Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden


Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden

Seeds in soil framed by green leaves in foreground

In Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, Dr. Camille Dungy has written an incredible story that combines her love of gardening with African American history, especially as it relates to gardening. She and her family moved to Fort Collins, CO so she could teach at Colorado State University. The first chapter hooked my interest immediately with the description of seven cubic yards of cedar mulch blowing in the breeze with the strong Colorado winds while Camille, her husband, and friend frantically tried to find a way to keep it in place. Dr. Dungy wanted to invest in a pollinator garden that was conducive to the drought-tolerant local environment. She talks about the importance of gardening and having a place to relax in this space. Dr. Dungy states, “Every person who finds herself constantly navigating political spaces—by which I mean every person who regularly finds herself demoralized and exhausted by the everyday patterns of life in America—should have access to such a garden” (Dungy, 2023, p. 14). 

Dr. Dungy is actually better known as a poet and she has written several anthologies including the Guidebook to Relative Strangers:  Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She infuses poetry and photos of plants she added to her garden in the book, while also showing how Black history influenced her ideas about gardening. One example of this included the discussion of the 1964 Wilderness Act, where nature was defined as untrammeled by man. She points out that this is a fantasy that only serves a few people while “enforcing the silence of Black, Chinese, Japanese, East and South Asian communities, poorer white people, Indigenous people, Latinx people, human children, wolf cubs, other small and large mammals, lives that thrived in the wetlands, lives that thrived in the grassland prairies, lives that thrived in the desert, flower people, fish people, bird people—the list goes on and on” (Dungy, 2023, p. 148). Despite the silencing of some groups, Dr. Dungy still finds hope in nature and in her garden. 

When someone asked her what hope looks like, Dr. Dungy replied her garden and the things that were blooming presently or about to bloom gave her hope. This hope in nature is also shown by other examples from the book. Harriet Tubman used signs and signals from owls and snakes and river currents and moss to help her safely maneuver through a dangerous landscape (more from humans than from nature). She also describes how George Washington Carver spent time daily walking in his garden or woods near his home. These are in great contrast to the image of the Great Chain of Being where God is at the top and has dominion over all living things, including humans. She points out that the beautiful laws and gardens started in the 17th Century were created by men and women in lower positions who had to keep the gardens and lawns pristine for the nobility. The idea of pristine lawns continues into our modern era, with the use of pesticides and herbicides helping us fend off any creatures or plants that might damage the green lawn. 

I would encourage environmental educators to read this book and use it in college classes or with community members. It provides a unique lens of understanding the importance of gardening and where the need to keep a green monoculture yard derived. Dr. Dungy discusses how wars help us to invent new things that are then incorporated into our daily lives, such as microwaves, herbicides, and preservatives. “The use of pesticides has helped to make the United States the largest producer of food in the world but has also been accompanied by concerns about their potential adverse effects on the environment and human health” (USGS, 2016, US Geological Survey). Dr. Dungy discusses the reason for freeways going through the Black part of town because they are less valued. She reiterates the importance of writing about the environment and discussing social justice as political decisions.