BOTANY, GEOGRAPHY, HISTORY & POWER: AT THE HEART OF THE GARDEN, JAMAICA KINCAID
"YEASTY" - that's how Jamaica Kincaid describes our current moment in time. She and I spoke via remote audio video connection on June 12th - almost three months to the day after we were together in person in New York City. From her home in Vermont, she was surveying a new collection of lily bulbs she was deciding where to place in her garden after having seen them on good sale at White Flower Farm. As we spoke and I recorded the conversation, she and I both had our cameras focused elsewhere rather than on us so that we could focus on Listening and Thinking our way through the conversation - she is something of stream-of-consciousness writer and on principle does not edit her writing and so I have done little to edit her speaking either - I wanted us to all really hear her way of thinking through something candidly. As she spoke to me, I could see her hands flying around her when she was really enthused about a thought - and it felt like birds flitting across my screen or like an Indonesian shadow play with meanings often cryptic and embodied - beyond the words themselves.
We spoke of our love of lilies, of her gardening efforts to redeem plants and places by overlaying new memories, plants and places. We spoke of the incredible inherent strength and intelligence of plants as illustrated by a lily bulb or any plant's seed laying dormant sometimes for many seasons before swelling out upon the optimum conditions arriving.....we spoke of kindness. And more redemption.
Jamaica Kincaid is an acclaimed author and educator – for more than a decade she’s been a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is also a passionate gardener and student of the garden in all its lessons. In 1999 a compilation of her essays originally published in the New Yorker magazine exploring her own life in the garden as a black woman was published as My Garden (Book). It is a seminal work on the vast human narrative offered to us through the knowledge embodied in our modern garden plants and lives. Ms. Kincaid is one of the women I featured in my book The Earth in Her Hands, 75 Extraordinary Women at Work in the World of Plants, and to mark the Fourth of July and all that it means to be a citizen gardener in this world, Ms. Kincaid joins me in conversation this week.
She sees not just botany but power, geography and the entire complex history of the world being at the heart of our gardens.
I had the honor of speaking with Ms. Kincaid in person at the New York Botanical Garden on Friday March 13th, 2020 just as the world was closing down around us with Covid-19 and if you have not had a chance to hear that conversation - please find it here, courtesy of the NYBG: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFttRtK__wc
Follow along with Jamaica Kincaid's work at Farrar, Straus & Giroux: https://us.macmillan.com/author/jamaicakincaid and at Harvard University here: https://aaas.fas.harvard.edu/people/jamaica-kincaid
Join us again next week when we catch up with British-based Californian Kathryn Aalto – a historian, designer, and writer whose most recent book Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks offers all of us some much needed outdoor adventure with some admirable women of words.
THINKING OUT LOUD this week..
Ever since first reading Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts on the garden in the early 2000s, I have been struck by the import and consequences of what she notes so incisively: History, Geography and Botany – the whole world is there in the garden. The whole world mine and yours – whoever and just about wherever you may be as a gardener. Looking out my office window onto my small front courtyard garden – maybe 19 feet by 19 feet Northern Californian Suburban garden I am accompanied in my daily view by a potted Camellia japonica
Pink pearl’ the genus of which is native to China and Japan but this cultivar I believe selected by Nuccios, a nursery in Southern California from which my mother, now 22 years passed, bought me my first camellia’s when I lived in Seattle; there is a large Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light', also native to Asia, and which I first fell in love with in a Colorado garden when I was a young mother to two little girls almost 20 years ago; Now, it is perfectly positioned to block my view of the drive and to catch the morning light while I sit here and work; there is a sesame plant new to me, and native to India, recommended to me by North Carolinan gardener Brie Arthur and purchased as seed from Kitazawa Seed specializing in Asian vegetable seeds and based in San Francisco. I am so thrilled with the seed pods forming and the thought that I might harvest edible sesame seed.
There are locally and regionally California native salvias and buckwheats, variously used by, coevolved with and sacred to the indigenous peoples of this place including the Mechoopda Maidu on whose unceded land I live and garden; there are iceberg roses, bred in Europe in the late 1950s, there are violets and marigolds, and many Mediterranean herbs thyme, mint, marjoram, chamomile – all herbs used medicinally for thousands of years by cultures throughout time; there are tomatoes trying to take advantage of the full southern sun but struggling in the soil damaged by proximity to a concrete slab foundation. There is a shell from Turks and Caicos purchased on a family vacation, there is a metal tree of life from Mexico positioned on the wall above a little frog fountain I fashioned out of a cast stone trough gifted to me by my friend Kim, who lives in Minneapolis, and right beside the front door there is a well-traveled and much beloved 9 tile Tree of Life mosaic that I bought as individual tiles wrapped in foreign language newspaper from a Palestinian artist on the side of the road in Israel back in the 1990s when I was a mid-twenties unmarried woman traveling with my sisters.
Currently, a tiny little pacific chorus frog spends her days sleeping on the top of this now framed mosaic and at night she wanders the courtyard hunting and eating the noisy night insects.
The whole world – my small world and our larger world – wars and thefts, enslavements and displacements, triumphs and losses, lies and laughter, deceptions and fidelities, babies and divorces; layers and cycles, second chances and 55th chances at starting and trying again all right here out my window.
In my conversations with Jamaica Kincaid prior to writing about her in The Earth in Her Hands, she said this: “The thing we have liked the most about gardens is the love of a flower from somewhere else. Most people don’t know that the marigold and dahlia were part of Montezuma’s gardens. If we could just honor one another, it wouldn’t feel so badly to have taken them. Honoring one another is one way perhaps that we redeem ourselves; I am very interested in redemption,” she told me.
Redemption. An interesting word – Jamaica talks about how we as people can work to honor one another – work to re-find and retell and re- share histories which were hidden – stolen – histories that some strove to erase. But they are still there those histories – embodied in the plants and the seeds and the art and the myth and the lived history of peoples and places.
The word Redeem literally means – to regain, to reclaim, to recover. In what we plant, what language we use with and in our gardens – we literally reclaim the garden and its history and meaning in a greater fullness – a fullness born of tragedy, evil, beauty and joy – the joy is there too but it is a truer joy in its context of greater truth.
I like to make myself as a gardener truly think about what it means to be a gardener - Jamaica Kincaid wrote about gardens with history and power at their center – because that is in fact what is at their center. In honor of the fourth of July 2018 we spoke with artist activist Nekisha Durrett whose sculptural exhibit at the US Botanic Garden based on the cotton plant explored the complicated history of this plant for her as a black woman; for fourth of July 2019 we were joined by Robin Wall Kimmerer and her thoughts on being a citizen of this world and a gardener with it from an indigenous reciprocal ecological knowledge and relationship perspective; and here in this conversation with Jamaica Kincaid towards the end of our conversation she notes that for her the greatest thing we as gardener citizens can do is to be kind. As many of you will remember, the poet Ross Gay glossed for us the relationship between the word kind and the word kin. In this way we are never citizens of one country – we are family within the world.
In this way – perhaps we ourselves and our even very small gardens are the living cover crops we ourselves need to reclaim and reseed and redeem that with which we want to grow forward.
As always - together we grow....better.
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