Book Review: Soil, The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden

by Camille T. Dungy

Simon& Schuster, 2023

During racial segregation in the South, florists refused to sell flowers to Black people.[1] In Soil, The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, author Camille T. Dungy writes that instead they cut and sent flowers from their own gardens for weddings and funerals. “Black people grew their own beauty and dug in and continued digging wherever and however digging was needed.”

Soil is a powerful, painful, and beautiful book about the complicated history of Black Americans and the land. It is also the story of Dungy’s garden in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she moved to take a position at the University in May of 2013, “when cottonwood fluff fills the air.” Rural and suburban spaces in America have long been seen as “white spaces,” and Fort Collins is particularly so. In spite of her uneasiness, or because of it, Dungy digs in to make the land her own. After reclaiming her small yard by layering it with cardboard to smother invasive plants, she brings in topsoil to cover the compacted clay. A woman after my own heart, she uses no chemicals in her garden, not wanting to participate in “an industry that often sprays women and brown people with toxins for the sake of more profit and yield.” Besides which, as she points out, “glyphosate disrupts serotonin intake, suppressing the beneficial powers of getting your hands dirty.”

But most of all, she wants to live and garden on the earth without harming other creatures. She loves these creatures. A poet by trade, she delights in the names of living things. “Their names sound like music – Bombus nevadensis (a bumblebee), purple penstemon, and silverleaf phacelia—inviting us to say them with her. Getting names right matter, words matter. Do the buffalo roam home, home on the range? No, they don’t. They are bison. Buffalo live in Africa. And those antelopes are not antelopes, they are pronghorns, a species unique to North America. She is very attuned to what is native and what is not as she creates a mini-prairie in her yard, tuning in even on native bee species who rarely venture more than 300 feet from their nest in the ground. Being a home-body makes them vulnerable to starvation when the native plants they rely on for food are destroyed. They have no where else to go.

When the Covid lockdown comes in March 2020, Dungy and her family have no where to go either, as she and her family—husband Ray and school-age daughter Callie[2] —all must work and learn from home. The garden was her lifeline, but she lost even that when wildfires turned the sky orange-black in September 2020, with the Cameron Peak fire just ten miles from her house. Ash rained, and birds fell dead out of the sky. With no light to reflect off their feathers, the blue jays in her garden turned gray. But even from this, Dungy is able to wrest a bit of knowledge and hope. The smoke kept her from dead-heading that fall, a benefit for the birds, who feasted on the echinacea seed heads.

She moves freely through time and subject, both personal and historical, introducing parents, grandparents, the parishioners of her grandfather’s segregated church in Lynchburg, best friends, and godparents. “Multi-colored peony bushes would bloom in Godmother Alice’s yard.” I often felt we were just out in the garden, leaning on our shovels, taking a break to chat, all the while stooping to hold a little dirt in our hands. And then she would bring that cozy world down with a crash. The morning after the 2016 elections, “white male CSU students surrounded a young black man walking to one of Ray’s classes. They aimed fists at Ray’s student’s face and jeered, “Obama can’t protect you. Our guy’s in now.” That day, her husband Ray closed their curtains so no one could see in, and maybe decide they didn’t belong. “He was afraid we’d be killed.” Ray is a bicyclist and when he is gone on a ride, she tracks him, and panics when he’s stopped too long, afraid he’s encountered racial violence from being in a “white” space. There are many of those deaths, one just sixty miles away in Aurora, Colorado. In August 2019, Elijah McClain, all of 5’6” and 140 pounds, was stopped because someone called the police to say he looked “sketchy.” He was walking home. He hadn’t done anything but be where someone felt he shouldn’t be. He died of cardiac arrest when they injected him with ketamine to subdue him, even though he did not resist arrest. “Unless the story catches the right ears, news often stays local.” Elijah died an hour away from her, and it took a year before they heard.

Perhaps best reflected by the somewhat haunting black and white photographs of plant material throughout the book, at the end of the day, when the soil is turned and the shovel returned to its shed, Dungy is ambivalent about her new-found home. She is not a native. “I am not always sure that I belong in Colorado. Though I have my little plot of land here that I love, I am nothing but a settler in this state. And not always a welcomed one.”

[1] One of the early rights lost by Jews during the Hitler years was the right to buy flowers.

[2] Thank you Callie for teaching me to put rocks in the bird bath so bees can land and drink.

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