Andy Warhol, a renowned pop artist, once said that “land really is the best art.” Land is indeed the finest art, as it is the living trace of human history with infinite secrets. On the other hand, such mysteries have also stimulated human desire to conquer and dominate land. Take a look at vacant lots near subway stations, bus stops, and shopping districts. When seeing unused land piled with trash, our ambition seems nothing more than egoism. Fortunately enough, altruism, or self-sacrifice, still exists in our neighbors.
Similar to how our ancestors bravely fought the enemy with swords and shields, guerrilla gardeners are now crying out, “Let’s fight the filth with forks and flowers!” With a shovel, hoe, and a bundle of flowers and plants, these gardeners plant on abandoned sites and areas that are not being cared for, despite not having the legal right to do so. In this sense, guerrilla gardeners are the most hearty warriors, fighting against neglect of public space and striving for a better town, country, and world to live in.
The Roots of Guerrilla Gardening
Guerrilla gardening may sound unfamiliar; yet, the word “guerrilla” itself is well known, referring to someone who fights as part of an unofficial army. The answer to how a military word came to be connected with gardening dates back to 1973. On the corner of the Bowery and Houston Street, located in New York, artist Liz Christy and his friends decided to clean out the urban decay and plant sunflower seeds.
Calling themselves the “green guerrillas,” they continued their act of removing rubbish and revitalizing the soil. However, Liz and his party soon had to become real guerrillas when sued as intruders by the property owners. It took seven years of tedious judicial dispute until these desolate lands became public parks of New York City. Meanwhile, guerrilla gardening emerged as an environmental campaign.
A worldwide organization for guerrilla gardening is on the rise, where volunteers share their guerrilla gardening plans, activities, and advice. The guerrillas recommend an area that requires gardening, and the regional board recruits volunteers living nearby to assemble at a specific time and date. For this reason, guerrilla gardening can take place anywhere at any time without boundaries. This philanthropic act will not cease until all misused land around the world finds its own purpose.
Guerrilla Gardeners in our Backyard
These days, the main targets of the guerrillas are highways and subway stations. Especially in those with a university and rows of bars nearby, it is easy to picture the boisterous and squalid streets. In fact, this is an apt description of Konkuk University’s (KU) surroundings. The good news, though, is that behind the doors of clamorous pubs near the campus, the KU guerrilla gardeners are silently recovering the soil with colorful flowers.
KU guerrilla gardening was first formed by students interested in green space within urban settlements. Kim Do Kyung (College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Konkuk University), currently in charge of the group, said, “People tend to throw cigarettes and spit on unoccupied areas, and this vicious cycle never ends. So, our team works under the motto ‘as one sows, so shall one reap.’ We believe that our small action and desire to improve the environment will lead to another, and eventually trigger a big change.”
Plucking Out the Weeds
Nevertheless, the KU guerrillas faced multiple difficulties due to the low awareness of guerrilla gardening. “The Korean tendency to care greatly about what others think is why such a groundbreaking and effective service is so unknown in Korea,” Kim claimed regrettably. “We were also reluctant at the beginning, thinking that we were taking the lead in something nobody else cared about.” Even after overcoming such skepticism, they still could not avoid financial problems. Devoid of school support, each member had to pay a fee to manage the cost for plants, fertilizer, and soil.
One of the biggest difficulties of guerrilla gardening is post-management of the plants. The young Korean guerrillas were not an exception. Since the Konkuk University Station always has countless commuters, people stepping and drunken pedestrians vomiting on the flowers are common sights. To make matters worse, at times of low precipitation, the members have to water the flowers one at a time.
After all, they have been taking a positive step forward so far. The number of members, which started as five students last year, is now ten times greater. Residents have been complimenting their good intent and some have even shown their willingness to support. For instance, Daeji Development Company, a Korean soil company, promised to supply fertilizer, easing their economic burden.
Thanks to helping hands, the KU guerrilla gardeners have made unexpected progress. Still, they expect more ahead of them. “Our biggest challenge remains how to attract people to join this meaningful activity,” Kim confessed. “Thankfully, a salesperson for The Big Issue near our campus is currently lending a helping hand in watering the plants. We want more of this to happen, and we are making a constant effort to fulfill this.”
Not only are they planning to enter a landscape architecture competition, they are also mapping out a way to induce citizen participation for May 1, 2015, celebrating the annual International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day. The ceaseless passion of the guerrilla gardeners doubtlessly shows the value of this charitable deed. It implies more than simply forming an amiable environment. It plants a strong sense of responsibility of our ecosystem that has existed from the past and will persist into the future.
The delicacy of the environment is a well-known fact, which is why everything from national policies to school actions are announced and practiced. Yet, none of these will stand long unless each individual feels desperate and actively takes part. In this respect, the proximate example of the KU guerrillas should have a lot of implications for Koreans, especially Korea University (KU) students.