Trespassing Time with Friends: Growth, Land, Harvest, and the Darkroom of the Self
Or, how to last forever
This sub-series builds on previous installments of The Edgelands and is in response to my residency at the House of Annetta, a social centre focused on spatial justice and land reform in the heart of Spitalfields that I have been inhabiting and absorbing gratefully. For 40 years it was home to Annetta Pedretti, who used the space to create a powerful collection of theoretical, architectural and artistic projects. Some of the many themes found in her work include community, collaboration, the ownership of space and land, and time.
Friends, Time, and Inhabiting Space
Time insists that we must always dance to its tune, as if it controls us, with the space between birth and death being simply an unavoidable waiting game full of joy, grief, sensation, and countless uneventful days - those ones spent wandering from one room to another, forgetting what you entered for, picking at bad food, hard skin, and memories of friends. We can play with time though, change the rules.
My friends forgive me for things I did and thought before I even met them, the old, bone-deep habits and hurts; we forgive each other for the ways in which we cannot love ourselves, and the brittleness that seeps out of us because of this. These are my timeless friends, the ones willing to help me garden, even when I can't speak and just furiously fork and thump the soil till they get stuck in beside me - not knowing why, only knowing that it is important. They help me sow seeds and water them in, harness drooping plants, feed hungry ones, harvest others and cook them slowly. We stare together at the soil, knowing that we know the same thing about it, but not knowing how to articulate it. And we work with that land by observing and listening to it, not by force, because things stop growing when we are brutal and forceful with them; when we hang onto the pride that blossoms from shame over mistakes made. So we eat the harvests, and grow some more. We are people who see each other. I am so lucky to be able to look at their lovely faces, their huge hearts, their gentle hands.
These friends flower - in their own seasons and on their own time - and I meet them where they are, as they meet me where I am. Moving through our seasons of fecundity and barrenness, linear yet timeless. Living forever and not long enough, all at once. We just sit, both fucked up and free. Watching time pass.
Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil.
Derek Jarman, quoted in The Marginalian
The Edgelands: Another Love Affair
So, I am in love with my friends - with discovering them and being discovered by them. I began the Edgelands series because I am also in love with discovering spaces between spaces, lands between lands, borders and 'forbidden' areas, and fascinated in what we do with those areas. The geographical places that we are frightened of: dark corners, alleyways, disused rail tracks, industrial wastelands, derelict buildings, nuclear fallout sites. Nighttime wanderings through them are magical and frightening, a few keys between our knuckles, surreal shadows and grotesque imaginings following us always.
From this, metaphorical edgelands too: the psychological twists and corners in our own minds which we're only ever dimly aware of even at the best of times, and often try to avoid because they are too frightening to visit. What if we don't like what we find? What if... we are not good and pure after all? (Spoiler: we are. We are just always messing up how we express it.)
I also began this because edgelands can be lonely places, and we can often be lonely people because of the borders that we, or others, place between us. And brittle acridity can sometimes be loneliness shrouded in secrecy, because to long for love is to be ashamed when it does not arrive. We all teeter on edges constantly, grinning rictus, flailing arms, cracking jokes. Grabbing each other before the fall, and sometimes missing.
Time either stops or speeds up in an edgeland, because we either purposefully mean to be there, or we're moving faster to get out of it. Edgeland time just has a different quality to it.
Feeding Friends, Finding Family: Resisting
At the moment I am really interested in land that food is grown in. Specifically, community food growing spaces like city farms, guerrilla gardens, community food gardens, and edible towns. It is stunning that someone can look at an unloved, neglected space, ignore ideas of land ownership, take it over, and transform it into a communal growing space. One where time has a different quality, and nobody is rushing. That they can stop and breathe. And in the case of guerrilla gardens at least, that they can resist attempts to evict, plant a flower in the barrel of a gun, and offer food to the oppressor - who often is not an oppressor at all, but rather just someone who forgot the way.
The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.
Derek Jarman, quoted in The Marginalian
I have a plot on a community food garden in Spitalfields, a rich network of invaluable and orally-relayed plant information that anyone can borrow from. The oldest grower is 82, the youngest is 5; the small ones giggle at my one-bean bean plant, and I giggle at the teeny tiny chili's placed delicately in the palm of my hand by teeny tiny fingers. Today, we eat borage flowers, which taste like cucumber and stretch towards the sky, mirroring its blueness.
An elder says, in translated Bengali, "why is yours so bare?" I have harvested recently, but forgot to plan seasonally so haven't filled the gaps. I just grin like a fool and shrug, remembering how I am still getting used to thinking beyond the end of whatever day I find myself in. I thought I would be dead by 30, but instead, that year I got sober. Now I'm 37. I am surprised at my survival, surprised any of us survive in fact. And surprised at how long, lovely and luxurious life can feel when you didn't think it would last.
I've also taken to guerrilla-sowing random wildflower seeds in virtually every green space I end up in. I consider seed packets a more essential pocket item than my Oyster card. And I work on a local city farm that also inhabits an old edgeland - the site is next to a railway line, and has been slowly expanding since its 1978 founding, through old cobblestoned roads and disused spaces. Allotments, guerrilla gardens, growing spaces - they're always in the edgelands, until the areas bordering them expand and the population grows.
Soil heals. It transforms those who garden and care for animals; together and in commune with each other on the farm we raise tender seedlings and watch them transform slowly into strong plants that withstand wind-battering; then we feed rescue animals those plants and watch them bloom in the same way. Soil and animals slow a hurting person down, bring us to a halt, change the quality and feeling of the time we inhabit, and quietens the incessant speed of time beyond the borders of that land.
We have always grown food, and grown each other, in edgelands. We build them into sites of sustenance, transformed from the barbed wired, hostile environments of borders. We resist. Because deep down in every human being is the bone-deep knowledge that our land belongs to all of us, not just to the few with deep enough pockets and the right paperwork. The site on the other side of those railway tracks is still an edgeland. There is a bridge over tracks, then another under more tracks, visually something that feels like an Escher/Dali collaboration. It is eerily beautiful at night. One time, in the early morning with foggy breath in front of me, I came across three tents. It was so cold. These people are called trespassers. But whose land is it, really? And who got to decide how we must live, in order to be acceptable?
In April 2022 a speaker in the House of Commons, explaining his justification for shelving a review which sought to expand the Right to Roam, stated that the countryside is a 'place of business'. Around 75% of England's land is green, yet only 8% of it is open for free roaming with the other 92% privately owned. "Tens of thousands of acres of woodland have benefited from public subsidy, yet remain publicly inaccessible." In response, Right to Roam campaign activists are organising mass trespasses to raise awareness of how much of England’s land is out of bounds. To join in, sign up here.
I am the river and the river is me. I feel myself falling away, the shell between the self and world dissolving as I walk. I am unsettled from my burdensome mind and settle into the sounds and sight of the river and its wildlife ... I walk on through moorland, loving being alone now and not a bit lonely. Walking alone like this allows me to totally lose myself in the landscape, to watch and listen to it, breathe it in. On my journey I have not wanted to 'find myself' but lose myself, have the self dissolve into and perhaps be transformed by the landscape.
Extract from I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain, by Anita Sethi
The Darkroom: Bodily Growth and Decay
I occupy many edgelands (like a lot of us), and I have written my body into and out of them before in earlier pieces. I am in the edgelands between civilised and uncivilised; between mental stability and psychosis; between motherhood and spinsterhood; between my first life as an addict and my second life as a sober person; between an able body and a disabled one; between crippling grief and uncontrollable laughter; between belonging to a place and being a stranger in it. Those metaphorical between-spaces can be lonely, and make me brittle. So when things grow in edgelands and I move through them, wandering slowly, time moves from stagnant to flowing and my body follows by softening, becoming communal. Harder to break. I become healed.
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity.
Olivia Laing, in Frieze
Growth takes time. An act of resistance, because money is time and we cannot control the rate at which a plant or a person grows. We have to surrender completely, to the rhythms and clocks of nature, instead of to money and forced speed. It is blessed to heal together, not in isolation - in spaces that can hold us safely, like growing ones, communal ones, accessible ones. On land - all of it; belonging to us - all of us.
We are all archives within darkrooms. Our bodies dusty chronicles of self and the disjointedness of human living – the ways in which we share and steal, the ways in which we love and hate. All stored and catalogued, in methodical and chaotic ways, methods to the madnesses, and in constant contradiction with ourselves. A darkroom is where we go to develop, only to fade again; where we go to be born and to die - the roll of film click-clacking to the floor slowly, taking a wisp of your breath in each edge-punched fold as it floats downwards, flipping in mid-air, till there is no breath left any more. The moment we enter a darkroom becomes the same moment we understand that we’re a dying organism. Nothing lasts forever. Our fading is inevitable, and even that is only if we blossomed to begin with.
I have been thinking a great deal about growth — what it means, what it asks of us, how it feels when unforced but organic. I have been thinking about growth and decay, the interplay between the two, the way all growth requires regeneration, which in turn requires a shedding, a composting, a reconstituting of old material. We don’t always know what needs to be shed, or what the optimal direction of growth is.
Eventually, we are all forgotten, the only variance being how long that takes. We go on pilgrimages, build families, start societies, ruin societies, fall in love, write history books, chuck paint on walls and canvasses, throw up buildings that bodies belong within, and write sentimental shit to prove we have a heart because we are afraid of having never been loved at all. All this, so that we can be unforgotten. So we have to try and do it well. We have to try and let each other in, across all our borders, and into our homes, hearts, and lands.
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