrill of being tossed about by the weather, of having mud on your boots and weeds in your fists is amplified by the amount of time us students spend thinking. Mischa pointed out how theory-based University is: “The garden, and growing, allows you to connect with the fundamental stuff that you’re distracted from. Universities need this. It is integral to a healthy human to know this stuff.” The process of discovery seems to have proved uplifting for many “Roots” members.

I try to get Mischa to tell me some sort of anecdote. After really thinking about it, he remembers a day when they got the clay oven going and baked a pizza. “I could be enlarging that scenario slightly,” he confesses, “but there was definitely a fire and some food. People brought grub to share and we worked. Everyone was really open and friendly.” As he describes it, I can almost feel the satisfaction that comes from working hard and then chatting and feasting (however humbly) with good people.

Growing food is really fundamental, and yet most of us have become disconnected from that process. Ben, a second-year student who is deeply involved with the site, took home some vegetables from last year’s harvest. His flatmates mistook the earth on the carrots for mould and threw them away. “We’ve become so accustomed to fruit and veg that is preened and polished and doesn’t taste half as good,” he stated in a recent interview. The dependency on the supermarket for our access to produced food negates any real connection with nature.

It’s like depending on an airport souvenir shop to provide the exotic culture of a place, instead of actually venturing outside the artificial environment of the terminal building. Aren’t we predisposed to accept the pre-packaged representations of our food culture and disregard the need for direct interaction with nature? Permaculture opposes the Enlightenment view that nature and man are separate. It instead encourages people to live their lives, as well as grow their own food in synergy with nature, supporting the environmental sustainability agenda.

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