The central Kentucky dogwoods had barely finished blooming in early May when horticulturist, author, and speaker Abra Lee tipped me off to Camille T. Dungy’s new book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden. Abra said, “It’s an excellent book—you will love it.” (Listen to this enjoyable one-hour interview with Camille Dungy, led by Abra Lee.)
You can judge this book favorably by its cover
As a rule, I don’t review gardening books. But Dungy’s was an exception. The cover holds a hint of what’s inside. A colorful collage of sunflowers, columbines, goldenrods, flax and penstemon is set against a brown background. Turn the pages, and there are personal, artful black and white photographs of flowers, branches, and berries from Dungy’s prairie project. Of course, there is more. Much more.
Dungy’s memoir reads like a long letter
I once exchanged letters with gardeners, but ten years ago or so, my 40-year paper trail began drying up, replaced by emails and texts. (I doubt Dungy has time for handwritten letters. “I can text while stirring risotto,” she says.)
My old letters are organized in alphabetical order in two stuffed file drawers. I had just begun to explore this past, when I started reading Dungy’s book about her dreams of a “Black pastoral” with poetic descriptions of plants that would be the envy of anyone writing catalog copy for a nursery or seed company.
“Hollyhock leaves the size of salad plates.”
“Cosmo seeds, like tiny pencil leads.
No small dose of fear
“Seeking the many manifestations of God, I plant restorative love in my garden—and in this book,” Dungy explains.
“I am no angel,” she confesses. Futility sometimes rears its head, but she has another gear.
If any of my own letters held traces of fear, it was mere garden variety anxiety about woeful weather or struggles with weeds and dead plants, not insidious racism. In contrast, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden is filled with history, plants and no-holds-barred opinion.
“Maybe my people are like dandelions, planting ourselves where the earth offers openings. Or maybe we’re more like irises—able to withstand division. Thriving and flourishing in many climates and soils.” But Dungy’s husband Ray said, “No. “We’re like dandelions. When they see us, they still try to kill us.”’
There is, in Soil, an invitation to family, home and genealogy, featuring garden and nature writing that connects a diverse, 2/10 acres with bindweed, hollyhocks, sunflowers, bugs and mountain cottontails named: Lily, Bun Bun, Bun, Pebble and Lily.
“Someone asked me what hope looks like. Yesterday could be any day. The hollyhocks had not bloomed, were blooming, were already spent.”
“We’re at peace with the land.”
“In 2009, I edited, wrote for and published Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry…Black people write with an empathetic yes toward the Natural World. Just as strong as the pull of legacies of trauma this nation inflicted—and inflicts—on Black people, some of us are pulled toward stories of hope and renewal.”
Daughter Callie’s favorite-named bunnies, and others no doubt, “seem to be eating, of all the plants I put into the yard, the prairie mallow, the wine cups and the little bluestem are the only ones they nibble to the ground….Some suggested fencing to keep the rabbits out of the prairie project…My answer: plant more mallows, bigger bluestems…Let the rabbits make themselves at home.”
Dungy shares her tiny prairie project, carved out of suburban turf, with her husband Ray and young daughter Callie in overwhelmingly white Fort Collins, Colorado. Dungy was born in Colorado but won’t call herself a native.
“I am not always sure that I belong in Colorado. Though I have my little plot of land here that I love, I am nothing but a settler in this state. And not always a welcome one. No more than bindweed.
She knows well the hell-bent menacing cousin of morning glory. “Convolvulus arevensis means ‘“to entwine the field and it penetrates 20 feet deep into the ground…”’anything the bindweed touches, it wraps and binds and climbs…Cut a leaf, the roots, a tendril and new roots will emerge.”
Gardening never seemed so pernicious.
“In America, Black isn’t a skin tone. It’s a condition.” Make no mistake, racism still exists. As tenacious as bindweed.”
In the book Kingdom of the Blind, Dungy quotes author Louise Penny, “The real danger in a garden came from bindweed. That moved underground, then surfaced and took hold. Strangling plant after healthy plant. Killing them all slowly. And for no apparent reason.”
“I dig up a lot of awful history when I kneel in my garden.”
“But, my god, a lot of beauty grows out of this soil as well.”
Robert Pogue Harrison, in a chapter called Homeless Gardens, from his book Garden: An Essay on the Human Condition, writes: “Another urge that these gardens (of homeless people) appear to respond to, or arise from, is so innate that we are barely conscious of its abiding claims on us. I mean our biophilia, as well as what I would call our chlorophilia. When we are deprived of greens, of plants, of trees, most of us (though evidently not all of us) succumb to demoralization which we blame on some psychological or neurochemical malady, until one day we find ourselves in a garden or park or countryside and feel the oppression vanish as if by magic.”
Camille Dungy, meet Steven Edwards who lives in my hometown
Edwards is one of 26 authors of the Louisville Story Program’s If You Write Me a Letter, Send It Here: Voice of Russell in a Time of Change. He writes “I didn’t know anything about planting or harvesting when I started Project Hope…I had no idea what I was doing…I thought it could help me through some stuff. It was me healing me.”
“Why would you do this?” people in the Russell neighborhood wondered. “Well, why wouldn’t I?”
“This is my gift and passion. It almost costs me more when I don’t do it. I’m frustrated with the status quo…Every time I do something with the garden it teaches me so many other things about life…I learned about patience. I learned about listening to nature.”
“It is more than hope my garden gives me.”
“Examples of resilience keep me coming back to walk this path with gratitude and wonder,” Dungy says.
The embrace of office clutter— book piles and partially used seed packets
No one else dares put a finger on this chaos, especially my garden and nature books scattered about. Christopher Lloyd and Elizabeth Lawrence are there—somewhere. So are Wendell Berry and Jamaica Kincaid.
Soil The Story of A Black Mother’s Garden will soon go on my bookshelves or under my daybed or on my rocking chair or on top of a file drawer near these other authors—somewhere.
I can lay my hands on all of them.