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Storying with Gardens in Massia—or St. John’s Wort my Ass

Essay
Black Sun
contradictions
Crafts
harvesting
herbs
Lemonbalm
Maria von Treben
Motherwort
Negotiations
Rose
scent
soil
Trauma

Located in an old school building in Massiaru, a village in southwestern Estonia about 180 kilometers south of Tallinn, Massia is a residency space for individuals and groups from any field: It welcomes artists, scientists, activists and other practitioners. Those residents are encouraged to participate in running the place which does not rely on any staff and keeps its doors open—literally. Massia is devoted to an ethos of self-organizing and the notion of co-existence and co-habitance—beyond the human world. The residency welcomes exchanges on the intersections of plant practices, art, critical and environmental studies and everyday practices. Sepideh Ardalani is one of the initiators of the project and together with collaborators and residents she has worked extensively at the garden of Massia. For V/A, she wrote about what she has learned from that experience. Estonian artist Liisi Sisalik contributed the images to her essay.

Text Sepideh Ardalani
Images Liisi Sisalik

You exit the bus. The last other passenger got off 3 stops earlier. The sign on the pastel pink bus stop reads Massiaru. You’re the only person around. There are birds, the sound of many birds. Opposite of you, a big building made of now dirty white bricks. Your gaze stretches across the space: you see some houses, a factory building of sorts. But no people. A strange affect. Who are these structures for?

You enter the building. You see wilted potatoes in old wooden crates finding what they need to live despite unlikely conditions. Old educational posters cover the walls. School materials in Russian from the time of Soviet occupation, their presence bespeaking trauma. The posters dissecting plants for botany and agriculture transmit their knowledge on extraction. Dried herbs in bundles hanging along the walls; mosses, lichens, lichenous branches on windowsills; carcasses, dead insects, stones, linking the outside and the inside of the stone house.

Many hours and hands have picked, dried, unstalked, processed these plants and fungi; knees massaged the ground, backs have been bent, fingers have dug into soil.

You walk upstairs, and stepping over the bodies of dead flies, you find the big kitchen. Your eyes meet a wall that is covered with shelves filled with jars holding herbs: dried herbs, herbs extracting into alcohol, oil, vinegar, salt.
Each jar holds stories. A living archive, a library with immediate knowledge, a non-chronological chronicle, holding spacetimemattering of the past few years of life here and the ghostly beyond. Many hours and hands have picked, dried, unstalked, processed these plants and fungi; knees massaged the ground, backs have been bent, fingers have dug into soil. The things learned together while doing so. The relations grown in the big pool of DNA.
The dried Calendula revoke memories of hot summer days going to the garden and filling baskets with their soft flower heads, lulled by a thick buzzing soundscape, fingers sticky from the aromatic sap. The scent! The colors! Imaginaries painted with Liisi’s and Paula’s stories of their grandmothers infusing alcohol with Calendula for a cure all throughout the year. Imagining them communing with other elders, Maria von Treben, Hildegard, massaging aching joints with balm infused with the doings of Calendula, smirking at life’s ways.


Yarrow and Hemp, Vicky, Alice, Red Clover, Sumu, Mustard, Sandra, Selfheal, Laura, Chaga—so many were met that summer. Lying, crouching, stretching on grasses binding bundles for drying. Walking through the field where they are allowed to escape Sirje’s mower blades and grow high, hiding in the middle of the field where one can be unseen and be close to the soil.

Main Image for Storying with


Every jar, every tub of balm, bottle of tincture holds such memories of people assembling around plants, in the garden or further in the surroundings, the forest, stream, beach, foraging for wild ones. Inviting one another into histories, health stories, plant stories, land stories, lineages. We assemble an apothecary, and we make the medicine we need. We ask Milky Oat, Rose, Motherwort to help us remember self-love; Nettle and Dandelion to help us undo patriarchy and capitalist realism; Lemonbalm, Skullcap and Cali Poppy to help us move more gently within crip time.
We make opium, working decriminalising spells into the thick black goo, thinking of the brown hands that slit poppy pods under the same sun far away. Eshan’s and my hands estranged from that far-away place, slitting poppy pods and working soil in strange places, like Poppies Potatoes Plantain Potato Beetles Spanish Slugs: migrating bodies moved by heated currents and imperial intent. We read A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None out loud while crawling on the soil, imagining Cuba’s cigar rollers, talking social organization, labor and capital, complicating garden work while learning about Science’s complicity in objectifying earth’s bodies in ideological preparation for extraction.


The Elecampane root we dug up with Ben after the Philosophy of Ecology workshop on a vacant patch of land labelled as Latvia, transplanted to the land in Massiaru labelled as Estonia. Both stretches of land once used to be called Livonia until it was erased, together with all the ways its people knew, during the nation-building projects of the Baltic states just a few decades ago. Only a handful of people speak the language nowadays—less than the petals one Calendula flower grows. An American visitor helps to dig out more roots, relieves his hands from the scales of psoriasis. The scent! The color when infused in hot water!

What’s the Livonian name for Elecampane? What do names do? They pretend to know, enclose what they name, know something, know nothing, know in particular ways, surely, not the plant’s way. We try to forget Black Sun’s dead name, St. John’s Wort. It spells Christian erasure of that which was before and its ways of knowing and relating. Naistepuna, women’s red, in Estonian. Black Sun, the book by Julia Kristeva, on melancholia and depression. The bright yellow flowering wild herb is best known in these regions to support those who experience a loss of meaning. Midsummer, peak of daylight, said to be the best time to harvest Black Sun for medicine; affinity to the sun, and light, reflected in processes that laboratory studies are able to register. You can register it too, during tea meditations, when you read Black Sun with your body: you might sense light around the head, might get a sense of being high, when you give the interaction your full attention. When sudying a herb considers reciprocal relating.

I’m out with Miha and Ariya. 3 bodies, 3 continents, 3 migration routes sowing themselves into these lands. Sitting among Reef bending in the wind, grounded by their rhizome, spreading under the sand ground by deep time and water. We tell each other the stories that left traces on our bodies. I trace the shiny scars on your dark skin and am allowed a glimpse into your journey. The story feels so alien in this rural Northern landscape. We become painfully aware how we contrast against the backdrop of collective images where bodies like ours don’t appear. How likely is a Black body in the Baltic forest? What does the face of environmental care look like? Flower crowns on bright hair and heteronormative bodies. White hands brushing through high grass. Wrinkly experts in corduroy pants. Naked feet, shaped by laborious contact with the land, in dusty soil pulling the hoe; mothers bending over red land with babies bound on their backs, melanated skin on farms owned by whites sowing, weeding, harvesting at frightening pace conducted by corporate time.


I learn that distribution of labor doesn’t add up neatly, not in a user-run residency space and neither in a garden. Proposing to you to dig up potatoes or cleaning the studio is something else than proposing to someone else to dig up potatoes or cleaning the studio. Our bodies have not been equally subjected to exploitation.
I learn that care-ful interaction with the land builds complex relationships. Locals see strangers attending to the garden, growing vegetables and herbs on the soil they consider theirs. Here is a shared language. A practice that bridges difference, across class and race, rural vs urban.

Gardening in Massia asks me to hold contradictions.

When you exit the stone house today, you step into frozen snow. It’s winter in Massiaru. Thick white covers the land where I undertook my first attempts at gardening, caring for a garden to come, turning mediated knowledge into embodied knowledge: knowledge that is made with the body, sits in the body, guides my fingers through foliage and soil. Here is where I learned that gardens are complicated, that the actual practice of gardening complicates the ideas I had about gardens. I came to know how gardens are entangled with colonial projects—and so is my participation. Gardening in Massia asks me to hold contradictions.

I came in the fall. I followed instructions on how to make lasagna beds. Those beds are still there, but the plants I was summoning to grow there never did. I moved tons of material across the garden: hundreds of cubic meters of fallen leaves, rotten apples, compost, cow poop, grass cuttings.


What I knew about gardening at that time came mainly from the internet and some books. I learned that language plays a role in the formation and movement of knowledge, that the information I can access is informed by the language that creates this knowledge and is used to share it. It is limited, specific to context. It didn’t help me in Massiaru. With the particularities of the seasons, the soil, the light – and all the critters that are not mentioned when speaking of gardens and plants and soils. And yet they are the fundamental condition for the possibility of gardens.
What I knew about gardening came from voices that didn’t question gardener’s knowledge. Gardener’s knowledge complicates alliances, both with plants and with others, at least in the English-language content that my web searches and their algorithmic agents brought to the surface.


When I garden, it is a constant negotiation. How much do I want to intervene with the plants or the critters? Can I reconsider how I designate territories—territories that mark a Plantain either as weed or herb? A bug as pollinator or pest? How to refuse these categories? What does this mean when translated in realms outside of the garden: territory, identity, in/exclusion? Do I compost this plant or burn it ? Do I consider it worthy of harvesting and introduce it to the apothecary? Can my body afford not to kill? What guides the managerial decisions I make? Am I enacting alliances?


Sometimes I fall into a trance, or a frenzy, especially when pulling weeds or picking potato beetles to kill them. These thoughts accompany the movements of my body through the garden at all times. This body, the one that is writing, lives with disability and pain. This body can’t think gardens anymore without feeling the hardship of physical labor, cannot think gardens anymore without the myriads of entanglements with social and political dimensions of life and the ethics that cast their shadow on each interaction.

Herbalists love weeds—farmers don’t.


When residents at Massia want to get involved with the garden, I struggle to give clear guidance. What can I extract from these processual negotiations into transmittable statements? Yes, pull the weeds. Yes, these, not those—but by what principle? So you can apply this to other areas of the garden, you ask? Follow your intuition? You’re worried you might pull the wrong ones, you say. Oh yes, those we keep, we love them. What makes a weed anyways? The ones growing at the ‘wrong’ time in the ‘wrong’ place, a grower in London tells me. Some of the most powerful medicinal herbs are considered weeds. Weed becomes both, an endearing word, as well as condemnation. Herbalists love weeds—farmers don’t.

The struggle with categories in a place that isn’t easily categorised. A residency space, a platform, a laboratory, a substrate, a garden. A building and piece of land that becomes and acquires its shape through usage. There is no ready-made object—e.g. a garden or an artist residency—there are acts of relating that generate a particular residency space and a particular garden. There are invitations to consider, question, experiment through our participation in various institutions. Property, commons, labor, disciplinarity, professionalism, industry, species being, social organisation.


Both the garden and the residency gesture towards reconfigurations of relations—with plants, with the land, with social institutions, with anything really. Because where to draw the lines? We’re constantly producing and reproducing reality with our actions. The way we hold a conversation with one another creates a reality, just as much as a transparent budget does or the way we distribute labor and agency among us (the big, more-than-human us). There are dreams and invocations—of things to come, of ways of relating to come. And there are gaps between ideas and the material forces within which ideas exist that create friction. It’s messy in the stone house—and in the garden.


I can write a score, inviting you not to pick a strawberry and instead to nurture it with your body, witness it ripening, rotting, feeding others than yourself, unlearn the entitlement to another body’s fruit and labor, reconsider ideas of waste, death, kinship, futurity, and survival. I would not dare to share this score with a subsistence farmer or plantation worker. One cannot afford this kind of speculation lightly; one might go hungry.

Text Sepideh Ardalani
Images Liisi Sisalik
Essay
Black Sun
contradictions
Crafts
harvesting
herbs
Lemonbalm
Maria von Treben
Motherwort
Negotiations
Rose
scent
soil
Trauma
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