This is a long one. I suggest you make a cup of tea and a snack before starting.
“And now listen carefully. You in others-this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life-your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you-the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it.”
- Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago)
Back in December 2009 my partner Davin and I took a month long trip to the Caribbean. We spent 4 days in Barbados, 3 weeks in Dominica, and one week in St. Lucia. Since that time I have posted on and off here with photos and short stories depicting my botanical experiences through that month. There are still so many gardening and plant related stories left to tell. Every single day was loaded with new plants, flowers, food, sights, and sounds. We went on hikes into the rain forest, up mountains, and to a Boiling Lake. We got to see a place that felt like witnessing the birth of the world. We stayed on an organic food farm and picked ginger flowers that would be made into centerpieces for rich people. We visited an organic farm that specializes in traditional herbal medicine. We went inside an ocean-side cave. We touched walls covered in more ferns than I have ever seen in my life. We walked among grasses and cacti. We saw plants I will probably never be able to identify. We spoke with humble gardeners, visited massive backyard farms, and met an incredible 99 year old woman. We found new friends to whom I feel a great deal of gratitude. It was pretty much awesome.
As you can see I have barely scratched the surface here and hope to get a chance to tell you some of these stories over time.
One story I am yet to tell is why I went in the first place and how that part of the trip played out. The trouble is I’m still not quite sure what I experienced during that month and how to tell it here, or anywhere. And so, I have spent the last few months since we’ve returned avoiding it.
“She talks sadly about this need in people to make other people deny parts of themselves. She tells me that a person cannot feel right in their heart if they have denied parts of their ancestral past, that this not feeling right in the heart is the cause of much pain.” – bell hooks (Bone Black)
A few months before we left, I wrote about my West Indian roots, my maternal grandmother, and why as a gardener I had a need to go to the Caribbean and see how people relate to gardening. Of course there were other reasons, too. I have spent my whole life grappling with who I am, and what I can only describe as a very complex and multifaceted identity. I am a female human being with a very mixed race/ethnic background, a difficult, complicated past, and a deep need to make sense of it all. There is an awful lot to sort through, and I have been, but still there remained this big, missing piece of the puzzle. Without that piece I didn’t feel there was a real chance for me to ever feel right in my heart.
As time passed it became clear to me that I needed to see and experience the West Indies for myself, through my own eyes. I felt I had already waited too long and it had to happen immediately if I was going to move forward and grow. I needed to seek out details and answer questions about the people who came before me. My people. Some whom I have known without really knowing them at all and others whose names remained a mystery. Who were they? Where did they come from? How did they live? How did all of these different people from vastly different worlds come together and eventually make me? How did their lives impact mine?
Most of all, I needed to touch, see, smell and take in the physical landscape that they came from. That I come from.
[And yes, it does feel awkward, uncomfortable, and vaguely cheeseball using that language but it's true so there it is.]
Which brings me back to gardening. I needed to see and experience that landscape in order to even capture a glimpse of how my ancestors related to it. What does their connection to that land say about me?
And inside all of those bigger questions, another: Why do I garden? I suppose the question is even bigger than that. Not so much Why do I garden, but Why do I need to garden? The impulse to do this is so intrinsic to who I am. It has evolved into a requirement for living, as basic as cooking dinner or brushing my teeth. Wash hair, put on clothes, nurture plants, eat lunch.
Is this connection the result of nurture (I need to garden to heal the damaged parts of myself) or nature (I need to garden because it is in my blood)?
“But people are always speculating — why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.” – The Autobiography of Malcolm X
For the whole of my adult life and probably before, I have believed that nurture trumps nature in influencing who we are and who we become. I do not believe in fate, destiny, or doom. I do not believe that we are powerless to assert agency in our lives, although I do believe that circumstance makes it much, much harder for some people. I do not believe that people are born evil. I don’t even believe in evil. I believe we are all deeply affected by our experiences and that every waking moment is an opportunity to take one small step towards being transformed. I am not yet convinced that truly irreparable damage is possible.
I believe this, because if I believed otherwise I would have had to succumb to and share in my parents’ bleak worldview: People like us are doomed. Life is miserable. Don’t rise above your station or bother to try. Don’t be prideful. Who do you think you are? You are nothing; don’t forget it. There is only so much good stuff and opportunity available in the world and we are not recipients but rather powerless victims of circumstance.
I don’t believe them, although I understand why they did/do. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.
This trip and all of the big ideas around it have forced me to confront the concept of nature and how that plays into who I am as a person and a gardener. It has made me ask the question, Can a place I have never seen be in my blood? And, Can the need to grow plants be mapped out in my DNA as a trait passed genetically? Or is that just crazy talk?
While in Dominica I did some digging around to try and glean facts and inklings of my ancestral past. I began with the question of where my surname comes from and kind of went from there. I returned home from the trip feeling like I had learned a lot but also extremely disappointed in the new questions I was unable to answer.
What I learned was:
- The Trails were white planters from Scotland. I could never find definitive proof of this but based on the time frame it means they were probably slave owners. This is not a shock since I have long suspected this, yet it is still somehow hard to digest. Who in the Caribbean isn’t descended from slaves or slave owners or both in some distant or not-so distant way? I am descended from both and am having a surprisingly difficult time coming to terms with it, even though I have always known it.
- The name of my great grandfather but nothing about him. I can’t be certain, but chances are he wasn’t white (despite his name) and was probably an “out” child (as-in out of wedlock). I come from a long line of “out” children and am one myself so this is no surprise. What did come as a surprise is how much shame still exists in a truth that is so widely prevalent. I myself feel no shame in this. Who cares? Let’s get over it.
- Where my grandmother was born and roughly where she lived.
- I was never able to confirm my lineage on my great-grandmother’s side but I did meet distant “cousins”, whose family have also been farmers and who are also mixed race. Meeting them and visiting the farm and farmhouse that is 300 years old was pretty cool. It was also extremely surreal.
- The man who may or may not be my great-great grandfather (or great-great-great grandfather) was a writer who wrote pamphlets and books aboutÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. wait for itÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ farming, gardening, nature, and travel. I think he worked with the Botanical Garden. I am still trying to locate a piece of his writing and am incredibly curious to see what he had to say on these topics.
I have to admit that it has been very uncomfortable bringing nature into the mix when resisting it as a force or important component in forming my identity has been about self-protection and offering myself a chance to thrive. But I’m older now and I am able to revisit and revise my beliefs based on experience and knowledge. Otherwise everything I believed would just be dogma and I’d be a slightly different version of my parents.
New experiences and knowledge has me willing to entertain the idea that nature could play a role of some sort in both who I am AND my relationship to gardening.
Nurture has played a huge part in how the impulse to garden is manifested in my day-to-day life. Over the years I have identified many ways in which my life experiences have shaped how I garden. But perhaps, just maybe, genetics could hold the key to why I was and am so strongly compelled to grow plants in the first place. After all, there are lots of outlets for personal growth, creative expression, and healing. I engage in all sorts of activities that serve that purpose in my life, but gardening and the need to connect to nature in that way was there from the start, even when there wasn’t much nature in my physical geography to connect to.
I wrote before that it all started for me when I was five years old with a parsley seedling germinated in a Styrofoam cup. That little plant sparked something that lay dormant inside me and it took me until I was an adult and several starts and stops to reach out and grab it. I am still reaching out and grabbing it in new ways everyday and that thing inside me is newly inspired and reignited every time I look at a plant. That’s got to be more than nurture. You think?