Skip to main content

In their gardens, they are home.

The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst (2006), Beacon Press.

"In their gardens, they are home." are the final words of The Earth Knows My Name and sums up in a few words the richly told stories of ethnic peoples - first-generation immigrants along with Native Americans and Gullahs - and the meaning they and their families harvest from their gardens. Compelled to write this book and search out the stories that fill its pages by her own family's migration to this country and subsequent assimilation, Klindienst presents a book so full of passion and life told so powerfully that it will be difficult for me to give this back to the library. (I'm at my renewal limit so back it must go.) Eloquent thoughtful writing surrounded by the words of mostly first-generation Americans bring these people and their gardens to vivid life. It is nearly impossible to not be transported to each garden and feel the joy and pride each gardener feels as they work their bit of earth.

One gardener says of her family farm in the southwest "Here we're making an honest living doing something we truly enjoy from the heart. We're teaching other people the importance of good food. I never realized how much I knew until now. And we're keeping our heritage by keeping our food. It's a way of life for us, our food." (pg. 31)

Klindienst delves into the history of each people and place to help portray the context of their gardens and the reason they migrated to America. War, work, and hope brought many of these people here to forge new lives for themselves and a better future for their families. Other groups - Native Americans and a Gullah community - garden and farm land that has long belonged to them, and is so deeply a part of them and their traditions that they cannot imagine life without it.

Ralph Middleton, a gardener in the Gullah Community of St. Helena Island states : "We feel that we are part of the land," he says in his deep, calm voice. "This is where we've been, where we've worked, for generations. You know your grandparents and great-grandparents planted here. We have memories about the land, about what they did here. So it's important. It's sacred." For Gullah's, the land is freedom. It is the ground of their dignity and the reason they have endured." (pg. 37)

I found myself wanting to weep, laugh, and stand up to shout for joy (often in the same chapter) as I read. The poignancy and power with which these people spoke about their gardens and why they need them was terribly moving. An organic vintner on Bainbridge Island, Washington powerfully links food to place to community "Food ...because it's the last thing we lose, because it's the thing that controls our lives - though we like to think it doesn't in modern life - is a key to finding the place we live in and finding the people around us. If we all eat from a place, if we all live in love with that place, then we all live in love with each other." (pg. 100)

The garden also links immigrants to the other half of themselves that remains deeply rooted in a place, history, and with people they may never see again. And it is a place where there is no confusion about custom or language, and where they can see, smell, and taste their culture in a way they can nowhere else. "The sorrow in Sokehn's voice reminds me that for every gain these immigrants make in America, there has been an attendant loss - of language, landscape, kin, and culture, the deepest meanings of home. You can be free and marooned at the same time. (pg. 127)

Again and again the power of the immigrant experience was brought home to me - loss and gain, hope and despair, risk and safety - that I could not help but think of my own family's journey to these shores. Yes, it was three generations past, but their experience must have been similar in so many ways. I wonder what they grew and why, the foods they prepared with it, and the customs they brought with them that I still practice to this day.

Referenced throughout are books, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, films, and speeches that illustrate the depth with which this work was researched; however, this research never overtakes what is pivotal to each chapter - the words of each gardener and the story they tell through their gardens.

This is easily one of the best books I have ever read. Put it on a gift list and insist that everyone you know who is even remotely interested in gardening read it. It is no surprise to learn Klindienst won the 2007 American Book Award for it.


Popular posts from this blog

Finding Heirloom Seeds in Japan

Drying pods of heirloom Hutterite Soup Beans. Since moving to Japan eight years ago, one of my greatest challenges as a farmer-gardener has been to find heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. The majority of seeds available are not GMO (genetically modified organisms) as Japan, at this point, doesn't accept this material. Most seeds, though, are nearly all F1 varieties. Heirloom and F1 Varieties In plant breeding, F1 is the name given to the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents. For example, if I decide to cross an Amish Paste Tomato with another heirloom variety tomato such as Emmy, in hopes of getting a gold paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1. In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I'll need to choose members of that first generation that are headed in a direction I like - early ripening, medium-sized fruit, good taste - and save their seeds. I'll plant them and repeat the process again and again over time unti

Satoimo: One of Japan's Favorite Slimy Things

Satoimo in all their hairy glory. This post first appeared in slightly different form on Garden to Table as part of the 2012  Blogathon . The website has since moved on to the ether, but the post is still a good one. After all, people here are still eating satoimo on a daily basis, and many others are just seeing these little potato-like objects for the first time. Enjoy! Satoimo is one of Japan's odder vegetables. Under it's rough, slightly furry skin is white flesh that is a little bit slimy even raw, and with a gentle nutty flavor.* Baked, grilled, steamed with dashi, or deep-fried satoimo stands well on its own or paired up with other vegetables and meats in a wide variety of soups and stews . (The leaves are also edible.) Satoimo stores well, and like any root crop worth the effort, stocks are just running low on this household favorite as the farmers in my area of Tokyo get ready to put a new crop in the ground in May. I cannot say I was a fan of this l

Goma Ai Shingiku - Sesame and Chrysanthemum Greens

Last week I had the pleasure of helping some friends work in their parents garden not too far away. Tucked behind the house, the garden sits on a former house lot. When it came up for sale about five years ago, my friend's father jumped at the chance. Open land in Tokyo can be hard to find and expensive, but for a retired professional looking for a little spot to till in the city it was an opportunity to good to pass up. Now, it is a garden to envy. As we came through the gate rose, lily, and peony blooms greeted us with great shouts of color while rows of vegetables stood tidily at attention on the sunny center stage. Small fruit trees along with one of the biggest sansho trees I've seen yet stood quietly here and there. Near waist-high sweet corn, bushy young potato plants, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, and beans were preparing their summer fruits, while a handful of still quite luscious looking winter vegetables like komatsuna, mizuna, and kabu held one last ro