The aesthetic lessons of strawberry trees – polis in action
Under the guise of the Visual Culture Seminar, organized by Passeio and GICCA (Researchers Group on Communication, Science, and Environment) on May 09th, 2023, we dived into two biological gardens in Braga: Lameiras – from União de Freguesias de Tenões e Nogueiró – and STOL (Science through our lives), from Universidade do Minho. We embarked on this walk thinking about the aesthetic lessons of strawberry plants, but the path turned us, in the end, to the social and political dimension of the garden. Come along with us on this walk through the senses.
The phenomenon of organic community gardens has been growing in cities, conferring a spatiality that, according to Chiara and Chiara (2019), is related to a political gesture, which contributes to connecting the pillars of sustainability: that of ecology, the social, and the economic. Braga is one of the municipalities that is emerging on this front and, since 2013, has invested in community gardens (Quinta Pedagógica de Braga, 2021). A glance, even if casual, allows us to identify, right away, the societal, environmental, and political advantages of this investment, which seems to justify the commitment of the public authorities to this mission. One can claim, for example, “food production, community building, reduction of socio-economic problems […] mitigation of climate change, with clear benefits at the level of biodiversity and landscape improvement” (Quinta Pedagógica de Braga, 2021, p. 5). Being nature-based solutions (NBS) gardens, besides adding value to climate mitigation and contribute to balancing urban microclimates and water regulation, they provide food and generate different enticements, which promote the health and well-being of the citizens, reducing environmental and, hopefully, social inequalities (Cabral et.al., 2017; da Costa & Sakurai, 2021). Not contradicting the value of these points, we will try, in this essay, to divert the reader’s interest to the perceptive and imagistic spring of the gardens, activating the rapt eyes to what we metaphorically call the aesthetic lessons of the strawberry plants, which will end up being, we will see later, a political practice rooted in aesthetics (Saito, 2017).
In order to perceive the detailed richness in the continuous shade of green of these spatialities, it is necessary to become undressed, and fly over this small and restricted horizon with your soul to notice, like an eagle, its details and gradually increase your angle of vision, smell, and sensation. Between humans and non-humans, an aesthetic in permanent mutation is unveiled in this small big world.
But how can the timid plots of land inscribed in the urban landscape contain aesthetic senses and call us to other ways of feeling the cities? What conclusions can we draw from the relationship between aesthetic experience and environment? The late spring afternoon in Braga, with the sun falling on the strawberry plants, chard, and beets in oblique rays, contributed to the oneiric effect in the Lameiras garden, translating into an impulse to spark different reflections.
In each small plot, among the almost one hundred that are there, lettuce is mixed with flowering shrubs, lemon trees, and small pottery mushrooms. It is likely that bucolic invades us and we think about the perfection of Berleant’s (1992) words. Indeed, the world can be a better place, by symbiosis between human action and nature. But soon Cristina Costa (technician from the Environmental Division of Braga’s City Hall, who served as a guide on this visit) inserts something different to our views: a small package with American worms, a wet and earthy example of vermicomposting. Such an opportunity made us realize that gardening implies getting your hands dirty, burying your feet in the mud, fighting weeds, sweating, and despairing, but also exchanging and gaining knowledge. In turn, the comments about the reddish worms exhibited there, especially in comparison with the Portuguese ones (smaller and less laborious), provoke laughter, at the same time that they stimulate geopolitical questions in this harvest, proving that the theme of vegetable gardens lends itself to different conclusions.
Being there also implies opening up to a meeting of communities, since not only people from different nationalities and age groups gather on this trail, but we can also perceive this diversity in the different plots, carefully customized to the taste and benefit of these amateur gardeners. Distancing ourselves from the aesthetic perspectives of museum art and distanced contemplation, but approaching the ideal of the sublime that any aesthetic experience calls for, we propose to exacerbate our senses, for the dimensions present in community gardens.
Visual dimension is what first stands out at the time. After all, we live in an absolutely imagetic society, and the eyes have become one of the most summoned senses in our daily lives. But it is worth paying attention to this repertoire because it is not only the colors that are mixed in the micro-landscape exposed to observation. The configuration of the space is also tempting, for the much that is done with little, the stakes that hold peas and tomato plants. Even with some signs of chaos, the silhouettes of the pieces show control over what is perceived, both in the Lameiras vegetable garden and in the STOL one. Lettuce erupting in burlap sacks, aromatics falling from a vertical vegetable garden, passion fruit entangling itself in the hedge composed a whole predominated by green.
A strategic stop at one of the canteens of the University of Minho provoked our taste buds. But the visual suggestion was also added to the scenario, and the droplets around the transparent glass jugs called for gluttony. This was not just any water, it tasted fresh, in aromatic infusions harvested from the STOL garden. Lemon and mint, Lemonade with strawberries. If there is an aesthetic lesson to be drawn from the strawberry trees, here it is, condensed in a mug of flavored water, sips of flavor, that throw us into the social dimension of the aesthetics of strawberries, their magical transformations, and of everyday life itself. A jug that makes us palate.
One cannot deal with taste without touching on smell, for the two are intimately linked. As part of the sophisticated group of the five traditional senses, smell also summons up memory. After all, memories often come to us through smells and aromas. It is not difficult to perceive in gardens the strong scent of aromatic herbs when the wind touches them. We are, however, and perhaps for this very reason, tempted to pick, feel, and finally smell, guessing a taste. Rosemary, mint, parsley, coriander, and thyme become, from there, the basic elements for a refined gastronomy. With great representation, infusions also indicate the power of smell. If it were visible, we might see constellations in different shades of green when their leaves are touched or squeezed between our fingers. However, not all plants gain our enchantment. Rue, for example, is iconic when it comes to its scent, yet this characteristic puts it on a pedestal when it comes to the eggs laid by the swallowtail butterfly, as the plants are suitable for feeding future caterpillars.
Granted, it’s not as though we want to know what it’s like to feel an American worm, squirming in the dampness. But Cristina takes them, reminding us that if we see red strawberries hatching, it is because they have fed on the richness of the earth. It is true that, in our still-eighties mind, even though the disruption of post-modernity has intervened, the aesthetic is beautiful. The Anguis fragilis (a reptile often misunderstood as a snake, but which is in fact a lizard) definitely does not fit into our ideal of beauty. However, in the coldness of the end of the day, in STOL’s vegetable garden, we don’t expect the Anguis fragilis (which like the warmth of the sun) to pay us a visit. But Alexandra Nobre (professor at UMinho’s Biology Department, leader of STOL’s vegetable garden, and guide in the visit to this plot installed in the middle of the university’s grounds) often finds them here, there is no danger, we are all one animal among many, sharing space with ladybugs, bees, spiders and other almost unmentionable insects.
The garden – political action
We return, after this sensory journey, to the aesthetic power, advocated by Saito, to argue, as the author does, that our environmental awareness is influenced by aesthetic experience. It is not only about tasting the mint and praising the perfection of the strawberry trees. By knowing, caring, ornamenting, and treating, we are, in effect, acting, and our action has a political extension across the board in the life of the polis. This action is both ethical and aesthetic, since it derives from the daily gestures of the garden, from the “sensuous appearance of actions and objects” (Saito, 2017, p. 150), made concrete by agricultural work.
Text: Cynthia Luderer e Teresa Lima
Published on 26-05-2023
Berleant, A. (1992). The aesthetics of environment. Temple University Press.
Cabral, I., Costa, S., Weiland, U., & Bonn, A. (2017). Urban Gardens as Multifunctional Nature-Based Solutions for Societal Goals in a Changing Climate. In N. Kabisch, J. Stadler, & A. Bonn (Eds.), Nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation in urban areas: Linkages between science, policy and practice (pp. 237-253). Springer Open.
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Costa, B. M., & Sakurai, T. (2021). A participação comunitária em projetos de soluções baseadas na natureza na cidade de São Paulo: estudo das hortas urbanas, horta da dona sebastiana, agrofavela-refazenda e horta popular criando esperança. Revista Labverde, 11(1), 171-195.
Quinta Pedagógica de Braga. (2021). Rede de Hortas Pedagógicas de Braga. Câmara Municipal de Braga. http://quintapedagogica.cm-braga.pt/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Rede-de-Hortas-Urbanas-de-Braga.pdf
Saito, Y. (2017). Aesthetics of the familiar: everyday life and world-making. Oxford University Press.