The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

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MAY 2023 Issue

Camille T. Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden

Every spring in Texas, I wait for the sunflowers and bluebonnets to rise up from the soil and remind me of hope. I never noticed how many sunflowers sprouted along the highways, in my mother’s yard, and in the ditches leading to bayous until I moved back to Texas post 2020 as an anxious Black femme woman, thinking about who and what surrounds me. When imagining a garden, what do we see? When considering the United States as a diverse community, what do we imagine?

For some folks a favorable garden is colorful in a uniformed way—bluebonnets here, a row of yellow sunflowers there, strictly cut green grass all around, mindful of HOA rules. But is true diversity a reflection of uniformity? In Camille T. Dungy’s Soil:The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, the award winning poet, writer, editor, 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, and distinguished professor at Colorado State University, makes a case for a collectivist mindset in which our environment is a space where all humans and non-humans alike serve a purpose. Dungy demonstrates how control, pesticides, manipulation, and regulation will ultimately never lead to the growth of diversity or the sprouting of anything green with hope. 

Readers of Soil who aren’t familiar with botanical terminology may at first find themselves flummoxed with some of the language in Dungy’s latest work, but there is one familiar idea that guides and supports the reader throughout: community. Dungy isn’t new to grappling with questions about community and nature. In Soil, she creates a lively space for all voices to sprout and become included in the solutions that can help build, rather than tear down, diverse communities, both human and non-human. Throughout Soil the thoughts and wise revelations from Callie, Dungy’s young, curious, and light-filled daughter appear. In another testament to community, Dungy demonstrates the possibility of inspirational and informative environmental literature that calls for our family and loved ones in and throughout.

The depth of knowledge, history, and empathy in the prose and poetry in Soil lends a new meaning to what some may consider overdone terms like “diversity, equity, and inclusion”. In Texas where I teach, lawmakers are working on a bill that would ban such terms, resulting in budget cuts for state schools and institutions of higher education who choose to continue to use those specific words. While reading Soil, I found my mind pondering whether these lawmakers have considered how non-human diversity speaks to a universal call for diversity. How many of us have actually contended with the consequences of failing to “save our own dirt”?

Dungy uses the idea of saving dirt as a metaphor for marriage when recalling working on the beginnings of her garden, the prairie project, with her husband, Ray, in Fort Collins, Colorado. The prairie project is a real world grown sheerly out of a Black mother’s agency to see beauty bloom. Dungy points out how critical the ability to grow green for choice and beauty is rather than simply toiling for productive means that often leads to erasure of lives, history, and in many cases, the very earthly elements we need to survive.

When Dungy reminds the reader “who regularly finds herself demoralized and exhausted by everyday patterns of life in America” that access to a garden for beauty is essential to the continuation and endurance of our lives, I recalled the seemingly “random” pictures of flowers I took throughout the spring of 2018 when I was lonely and experiencing imposter syndrome at my MFA program—Didier’s tulips sprinkled with droplets from leftover rainfall, daffodils stretching out into the street during my commute to the 7 train, Berberis julianae (commonly known as the wintergreen or Chinese barberry) snapped on one late afternoon in the West Village, Bigleaf hydrangea taken right before the beginning of summertime. Now I understand why I captured these moments of bloom; it was an instinctive act of survival.

Throughout Soil, Dungy astutely develops ideas that serve to expand our own internalized biases towards whom and what ideas belong in canonical environmental literature. Reflecting on the absence of women writers, particularly those who are mothers, she recognizes the privilege inherent in being able to imagine and write about the environment in a manner where one only thinks of oneself and has time to ponder in the “wilderness.” It is a privilege which Dungy notes is simply not a reality for most mothers. As Dungy documents her experiences cultivating the prairie project while navigating life as a Black woman, mother, and wife, she makes frequent references to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—Annie Dillard’s 1974 nonfiction narrative about her explorations near home and contemplations about nature. These references seem to carry a significant weight for Dungy. While Dungy admires Dillard’s descriptions of her surroundings, she questions why Dillard leaves individuals and our mundane daily tasks out of the work. Perhaps we can infer that Dillard’s omissions are a direct reflection of what the canonical white men deemed publishable and imaginable in the world of eco literature of the time.

Dungy tells the story of the prairie project in a non-linear fashion, moving back and forth between timelines, which acts to ground the reader in the perennial history of environmental control as a means to colonize and shines light on the importance of remembering and honoring human and non-human history alike. This idea of dominating land as a means to control often distracts us from the beauty right before our own eyes. Dungy demonstrates this in the following lines from the poem “A Clearing”:

the bluejay I’ve looked for
pushes sky off his crest      how splendid
his wings & tail      it’s not so much 
that before this he’d hidden himself
it’s only he favored a branch
I could not see until the storm thinned the tree

Everything on this earth is part of what brings us joy, hope and sustenance, Dungy makes clear, even when we don’t have the foresight to understand it. 

A few weeks before I began reading Soil, in what feels like a bewitching energy of foreshadow, I found myself stuck on this line from Jericho Brown’s Duplex “(I begin with love)”

I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there. 

Near the end of Soil, Dungy reflects on Elijah McClain who was slain in 2019 just an hour away from Fort Collins, Colorado. As a wildfire grew to over 100,000 acres—the third largest fire in Colorado history—she recounts planting three dozen brown tulip and daffodil bulbs while remembering McClain. Elijah McClain, a young Black man who used to play the violin for cats and kittens at the local animal shelter, disregarded and killed like a common “weed”— a weed, which those distant from the importance of diversity in gardening treat as undesirable trash. Thanks to Soil, I will now go forward trying to imagine us as bindweed, a species in which “tilling and careless pulling only spreads us more vigorously”. 


Victoria Richards

Victoria Richards is a poet, writer and educator in Houston, TX. She holds an MFA in Poetry (The New School) and is a professor of English at San Jacinto College.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

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