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Naming Who's Related in the Garden: A Review of SOIL by Camille T. Dungy



Camille T. Dungy


Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden


Simon & Schuster / May 2023 / 336 pp / $28.99


Reviewed by Melanie Weldon-Soiset / October 2023



 

In her memoir Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, Camille T. Dungy offers an innovative collection of lyric essays, poems, visual media, and maps that emphasizes the interdependence of the human and greater-than-human world. Dungy not only names myopic biases in US environmental stories, but she also writes her desired garden, wild and interwoven. Instead of a Table of Contents or named chapters, Soil marks breaks with pictures from Dungy's garden, such as one of the book's first pictures, "Hawthorn branch, with berries." The essays in Soil form a dandelion chain that connects Dungy's gardening experience, narratives of her ancestors and other Black leaders cultivating justice on US land, and challenges to the history of American environmental writing.


In Soil, Dungy's deep poetry experience blooms through the careful linguistic reflections that undergird her writing. Dungy sagely engages racially charged words like "black," "brown," and "white," including allium seeds left in her yard that will "darken into a mature blackness." Dungy has published four books of poetry, and has edited several poetry anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Like the pictures from her garden, Dungy's poems also serve as waystations throughout Soil.


Soil explores common practices of naming. Indeed, Dungy acknowledges "how much I could miss out on as a result of what I didn't work to learn." Are the large and migratory mammals native to much of the US buffalo or bison? Are the speedy, deerlike mammals roaming through Colorado and beyond antelope or pronghorn?


Dungy invites her readers into an exultant roll call. "Say them with me: Rocky Mountain bee plant. . . . Little bluestem. . . . Pine siskins. . . . I do not tire of repeating the names of the many lives I am learning to love." Such abundant identification perennially bursts through the paragraphs of Soil. "Learning all these names took me years," Dungy admits. "Learning a name for the joy of this grounding may take a lifetime."


Dungy prioritizes such naming as an act of love. Yet she acknowledges a long history in the US of labeling the natural world for other reasons: dominance and control. Soil extols the efforts of groups like Bird Names for Birds, which has "pushed to rename around 150 birds who bear honorific or eponymous titles that also celebrate violent histories." For example, instead of esteeming men like John P. McCown, a Confederate general who fought Indigenous Americans and defended slavery, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) changed McCown's Longspur to Thick-Billed Longspur in August 2020.


The words we choose to describe the world impact what we see and understand—including our choice of pronouns. Dungy extends current pronoun conversations to the "wider-than-human world." One key recommendation: reduce usage of the word it. "It is yet another limiting word that erases history and context and the realities of how living beings operate in community," she explains. Dungy considers the blue spruce growing in her yard, which grows both male and female cones. As the Colorado poet concludes, "the spruce is not the it I often used for a label. The tree wasn't entirely a he or entirely a she either."


Dungy offers additional pronoun considerations. After she moved to Fort Collins with her husband, Ray, and daughter, Callie, Dungy acknowledges "my parents pointed out that I tended to say my garden, my bedroom, my house when I talked about our new home. None of these spaces should be considered mine alone, they suggested. 'You should include Ray and Callie,' they said. Our garden, our home."


Turns out, US environmental literature often promotes a solipsistic worldview. Dungy asks, in response to Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "I kept wondering where her people were. Did she never wash clothes? Did she ever argue—or do anything at all—with her husband?" Indeed, white author Dillard not only ignores her domestic life in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she also ignores the contentious efforts of racial integration that were happening around her in Roanoke, Virginia, at the time. "Once outside," Soil laments, "Dillard celebrated the isolation that sent her there."


John Muir is another nature writer who erases his people from his public work. Though Muir married Louie Strentzle, a well-known pianist, Muir only allowed her to accompany him on one expedition. When Dungy visits John Muir's California house, now a "National Park Service site in Martinez," she observes the prominently displayed "books and articles and letters he wrote." Dungy also notes what is missing:


I wish I could have heard his wife, Louie, play her piano. I wish I could have tasted the cook's food. What of Muir's two daughters? Did they sing with their mother's music? I want the inside of Muir's house—the people there, that environment—also represented in his stories about the world he worked so hard to preserve.


Even as Soil invites readers to consider this myopic bias, Dungy's book also offers more expansive, diverse examples of nature engagement. Soil chronicles the life of Anne Spencer, a Black poet, "a librarian, a civil rights activist, a mother, a wife, a writer, a host, and a champion for the human and nonhuman lives around her" who lived on Pierce Street in Lynchburg, Virginia, from 1903 to 1975. As Dungy observes, "Spencer was able to integrate the many threads of her life, in part, because of her garden." Spencer's garden provided "solitude and reflection, but also companionship and community." Given the dangers that white supremacy continues to create for Black travelers, there’s resonance in knowing that Spencer's home offered intellectuals like James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes safe haven.


Dungy weaves domestic chores throughout Soil. Dungy not only declares the poet Lucille Clifton, also a Black mother, her favorite poet, but also observes how the brevity of Clifton's poems "matched the length of her children's naps." Clifton "thought about the creativity some women never manage to cultivate"; in response, Clifton then "grew what one dictionary calls an 'arrangement of living material'—a garden." As Dungy explains, "women writers, especially women of color, and most especially mothers, must steal their own time to grow such gardens." Regarding how she read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dungy clarifies that "while folding laundry, sweeping the kitchen, cooking the evening meal, I listened to [an audio version of] Dillard's book."


Soil is visually stunning for those who have the privilege to read it in hardcover book form. The book opens and closes with an artistic rendering of Dungy's garden as a landscape design. Soil moves from a dull grayscale "before" map of Dungy's 2013 garden, in the book's decorated front endpapers, to a lush, multicolored "after" map of her garden now, in the book's decorated back endpapers. These endpapers also name where Dungy's neighbors Dee & J live in relation to her home.


The author likewise emphasizes building relationships with the human world, and beyond, by offering a "Garden of Gratitude" acknowledgments section. The "Garden of Gratitude" not only thanks her family, writer friends, and neighbors, but also "flowers," and "Lily, Bun-Bun, Bun," and other named neighborhood bunnies.


Soil concludes with the author's bio, a picture of sunflowers, and a reader's guide of discussion questions. Questions include "How does Soil connect the act of diversifying nonhuman spaces with that of human spaces?" and "In what ways does this book unearth important American history, especially African American history?"


For this reader—a white cisgender woman poet without children—Soil does good, deep work of shifting paradigms. I'm reframing my own writing in response to Soil. Soil has also raised key questions, for me, beyond the ones included in the book's discussion guide. What ethical work and permissions are needed in order to include other people in our writing? How can we recognize the distinction between my stories and our stories? Can we serve to promote the wider-than-human world if we write in the voice of non-human characters? If so, what best practices should we consider, and what pitfalls should we avoid?


Perhaps most acutely, I wonder how to recognize what "should stay private," like "the inside of Lily's nest" in Dungy's yard. What practices do I need to adopt so that my white gaze doesn't cause injury? The needed changes may be thorny and will require my thoughtful care.


It's 4:30 a.m. as I type this draft. Yet I'm not complaining, as sometimes my best poetry ideas also wake me up in the middle of the night. I had thought this review should end with one of Dungy's lines of poetry from Soil. As I consider the questions above, however, I wonder if her daughter Callie may best serve as this review's concluding teacher.


Dungy reflects on the challenges of homeschooling Callie during COVID-19, admitting "I am weary always and dissipated most of the time." Yet Dungy also notes joy. She and Callie spontaneously sing a song that Callie had created, "La la la! Walking through the woods. / Nobody to think about but me!" Callie then settles down to complete her schoolwork. Dungy makes lunch. As the reader, I absorb this scene's beautiful paradox. I then turn the page and see another picture from Dungy's garden. I read this caption, which names what is needed: "Callie carefully handles the thorny Hawthorn tree."


 

Melanie Weldon-Soiset's poetry lives in Clerestory, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. She is a #ChurchToo survivor, MDiv graduate and former pastor, MFA student in poetry in the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, and poetry editor at Geez Magazine. Find her in real life biking on DC greenways. Find her online at melanieweldonsoiset.com (IG: @MelanieWelSoi).


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