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A Review of Camille T. Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden

Ceren Sevin

Gardens have long been the site and symbol of human dominion over the natural world. Originating in colonial and capitalist activity, they exemplify the choice of ease and uniformity over effort and biodiversity. The prevalent image of the garden with monochromatic lawns and orderly sown plants without any weeds may make one easily wonder: Is it possible to envision the garden as a celebration of multiplicity and mutuality among beings? How might gardening in and against the Anthropocene, this crisis and anxiety-ridden geologic age we are in, look like? In Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, Camille T. Dungy delves into this question through her family's seven year endeavor to cultivate a drought-resistant garden vibrant with native plants and pollinators. At its core, the book reads like an ode to the soil—not solely in the literal sense of terrestrial matter, but in its metaphorical resonance as the matrix of emotional sustenance and cultural continuity.

Dungy's descriptions of the garden's lively flora and fauna are vivid and infused with a sense of reverence, allowing readers to appreciate the interconnectedness of all life forms. The book suggests that this appreciation involves an acknowledgment of loss of control and the existence of a different temporality. Early in the book, she states, “Our garden regularly ruptures my sense of progress and process and time… Plants go into soil at different times and come up in their own time. Sometimes they seem to exist all at once. Sometimes not at all.” For Dungy, the patience derived from tuning into vegetal temporality and embracing alterity to sustain a pollinator’s paradise, furnish the emotional sustenance essential for any form of political engagement. This profound observation challenges the prevailing human urge for control and instant gratification, resonating deeply in the context of the Anthropocene. In a world characterized by rapid technological advancements and an obsession with efficiency, Dungy's garden becomes a sanctuary where time is not a straight line, but a web of interconnected moments. It serves as a potent reminder that embracing a temporality akin to the natural world's rhythm can offer us a fresh perspective on our connection with the world.

Like her gardening, Dungy’s nature-writing is not traditional. Unlike the white, male-dominated canon celebrating solitariness in nature, Soil brims with the conversations among friends and neighbors that shape Dungy’s gardening as well as the responsibilities of being a Black woman, mother, and professor that interrupt it. Such sincere moments remind the reader that sometimes, even for prolific writers, there is nothing particularly sublime about gardening. As significant is their ability to highlight the intersectionality of various identities, emphasizing that the struggle against the ecological crisis is inextricably linked to the struggle against societal injustices. Dungy's research unveils a stark reality regarding the underrepresentation of Black poets in environmental literature. The statistics she presents—with only six poems by Black poets in eighty years of environmental canon—is a glaring testament to the systemic biases in the field. In a defiant tone, she writes: “Reading these so-called seminal texts, I feel excluded. The author’s inability to see me means that I have trouble picturing myself in the worlds they depict. But I do exist. Instead of accepting erasure, I learn to write a story for myself” (87). Further, by drawing on her parents’ and grandparents’ experiences during the era of segregation, she adds a layer of depth that foregrounds the issues of access and use of the garden, often overlooked in the field. Striking a pleasant balance between personal experience and analysis of cultural history, the book highlights the urgent need for conversations about land, race, gender, and history, inviting readers to engage with these topics on both a micro and macro level. 

In Soil: The Story of A Black Mother's Garden, Camille T. Dungy likens writing to the nurturing act of cultivating a garden, highlighting how “women writers, especially women of color, and most especially mothers, must steal their own time to grow” (72). This analogy serves as a poignant entry point into her exploration of not just the garden but also her family’s legacy and cultural heritage. Dungy's narrative transcends mere horticulture; it becomes a profound reflection on the interconnectedness of the past and present, echoing the earth's enduring ability to nurture life in its myriad forms. Her book is a testament to the resilience and strength that can be found in the soil—and in the stories that spring from it, making it an essential read for anyone interested in the intersection of environmentalism, history, and personal narrative.


CAMILLE T. DUNGY, a poet and editor, holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Previously teaching in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, Dungy is currently a professor in the English department at Colorado State University. Dungy has authored several notable poetry collections. Her works include Trophic Cascade (2017); Smith Blue (2011), a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; Suck on the Marrow (2010), which earned her an American Book Award, a California Book Award silver medal, and the Northern California book award; and the sonnet collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). The latter was a finalist for both the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Library of Virginia Literary Award. 

CEREN SEVIN is a PhD student in Literature, Media, and Culture at Florida State University. She is interested in the study of literature and the environment. She hopes to cultivate her garden one day.


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