The Pleasure and Peril of Gardening While Black

Earlier this year, as January bled into a gray February, my partner glared at the dark green English ivy in our flat and said, “I think it’s dead.” Being the optimist in our relationship, I swiftly rebuked him and said, “No, it isn’t.” We spent 15 minutes quibbling over the plant’s vitality, examining its browning leaves, the sparseness of foliage near the roots, and its overall limpness. I was resolute, so being the dutiful husband, my partner finally gave in and allowed us to hold on to our verdant friend. After examining the soil, he pruned the plant and voiced a suspicion that someone—most likely him—had overwatered it. By the end of the week, the ivy was no longer with us.

For most of our last three years of living together, our home has become a graveyard for dozens of plants. Some of them entered as vivacious herbs or luscious ferns, only to face a mortal end. This was not for lack of light (since our flat faces south and receives plenty of light) or lack of resources (we have sought indoor gardening advice from close friends who are plant aficionados.) The problem is us. We are wretched gardeners.

But we kept gardening anyway, and that was because it provided so much: the greener our home, the thicker our bond to the city of Berlin. As foreigners living in Germany, we often feel out of place, but in those moments when we attempt to foster some plant growth, we cultivate our own abode. During the height of the pandemic, people turned to gardening, boasting about their newfound green thumbs, a sign that horticulture could bring nourishment or stress relief. As my partner and I found out, (indoor) gardening was not just about our relationship with the foliage we nurture, but about how, for each weed we wrested and every seed we scattered, our handling of misfortune became more deft—a testament that we could exercise prudence and care even when our experiments in gardening failed. “What they create will be held up, will resume: the appetite is bigger than joy,” as Claudia Rankine wrote. This is the subject of Camille T. Dungy’s book Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.

The environment has been a central feature of Dungy’s work, sending a message about the duty we have to cultivate a healthy ecosystem. In her most recent book of poems, Tropic Cascades, nature features alongside her reflections on pregnancy: The topics intertwine, such as when, in her poem “Ultrasound,” Dungy writes, “I will wait for you as cicada wait through winter”—implying that her pregnancy is part of the cycle of nature, that it is a lesson in patience. In her anthology Black Nature, Dungy pays respect to her literary elders—African American writers who touched nature, such as the Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer or the feminist poet June Jordan—to show how environmentalism has always been a subject important to Black literature. In Soil, Dungy writes about the history of Colorado and the painstaking work it takes to build a garden in a semi-arid climate. The labor of making this garden requires community, and like us, Dungy turned to gardening to understand more than an agricultural practice: She wanted to show that planting provides the opportunity to sustain our relationships. Soil is a poetic memoir—erudite and warm, enhanced by nature’s exuberance and social history. For the poet, her Fort Collins garden is a way to impart her concerns about the environment, patience, and America. The argument is clear: The time spent in the garden or in nature can fuel stability and security, an escape from the exhaustion that we live with.

Books about gardening tend to be didactic, instructing readers about the most appropriate fertilizer or the ideal seeding pattern. But this is not Dungy’s goal. Her book is a chronicle of how she planted a toxin-free garden to create a space that was safe for the local animals to congregate. As she guides us through this story, she describes how she holds space for the African Americans who toiled on the earth—whether by choice or by force—to yield power in their relationship with nature. This book, then, is also a history of Black stewards who were environmental innovators. One of her subjects is John Albert Burr, a person born into slavery and who patented the first non-clogging rotary mower in 1899. Dungy distinguishes between people like Burr, who was coerced to tend the land and tried to work out ways of making that task less burdensome, and herself, someone who has a choice about when and how to work with the earth. “I enjoy working in the garden,” she writes. “The agency to choose to work in the yard, in our yard, belongs to us alone.” For Dungy, gardening is a privilege that she celebrates with her daughter, an activity she can carry out because she is a homeowner. But owning a home does not go without its challenges.

The political layers of homeownership as a Black person in America are manifold: a tangle of surveillance, control, and explicit racism, in the form of banks who deny loans or the notorious homeowners’ associations who decree what is aesthetically fit for a property in the neighborhood. They often determine the appropriate vegetation and the height of flora in a community, and if homeowners break those rules, they will be fined. Dungy notes that for Black homeowners, their gardens might be subject to fines or even outright destruction. Such was the case with Denise Morrison, who in 2012 had her garden in Tulsa, Okla., bulldozed after officials claimed that her plants were too tall and in violation of city codes. When Morrison sought recompense, there was none.

Homogeneity is facile, but yet, in America, some people are fighting tooth and nail for it. Dungy encounters difficulties with her local homeowners’ association, which fined her $25 a day for having her compost, located in her yard, in plain sight from the sidewalk. But she doesn’t accept this premise and affirms, “My yard reveals a very different sort of possibility—one in which you never know exactly what or whom you’ll find.” The metaphor Dungy is trying to assemble—from history, from her own experience—is an understanding of horticultural practices as a reflection of embedded politics: She wants to resist the homogenous dictates of her neighbors because she is hopeful that biodiversity might unlock other sorts of heterogeneous possibilities.

Between history and the story of her garden, Dungy’s book documents a mother imparting knowledge to her daughter about the value of nonhuman life that may appear to be a nuisance. One lesson that she teaches her daughter, Callie, is to appreciate the virtues of a plant that is often considered a weed: the dandelion. Callie’s initial love for dandelions emerged, like most children’s, because of their decorative charm, worn as a bracelet or necklace. Still, weeding the garden meant that the flower became something she detested. However, Dungy, rather than fuel that disdain, used this as an opportunity to express the plant’s utility as a food item. So she ingested the dandelion. (The plant can extract copper and other nutrients from the soil and can also be transformed into a pesto.) But the story about the dandelion doesn’t just end there; it is also a tale about European settler colonialism—the plant first arrived in North America during the 17th century—and what it means to weather the storm during the arduous task of clipping extraneous roots.

But one of the most challenging instructions Dungy faced while gardening during the pandemic was after the summer of 2020, when Callie suffered panic attacks because, as Dungy notes, “she worried police would kill her.” Like most African American parents, Dungy could not promise her child safety, but being the writer she was, she milled between poetry and prose to articulate how her daughter could be a steward of the earth: “Callie arranged two little piles of river rocks that jutted out of the water so bees could land and drink…. The bees stayed there, safely—long enough to take a satisfying drink.”

Every so often, Dungy provides poems in between the chapters of her book, as well as pictures taken directly from the garden. They serve as welcome breaks and also help deepen the intimacy of her text. In “Ceremony,” we are reminded of familial loss:

An uncle died. Another aunt was taken
to the hospital. The moon swells again.
This feels like the early days of parenthood.
We swap watch. Focus on raising the child.

The poem is accompanied by the image of a daffodil, and in conjunction with all these vulnerable moments shared, the sum of history Dungy collects, the book attempts to spark life even when it is shadowed by grief. Each time she allowed herself to be enveloped by the garden, she came to life:

Whether a plot in a yard or pots in a window, every politically engaged person should have a garden. By politically engaged, I mean everyone with a vested interest in the direction the people on this planet take in relationship to others. We should all take some time to plant life in the soil. Even when such planting isn’t easy.

The garden, as Dungy sees it, can be a refuge for anyone who is exhausted, as well as a place to contemplate building a better world. The longer we sit with a garden, even if it is unwieldy or burdensome, the more we are reminded that when we nurture the world, we become more whole. “Every person who finds herself constantly navigating political spaces—by which I mean,” Dungy writes, “every person who regularly finds herself demoralized and exhausted by the everyday patterns of life in America—should have access to such a garden.”

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