Ferguson Missouri has stayed in the news for much of the summer and fall of 2014, and not much of what the media has been saying about this community has been pleasant, let alone laudatory. But when I arrived in St Louis and asked my wife if we could go to Ferguson for a prayer vigil, I found a community unbelievably different from the one represented in the news. So much so, that I felt ashamed by how America’s mainstream media has savagely portrayed Ferguson as but one more war zone of inter-racial conflict. In fact, there is a kind of healing occurring there that other Midwestern communities would do well to emulate.
While in no way wishing to gloss over the strife felt by Ferguson residents the last few months, as well as its lingering pockets of poverty and food insecurity, I came away in awe of what residents there were making happen on the ground. My wife had worked as a nurse for a community health clinic that served Ferguson and neighboring Kinloch some two decades ago, so she remembered how to navigate many of the back streets that now lie in the shadows of the St. Louis Lambert Airport. Laurie also remembered that these two communities were among the first where African-Americans were allowed to purchase land for themselves, and that both gardening and farming had persisted there. She set out for us to reach one particular farm—the historic Mueller Farm established in 1883—that has been managed as the EarthDance Community-Supported Agriculture project under the auspices of the Open Space Council since 2008. EarthDance now owns most of the historic Mueller Farm and uses thirteen of its acres as the only training center for part-time organic gardening and farming apprentices in the entire Midwest. Its staff, apprentices, AmeriCorps VISTA workers and volunteers bridge races, ages, faiths and genders through efforts to communally grow as well as prepare healthy food while building community.
On our way to Mueller Farm, as we slowly drove the streets of Ferguson and Kinloch, we encountered other farms and gardens that impressed us as well. There was the Old Ferguson West Community Garden, a beautifully-designed and meticulously-maintained haven for peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries and apples, placed on a corner where both the elderly and young families had access to this green space. We passed Karl Tricamo’s exceptional front yard garden. During a four month ordeal this last spring and summer, Karl had successfully defended for four months against city bureaucrats who feebly attempted to use six different ordinances to force him to replant a lawn where he had constructed his immaculate food-producing “yarden.”
In mid-August, the Organic Oasis outreach to Ferguson bought farmers, gardeners and social justice activists from all over Metro St. Louis to plant the Ferguson Community Garden in a one-day event which both the St. Louis and the national media refused to cover. Were it not for the use of social media by Gateway Garlic Urban Farm workers, this inspiring effort would still be unheralded.
In between these various refuges of hope and health, hundreds of residents had placed “I love Ferguson” placards in their front yards, while the many churches posted on their marquis brief messages asking all for prayers of healing and peace.
But the sight that moved me the most was at a three acre truck farm or market garden in neighboring Kinloch, no more than a half mile from the Mueller Farm in Ferguson as the crow flies.
It was clearly a field of greens and dreams managed by someone who knew Southern-style African-American farming and cooking traditions well, for bursting out of the ground were files of tall okra plants, and row upon row of mustard greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, yams and butter beans.
But what touched me the most was a fifteen foot row of milkweeds that someone had not only planted, but had carefully protected from mowers and hoes and herbicides all summer long, as havoc raged in the streets just two to three miles away. And while we watched, the milkweed pods popped and sent their fluff-propelled seeds flying in the autumn breeze.
What impressed me so much was that while Ferguson and Kinloch residents were disparaged and misrepresented in the TV news night after night, a local resident was quietly cultivating milkweeds while millions of the same plant were vanishing from Midwestern farmlands where declining monarch butterflies now need them the most.
Monarch populations have declined by as much as 90% over last twelve years due to the loss of as many as 700 million milkweeds from farms in their Midwestern summer breeding grounds, as weed control methods—such as excessive tillage and untargeted herbicide to control superweeds—have devastated the obligate host plant for this iconic butterfly.
But in Kinloch and Ferguson, Missouri –despite days and weeks and months of tragedies occurring just around the corner—a farmer had tenaciously made room in his or her life not only for vegetables, but for milkweeds and monarchs as well.
Perhaps that anonymous cultivator of the soil had been inspired by the Milkweeds for Monarchs campaign that St. Louis Mayor Sly had announced on Earth Day, challenging residents in his metro area to plant 250 milkweed gardens this last spring and summer to help monarch populations recover. Or perhaps the farmer simply cared for the plants because they were part of the Creation that was honored every Sunday in the community church down the street. In any case, I grabbed a handful of the fluffy seeds being ejected out of the milkweed pods, and stuck them in my vest pocket as a memento of Ferguson to take with me.
A day later, while leaving the headquarters of a major herbicide manufacturer in Creve Couer, Missouri just ten miles away from Ferguson, I realized that I still had the fluffy milkweed seeds in the pocket of my vest. I had visited the corporate leaders there with the hope that I could convince them that now is the time to take tangible actions to bring back milkweeds onto six to eight million acres of monarch breeding habitat in the Midwest. I had argued that voluntary collaboration actions rather than regulation or litigation had the best chance of keeping the monarchs from further decline.
The meeting had a positive and respectful tone that departed from the contentiousness that had dominated dialogues between herbicide producers and monarch scientists for more than a decade. Nevertheless, I left the conference room emotionally exhausted and still unsure whether our humble attempts to heal old wounds would result in any tangible actions being taken soon enough to make a difference for monarchs. I then remembered that the map of newly-planted milkweed gardens on Milkweeds for Monarchs website for Metro St. Louis still lacked even a single site for milkweeds in the bedroom community and herbicide manufacturing hub of Creve Couer.
And so I let loose a prayer—a handful of milkweed seeds flying up into the air—hoping that all involved might have the courage to move toward making far more room for milkweeds and monarchs, following the lead of that anonymous farmer on the edge of Ferguson Missouri. Perhaps only by taking a vow to heal our differences, can we heal the land for its many creatures, and through such a gesture, also heal our communities and ourselves.
Brother Coyote is an Ecumenical Franciscan brother, restoration ecologist and collaborative conservationist who is enrolled in Father Richard Rohr’s Living School at the Center for Contemplation and Action in the U.S. Southwest. This fall, he is dedicated to prayer for monarchs and to the collection of milkweed seeds.