Mie Ma is my new neighbour.
Last summer, my family and I left our home of nearly seven years. Even though we moved only two blocks away, it was a big move. We left a tight-knit group of neighbours that had, over the years, become close friends. Although I was excited about our new home, I lamented the loss of that neighbourliness. Of being able to run next door in my PJs to borrow an egg or that proverbial cup of sugar. Of feeling comfortable exchanging keys, and asking the neighbour to feed the cat.
The Vancouver Foundation’s 2012 Connections and Engagement Survey would seem to confirm my fears: it found that connections between neighbours in most metro Vancouver neighbourhoods are weak, that “most residents do not participate in any form of community activity,” and that “forging meaningful relationships is a challenge for many, particularly across barriers of difference such as ethnicity.”
Our experience–thank goodness–has been quite different, and I credit the food.
I knew our new block was a good one when it started arriving. No official welcome wagon; rather, neighbours dropping by to introduce themselves and hand over a plate of something delicious. By the end of our first week, we’d been the grateful recipients of bunches of jewel-stemmed chard, a basket of chocolate-chip cookies, homemade sarma, a traditional Serbian stew, several zucchini, romaine lettuce, and eggs, fresh from a neighbour’s backyard coop. It was a wonderful welcome.
The initial influx of food has come to an end, but the warm feelings remain. It’s such a simple act, this offering of food–and yet so powerful. It says you’re welcome here. You matter.
Gardeners are especially good at this. We like to share–and not just when we have an overabundance of zucchini. We take pride in the food we’ve grown, and, in a superficial way, sharing it allows us to show it off. But we’re also saying, Our relationship means something to me, so I’m sharing something that took work. Something I’m proud of.
I almost never understand what Mie Ma is saying when she comes, smiling, through the gate that connects our backyards. I do know that she’s usually carrying something she grew, and that she’s come to share it with us. She speaks only a few words of English and I only a few of Cantonese, but food–in particular, homegrown food–has been our connection. I may not understand her words, but their meaning is unmistakable.
The local authority on gardening, Mrs. Ma’s garden occupies every square inch of her backyard and produces enough to share with family, friends, and neighbours. In summer, she shared armloads of lettuce and Asian greens, squashes, and buckets of plums. In exchange, I brought over baking – the best I could do given my temporary lack of homegrown produce to offer up. In autumn, as I write this, Mrs. Ma is sharing deep red Macintoshs and clearing the leaves from sidewalks up and down the street. She is 75, and has been gardening here for 38 years.
Next to the Mas, Leif Branson, Tamara Shulman, and their son Tobias keep chickens and a flourishing garden. Leif’s work as a sustainability-focused garden designer and Tamara’s work in environmental planning and consultation is evident in their prolific urban homestead. They too have a gate that connects their backyard to the Mas’, a convenient way to share seedlings and sustenance. Our second day here, Tamara cut through Mrs. Ma’s backyard to offer up an enormous bunch of greens. Within minutes I’d invited myself over to check out her garden and meet the chickens. Gardeners are possibly the only people who can do things like that and not be considered ill-mannered.
These impromptu connections are happening all throughout the neighbourhood. Next door, Cat, faced with a complete lack of sunshine, asked an elderly neighbour across the lane if she could share her sunny backyard. (In exchange, Cat provides her with produce grown in the yard she can no longer maintain.) Other neighbours plant out their boulevards to beautify the street and gain space to grow, while simultaneously providing an opportunity for greater neighbourhood interaction.
Food–and gardening–doesn’t have to be the foundation of a strong community. But it sure makes it easy: to meet, to share, and to build trust. And trust, as the Vancouver Foundation report suggests, can be the basis for immense change.
“Care and compassion can grow when people trust one another,” the report reads. “People can set aside their differences and work together to solve small, local problems like cleaning up a park, or large, complex problems like poverty and homelessness.”
It might sound like a stretch–from sharing the harvest to tackling some of our society’s biggest issues together–but after this move, I’m a believer.