Untitled (A Darker Side to Gardening)

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:

โ€œHe 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.โ€

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?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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23 thoughts on “Untitled (A Darker Side to Gardening)

  1. Certainly I agree that gardens, which are amazingly unnatural things, are all about conquest–even for those of us who have been taught and try to “work with nature”. How that relates to our cultural identity, I’m not sure. I don’t really have a strong cultural identity. I grew up all over the place and for a good deal of my life have just felt like “other”. Does my garden reflect that? I don’t know. It reflects a curiosity for the exotic as well as a reflection of its native place. It’s identity is conflicted as, some might argue, is my own.

  2. I have not gardened much and I barely know the scientific names of the plants. I’m not sure I understand the naming thing: I know a lot of people’s names but I own none of them.

    Perhaps you feel like you have conquered plants when you start to think that you control their growing, but surely that is an illusion? No matter how you “master” gardening, you don’t make them grow, you merely make them comfortable. Still, snails get some, ants get others, some just die for no discernible reason.

    I’m just amazed every time they come up. I have a bunch of seeds constantly planted on my windowsill so I can check what’s new first thing every morning!

  3. Gayla, I LOVE that you are dealing with these issues! Everything we do is a consequence of a larger cultural context, and coming to terms with that, and what it means, can often change the way we see and do things. So it IS risky, and it is brave to delve into. Many of us garden as a way to embrace something alive and exuberant, but gardening has an INTENSE history, much of it full of conquest and plunder. I get the impulse to not deal with that side of it, but I for one, need to understand the things I love. Even the difficult parts of it.
    Thank you for this post. Your intelligence is one of the things I admire the most about you, and it is one of the things you give me that makes ME grow, girl!

  4. You might enjoy reading some of William Cronon’s essays on the concept of “wilderness” and the environmental movement. One of the (very controversial) points that he makes centers on the idea that our view of the past as a time of wilderness is a myth. The past contains the planned gardens of other people, but rarely what we consider wilderness. And there are a variety of historical and ethical questions about whether wildness is really better than cultivation, whatever the attendant reference to dominance.

    I do find gardening an act of imposition, but I think that’s why so many people are drawn to cottage gardens and to rustic-looking garden accessories. It softens the act of imposing your will on your land and helps you to pretend that it was always this way and that the garden “just grows.”

  5. I’ve thought about this plenty, but I don’t know that I have anything constructive to add, but since you can’t see me nodding my head, I felt the need to comment.

  6. I can understand the feeling of conqueror as I see this side of many gardeners I know – more accomplished? more confident? I’m not sure.

    For myself though, I can never see myself this way. When I prepare my garden I feel like I’m cleaning the sheets for a long awaited house guest. When I plant my seeds, I am hoping my home is safe and inviting enough to arrive. When my seedlings emerge I consider it magic and I am constantly amazed to see these plants grow larger and stronger. It’s like I expect nothing, or even death, so their survival proves to me how strong nature can be. It give me hope.

    So I guess I’m saying that I am not conquoring my space or my plants. My garden makes me nervous and excited and unsure and delirious. Maybe this changes with more years of experience but I hope not.

  7. Pretty heavy stone your trying to push around here Gayla. It’s interesting to think about.

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Germi: Yes! You said it much more clearly and succinctly.

    Fiona: Michael Pollan covers the same territory in an essay in his book, “Second Nature.”

    I don’t see myself as conqueror either, although I will admit that impulse was there on some level when I was first starting out… I would never have called it that then but I can see it… born of frustration, what I thought gardening was supposed to be (perfect), trying to fight things without first understanding how it worked… Thankfully that was very short lived. This is one of the reasons why I have shifted towards using the word stewardship over the years and remembering that what I do in the garden will have an impact long after I am gone.

    Ada: Beautifully said.

  9. When we bought our 100-year-old house I researched old gardening books to see what flowers were grown in gardens way back when, I discovered amaranthus/love lies bleeding, castor bean plant, wild petunias, heirloom totatoes. I also included flax (for my Polish heritage). JL Hudson Seedsman sells a lot of old fashioned seeds. Tiger lily bulbets from a friend.
    Sweet violets from my mother’s house. Bitter melon for my husband’s Filipino family.

    It was fascinating to read the books written by Western explorers who traveled worldwide to gather new specimens. Often they would wax on about the plants while exhibiting judgement/contempt for the native peoples, ie, making the comment that an Italian child would grow up to 1-years old without even tasting meat.

  10. When we bought our 100-year-old house I researched old gardening books to see what flowers were grown in gardens way back when, I discovered amaranthus/love lies bleeding, castor bean plant, wild petunias, heirloom totatoes. I also included flax (for my Polish heritage). JL Hudson Seedsman sells a lot of old fashioned seeds. Tiger lily bulbets from a friend.
    Sweet violets from my mother’s house. Bitter melon for my husband’s Filipino family.

    It was fascinating to read the books written by Western explorers who traveled worldwide to gather new specimens. Often they would wax on about the plants while exhibiting judgement/contempt for the native peoples, ie, making the comment that an Italian child would grow up to 1-years old without even tasting meat.

  11. The whole conquerer/conquered dynamic was demonstrated in New Zealand with something as simple as grass.

    When the British came there, they tried clearing all of the forestry that was native and planted grass there for lawns. At night, the natives would come and pull up all of the grass that was planted as a protest. The British botanical takeover won, especially when most people envision New Zealand, rolling hills covered in grass with grazing sheep come to mind, instead of the hunble fern, which is native to the country.

  12. joi wrote:
    “New Zealand, rolling hills covered in grass … instead of the humble fern, which is native to the country.”

    joi, not to mention bracken, gorse, bunny rabbits and all those “charming” touches of england that now run rampant over the countryside enjoying the balmy pacific conditions! :)

  13. Fascinating entry! I love all the comments as well. I find that gardening really is kind of the raw human edge between wildness and civilization. A great book that I felt kind of breaths this same air is “Some Branch Against the Sky” by GF Dutton. He has 10 acres in Scotland, and while his vegetable garden seems to be an afterthought, his trees and grasses and native flowers and such are his real garden – the whole 10 acres! He knows everything about areas of soil PH on his land – but only to get things that will grow naturally or even indigenously without much human intervention. It is the strangest view of a ‘garden’. So he conquers, but only in a way that the land and plants are friendly towards.

  14. Thanks for this great post. I have often thought about what it means to grow heat loving plants like peppers in my very northern garden, and what it means to plant lettuce from seed instead of putting in the effort to harvest wild greens. What parts of the local ecosystem am I ignoring or oblivious to when I choose seeds from plants that come from half a world away?

    I think that there is certainly a place for a symbiotic relationship to grow between a gardener and a piece of land, but I agree that gardens (particularly if one is attempting to learn to garden from books published in England, the US, and Canada in the twentieth century) often regard gardening with a top down approach. A colonial approach. I wonder if the current push towards native plants and edible gardens will create a new gardening culture. A culture where the earth is regarded as a real player in the game, and not just the table to be played upon.

  15. As a gardener in the American West, the issues with plant choices, placement, water rights, wild weather and “civilized” encroachment on the wild places all bear witness that these practices of conquering and “overcoming” are alive and well. …I think your remarks are the sign of a mature gardener, someone who appreciates the “power” of gardening in all its iterations.

    To switch paths a little, I see many gardeners (myself included at times) turning up our noses at “lesser” gardeners, people with knowledge or style or gardening practices that don’t seem to live up to our own expectations about what is right, what is beautiful, what belongs in a garden. Frankly, I’m far more frightened by that us vs. them mentality we foster amongst ourselves. In your book and in the way I’ve come to understand your wish for gardeners, it seems you want to open up gardening to people in all classes, all ethnic and gender groups and let gardening be personal, let it be a process — but as gardeners, we tend to get possessive over what a garden is and isn’t. We get wrapped up in the product of a garden, and that impulse seems to drive us into a conquering or conquered class. I guess, to me, that’s what’s so hard: every day gardeners buy in to gardening ranks and power plays; our gardens and our identities as gardeners are devices we use to try to secure status and power or withhold it from others. Why do we do that? How can we make it stop?

  16. Mmm – I read My Garden (Book) from the library. I kept it long past due, and finally copied a bunch of chapters before I returned it, because I still hadn’t (and haven’t) gotten around to posting the passages that most mesmerized me. Alas those pages got shuffled onto a shelf (until just now). I’m eager to re-read it now and to read your posts as you keep metabolizing.
    I feel a little sad that anyone would write “huh?” in response to your bringing up issues that are already so methodically marginalized. Not surprised that someone might not relate, I understand that, just sad at the potential to alienate, so I hope it didn’t have that effect. I think the final passage of the chapter “In History” gives a lovely description honoring the kind of wrestling describing: “…In the beginning, the vegetable kingdom was chaos, peope everywhere called the same things by a name that made sense to them, not by a name arrived at by an objective standard. But who has an interest in an objective standard? Who needs one? It makes me ask again, What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history? And if so, what should history mean to someone who looks like me? Should it be an idea; should it be an open wound, each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again, over and over, or is it a long moment that begins anew each day since 1492?”

  17. We should all be doing this exercise.

    We certainly do conquer and impose when we garden. I guess the trick is figuring out how not to do any more damage to other communities than we absolutely have to. Consider this: some ants garden. They tend fungus patches to feed their little larvae ants. I suspect that impacts their immediate environment to some degree. Many species manipulate their environments, although probably (well, decidedly) not to the extent that humans do.

    Can we ever live within our chosen environments, thrive (or at least just survive) and avoid all conquering elements? I’m thinking probably not. But I’m also thinking it’s still worthwhile to adopt a willingness to be mindful of our impacts.

  18. This discussion reminds me of a passage from Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather where the narrator describes the Spanish Friar’s insistence that the Acoma Pueblo Indians use their limited water supply to grow European agricultural favorites, citrus, peaches, alfalfa, as a part of the colonization process. Dry farming crops out – water intensive crops in. These crops are still being grown all over the Southwest, even as the Rio Grande is drying up. (Eventually, though, in the book, they throw the Friar off a cliff…) Complicated of course, because what would we do without citrus in the West. Here, our notion of a green oasis really is rooted in colonialism. (No pun intended.)

  19. Ok, I’ve been creeping on this site far too long now, so here goes my first comment.

    I love Jamaica Kincaid and have considered naming my first daughter Jamaica in her honor. And might I add that, Gayla your writing often reminds me of hers in that you can read the emotions and thoughts that place themselves in between the lines and that would not normally be found in a gardening context… If that makes any sense (unfortunately I am not nearly as gifted with writing so often the thing I write do not make sense)

    The way I look at this passage is through a few questions I ask myself all the time. I’m pretty sure the tomatoes I plant every year were not found in Winnipeg when the settlers first came here. But the seeds I use are from the plants I grew last year which are from the plant from the year before and so on. I can trace my tomatoes family tree back to my great grandmother, and it might go back further than that even, I don’t know. Now I don’t know too much about botany and the scientific side of plants, but I’d like to think that if I died and my land went untouched for a few years that the tomatoes that rot on the ground unpicked would leave seeds that would grow the next year and so on, since these tomatoes I have are so climatized to my area. I don’t know if that’s true, but maybe?

    Kincaid talks about this conquering in her books like it is a botanical genocide, a species comes in and completely wipes out and replaces another. And I think it can be like that. But where did those native plants come from? Where they there 10,000 years ago, or were they a genocidal plant then too?

    Maybe it is completely naive of me to think like this, and my opinion on this matter is nowhere near set in stone. But this topic is something I have thought about a lot since I first read this book, and this is what Ive come up with.

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