Learning Together: Conversations with André Bispo de Jesus
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
By Beatriz Lima Ribeiro
PhD Student in Anthropology, Indiana University-Bloomington
Meeting at the crossroads...
It has been 3 years now since I first became interested in plants and gardening. Reflecting on this moment now, in the present, I realize that plants have become new friends, a “support network” when facing moments of intense stress experienced during the first year of my masters program in Brazil. I'm no longer in my home country, and I've completed 6 months in this gringo country of the United States, but plants are still an important element for my well-being. I'm proud to say I already have over ten plants in my new home and dedication to them keeps me centered on my roots. Upon arriving in Bloomington, while sharing my passion for plants, my friend Jonathan told me: “There's a Brazilian at Hilltop Garden”. I got to know him later on, through the course “Food and the Body” taught by professor Keitlyn Alcantara, who also envisioned the Healing Garden project (For more information see: https://www.healinggardeniub.com/post/in-search-of-wholeness-how-the-healing-garden-began).
During the class with André, me and my colleagues walked through the Hilltop greenhouse, full of plants familiar to me such as the pitanga tree, the caninha do brejo, the taioba and the capim santo (Lemon Grass). All thriving, well taken care of by André.
As the class walked through the greenhouse, he gave us pieces of leaves, roots and bark to smell and touch, in order to pay attention to the peculiarities of each. Along the way, he not only described their medicinal properties, but also taught how to prepare them: a hot tea with bubbling water, others that should be prepared with medium temperature, and some, in their raw state, also healed bruises or irritations.
For the first summer of the Healing Garden project, Keitlyn and I talked about the importance of highlighting André's work, which paved the way for this project to exist.
More than that, we sought to diversify what has been written in English about his work, by accessing other communities in Bloomington by publishing an initial post in Portuguese (See it through the link: https://www.healinggardeniub.com/post/aprendendo-junto-conversas-com-andré-bispo-de-jesus).
When I initially talked to André about the writing of this post, I said: "Let's talk a little bit in our language!" We both laughed, both acknowledging how we miss to do so...
Thus, André trusted me to share some of his history, knowledge and philosophy about how he cares for plants and how they have the potency to transform communities.
Knowledge, exchange and heal
André arrived in the United States in 2007, after studying in Brazil and specializing in gardening and landscape management, besides the many things he learned from his grandma. From an early age, he worked to help cover the family's expenses, first in the construction industry and later enlisting in the army. It was after this period that he pursued his studies working with plants. He ended up in Bloomington, Indiana after a few years living in Chicago, his first home in the United States. Already working with landscaping and gardening in Bloomington, André began volunteering at Hilltop Garden, a space that is part of Indiana University and has been active since the 1940s. According to him, the space was practically abandoned, with bushes and gardens without any form. If one day, dear reader, you pass by Hilltop, much of what is there was made or improved by André, such as the structure of the Japanese garden, the apple trees (bearing fruit now for 3 years), the garden around the fence, the sidewalks on the grounds and, of course, the space where the Healing Garden is now located. Lea Woodard, Hilltop supervisor during the time André worked in the space, highlights his uniqueness in managing and creating the space, going beyond a merely professional relationship with Hilltop, to truly become part of it:
“Anyone who had contact with André was able to see the uniqueness, care and affection he brought to the garden. André finds pieces of wood, which we usually see as garbage, and transforms them into something unique, bringing personality to the space. He did not see his relation to the garden as solely work, as he brought many of his values to Hilltop in the relationship to nature”.
His talent in dealing with plants dates back to his childhood, influenced by his grandmother, a central figure in the community of Itaparica’s Island, within the Bahia state. This knowledge is ancestral, passed from generation to generation through his great-great-grandmother: a woman from the African diaspora, who forcibly came to Brazil sold to the slave regime, and who later sheltered on the island. This story is common, Brazil being the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888, a legacy that led to more than half of its current population identifying as Black.
André speaks with pride and respect about his ancestry. In our conversations, he described to me the “scenario” of his classes with his grandmother on the Island:
“She would take me for walks in the middle of the forest, showing me the name of each plant. I was then a little kid, holding the hem of her skirt”.
More than identifying the plants, André always points out their medicinal aspects, and of course their power to cure different ailments. This perspective is also inherited from his grandmother, who, in addition to being a leading figure on the island, was also a healer, midwife and mãe de santo (religious and spiritual leader in the Brazilian afro-religion Candomblé) . According to him, she was a figure that people saw as wise and went to for advice. André was a curious child and told me that much of what he learned about the spiritual and social aspects of plants, as well as how to help people, came from being interested in his grandmother's talent.
His knowledge attracted the curiosity of many when living in the United States, and volunteers started to come to Hilltop looking for a spot in maintaining the garden, or also to have a small harvesting space. During the approximately 10 years he worked there, André has always helped and shared what he knows with the volunteers, going through all the plant care processes, from compost production, to germination, to planting and harvesting.
He has a very clear vision of his role within the garden and the place the volunteers occupy: community building. Community is communion, exchange and mutual assistance in search of a common goal:
“If I have my garden and you have yours, and one day you can't come to water your plants, when I go to water mine, I'll water yours. When I can't come to water my garden, you water yours and mine. This is community”.
This is not his land, where he formed his early roots, as he once told me, but he wanted to find a way to connect people. In that sense, in a place like Hilltop, it doesn't make sense for him to think that everyone has an individual space and only worry about their own piece of soil. The important thing is the notion of community as a whole, of respect and care for a place that everyone enjoys.
Through this perspective, André also created other activities inside Hilltop, such as meditation mornings and kitchen days, where he cooked together with everyone. This is part of his vision of community, also being a way to remember childhood moments on the Itaparica Island. Every Saturday he went with his grandmother to help build mud houses for other people in the community, a job that brought together the smallest child to the eldest adult. At the end of this job, where everyone helped each other, there always was good food, the sound of the drum, dancing and group laughter. Never each for themselves, but always in mutual and communal exchange. Lea also highlighted this aspect of his work on Hilltop:
“André was always very attentive to everyone who showed up there to volunteer. He pays attention to people's needs and interests and does something unique for them. Sometimes a bouquet, other times vegetables and herbs that he had planted and cared for”.
Listen, observe, feel and respect
His actions are also based on his world view, in which he believes that the creation of a community means an exchange of energy, not only between people working towards a common goal, but between plants, land, trees and animals. André is always aware of the importance of unhurried listening, an attentive look and the patience to understand the process of each living being. This is reflected in the way he thinks about the cycle of receiving what the earth gives us, and having respect for its generosity. He says that every time he plants, a part of the harvesting goes to the earth's energy, in other words, some plants stay in the soil as nourishment in return for the one that feeds us: the land.
“What I see, I observe a lot, is that there is no retribution to the land. It just gives and gives and many people are not worried about what they need to give in return. In recent years I have noticed fewer and fewer butterflies in the garden, fewer insects among the trees. People plant, use toxins and harvest everything, take everything off the earth, kill the insects. Next harvest, same thing. All the nutrients go away, as well as the energy”.
One of André's long-term plans is to return to Brazil and continue sharing his vision of community. There, he wants to build a greenhouse and teach a form of self-sustainable planting, where the population can have more independence and variety in their diet. Thinking mainly about the municipal school of Itaparica’s Island, he imagines carrying out an interdisciplinary project and providing diverse access to vegetables, legumes and herbs for low-income children and families in Itaparica.
Between the days of our conversations, I ended up reflecting a lot on what this perspective of the world means. It is a denial of an exploitative view of nature, in which everything is fragmented and individualized. Not only related to a respect for cycles, and the recognition of the vital energy present in the earth, it is also an attempt to reconnect people and the perception of equality between them and the elements of nature. Listening and looking attentively motivates respect for this vital energy that connects us all. An equal respect. André one day told me:
“I love hiking, I stop and listen. I embrace the trees, talk to them, it is also a form of meditation”.
I also recalled one of the concepts of Antônio Bispo - or Nego Bispo -, a quilombola (Tradional Afrobrazilian communities) author and intellectual, in his discussion about anti-colonial perspectives on nature. His idea of “biointeraction” (Bispo 2015) connects with André's philosophy: a reflection on the connection between community and environment. There is an interdependent relationship, in contrast to a utilitarian view of land ownership. It is the perception of an equal communal existence.
I believe that André's work in the garden also seeks to overcome the dichotomies of what it is to be a Black Brazilian man in a country (USA) where histories of "white settlement" dictate the relationship with the land to the point where whiteness is raised to the level of the ideal: a struggle between a deterritorialized, unrooted view of nature versus one that is territorialized and deeply rooted in memory (Bispo, 2015). In my view, André brings to these gringo lands the possibility of seeking community through the creation of roots. His work has a potent power that stands in contrast to the individualization and exploitation of nature, viewing nature as an element external to humanity. In his words, it is a way of comprehending Earth's generous energy and the beauty of building community.
It is exactly this generous energy that led me to meet him, and made me appreciate the wonder of realizing the coincidences of life and learning in cooperation when away from home...
Antônio Bispo dos Santos. 2015. Colonização, Quilombos, Modos e Significações. Brasília, INCTI, Universidade de Brasília.