Over the weekend, I decided to read Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Autobiography of My Mother” for the second time. Opening the first page, I notice a note scrawled into the top right hand corner in my own handwriting, “pg 143.”
Turning to page 143 I find the following passage underlined:
“He had an obsessive interest in rearranging the landscape: not gardening in the way of necessity, the growing of food, but gardening in the way of luxury, the growing of flowering plants for no reason than the pleasure of it and making these plants do exactly what he wanted them to do; and it made great sense that he would be drawn to this activity, for it is an act of conquest, benign though it may be.”
I’ve noticed this thread in a few of her books: gardening as conquest and a subtle form of colonization, and the way that colonization has affected gardening around the world. Jamaica Kincaid is a passionate gardener who understands the pleasures and joys we gardeners experience in the act of tending plants. But I really appreciate that she is also able to see beyond that and is willing to go into territory many of us would prefer not to talk about.
Another book by Jamaica Kincaid, “My Garden (Book):” was the first book of hers that I bought, although it was not the first that I read, and sat on a shelf for years. I know I skimmed it when I first brought it home; I found a bookmark tucked partway in when I finally picked it up again. It’s just that I have absolutely no recollection of what I read nor how I felt about it at the time. For as long as I can remember I have always been a voracious reader. But I can’t be forced to read a book before I am ready for it. Whenever I try to read a book that I can’t get into I find myself repeating the same lines over and over again, never getting past the third page. This doesn’t say anything about the book itself since I’ve gone back to, and devoured many books that seemed impossible to get through the first time. I must not have been ready for this book back then. But when I did pick it up again within the last year, having become a fan of her writing in the years in between, WOW. What a book! Ms. Kincaid approaches the topic of gardening, and more specifically her own garden with passion, sharp humour, playfulness, love, and biting, difficult observations. Many of you will see yourself (as I saw myself) in the 8th essay, “An Order to a Fruit Nursery Through the Mail.”
But the essay I was reminded of when I found the passage I had long ago underlined in “The Autobiography of My Mother” is the one I want to mention today. It’s called “To Name Is to Possess” and is all about the dynamic between the conquered and the conqueror and the effect it has had on gardening throughout history leading to, and still in effect to varying degrees today. She describes the way that the names of plants have been changed over the years, most especially from the names given to them by the original inhabitants of those lands, and how they have been transcribed to our current botanical naming system (the one we see with authority). She goes on to explain that she does not know the names of plants that are native to her birthplace (Antigua) and explains why.
“The ignorance of the botany of the place I am from (and am of) really only reflects the fact that when I lived there, I was of the conquered class and living in a conquered place; a principle of the condition is that nothing about you is of any interest unless the conqueror deems it so.“
She goes on to describe a local botanical garden that did not include any plants that were native to Antigua but instead filled with plants from various parts of the British Empire including a tree from Malaysia. At the end of the paragraph she concludes:
“The botanical garden reinforced for me how powerful were the people who had conquered me; they could bring to me the botany of the world they owned. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that in Malaysia (or somewhere) was a botanical garden with no plants native to that place.“
These passages make me wonder about a lot of things. They make me think about how deeply rooted in the past gardening continues to be even today. About how much we continue to value gardening as luxury above gardening as necessity, although that is changing, at least for the time being as we sink into an economic downturn. Will we turn back to placing a higher value on luxury if and when the economy changes? They make me think about my own prejudices and perspectives when it comes to how I see gardens and individual plants; how much those perspectives are still entrenched in a past before I was born, and how much of that I have had to purposefully and consciously push aside in order to not only have my own perspectives but value and validate them for myself.
About a week ago I tried to articulate over dinner that slowly over the years, in the back of my mind I have been working through thoughts about gardening as a culture that exists within a much larger and complicated social world and how I am trying to figure out how to talk about my personal experiences of that culture in relation to class and race (and of course where I lie within that spectrum with my own complicated background as a person of mixed ethnicity who was raised within a particular class and who has had my own unique set of experiences just as everyone else has had theirs). These topics are risky and I find myself afraid to even begin to put the words together let alone say them out loud. Although I am trying. However jumbled and obtuse they might seem.
I wish I had more to say or some kind of conclusion to make but really I am just thinking out loud. Near the end of the essay Ms. Kincaid goes on to say that when she looks out at her own garden she can see that she has joined the conquering class, and that her feet are in two worlds. I’ve yet to come to a conclusion about all of this except to say that on a personal level throughout my life my feet have always been in many different places (more than two at all times), and it feels like it might take me a lifetime (I hope not) to finally figure out how to articulate my exact position/location/direction within that.
And that seems to hold especially true when it comes to my perspectives on gardening and my place within that world.
What about you?