Between consumerism and politics…


Going by bus in the rush hours through the centre of Warsaw you can see an old woman with a bucket or an old man with a spade. Don’t think they are abnormal. Don’t think that you’ve lost your mind. You’ve just met members of a species slowly heading for extinction: the dziaoekowcy or urban gardeners.

Dziaoeka, meaning allotment garden, is a Polish term for a little plot of land with an area between 300 and 500 sq.m. Usually it is situated near big cities, but it can often be an unexpected part of the urban landscape. The dziaoekowcy cultivate it only during their free time ­ not for money or for a living, but for pleasure. They build little houses in their dziaoeki and “play” farmers.

The dziaoekowcy, some time ago very powerful, are now becoming less important in contemporary Polish society. A few years ago it was quite obvious that you spent your free time in your urban or suburban dziaoeka. Workers, officials, retired employees and members of management used to abandon their social roles and change themselves into gardeners during weekends.

Nowadays there are many other activities to do on the weekend. A rich person goes to popular resorts in Poland or Switzerland, a poor one rests in his/her house watching TV and drinking alcohol. The “middle class” ­ people who have no money to go out of the city, but who have enough money to go out of the house ­ just visit the malls. Only a small group still goes by bus with a bucket and a spade.

In the ’90s the politicians tried to suppress the dziaoeki in Poland. The developers ­ especially in big cities ­ were able to pay thousands of dollars for one little plot of land planted with carrots and cabbages. Nevertheless the dziaoekowcy managed to keep their lands. But for how long? I guess that the new, postcommunist normality cannot support the remains of the old system for much longer. In fact, the history of the dziaoeki is longer than the period of communism in Poland. The first dziaoeki were founded in 1897 in Grudzioedz. The movement of dziaoekowcy was very strong before WWII ­ it had a good staff of grassroots workers then. This was certainly very attractive for the communist power after the war. The allotment gardens were a good example for social equality. It also reflected the communist idea of the rapprochement of the urban and rural “working classes”.

There are many stories like this one in modern Polish history. A well-functioning social system was taken over by the communists after WWII, and now it is completely ignored. It is normal in Poland that in the new reality the old things seem bad. And it is normal as well, that all the conflicts have a political basis. The dziaoeki are now recognised as a part of the ancien regime. But for me they are the counter-culture avant la lettre.

Counter-culture is a great movement, which changed Western Europe and North America in the late ’60s. It was, among other things, a strong rebellion against consumerism and the modern human being, which is able to recognise many brand-names but cannot recognise edible plants, as Jeremy Lundholm said. In the late ’60s there was no counter-culture in Poland, because there was no consumerism.

People had no possibility to buy what they wanted. They had no possibility to spend weekends in the malls or watch 5 TV-Channels all the time. During their free time, they went to their dziaoeki and planted some edible plants there. To plant a plant, to cultivate it, to harvest it, to prepare a meal with it and then to eat it. A dziaoekowiec does not merely change his social role for the weekend. The food he eats is prepared by himself from the very beginning. He is not a consumer. He is a rebel warrior, who gives up the buying-using-throwing-out style of life. He stops being a part of the system.

Another anti-systemic behaviour of the dziaoekowcy was their love of recycling. When you look at the houses at the dziaoeki you see the story of their owners. Why? For the dziaoekowcy, as well, as for the traditional peasants, there was no such word as “rubbish”. Everything could be recycled. Old tyres could become a fence around a lawn, an old door could form a ceiling of a dacha, an old bottom part of a big container could be a water pool. Remains of smashed plates could make the facade more beautiful. I once heard about someone, who made his house out of bottles! Don’t ask me how. There used to be no limits for the inventions of the dziaoekowcy! The things, which a consumer would throw out, could be the most important components of the construction. The few things that really were non-recyclable went into the compost or up the chimney.

The dziaoekowcy used to live in an ecological paradise. But it was not an ideological strategy or a kind of religion, as you might call the counter-culture. It was a must ­ the only possible way in those times of permanent lack on the market. Some dziaoekowcy didn’t build a dacha at all. They just took a site trailer to be their house. But even though the dziaoeki used to look like anarcho-enviromentalist “wagenburgs”, you cannot say, that they were a counter-cultural phenomenon. It was normality: a strange and surrealistic normality of people who knew edible plants better than the brand-names, because they didn’t know any brand-names at all.

About 15 years ago, the Polish became real western-style consumers. The culture, to which the dziaoeki could be an alternative, has arrived. Now we can buy anything, we can throw it out right after buying it, etc. Colourful plastic labels, plenty of colourful plastic foods are in every shop. We can eat every unnatural meal containing preservatives and BSE. Finally we live in a normal country!

If you relate the role consumption plays to the west, Polish society is in the late ’60s now. So the dziaoeki could be the right answer for it. They are a ripe and strong alternative. Unfortunately the dziaoekowcy don’t want to fight. They are neither rebel warriors nor traditional environmentalists. They are normal people, who just want to buy their cars, TV-sets, mobile phones and Big Macs. They don’t want to cultivate their gardens any more. They dream about Costa Brava or Gran Canaria. In fact there are fewer and fewer people who want to spend their free time in the gardens. There are no workers, officials or members of management there anymore. Only retired employees are still cultivating their plants. They don’t have enough money for dreaming. Another important group in the dziaoeki nowadays are young people ­ they spend sunny days or hot nights in gardens abandoned by their parents.

These days the dziaoeki are often changed into “recreation resorts” ­ little water pools and rockeries instead of a place for carrots and cabbages, where the water pools have been bought at the OBI market. The dziaoeki aren’t as attractive as malls. Shopping is not bad. The malls are for people. A big chance to build a somewhat less consumerist society is definitely lost.

The big project of gardens for workers is lost as well. Not only in Poland. The allotment gardens are spread through the whole of Europe and they have the same problems everywhere. On the “Great Britain Urban Gardeners” website, you can read the forecast, that all British allotments will have disappeared by 2035. British gardeners are fighting to survive in the face of eviction. Eviction is the word to describe the way police suppress the squats or the “wagenburgs”. In fact, British gardeners have much in common with squatters. They both are a part of the anti-globalist movement. Small-size, self-sufficient, anti-consumerist gardeners are fighting against the big international trusts, which need the land to pollute it.

In Poland the fight for the land has only a political basis ­ it is the fight between post-communist leftists and neo-liberals. The first group wants the old, poor and frustrated people to be their voters. The second prefers the votes of businessmen.

I can understand why the political context banned the counter-culture in the late ’60s in Poland. But I don’t know why today’s normality must be so sad and grey (even if it is full of advertising colours). No unnecessary green in the city. No social or ecological utopia and no fresh carrot straight from the soil.

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