Panel 26 :

Fermes et potagers en ville et sur les campus universitaires : approches croisées entre ethnographie, écopsychologie et écologie urbaine

Modératrice/Chair: Noémie Moutel, Université de Caen, France.

> Karen Houle, University of Guelph, Canada: “The Incomparable Value of Urban Organic Farming for Community Well-Being.”

> Margot Lauwers, University of Perpignan, France: “How Animal View and Experience the City.”

Karen Houle

“The Incomparable Value of Urban Organic Farming for Community Well-Being”

At this point in history, more than half of the human population lives in urban centres, and this is a trend that will continue: our future is more urban than country. One of the main reasons that people move from small towns and the country to live in larger cities (urban centres) is to obtain a post-secondary education. In my province of Ontario, the surface area of which is 1.076km2, the total population of the province is 14 million, and the number of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions in larger centres (of around 75,000 occupants) is about 2 million, or 14% of the entire population of the province.  Most of these larger centres are closely packed in along the south of the province (along the US-Canada border), which means that young people spend at least 4-5 years of their lives, and during a very formative period, in a highly urbanized setting. Moreover, the spaces on campuses in which they live and study are themselves densely populated and highly urbanized settings: cement lanes, massive concrete libraries, shared apartments and dorms, bus shelters, classrooms which seat upwards of 1000 students, equipped with whiteboards and microphones and computer plug-ins, but without natural light or air.

The truth is that even in these “highly peopled” spaces and places, students have difficulty finding and keeping real community: they are lonely, rates of suicide on campuses are skyrocketing, and more and more demands are made on campus services like psychiatric counselling and walk-in medical clinics, emergency-room visits and pharmacies (legal and illegal). So what we should notice is that a considerable number of this young population finds themselves, in short order, displaced psychically, materially, emotionally and socially from a space in which they grew to maturity; old enough to set out on their own. Ironically, it is exactly in that environment, in these difficult dense spaces that they are expected to learn, to reflect, to prosper, to choose their paths, to find their kin groups, to become adults. There are many factors involved, but my work focuses on the rapid and radical shift in the nature and relation to their lived environments. I suggest that this phenomenon—this crisis, really—is the manifestation of a profound corporeal alientation, a scission between mind-body (and heart) which comes along with this rapid and radical urbanization, coupled with the current style and expections of post-secondary education: high value placed on theory, increasing interfaces with digital platforms (“screen time”), pedagogical norms that keep students unattuned to their individual and collective well-being and the state of the (ever-present) natural world. Something unhealthy is literally cemented into their daily lives.

At my university, there is certainly an effort made to increase awareness about, and concern for, the mental and physical health of students. But for the most part, these interventions are talk-therapy or chemical. The number of counsellors on my campus has tripled in 2 years, and still students report to me that there are long wait times. What do they do during this time? I fear that most of them go to the Mall and spend money aimlessly. Or: are they to just wait on the “Friendship Bench,” a bench for 2 persons which sits in the middle of the central courtyard “to signal and support mental health of our students?” None of this is enough, and the imagination we currently collectively bring to bear on the entire question of “mental health” is far too limited and impoverished.

And what, then, would constitute a good and new and effective response? What could an institution do, to shift its imaginaries toward a holistic, wise, ethical and effective support system for this gigantic population (many will be the future leaders of our country). Whatever it is, it cannot just be an occasional activity, something taking place far away which permits them to “escape” their daily lives, such as we see romanticized in the story of “going to wild nature” and “being alone” for a break. It has to involve where they actually are (urban settings), and work with the mindset they are in (present) and the fact that they are not alone among humans. What is needed is a permanent space or place, nearby, which combines nature-culture (country-city), open at all hours, all seasons, and hospitable to anyone wishing to avail themselves of it, where we can be both alone and with others, in an easy manner. Moreover, it needs to be a space or place with capacious-enough possibility that students are able, in spending time there, to reintegrate their spirit (heart, moral sense), mind (imagination, ability to think deeply and make connections) and body (nourishment, good air, clean water), again both as individuals and as a collective culture.

My experience and research has shown that one very viable candidate for this sort of a “solution” is an urban organic farm, on a campus. My research (which is auto-ethnographic, participant-observation, and phenomenological) is studying how, exactly, this particular type of space and place carries with it a unique quality and range of possibilities for wellness. An organic urban farm on a campus supports the building and maintenance of so many complex relations: human and non-human (sun, weather, fungi, vegetables, hawks, trees, snakes, soil); between humans and other humans (known and unfamiliar) sharing food, teaching and learning, working side-by-side; and finally, healthier relations with ones own self (self-trust, confidence, sense of orientation and belonging, moral clarity, optimism about the future of the planet, and gratitude). In my presentation I would like to share with the participants my initial observations and conclusions insofar as they offer a general blueprint or model for building on our campuses a space for real healing (joy and trauma recovery); an urban spot of real reenchantement for a particular, critical vulnerable population: our young citizens.

Karen Houle is a full professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph.  She has formal training (degrees) in the natural sciences (biology & chemistry) and the human sciences (philosophy). Her fields of expertise are: 20th-century French thought, ecosophy, ecopoetics, post-humanist ethics and politics. Karen Houle is the author of more than forty refereed articles published in international scholarly journals and anthologies. She is the co-editor of two collections: a groundbreaking anthology on classical ethics and reanimating ethical thinking & pedagogy (Minor Ethics: Deleuzian Variations, forthcoming in summer 2019); and Hegel and Deleuze: Together again for the First Time (2016, with J. Vernon). Houle has also written a philosophical monograph on complexity theory and ethical complexity titled Responsibility, Complexity and Abortion (2014). She has translated the writings of French percussionist and cultural theorist, Le Quan Ninh (from French to English) Improvising Freely: The ABC’s on an Experience; and is the author of 3 books of poetry, including Ballast (2000, House of Anansi), During (2005, Gaspereau Press) and The Grand River Watershed: A Folk Ecology (forthcoming April 2019, Gaspereau Press). Karen Houle is currently apprenticing on an urban organic farm in Canada.

Margot Lauwers

Paroles de chat! How Animals View and Experience the City”

Seen as the human dwelling par excellence, urban environments are inhabited by a host of companion and wild other-than-human species. The first live there alongside the human families they belong to while the latter are drawn to the city by loss of habitat or easy access to human garbage—and thus food. Countless insects, rodents, feral cats and dogs, and larger mammals such as bears, or coyotes inhabit an environment which is still too often thought of as being exclusively human. As a consequence, the wild creatures taking up residence in our direct surroundings are often seen as pests by human communities and are hunted down to be displaced or “disposed of.” But what would an animal’s view on city life be like? What would an account of life in or around cities be like if voiced by, say, a cockroach, a rat, a wolf, a dog or a feral cat?

Joy Smith Aiken’s Solo’s Journey (US, 1993) and Wajdi Mouawad’s Anima (France, 2012) offer possible answers to these questions. The first one is considered children’s literature and recounts the story of a young orphaned feral kitten, Solo, in a third-person narrative from the feral cats’ focal point of view. The story displays a culture proper to the community of the feral cats—including words unknown to humans—who live apart but in close proximity to the humans they fear and avoid but also depend on. Solo and his fellow cats ultimately move away from cities and human beings, in an attempt to flee the planned destruction of their band. The second one is a thriller and road novel which follows a man whose wife has been brutally murdered and who engages in a manhunt to find her murderer. This masterful novel is told in a bestiary of voices, more than fifty animals, birds, and insects, each with their own characterization and style of speaking, reveal the unflattering contrast between the human and the more-than-human world. Violent and dark, the novel nevertheless moves beyond the thriller genre to become a book of multiple levels, rich in symbolism and open to complex interpretation. What is striking in the study of both books is how Solo, although considered as juvenile literature, depicts an unfriendly and cruel urban environment in which the feral cats feel out of place and threatened whereas Anima, despite being a story of brutality, death and torture, paints cities in which animals have found their place alongside often unsuspecting human beings.

Through a comparative study of these two very different contemporary fictions, this paper offers to analyze the fictitious animal language used to describe nature in urban and suburban environments and to reflect upon what these descriptions reveal about urban nature in contemporary times on the one hand. On the other hand, our aim will be to examine if and how these fictitious stories might influence the way we, humans, look at our concrete surroundings and how they may reenchant and renew our gaze on the myriad of creatures we forget or fail to acknowledge within our urban settings on a daily basis.

Margot Lauwers holds a PhD in American literature and ecofeminism from the University of Perpignan where she taught business English, English tanguage, Translation and American civilization for the past eight years. She also is an Assistant Editor for Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment


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