Pronouns in a Gardening Group

Something that I appreciate about the pandemic taking more meetings online is that I’ve become part of a few local gardening groups. I would not have predicted this in 2019. I was too busy and I was traveling 50% of the time; my garden was my hobby when I was home. Last thing I wanted to do was join a club related to my most part-time of hobbies.

Picture of cherry tomatoes that are a shade of blue-purple, on a branch next to a green fence support. Cucumber plants are in the background.
I grew these Fahrenheit Blue cherry tomatoes this year, from my friend Nina in Finland. They have taken forevvvvver to ripen. 😉

Well, January 16th of 2020 found me starting my first seedlings for my garden, because I was, quite frankly, freaking the ever-loving fuck out. It turns out that I have two friends in Wuhan (hi, Lily! hi, YanYan!). Between hearing from folks in China early on and having an international trip at the beginning of January … It felt like I had a preview of things to come, and it terrified me to paralysis online, but drove me to do something, anything with my hands. Seedlings felt like a way I could invest time and care into feeding my household and my friends and neighbors in the coming year.

I therefore also ended up joining several gardening Facebook groups, Twitter chats, and online zoom clubs. A major part of my schedule in spring of 2020 was the Cambridge City Growers, despite my not living in Cambridge, because they were focused on mutual aid and helping first-time gardeners get going. I’ve grown tomatoes for years, and other veggies in a haphazard fashion, but 2019 really put my garden in bloom, and 2020 was apparently The Year of the Huge Garden Effort. I dug in. Literally.

Something that’s great about joining a nascent group and helping it get going is that you get to help establish group customs. Something that’s hard about that is that no one knows what customs would be acceptable to everyone else. At my first CCG meeting on zoom, spring of 2020, I introduced myself with name and pronouns, and I changed my profile name to be “Crystal H (they/them)” in my settings. The next person after me in the meeting similarly gave their pronouns, and by the end of the round of introductions, nearly half of those assembled had done so without my having asked. After a few meetings, I wasn’t always the first person to start my intro with pronouns. As the group’s cultural norms developed, I excitedly witnessed two things:

  • Most group members explicitly practiced acceptance and use of whatever pronouns someone gave at the start of the meeting when expectations were set in this way (we had a couple of members who were trying on different pronoun options), and
  • Group members gently corrected each other, usually, when someone made a mistake about pronouns.
This is a picture of five or six kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of beans, two kinds of eggplants, and two kinds of cucumbers that I harvested from my garden in a single day in July. The harvest sits in a worn basket on a granite countertop. Bare feet are visible in the photo, on the left edge.
This is a picture of six kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of beans, two kinds of eggplants, and two kinds of cucumbers that I harvested from my garden in a single day in July. Pretty proud of that.

There was only one person who regularly forgot to use they/them to refer to me, and I was rarely the person who brought it to her attention. Someone else usually caught the mistake before I did. I only received two or three emails from CCG members about using singular “they” pronouns vs “appropriate English grammar.” The road wasn’t without bumps, but things were a little easier than I had anticipated.

These days, 18 months into a global pandemic, the Cambridge City Growers has quieted down a bit and most members know each other somewhat well. We still usually (although not always) go around with names and pronouns when someone new joins the meeting. I’ve noticed I usually have to prompt that again in order for it to happen, but not always.

I am rather involved with a lot of additional gardening stuff in my area, at this point. I do some work with the CCG still, and I don’t expect that to change. I also attend zoom lectures with the Somerville Gardening Club. I’ve taught a couple of gardening classes, either outside or online. It turns out that I know how to teach workshops and I know a lot about gardening.

Lately, however, I’ve put the bulk of my efforts into the Gardening Collective working group within Mutual Aid of Medford and Somerville (“MAMAS”).

Where a few CCG members took time to absorb the idea that pronouns can’t be assumed (and one member really can’t seem to use they/them pronouns even though she’s known me for two years, now), the MAMAS organizers have started every meeting I’ve attended, at every level of the organization, with a round of sharing names, pronouns, and some other fun icebreaker (favorite ice cream flavor, preferred winter drink, current craft project, etc.). I’m not only talking about a monthly meeting, where you might expect everyone to need the reminder of names and pronouns. I’m frequently in 2-3 MAMAS meetings a week, between the neighborhood pod, the working group coordinator meetings, the gardening meetings, and the occasional other MAMAS-related things on zoom. Many of the folks in MAMAS know each other, at this point, but every meeting begins with names and pronouns so as to make things clear and not make it awkward for the newest person in the discussion.

The intro default to include pronouns is a marked difference between MAMAS meetings and CCG meetings, this month. Some of this difference is assuredly due to generational differences — I’m frequently the youngest person in a CCG meeting, and have sometimes been the eldest person in a MAMAS meeting. Some of it may be the membership of who’s at the meeting — MAMAS meetings have tended to have new attendees more often. Some of it is simply set customs, though, and who the group turns to when looking for an example and setting expectations.

I don’t know how to end this blog post other than to say that respect of pronouns, whether in our hobbies or workplaces, has really made a difference for a lot of people this year. I can’t encourage you enough to examine your defaults and think about what those defaults communicate to your group members. I’ve made some friends within each of my gardening groups, but the place I feel most at home is the group where my pronouns have always been respected without hesitation or challenge. I really appreciate that about MAMAS as a whole, and the gardeners within MAMAS in particular.

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