Los Angeles

Fallen Fruit and the 'Thin End of the Wedge'

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Sounding like the name of a particularly insidious invasive species, the phrase "creeping normalcy" beds down well with such other descriptions of incremental change as "the slippery slope," and "the camel's nose." Sniffing with disapproval, they all imply that the changes to come will ultimately be dramatic, would cause uproar if they happened more quickly, but will, almost unnoticed, slowly become the norm.

Thus it is that common usage positions slow change as a dangerous thing. However, two recent events in L.A. suggest that a new phrase is called for; something with which to identify an action that precipitates beneficial change over time, something that celebrates "the thin end of the wedge."

My Saturday, January 5 began in Del Aire, an unincorporated South Bay community located between Hawthorne and El Segundo, at a dedication ceremony for the Del Aire Park Community Center and Public Fruit Orchard. The LA County Arts Commission (LACAC) commissioned The Del Aire Fruit Park, to which I contributed as an advisor, from Fallen Fruit, a collaboration between David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young. LACAC describes this work of civic art as "an urban orchard that will be sustained, nurtured and harvested by the public." It is also, as Fallen Fruit's striking poster states: The First Public Fruit Park In California.

The early afternoon found me in Soledad Corona's Lincoln Heights front yard, where about 50 people gathered to celebrate her return home after a fraudulent foreclosure and eviction. The party, complete with hot dogs for all and a bouncy castle, was a "thank you" to Occupy Fights Foreclosures (OFF) and everyone else who had supported the Corona family, and a way to spread the word about OFF's willingness to help people in foreclosure crisis.

With one event being an apparent expression of political status quo and the other of grassroots activism, these two occasions may well appear to share little more than free food, happy people, and a blue sky. But the appearance of things is deceptive here, for both celebrate actions that are truly radical.

Fallen Fruit of Del Aire Park, the fruit map. | Image: Courtesy of Fallen Fruit.<br />

To be "radical," says the Oxford English Dictionary, is "to act upon what is essential or fundamental," to form "a root basis or foundation," and to be "thorough." The word became synonymous with a thrust for electoral reform in the late eighteenth century, but it's meaning has since expanded to denote the impetus to change a society's underlying value system, as well as the structures and relations to which that value system gives rise.

By embracing direct democracy and direct action, rejecting existing political institutions, and refusing to issue the formal demands that would bestow validity on those institutions, the Occupy movement manifests a clear relationship to radicality. The radical nature of The Del Aire Fruit Park - a County commission strongly supported by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, made manifest by the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation (LACDPR), and blessed at its dedication by the Catholic Church - requires a little more unlocking.

The key lies somewhere in the project's status as the "First" public fruit park in California, and a recent statement from Fallen Fruit's David Burns: "I want Fallen Fruit to change the law in the State of California, so that...no one in the future can go hungry."

Fruit trees are neither sanctioned for planting in L.A.'s public parks and streets, nor for planting in public land in most cities in the United States. According to LACAC's due diligence and Fallen Fruit's eight-years of research, there is not a definitive law to which one can point here. Certainly there are California State and L.A. laws that regulate produce grown for sale, but public trees - which are by definition owned by us all, and which give of their fruit at no charge - are not specifically addressed.

The legal basis for the prohibition lies instead with the doctrine of attractive nuisance: a tort in common law by which a landowner may be liable for injuries inflicted on an "infant trespasser" by an object or condition appealing to a child, when the landowner could reasonably foresee the potential danger. Examples include: an unfenced swimming pool, a cute-looking dog with a propensity to bite, and, apparently, a fruit-laden tree.

It is beyond question that children must be protected from harm. But the question must also be asked: how much hazard is there, really, in a fruit tree?

A message for the public, Del Aire Park. | Photo: Courtesy of Janet Owen Driggs.<br />

Does a grapefruit offer more danger than, say, the silk floss tree (ceiba speciasa), a thorny-trunked kapok-relative that is listed in the City's official "Tree Palette For Inland Parks?" (The silk floss can drop its inedible, papaya-sized fruits from a height of up to fifty feet.) And, if fruit trees are indeed so hazardous, why is it that the Bureau of Street Services for LA City includes bronze loquat, wild plum, date palm, and the olive in its "list of trees...acceptable for planting in public right-of-way?"

In discussing these anomalies with Joe Mendoza - the LACDRP Deputy Director who worked closely with LACAC and Fallen Fruit to implement the Fruit Park - a possible reason emerged: unlike the familiar fruit of a citrus or avocado tree, children may not recognize the City-listed items as edible or "attractive," and would be unlikely therefore to endanger themselves by eating the fruit or climbing a tree to pick it.

Which itself begs another question, is a fruit tree inherently more dangerous than any other public tree with an enticingly low branch, or, for that matter, any civic wall that a 5 year-old can mount?

Public fruit trees raise objections. The comments provoked by Amy Biegelsen's article Should Public Trees Bear Fruit? and Twilight Greenaway's Graft Punk, for example, suggest that concern centers round fruit harvesting and tree maintenance. (Will the fruit be left to fall, damaging people and vehicles? Will it rot, encouraging insects and vermin? Could the trees become infected with pathogens and parasites? Who will maintain them?)

In the case of The Del Aire Fruit Park, which will be "sustained, nurtured and harvested by the public," many of these questions are already answered. For Joe Mendoza however, he says "the jury is out." While waiting to see how well the trees thrive, his thoughts also turn to harvesting: Will people know when to pick the fruit? Will they want it? Will they know what to do with it?

Mendoza remembers eating fruit from local trees as a boy, but now, he says, "there's a disconnect." His assertion is supported by an array of studies. To mention just three: In 2010 a class of West Virginia six-year olds could not identify a raw tomato. A 2011 report found that 27% of Australian adolescents think that yogurt is a plant product. And a 2012 survey of 2000 U.K. adults found that almost one in three does not know how common fruit and vegetables are grown.

Fallen Fruit began in 2004 in response to a Journal of Aesthetics & Protest call for generative solutions to socio-political issues. In part a response to the aforementioned context of disconnect, in part an effort to couple urban waste and urban need, and in part the result of a desire "to be in a fantastical California resembling the Garden of Eden", the first Fallen Fruit project mapped all of the fruit available to pick from the public rights-of-way in Silver Lake, home to all three collaborators. Shortly thereafter the group began making self-described propaganda materials about "public fruit", hosting ever-popular jam-making sessions, distributing trees for planting, and conducting nocturnal public fruit tours. Commenting on the tours in a 2006 Cabinet article, Matias Viegener notes: "pedestrians are often reluctant to pick food within their grasp because they perceive it to be private property."

An 'Orchard Run' orange crate label, circa 1900-1910.

By identifying the Garden of Eden as an inspiration for their work, Fallen Fruit puts a collective finger on Western mythology's most visionary image of peaceful abundance. They also indicate a potent driver for both the context of disconnect and the prevalent culture of private ownership: the Recovery Narrative. Named by historian and philosopher Carolyn Merchant to describe "the overarching story of modern history," the Recovery Narrative is a tale of redemption in which humanity, having Fallen from Grace after eating the Forbidden Fruit, strives to Master Nature and thereby regain Eden.

California's relationship to the Garden of Eden has a long history. Conflating spiritual progress and literal progression, the nineteenth century concept of Manifest Destiny gave Western expansionism the force of a moral obligation, and positioned California, the Country's western edge, as the end point of a redemptive quest. The state's long growing season, and the real estate-driven advertising campaigns that promoted it in Edenic terms, only enhanced California's perceived role as a second Paradise.

In "Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture," Carolyn Merchant describes how early 20th century adverts for Californian produce "featured fruits, such as those found in the Garden of Eden, waiting invitingly to be plucked by anyone strolling past." Unlike in the biblical Eden though, where one presumes fruit was to be had for the taking, California's bounty cannot be simply "plucked".

As Merchant explains, the overarching theme of the Recovery Narrative is the transition from "natural" to "civilized." "Wild lands and wild people are to be subdued." Human labor will "redeem the souls of men and women," and cultivation will redeem the wilderness. Agriculture and commerce must replace hunting and gathering. In other words, food that is merely gathered is not yet "civilized." It needs to be subdued, even purified, by labor and individual ownership.

I am reminded of an image from Disney's "Snow White" -- the poisoned apple, proffered in a gnarled, sharp-nailed hand. The fruit looks red and enticing, but the watching audience knows that it is deadly.

As David Burns told me: "the West was won by agriculture and mythology." We are still in their thrall. Like Snow White's lethal apple, fruit for which one has not labored - either through direct cultivation or by earning the money for purchase - has absorbed a cauldron of poisons.

Planting day at the Fruit Park. | Photo: Courtesy of Fallen Fruit.

Letitia Fernandez Ivins, the LACAC Assistant Director of Civic Art who drove the weaving of cultural, environmental, and public health issues that resulted in Fallen Fruit's invitation to design a work for Del Aire, described the Fruit Park recently as "a calculated risk." Once the various stakeholders were persuaded that "fruit is safe" however, and would not create a nuisance, the attitude became "let's take a risk together."

I very much hope that the The Del Aire Fruit Park succeeds. That the trees and vines flourish, that 12 months of outreach has grown deep enough roots for public participation to thrive, that public health and wellbeing outcomes accrue, and that the "calculated risk" pays off for all concerned.

The "First Public Fruit Park In California" has already demonstrated that civic art can be a process of planning that creates an exception to civic policy. Its long-term success will facilitate the planting of other orchards in L.A.'s public spaces, and possibly in the many other cities where a wave of urban agriculture is drumming on the rocks of public policy. Might it also contribute to a change in State law? A lawyer friend tells me that the idea of making public fruit trees an exception to the Attractive Nuisance doctrine is "challenging" but certainly "not ludicrous."

The Del Aire Fruit Park is more than just a policy-oriented "camel's nose" though, welcome and significant as that is. Instead, and in addition, by planting an orchard in public space and inviting us all to tend and gather what is growing, the Fruit Park proposes that Edenic abundance already exists; no plastic-wrapped redemption required.

Refusing the overarching trajectory of modern history? De-poisoning fruit that is apparently owned by no one because it is owned by us all? Offering the experience of a non-commodified relationship to the natural world? Now that's what I call radical.

Planting day at the Fruit Park. | Photo: Courtesy of Fallen Fruit.


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About the Author

Janet Owen Driggs is a writer, artist and curator who, along with Matthew Owen Driggs, frequently participates in the collective identity “Owen Driggs.”
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