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Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, by Camille Dungy

Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, by poet and essayist Camille Dungy and published last week, is just a lovely book in so many ways. The descriptions of the natural world, in particular of her garden and the plants she fills it with, are very finely observed and evocative. The portrait she paints of her relationship with her husband and daughter are sweet and loving, even in moments of disagreement and tension. She writes beautifully about the life of a writer.

And oh...the politics woven throughout...those are wondrous as well.

The publisher’s blurb about the book frames it around a tension between the gardening plans of the author—the only black family in the neighborhood within the predominantly white city of Fort Collins, Colorado-- and the neighborhood Homeowners Association restrictions on what could be planted. That’s a bit of a MacGuffin. This specific confrontation is dispensed with in a few pages early in the book: while there had once been a woman who walked the streets with a ruler measuring the height of people’s lawns, for the most part the neighborhood is benignly accepting. When a 140 square meters of soil and mulch are deposited in their driveway and in the street in front of their house on a windy October day, neighbors helped with securing the horticultural treasure beneath weighted tarps. And even more:

But I am lucky. The neighbors I speak to claim to be grateful we moved in, cultivating the most heterogenous environment on our street, both with our presence as a Black family and with our landscaping decisions. Our HOA eliminated its rules against “non-standard landscaping,” and the town of Fort Collins actively works to help residents create landscapes that support native plants and insect populations and lower the strain on our precarious water supply.

But if the HOA confrontation is a MacGuffin, the issue of race remains central to the book, though that was not necessarily at the forefront of her mind when she first envisioned it:

In the proposal for the fellowship that bought me the time to write a new book, I made it clear that I wanted to write about my yard. Those crocuses. The patches of purple iris. A cluster Mexican sunflowers. Tithonia, that volunteered in our back garden in 2018. At first, I suspected the Tithonia were an undesirable weed. Then they blossomed into flowers so gorgeous I brought friends to the house to see them. Nine feet tall and topped with orange blooms like a cross between a zinnia and a gerbera daisy….I wanted to spend a year thinking about the soil that surrounded me: what grew from it, and why.

But the real world crept in, particularly in 2020 with the calamitous Covid shutdown, and the summer of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. But even before that, she was drawn to the themes of race and of feminism. In February of 2020, even before the above list of horrors entered our lives,

I’d come to the end of the time I could dedicate to writing one afternoon, when this paragraph tumbled from my fingers:

None of these are accidents: the omission of Black and Brown stories from the literature taught in the schools set up to serve white people; the condescension my professors conveyed when they considered a Black woman’s writing; the absence of stories in canonical environmental prose of women actively engaged in the work of mothering; the prioritization of narratives of solitary men in the wilderness. These conventions are part of a design.

And so, the history of her family is woven into the work. Her great-grandfather was a farm demonstration agent in Louisiana. He traveled the back roads, teaching young Black men about planting crops. He sometimes found himself sharing that information with white farmers as well, but his efforts were not necessarily appreciated.

Once, refusing to listen to his lessons about crop rotation and allowing fields to sometimes lie fallow, a gang of white men encircled my great-grandfather’s new Ford. They wouldn’t be taught how to prosper by an “uppity” Black man. The white men told my great-grandfather, “A horse and cart will do just fine next time you come around these parts.”

Her maternal great-grandfather ran a successful plumbing and sheet metal business, and hired a younger cousin as an apprentice. One morning he opened the shop to find that young man’s body thrown onto a worktable, along with a menacing note. She writes “white men in that town made sure my great-grandfather knew he wasn’t going to be allowed out of the limits imposed on his Black body. Except through death.”

Though there is much beauty and comradeship in the Fort Collins life she and her family enjoy, the overwhelming whiteness of the city is unavoidable. She cites statistics regarding the social networks of whites nationwide: their social circle is on average 91% white, and the Black friend of one white person is likely the Black friend of another white person, making the networks even smaller “[T]hough I might have counted nine white friends at that church,” she writes, “when asked if they had any friends who identified as Black, all nine of them may only count me.”

She describes a sermon given by the white pastor of her church on the Sunday after Trump’s 2016 election. Her mother had written a prayer card seeking protection for “Black people, Latinx people, LGBTQ people, women and children, refugees and other immigrants, people of non-Christian faiths—especially Muslims—disabled people, and people with health concerns.”

When the pastor finished reading Mom’s long list of people to hold up in prayer, he added a sentence for context: “Let us pray for those who are on the outside of our society looking in.”

I looked around the sanctuary, hoping for evidence that someone else seemed shocked by his language. besides my family, no one seemed troubled….

[After the service], Tears in my eyes and throat, I told the pastor, “The language you used during the prayers of the people was hurtful and dangerous.”

He looked wounded and surprised.

“All those people you listed,” I continued, “ we are not ‘on the outside of society looking in.’ We are part of this society! We are at the very center of what America has been built upon. But the rhetoric you used during your addition to that prayer is the rhetoric of exclusion”

The morning after Trump’s election, she and her family kept the blinds closed, when usually they would joyously open them to the garden outside. But they were afraid, afraid of passersby catching a glimpse of the African art and decor on their walls, afraid of the outburst of released racism that Trump’s election seemed to have unleashed. It was not an idle concern. Not long after the election, a group of white male Colorado State University students surrounded a Black student on his way to a class her husband taught. They shook their fists at him and said: “Obama can’t protect you. Our guy’s in now.”

The onset of the Covid epidemic opens her thoughts to the treatment of women, as well as to racism. Her daughter’s grammar school is shut down, and like parents—especially mothers—across the nation, she has to deal with home-schooling. She ties together her thoughts with a combination of a 1970s-era phrase that was popular for kids to throw at their parent—“I didn’t ask to be born!”—and a line from Mary Oliver’s poem A Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life.”

I wonder if the ubiquity of that phrase in my childhood has to do with the increasing number of mothers entering the workforce during those years. The frustration women felt, trying to be breadwinners and still play the role of mothers, pretty wives, bakers, cooks, house cleaners, gardeners, tutors, seamstresses and PTA board members. There weren’t enough hours. It was impossible to be the kind of mother those working women, their children, and, it seemed, the world thought ideal. Perhaps what happened in those years was happening in my house too. I was a woman, and a mother, balancing competing expectations of what I should be doing with my “one wild and precious life.”

But I don’t mean to make the book sound overly polemical. Throughout are glorious descriptions of nature, of the slow, detailed enjoyment of watching and assisting a garden grow. There are lovely moments of love between the author, her husband and her daughter. There is much history as well of gardening, horticulture, and Black traditions in both. There are memories of children frolicking in the cooling mists of trucks rumbling through the streets spraying DDT (“It’s a wonder we survived,” her mother says.) There are musings on such topics as the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which in 2008 dropped words like minnow, sycamore, ferret, dandelion and blackberry to make room new words like blog, broadband, voicemail, and chatroom, along with vandalism, endangered, and cautionary tale.

It’s a book that makes you want to walk the earth appreciating both the wonders of nature, and the complexities of our society.