Sienna Mae Heath, The Sovereign Gardener holding a newly harvested red/purple cabbage

Food is Freedom, Why I’m Parting Ways With The East 40 Garden 

Social pressures on speech, safety, and food spaces have motivated me to grow elsewhere

I have chosen to bid farewell to the East 40 garden. I’ve collected my belongings and left wildflowers and herbs for the next gardener. Thank you to everyone at the East 40 and to everyone who has also parted ways for creating this space for us to develop good grower skills.

Given our history, I appreciate the efforts made to start this beautiful garden. I have fond memories of growing food and flowers on the college campus in good company and in precious solitude. With grace, I think it’s freeing to embrace the creative idea that “not everything is workable.” This wisdom is inspired by my father Walter Heath, the retired co-founder of the Center for Clay and Fire where artists will continue to process clay from the garden, make pots, and fire their creations in the wood kiln on site.

With this wisdom in mind, I believe it’s natural that not every community can be fully supportive of every individual. After 10 years of teaching, growing, and creating a family history with the college, this community is no longer workable for me. Gardening is centered around growing food and flowers, and there are also significant social issues being explored within certain restrictions in a number of settings meant for agriculture – causing pressures on speech, safety, and access to food spaces. What one person expresses might bring up another person’s emotions of feeling unsafe, while it could inspire another person’s curiosity or feeling of reassurance. My full expression, even when communicated with sorrow or calm, is not welcome in certain spaces anymore. So I will seek an environment free of such control and open to flourishing in food freedom. 

Upon reflection of the early days of the pandemic, I recall that as we learned which Pennsylvania businesses were considered by the state to be “life-sustaining,” garden centers didn’t make the cut. During that spring, I was very grateful that the East 40 successfully opened up for its gardeners while the college campus was closed. This solution was workable. And that was a special refuge for all of us. 

It was also during that time I started The Quarantined Gardener. While giving online workshops and sending regular newsletters, I was pretty strict about staying quarantined and “socially distanced” for most of spring. As I began feeling restless in lockdown, I watered down my emerging message of planting victory gardens in the midst of a sociopolitical culture war, saying things like “you’re free to grow outside” and “your health is in your hands.” 

By summer, I began questioning. And in my budding questioning, I found myself somewhat quarantined socially. Unfortunately, many folks were not interested in hearing alternative points of view on a variety of topics. Quite a few of my friends, family, and former professors and colleagues unsubscribed from my newsletters. Outside of my own home and my small family’s, one other place where I found a little community was the East 40. So I kept my ideas about the world beyond the garden’s property lines vocally quiet out of a desire for social preservation. But by 2021, as I found my voice through the written word in creating poetic articles and through the spoken word in creating a podcast, I was wondering whether a potential vaccine mandate on campus would at any time require me to leave.

So I chose to live a double life. At the East 40, I stuck to conversation about vegetables, gardening, and weather but mostly kept silent. At times, I felt quite anxious, and so when I spoke, it was at times with fear over love. I let the wildflowers speak for themselves. In my home and career, I committed to spoken and written words rested on the loving virtues of creative freedom, open storytelling, and uplifting voices struggling in the weeds to be heard. Meanwhile in my private life, I lost my peace and took some others’. I shouted. I sobbed. I fortified my boundaries. Through this tension, I tried to keep these areas of my life separate, but the overlap became increasingly clear in December 2021 when the local government in a part of our neighbor Canada permitted grocery stores to deny entry to people who were unvaccinated. A group to which I belong had been denied entry to food spaces. And during the same month at Christmas, a local “peace walk” did not invite this group into the warm churches for food and facilities. 

Food is freedom. Yet here in the state of Pennsylvania, coercive restrictions and preferred pronouns have taken root—invading places meant for agriculture. This is no longer workable for me as there is little to no room for dialogue or clarity, which can prevent the growth that is meant to be. 

Like plants, each person takes up space. Like people, beliefs can crowd one another. Any educational space welcoming consideration for how local, national, and international food systems and our food choices are influenced by understandings of sociopolitical issues is setting a worthy intention. And it is going to be a challenge to make this setting welcoming for everyone. 

Naturally, a college campus has a specific belief system. Normalizing restrictions on food spaces and enforcing preferred pronouns (coerced speech) as well as asking individuals about election voting and health decisions is coming into some settings meant for agriculture and education. If a garden would like to represent itself focused on the growing of food and flowers without these things, that would be interesting to see. Or if these things are going to be represented by a garden, then it would make sense to me that there would be space for understanding specifically what speech is permitted and why. Clarity creates connection. 

Given that my needs for being invited to food and fellowship cannot be met currently in some of these communities which originally made this their mission for all, I will garden elsewhere. As there are schools reporting dissenters to authorities, I am finding environments free of such control and open to growth that resonates with me. To my friends who remain at the East 40, let us continue to turn to each other like sunflowers on a cloudy day. To my friends elsewhere, let us do the same. 

Looking ahead, I am setting the intention to put love over fear moment to moment. With this air of hope, I am seeking a new balance of security and freedom in spaces within myself and the world. Within the current system, I don’t think that’s possible. As my mother Bahereh Khodadoost says, “the universe is compassionate…not the university!” 🙂

Deepening on the microcosms of our universe, I encourage each community to be clear about their boundaries (the perimeter of the property) and whenever possible to grow even more deeply rooted connections through various points of view (potential for plant/people diversity). At this time in our local and national communities, there are a variety of beliefs some of which are not suited for companion planting. Like plants, I would like to believe each of us exists on this planet for a reason. My parting ways with this garden has, to my surprise, refreshed my spirit and nourished my belief that we are all flowers of one garden that is the earth. Some of us are tough tolerant echinacea, some are sweetly scented roses with protective thorns, others are dainty chamomile that just want to soothe their neighbors. Pairs of us are antagonistic plants—crunchy cabbages which belong nowhere near the sweet strawberries. There are also invasive thistles. 

Embodying a bit of all these plants, I intend to go forth in my mission of growing stories and gardens with calm in my heart and with the hope that perhaps the planet will shift into flow, not increased force. Perhaps, bit by bit, there will be less desire to report, enforce, and alter and more desire to live organically. For now, I acknowledge that the system is one in which I may not make much of a difference. I will continue to show kindness to the environment, to myself, and to those who value cultivating beauty and conversation with me. I pray every person on the planet will liberate herself or himself from systems within a larger system and cocreate “a more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

The East 40 gave me glimpses of that new earth. Five years ago, I left my ex-husband who had mowed my red poppy buds as their silky seeds descended upon the sweating soil—plotting to emerge. And then, I brought my seedlings to the East 40. I left my garden in June. Yesterday, I left my garden in peace and gentle justice. 

I am no longer The Quarantined Gardener. I am The Sovereign Gardener. I am free. 

Next steps

Happy Spring. Get my free guide, “The Secret to Growing These 3 Superfoods in Your Window,” and Combat Inflation with a Custom Victory Garden Layout. Contact me for a consultation, herbal tea sample, or ceramic bee magnet. Feel free to reach out with needs to confide in someone, ideas for creating new communities, and land opportunities (large or small). 

If you sense we’d make good companions, I invite you to follow my new gardening projects @thesovereigngardener on Facebook and Instagram, and on Instagram for podcasts and poetry @sovereign_sienna.



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