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"I just want us to be good to each other"
“Who can help the heart, which is grand and full of gestures?”
—from “Association Copy,” Camille T. Dungy
I am very late starting my garden this year. Things have been busier than they were this time last year and it feels like the cold has hung on a lot longer. We had a spate of days hot enough that I started wearing sandals, but since then it’s been wet and chilly, with some wind-blasting rainstorms. Yesterday, I spent a lot of time outside working and walking, and watched as storms loomed from behind the mountains to the north, and then the ones to the east, and then seemed to be coming from the southwest. All day, dark, streaky virga of promised rain moved in a circle around town but never overhead.
Last week I had four yards of compost delivered during a chilly drizzle, and the next two days it poured. All I could think about were the seeds and potato starts in my garage, waiting for me to get myself together and do something besides the single three-hour burst of weeding quack grass from the strawberry beds and around the lettuces that reseeded themselves from last year.
The peas need planting. The potatoes do, too, in the beds hopefully enriched a bit by the peas I grew in them the last two years, a little more like soil and a little less like clay you could throw pots out of. The raspberries and fruit trees are leafing out, flowers already going over on the apple trees, and strawberry flowers are popping up all over. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and pumpkins, squash and sunflowers, green beans and radishes—some will seed from last year like the lettuce did, while others I’ll have to buy from a farm stand that unlike me had wherewithal (that is, a greenhouse) to start them somewhere warm months ago.
It’s the spreaders and reseeders I really love. The cherry tomatoes I know will come up again because so many grew last year from the previous year’s seeds that I thinned out enough to feed most of my neighborhood. The potatoes we missed last fall whose leaves will show aboveground weeks from now from where they’ve been hiding. The strawberries who sent out enough new runners last year that I had to build a second bed. The sweetgrass starts a neighbor is giving me, the mint that, as hoped, has started to spread. The borage that reseeds itself voraciously and that the bees adore. The swallow that seems interested in the nesting box a friend installed last year.
All of it a reminder every single year that abundance is something nature loves. There is the too much, as inevitably happens with zucchini and my friends’ plum trees, but more to the point: always enough for everyone.
I just picked up and started reading Camille Dungy’s new book Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden. I’ve liked Dungy’s poetry since meeting her at a very small environmental-science writing conference years ago. She was grounded and engaging and smart as hell and also encouraging to everyone in her workshop (it was poetry, so that wasn’t me; mine was nonfiction) but also everyone else, and all of it without devaluing the clear brilliance of her own work. The writing world has a lot of ego in it; Dungy’s the kind of writer who proves that you can be among the best without dragging ego around as a kind of jewel-encrusted armor trying to stiff-arm people and blind them at the same time.
I’ve been looking forward to this book and even listened to an interview with her about the writing of it, which is a rare thing for me. The last time I spared attention to listen to “writing craft” podcasts was when Longform launched over 10 years ago, and it was close to a year by the time I got fed up wondering when they’d interview someone who wasn’t connected with Yale.
I listened to the interview just before picking up Dungy’s book, and was swept up again with her incredible intelligence, insight, and love for the world. And her perspective on what needs to change not just in the writing and reading people think is necessary, but in how we perceive the world around us:
“In the book I describe being very frustrated with some major texts in environmental writing, and my daughter asking me why I was so angry—I was setting the table with great fervor—and I explained that I was frustrated by this absent-ing of people in the writers’ lives in the environmental canon. . . .
I had reread Pilgrim at Tinker Creek before the shutdowns began and was, like, ‘This is beautiful writing. She is an amazing writer, and an amazing thinker. But also why did she construct herself in such a solitary mode?’ And what is particularly galling to me was this sense that here she is just walking out looking—I’m quoting her—looking at the tree with the lights in it, and wandering through these open fields, and she’s writing in one of the most tumultuous cultural and political moments in American history, and she is writing in the epicenter of some of the biggest civil rights and women’s rights struggles in America. In the center of it. And that is just disappeared from the work.”
It’s long past time for this narrative style to change, perhaps especially in nature and environmental writing, which is so heavily dominated by white men—often in love with fly fishing, at least judging by the best sold and most widely read “nature” books about Montana that are really not about Montana or even nature at all but about these men and rivers in a way that I find personally off-putting and exclusionary. Writers who cannot seem to reconcile humans’ existence in their own lives, much less in the wildernesses in which they often hope to pit themselves against physical risks and avoid the much more difficult ones of interpersonal human relations, and even less what’s going on in the social-political realities around them.
“I have grown intolerant of that. I can’t be fully interested and engaged in writing that seems to erase me. Because all of those concerns about civil rights struggles and women’s rights struggles and those kinds of things—if those don’t move forward, if they don’t get paid attention to, if they don’t get talked about, that negatively affects my ability to move forward in the world. I want writing that engages with the beauty of the greater than human world and the necessity of protecting it but also engages with this reality of politics and human cultural interactions. It was imperative to me to write into that . . . I’m expressing it here as anger, but it’s also exhaustion and hunger. To write into that hunger.”
Reading Soil and listening to the interview with her, I realized that I have been hungry for more writing like Dungy’s. Her writing about motherhood, nature, and schooling children through the early Covid years went straight into me, down to having years ago given my kids the exercise ball I used to use as a work chair. Women in writing, but especially mothers in writing, is something I’ve been frustrated about and trying to change since those early travel writing years, and in essays I published years ago questioning why being a mother and a writer is seen as a literary less-than. It’s easy to say it isn’t, but publishing statistics and how parents’ stories are framed and marketed tell the real story. As if parenthood in all its forms can never be as real as some guy tramping off into wilderness all alone and being called intrepid. As if other people in our lives don’t exist—or at best exist as subjects and characters, never as people in their own right.
Maybe mothers can’t write about nature in a way that excludes other humans because they don’t have days that exclude other humans, Dungy said. And beyond that, far more than that, it’s a problem rather than an asset that so many people are able to write book after book about the wonders of nature and their love for it without including hints of what is going on in human society at the time. That they don’t have the imagination to think that you can write about struggles against prejudice and injustice and rivers. As if there is some pristine wilderness of the human any more than there is a pristine wilderness of nature.
Soil might be a book to avoid for people who flinch at critiques of a canon—including Mary Oliver, whose “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” which ends the poem “The Summer Day” most of us reading people are familiar with, if only because it’s quoted so widely.
“I’ll tell you what I would have done,” wrote Dungy in Soil. “The dishes, the laundry, a pile of work for pay. Forget feeding a grasshopper. At least three times a day, I’m figuring out what to feed my family.”
“Here is the contract the culture has made: In becoming a mother, the one precious life I am expected to think about is seldom my own.”
Narrative that included every speck of one’s life would be tiresome, but I was almost overwhelmed with relief when Dungy talked about the vacuity of environmental and nature writing that erases humans as well as the upheavals they cause and the injustices they fight against.
And the lives we live. I write about ownership and the commons and commodification and walking and science—and I don’t think it’s an accident that almost all the books on my shelves on these subjects are written by men—and my love for this world I live in. Those subjects require a lot of research and thought and narrative-shaping and searching for anything outside the mainstream culture, but it matters that as I typed this post, I also dealt with emotional upheaval over a broken friendship (middle school really sucks), geometry homework, giving my sister a ride to and from a place that actually fixed her car (and that all the car repair places around here are backed up for months because of labor and parts shortages), scrounging for lunch, looking longingly at the garden, reminding myself to switch out the winter tires, calling my dad back, talking with several people about how to fight back against the sweeping injustices coming from our state legislature and governor, missing a friend, and cleaning up dog puke.
The point in Dungy’s writing is that it’s about people and place, people in place, people with place, people of place.
“Efforts to reduce natural diversity almost always result in some form of depletion,” she wrote, an observation that she is clear applies just as much to people and places as they do to a garden. (Though I will never, I hope, comprehend why people have such issues with dandelions. They’re cheerful, abundant, soft to walk on, and edible. But then, not everyone has the quantity of thistles and knapweed that live in my yard. I’ll take more dandelions any day.)
Just as people are not one story, neither are places. Every single one deserves to have the variety and complexity of their stories recognized and told.
One of the things that hit me repeatedly during the first year or two of Covid was coming to terms with who I knew who could be relied on to engage in care for others, and who couldn’t. I was reminded forcefully of what a friend said she learned from going through cancer treatment many years ago, and the friends who stuck with her through it: don’t disappear.
I give a lot to others—time, energy, food, labor—anything I can manage, really, and it’s been a long hard lesson not to wear myself to shreds in the process. But the hardest part of it is seeing where there’s no reciprocity. Not to me, but to others. When I get to the end of my days what will matter to me isn’t if people are caring for me, if I get some kind of return on what I’ve tried to give and how I’ve tried to show up, but how many people I see engaging in reciprocity and care for everyone else. What wears me out isn’t giving the care myself, but the lack of it in so many others. That’s something I carry with me every time I camp or rent a forest service cabin alone. Why don’t more people care?
Getting my hands back into the garden brought me back to questions of imposed scarcity and mutual, collective care. Who will share, and who won’t? Who will be there for you in a crisis or a trauma, and who will disappear? Who will use crises to further their own ends rather than leaning into community? Who is helping to build a future where all of it doesn’t have to be so difficult?
In the Threadable reading circle The Viral Underclass, Elise Mitchell posted two excerpts from How We Stay Free: Notes on a Black Uprising, one of which was a detailed account of takeovers of empty public housing by The Philadelphia Housing Action. It’s a well-told play-by-play story and resource for anyone working on houselessness. And at the end, the author’s weariness echoed many people’s I’ve heard recently—and for years—involved in issues of justice, equity, and care:
“Honestly, I don’t even know what winning is. I just want us to be good to each other and hopefully we’re taking care of each other. That means all of us—not just your clique.”
That is probably the best articulation of how I hope humanity can change, and what I see ownership and domination paradigms and their falsely created scarcity and hierarchies having prevented not just for centuries, but for millennia. That’s where so many of the barriers are baked in. The narratives driving those paradigms have often failed, and too often won, but the vision of a future where their role is diminished and mutual care is paramount is not only right in front of us, but all around us.
This isn’t technically a walking photo. I stopped by the side of the road an hour and a half’s drive southwest-ish from where I live. I turned off the car, stepped out, and found myself overrun with meadowlark song.
A particular thank you to everyone who commented last week. That was actually a tough one to write, and I also appreciate the thoughtful replies with regards to links. I originally wrote this week’s “list of things to read and listen to” without the hyperlinks, as I did last week, but as I was revising it I thought maybe it’s time to give it a pause entirely.
Every time the digital world feels like it tries to speed us up, my response is to try to go deeper underwater and see where we—or at least I—can slow down. We’re not always given a lot of choice in how we work or where our attention is dragged, but when that choice is there and it’s pushing me to do more, and more quickly, that’s when I dig my heels in, slow down, and then wonder if I can offer others a release from the pressure. I can’t do much about, say, Substack’s insistence on telling you how many minutes a post will take you to read rather than letting you judge if it’s worth your attention, but I can try to make spaces where they feel less like minutes and more like time.
Whether here or anywhere else—online or off—try checking in with your mind and breath, see what’s making you feel harried and rushed. Is there anything you can do about it? And do you have the space to help someone else who has fewer choices?