Continental Chicago

now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year

The Political History of a Garden

The Community Garden at the Chickaming Preserve, © Susan Barsy

Three years ago, a large community garden materialized next to the Chickaming Township Prairie in the part of Michigan I often visit.  My husband and I often walk the prairie, because it’s lovely.  Suddenly, there was this added attraction—a generous tract of land with a high deer-fence all around it and fully fitted out with tool sheds, and compost heaps, and heaps of mulch, and even running water from shiny, red, waist-high spigots.

For a township with a small population, the sudden appearance of this seemingly superfluous garden was quite impressive.  After all, it was plunk in the midst of low-density neighborhoods, some of them heavily wooded, with numerous farms.  In an area that many vacationers frequent, it was doubtful whether the place would attract many committed gardeners—the kind that would drive 5 or 10 miles just to harvest a carrot, or pull a weed.

That first year, it was about half cultivated.  A notice on the glassed-in bulletin board at the entrance enjoined everyone who read it to “plant a row for the hungry.”  Sure enough, that first year about a quarter of the garden was impersonally planted with long rows of unkempt tomatoes and cabbage.

In each summer since, the garden has become more and more lively.  The plots display a sophisticated variety of plants and techniques.  Like every community garden, it’s a crazy quilt of vegetables, flowers, and herbs, arrayed in circles and rows and stripes, on mounds, in cages, amid straw or poking up through ugly carpets of black plastic.  We’ve seen flourishing dill, asparagus, hollyhocks, strawberries, potatoes.  We’ve met a number of the gardeners and have seen signs showing that the garden has begun to win some awards.

The garden is one of the fruits of the Pokagon Fund, which, with input from the several townships around, disburses neighborhood development grants from the profits of the Four Winds Casino.  The fund has steadily been pumping money into schools, parks, community groups, and charitable organizations, often favoring projects that have something to do with green living or conservation.  The Fund has been active in plans to preserve the extensive wetlands around New Buffalo, for instance, and it’s said that free curbside recycling will be provided to the township soon.

It’s the latest chapter in the long history of the Pokagon band, the only remnant of the Potawatomie Indian tribe to avoid being displaced from the lower Great Lakes region.  The rest of the tribe was required by the 1833 Treaty of Chicago to relocate west of the Mississippi River.  But the band’s eponymous leader, Leopold Pokagon (c1775-1841), successfully negotiated an exception to the treaty by shrewdly converting to Catholicism and insisting that his followers embrace the white concept of private property.  With money they received from the sale of land on which Chicago now stands, they bought a tract in Michigan’s Cass County, where they’ve been living side by side with whites ever since.

I don’t approve of gambling, and I don’t like the idea of a casino.  But there is some justice in this garden, whereby some old score seems to have been settled, and an ancient chain of relationships has been latched together anew.

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