Switzerland 2016, 1h 48min.
We are all journeying towards death. Everything will irrevocably end at a certain time. In hundred years’ all is forgotten. This linear view – and fear – of death and the end of it all, is challenged in the art documentary Wild Plants by the Swiss Nicolas Humbert. Through unhurried portraits of people wandering a different route, poses Humbert a slow-moving society diagnosis. By watching people who choose other lives, he forces us to look at our own lives with renewed eyes. He turns the gaze towards those who choose to remain on the outside, those who live their lives at a more leisurely pace, and who through the cultivation of leeks, marigold and aubergines are rebelling of sorts against the development of society, consumerism, the time squeeze, and the human relationship with life itself. Humbert visits French cooperatives, a «guerrilla gardener» in Zürich, an indigenous leader at Wounded Knee, a lumberjack and urban farmers in Detroit.
Cyclical world view. The dominant display of a classic, «modern» performance world is that the years, life and the world are headed somewhere – towards a goal – in a linear direction from a start to a finish. The opposing vision is the circular world view, where days, weeks and the year are cyclical, and everything reappears. Sioux medicine man Hehák’a Sápa (Black Elk) (1863–1950) termed it thus: «The birds create circular nests, because they have the same religion as us. The sun rises and sets again in a circle. The moon does the same, and they are both circular. Even the seasons create a large circle in their changing nature – always returning to how it used to be. »
To the Detroit-artist and urban gardener Kinga Osz-Kemp in Wild Plants, meeting the soil, the compost and the plants was an awakening. She lost her mother at a young age, and had a complicated relationship to death. «At the heart of all we do, is the compost, » Osz-Kemp says in the film. It is vital for something to die in order to create life. «I am no longer so worried about what will happen to me after I die. It no longer feels like a terrible ending. »
Through her work with compost and cultivation, she now understands that the end can also be the beginning. «Compost is just a step in the cycle. I used to think that everything has a beginning and an end. The cyclical world view suddenly became very visible and natural just by looking at how compost creates new life, » says Osz-Kemp.
Guerrilla leader with seeds. On a farm in Nova, Ohio grows the last known apple tree planted by missionary gardener Johnny Appleseed (1774–1845). Early on, Appleseed decided to dedicate his life to the planning of seeds. He walked barefoot through the USA and planted apple trees, fenced them in to protect against grazing animals, and gave the local the responsibility of looking after his trees. His goal was for the settlers to have access to apples, which again could be used to produce cider.
Appleseed is considered a pioneer within conservation and apple cultivation in the USA. He is also a role model for what we today call «guerrilla gardening». This is a phenomenon which probably existed from the dawn of time, but which since the 1970s spread from the USA worldwide. Guerrilla gardening is the cultivation of plants – everything from food to flowers – on property they do not own themselves. Typically, guerrilla gardening is to utilise, both small and large, disused urban areas.
New York’s Liz Christy Garden is considered to be the precursor. Liz Christy launched «Green Guerrillas» in 1973, when they, armed with seed bombs, insert compost and flower seeds into balloons which are then thrown over the fence of an empty property. The garden is still looked after by volunteers, protected by the park gardeners.
The plant pact. Of the more wild plant-like people we meet in the Swiss eco-documentary, is Maurice Maggi the most mysterious. Sixpence-wearing with horn-rimmed glasses, he wanders the streets of Zürich at night, carrying white bags containing carefully handpicked seeds. Maggi wants to make Zürich flourish. To him, middle sections, traffic islands and street niches are the perfect spots for flower fields.
Maggi has entered a pact, of sorts, with the plants, seeds and seasons: «I bring them to a place, and in the autumn they provide me with seed capsules. It’s entirely self-sufficient; what I reap from a seed capsule gives me hundreds or thousands of new plants. It’s a playful interaction with the seasons. It’s an eternal process, » explains Maggi.
To him, the great dream is for someone else to harvest from the plants he has planted, and thus re-create the life of the seeds. Or that a family will find the giant pumpkin he planted, and look after it throughout the summer and then consume it in the autumn.
The escape to reality. The people we meet in the film are all opportunists – on par with Maggi’s flowers. Whether it is unemployed Frenchmen working at the farming cooperative Réseau Cocagne, guerrilla gardeners, other urban garden users or lumberjacks, they all find meaning in the intimate contact between body, food, the soil and the changing seasons. They are challenging society through the way they live, how they eat, the manner they cultivate and how they look at ownership.
The film poses no questions as to whether this is the solution to society’s crises. It is a rather relaxed yet simultaneously intimate portrait, and a completely open look at how people with varying ecological ambitions live their lives. But at the same time, the film is also a celebration of these life choices.
One summer’s night I was hitch hiking along a country road with a former city dweller who in protest to the city’s fast pace and accomplishment race had opted for a different life. I asked whether he had escaped reality. His answer was instant: «I did not escape reality, I moved to reality. » The lives of the people in Wild Plants could perhaps also be seen as escapism – but what they did is actually the opposite.