This week, in the midst of chaos and questioning, Cultivating Place’s Women’s History Month interviews get to the very basics of horticultural work with soil.
The soil world is integral—foundational—to the plant world. Since the 1980s, mainstream academic soil science has been transformed into a search for biological discovery. It is a fundamental shift from a science that seemed blindered by theories of the Green Revolution from the 1920s through the 1970s. The term Green Revolution refers to innovations intended to increase food supply around the world specifically through introductions of new, often dwarfed, sometimes genetically modified, varieties of cereal and grain crops developed for high yield, along with introductions of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, often derived from the chemical byproducts of World War II.
The Green Revolution asserted increased production of and reduced pest and disease damage to crops managed with these manmade inputs over traditional agricultural methods. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, more voices started questioning the long-term results and benefits versus serious disadvantages of these methods. Many of the voices raised in opposition were women’s voices, among them Dr. Elaine Ingham, founder of Soil Food Web, Inc.
Elaine’s work in microbiology at the Colorado State University, Fort Collins in the late 1970s through 1980s began illuminating the incredibly complex living systems at work in healthy soil. Elaine’s work is strongly associated with the concept of a “soil food web.” She shares more about it in our conversation today.
Join us again next week when we speak with Christin Geall of Cultivated by Christin, about her new book on life, flowers, and the Elements of Floral Style out this month from Princeton Architectural Press.
There are soooooo many ways people engage in and grow from the cultivation of their places.
RELATED EPISODES INCLUDE:
- LEAH PENNIMAN, SOUL FIRE FARM & FARMING WHILE BLACK
Thinking out Loud this week...
Oh mercy – hello to you all wherever you might be listening from – your desk, your living room, your garden, a drive or a walk. What a crazy crazy week. am I right? How are you? I hope you are all holding up in your own ways – holding each other up in as many ways as you can and are able – I’m thinking here of my conversation a few weeks back with Amy Merrick and her description of the supportive crowd of life that is a wildflower meadow and how they hold one another up….think and breathe as supportively as we can I think is a very good mantra just now.
When I recorded my notes to you last week, I will still in the midst of my March book tour, and meeting so many wonderful warm interesting gardening folk at the Ecological Landscape Alliance annual conference at the University of Amherst, at Long Hill house and garden, under the care of the Trustees of the Reservation in Beverly Mass, at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, and then at Blithewold house and garden in Bristol, MA on Sunday the 8th…
All my scheduled speaking dates from March 10ththrough the middle of April more or less have been canceled and postponed to a later date, which is the safe and respectful thing to do I believe.
I can’t imagine how many things have been canceled in your lives as well.
I want to say right now that to meet the hundreds of you that I did meet was such sublime joy and affirmation. The conversations, the sense of connection and the sense of affirming empowerment from being in community with other like-minded gardener and plant loving people was a ballast for the storm that is now upon us. There were those of you who hugged me, who cried when describing the meaning of these conversations to you and your sense of yourself and your life. It is no exaggeration to say that I cried more than once myself. I love what I do – speaking to people of such scope and range and thought and amplifying their voices and work out into our growing world, but as I joke when I speak to groups in person – I mostly conduct my conversations on my own sitting in a recording studio with Matt on the other side of the glass from me running the board for the recording. I rarely meet you all in person – so to look out at sea of faces and feel the connection in person is something different all together. I am sorry to not get to so many of these interesting conversations in person over the next 6 weeks, but you will keep hearing from me every week, as usual. So there’s that. I would love to hear from you at any time – please reach out on Instagram or Facebook and just check in.
Because while so much has been canceled, I think I’d rather focus on what has not been canceled. Spring has not been canceled- the redwing blackbird and pussywillows in the hedgerow reminded me of that just this morning. Kindness, and care, compassion and humanity have not been canceled in any way no matter the prescribed 4 – 6 feet of social distancing suggested. The trees leafing out, and our ability to center ourselves in the fresh air of each moment and remember what is valuable to us and to those we love – including the trees, the bees waking to the season, the sharing of a flower or an herbal bundle for healing - these have not been canceled.
Another thing that was not canceled, even though it was adjusted and adapted to in this ever-shifting moment we find ourselves - was my conversation with the writer and gardener Jamaica Kincaid at the New York Botanical Garden on Friday the 13th.
While the hundreds of you registered to attend that day were not able to be there in person with us, the New York Botanical Garden found another way. Under the creative and resourceful leadership of an amazing crew of women including President Dr. Carrie Ribora Barratt, Vice President for Continuing and Public Education, Barbara Corcoran, and Director of Adult Education, Lisa Whitmer, the NYBG pivoted on a dime and rounded up videographer Kate and others to record and tape me and Jamaica in conversation talking about the book and the role of horticulture and gardening in our time – and historically.
As I wrote in The Earth in Her Hands - Women have been the carriers and sowers of seeds and the tenders of seedlings for a very, very long time, although for a great deal of that time these same women did not have the time or the means and ways necessary to document that history fully - if at all. There is no telling the whole story of women making their lives with plants or women making the lives of plants a broader field. I can’t even superficially acknowledge all of the women in plants who’ve cultivated this territory before us, except in so far as the compost-rich soil they left behind in a diversity ways is what germinated the seeds that became these vibrant women I’m writing about today.
Likewise, I cannot tell the whole story of women in plants today. I can tell a partial story for a few (75 to be exact) of them and hope that together, interwoven, they prismatically reflect the broader story of women growing this world through their work with and in plants.
Here’s one example of how this conversation helps to shed light where it might not have been so bright previously: to each woman I interviewed for the book I asked the same set of questions. Among these questions was one asking for women who had inspired or informed their own way of growing/gardening. Jamaica Kincaid offered out the name of Sacajawea, the Indigenous woman who led Lewis and Clark in their Western collecting expedition for Thomas Jefferson.
While Lewis, Clark and Jefferson were the ones to claim credit for the many plant “discoveries” and “introductions” precipitated by the Lewis & Clark expedition, it would have been Sacajawea’s knowledge, guidance, and intuition upon which this ALL relied and yet she got very little to no credit or benefit to speak of.
The citing of Sacajawea was one of my favorite responses to this question. While on tour talking about Jamaica Kincaid’s work and her choosing Sacajawea as woman of inspiration the world should know more about, another woman in plants, Mary Ann Newcomer, of Boise, Idaho was delighted to share with me that an Idahoan botanist friend of hers, Edna Rey-Vizgirdas, working with another botanist Wilson and others, had recently studied the lewisias (also known as bitter roots) of Idaho, which “were previously considered to be part of the CA species, Lewisia kelloggii, and determined them to in fact be different. Edna was given the honor of choosing the name for the newly identified and described species, which she says was “one of the highlights of my career! And the name is now: Lewisia sacajaweana B.L. Wilson & E. Rey-Vizgirdas.
While this is perhaps not a perfect next step in the naming of things, it’s a good step in the right direction.
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Together we grow: Bring Your Joy - Take Good Care - KEEP GARDENING.
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