By Olivia Oldham
“For me, being in nature, being in the garden…that’s just where I vibrate.” These are the words of Lynda McFarlane, explaining why she was inspired to found Vegan Vybes. Vegan Vybes is a Birmingham community group which advocates for “a plant-based approach to mental health and to enterprise” by championing cruelty-free and creative ways of living and communicating. Featured on ‘Who Feeds Us?’, Farmerama Radio’s new six-part series, Vegan Vybes is a multi-faceted organisation, with fingers in lots of pies—from markets, to catering, to pop-up restaurants.
The most recent addition to the Vegan Vybes ecosystem is what Lynda calls the Earth Gardens. In the past, Lynda has found solace from her struggles with mental health in gardening—in having an outdoor space where she could “potter around,” where she had an opportunity “to reflect, or to grow, or to learn, or to heal”—and the Earth Gardens reflect Lynda’s commitment to providing a similar space of healing and beauty for others, particularly for women of African descent. As we emerge from one moment of the pandemic and head, perhaps, into a new phase of the crisis, Vegan Vybes and the Earth Gardens are an oasis of hope for a beautiful & resilient future.
So, what exactly is an Earth Garden?
“It’s still in progress, but it’s a small allotment space—which is Phase One—which is essentially a garden,” Lynda said. “And it’s a garden where we grow…it’s not just vegetables, it’s flowers, it’s an opportunity to plant something in memory of someone or …just to be.”
Lynda envisions this space as a site for healing and rest, in particular for women of African heritage who she says, as a group, “are either unrepresented, or underrepresented, or misrepresented.” They have become, she says, “almost a group of people that don’t exist anymore.” And so, as a way of fighting back against that invisibility and the violence it entails, Lynda wants to offer up the Earth Gardens as a place of comfort and calm.
“I really wanted to say, ‘Hey, did you know that there’s this space where you can come and rest? Where you are seen, you are appreciated, you are heard? And you can give something back, or you can just be. And it’s a really pretty space, and I’ll make you feel like a lady,’” she said.
Phase Two of the gardens will have a more practical focus, “growing more on the produce side, so we can feed some of the food back into our Earth Markets when we come out of this social distancing situation,” Lynda said. This more productive side of the Earth Gardens will also be infused with a strong sense of social justice, and Lynda hopes it will contribute to making good quality food accessible to people from all backgrounds.
“When I say justice,” Lynda explained, “I mean I dream of a world where things like poverty alongside extreme greed or waste is no longer a thing that is acceptable. I dream of a world where it’s normal to be kind and to help people who need help the most. I dream of a world where there’s no harm to living things. So if I could contribute to that—maybe not in my lifetime, but set a seed going forward—then i would have done something to make my existence valuable or to leave something behind.”
When lock-down began, the Garden project had barely been started. Lynda used the time to begin working on the site, constructing raised beds and putting in place other infrastructure. Even though the Garden wasn’t able to produce food for the community during lock-down this time round, Lynda has hope for its future contributions to the resilience of the community. “[S]hould we be in this situation again, we will have food hopefully all year round, something at least,” she said.
Resilience isn’t just about self-sufficiency in food, though; it’s also about peoples’ own inner strength, and the ability of communities to weather and bounce back from challenges. Lynda has found inspiration and hope in the people she has met over the course of the lock-down, especially those who have discovered the depth of their own strength during this period. She has met many people who “have come away with being surprised at their own resilience,” who have survived lock-down “despite them thinking that they couldn’t.”
Speaking about working with others in her community to develop the Garden, Lynda said, “it was much more than growing food—it was about what could be achieved in a small space of time collectively… We would stand at the top of the plot and look down and go, ‘Wow, we’ve done that! Yeah, we did!’ And I think it was that, as well as being able to pluck some mint, or take away some courgette or some runner beans and make something out of it… I think what really we benefited from was just to see how much we could achieve in a short space of time when we focused and we worked together.”
This sense of power and strength, of finding that you have the capacity to flourish in difficult conditions, and of coming together with others on a similar journey, is part of what Earth Gardens is all about. “[I]t’s about growing—and not just growing your vegetation. It’s growing in spirituality, growing in connection, growing in healing, growing in exploring communication, working together, working the land, and what you put in is what you get out,” Lynda said.
In particular, Lynda believes it is important that people of African descent have the chance to involve themselves in the Garden, and in the opportunities for growth it presents. “I do think that [people] of African descent being closer to the land, is very, very healing,” she said. And while Phase Two of the Earth Gardens are open to anyone, Lynda’s focus is on the African community. “I really want them to focus on eating well, to growing well, or to understand principles of growing,” she said.
Lynda’s vision isn’t just limited to Birmingham; it extends out across the landscape, a warm blanket of care spreading across inner cities around the country.
“In my mind’s eye, I would like women in different inner city areas to be able to come together in a space and have it, not just as a space of cultivation, but have it as a space of beauty,” she said. “So, it’s not just a space that you put vegetables in and you harvest it, but it’s actually a space where you sit and rest, and you contemplate, or read, or gather, you know. So it’s multidisciplinary, because we do work so hard, and a part of balance is, as well as working hard, we also need to rest unapologetically; that is part of healing, is to rest without feeling guilty.”
It’s a vision that’s easy to get behind: “What I’m advocating…is to urge women around the city, around the country, around the world is: ‘have a place of beauty…have a place that you can grow—not just in vegetation, but you can grow in your confidence, you can grow in your spirituality, you can grow in your own needs, in your reflection, but outside.’…Because there is more. The universe, I believe, is based on abundance. There’s enough to go around.”
Lynda was featured on the Who Feeds Us? launch event panel, which can be accessed here.
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/