By Joseph Gualtieri
When I first moved to Hong Kong, my impression of the city was limited to images of neon and concrete. Then I discovered the majesty of our country parks, which we need and must protect. It is only after a few years, however, that I have begun to share with many other Hong Kong people a growing awareness of both the presence and potential of nature, the possibility of encountering the wilderness, within the seemingly unnatural cityscape. This awareness, I believe, has implications that stretch far beyond our borders.
My realization begins at the window. Just beside my bathroom there’s a small ledge. The ledge is connected to my shower via a short pipe, which means that it gets irrigated every time I run the shower. I live on the top floor and my building is the tallest on the block, so there’s always plenty of sunlight.
Perfect growing conditions, as I later found out, for all sorts of flora. Several months after I moved in, I opened the window to let out the shower steam and there, on my once-barren ledge, grew not just some moss and the odd weed but two tomato vines that had taken root and produced the most delicious-looking fruit. In the months since, they’ve produced no less than a dozen tomatoes.
Recently, the eminent conservation biologist E. O. Wilson made headlines with a proposal to set aside half of the planet to revert to its “natural” state; in his vision, the only way out of the current extinction crisis, in which thousands of species face extinction, is to create protected ecological reserves, connected by wildlife corridors, that would blanket half of our planet. Predictably, this proposal has been met either with gung-ho enthusiasm or glib dismissal, with little in between.
The central problem with this idea, as I see it, is that it attends to the needs of conservation by reformulating the same distinction between human activity and nature that got us into this crisis. By setting humans to one side and nature to the other, you’re just a short jump away from seeing nature as an “away” where you can throw your junk or as a mythical, untouched place that exists beyond us.
I’d like to suggest that my little tomato offers an alternative view of nature and a potential way out of the current crisis. As ridiculous as it may be, clinging to life on the side of a Sheung Wan high rise, this little guy reminds us that nature and human activity are, whether we like it or not, intimately interwoven. Whatever barriers we try to erect between us and nature, we cannot escape the ties that bind. As long as we think of nature as somewhere “out there”, those connections will take the shape of greenhouse gasses, acid rain, and toxic dumpsites. Rather than willing into existence a form a pristine nature that can never be, I say we should face up to my little tomato and embrace those connections.
Rooftop gardens are an ideal way for Hong Kong to reconsider those connections. At the most banal level, we all benefit from the cleaner skies and lower temperatures that heat-absorbing, oxygen-releasing rooftop farms offer. But in Hong Kong, the growing popularity of green rooftops speaks to their appeal across a range of segments. Property developers use them to burnish their green bona fides; localists see an opportunity to move closer to food self-sufficiency; artisan-framers in Kowloon have set up green markets selling rooftop produce; and of course there will always be tomato-vines-cum-squatters along for the ride.
As Dr. Ian Malcolm put it in Jurassic Park, “life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers”. Instead of erecting new barriers between the so-called natural and the artificial, let’s embrace our mutual dependence. As beautiful as our skyline is, it needs to be a lot greener.