Monday, November 17, 2008

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.

No comments: