In Camille Dungy’s new book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster), she chronicles the years she and her family spent transforming their home in Fort Collins, Colo., into “rewilded” prairie. She draws connections between the process of fostering indigenous flora and fauna, and broader cultural strains around notions of unruliness and acceptability when it comes to race, gender, land and water rights, community, time, labor, and motherhood. Her previous book, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (Norton 2017), was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist. Among her many honors are an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both prose and poetry. She is currently the poetry editor of Orion, and a university distinguished professor at Colorado State University. The Nation spoke with Dungy about how unexpected encounters and events fundamentally shaped both the form and content of Soil, as well as how the process of writing the book has changed her perspective on herself as an artist, teacher, community member, and mother.
Sara Franklin: One of the things I love about this book is your transparency about how the work evolved after you received a fellowship to support your writing time, and then the pandemic smashed your plans. I’m wondering, how, now, would you describe this book?
Camille Dungy: This book chronicles seven years of my family’s efforts to diversify the world around us from the ground up. That description holds within it the possibility for change and revision and renewed directions. That’s what all that work looked like.
SF: This book holds, in a very provocative way, a tension between the notion of agency and wilderness. You name “rewilding” towards the end of the book, and how it disallows the illusion of things to pan out as we hope or plan for them to.
CD: I think it’s more that it’s harder to predict the direction that life will take when it’s allowed to move in its own directions.
SF: As a woman who has chosen to have a child, who is geographically in place, in a home, what does wilderness or to be wild mean for you?
CD: I think the simple answer is it’s an artificial divide that there’s wilderness and then there’s something else, a human-built environment. It’s partly artificial because we have gone into these spaces and carved domestic, tamed landscapes out of spaces that engineer the landscape to accommodate the will of the human. Another way that the divide is artificial, per the question of motherhood, is that there is in fact a wildness to life, particularly with a young child. If space is made for it, young children will tug me into a kind of connection with something larger than the constraints of American human culture. A child will pull you to looking at rocks and flowers and paying attention to birds and grass and slow you down and broaden the gaze. And help me connect with the greater than human experience. That’s exciting to me. I believe that there’s much to be gained from figuring out how to rewild my own life without having to walk away from everything that I’m doing, to go away and be wild or come home and be domesticated. I want to be able to do both. I think that’s possible.
SF: Before the pandemic, most of your work was done before your daughter woke up, when she was at school, or when you were outside the home. During the pandemic, she saw you vying for time to work. Have you noticed any shifts since your daughter was most actively watching you do that?
CD: I think that what Callie understands is that the way artists are artists is that they are fed, and somebody’s taking care of cleaning of the house and the shopping and all of those other things that make it possible for the artist to have the space to create. But for women artists—unless they’re insanely wealthy and have a particular set of decisions which often mean not partnering and not having children—[we] tend to have to balance the space-making with all of that doing. There is significantly less room for this fantasy of untethered thinking. I have become disinterested in reifying or reaffirming that fantasy of untethered thinking. And I want, more and more, to make space for people—not just women—people to be artists while also engaging with the realities of living a life. My daughter has witnessed that and she’s not taking for granted the fact that cooking has to be done and cleaning has to be done and shopping has to be done and the art has to be done. She understands that there’s some way that she either needs to find a team who can help those things happen around her, or she has to create a balance that means less time given to art and rest. I think at 12 years old, she already understands that the fantasy of creating art separate from living is constructed. Just like the fantasy of landscape in this country. It’s a fabricated sense of reality, not what really happens in the world.
SF: Your observation about words about the natural world being removed from the children’s dictionary, and the depletion of language, was striking. How do you think about the impoverishment of American English as you’re practicing diversification, which is about inviting the unexpected?
CD: These diminishments are frequently really actively constructed for the sake of commerce, for the sake of a particular small group’s ease and wealth, for the desire to work towards an aesthetic that is limiting, monochromatic, homogeneous, and that is catastrophically dangerous to most living things on the planet. The optimistic part is that there are a lot of people who are resisting these efforts towards shrinking and infertility.
SF: It seems to me this book might be working towards a refining or a different notion of feminism for you. Does that feel true?
CD: I’m a Black woman, which makes feminism itself both necessary and deeply problematic. I tend to use the word “womanist” instead, which is Alice Walker, and is, I think, a more expansive view of what that kind of care might look like. I also think that, in this particular moment in history, this question and the work can’t all be on women. A framework that might fit is intersectional thinking, a way of seeing the entwined, inextricable connections between many realities at once. I am actually most robustly myself when I am able to acknowledge my multiplicity, and when I am in a community that embraces my multiplicity.
SF: As your gardening practice has evolved, how have you seen that embodied practice and cyclicality influence your teaching practice?
CD: That deep patience that I write about learning as a gardener definitely helps me in the classroom. If I am not patient with my students, to allow them to learn at the pace where they are, I’m not being a good teacher. The things will grow in the garden at the rate they will grow. And that will happen year after year, no matter how many tweaks you make. You can only change so much.
SF: How are you thinking about the notion of productivity within this cultural structure that surrounds us?
CD: We need to rest. We need to honor the times where we’re tired and feel that we don’t have anything to put on the page. We need to learn how to say no to things that pull us away from what we value most. And I know that we need to do this because I know that the only way that soil remains fertile, without rest and crop rotation, is with a lot of chemicals. That’s the only way. And so for people, that means caffeine and beyond—pharmaceutical answers, recreational drug answers, going going going, sugar. The chemicals we ingest to keep us going beyond our mind and body’s stop point. I am trying to honor my body’s request for rest. I also have the luxury to honor that. I’m a university distinguished professor now. At this particular institution, there’s nowhere else to rise. So that ambitious part of me has met its culmination. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop, it just means I don’t have to be doing everything as fast.
Watching so many of us parents go through the pandemic, particularly the lockdown times, and the number of people I knew who did not ever have an ability to access rest because they had small children in the house. It was just impossible…. I feel like we deserve, and need now, to recover.
SF: Yes. Yes. Last question: What do you hope or imagine this book can do?
CD: I hope that this book can be part of the necessary change towards rethinking what environmental and social engagement look like. I hope people can reengage with a sense of the importance of community and collaborative thinking. That requires an openness and a really radicalized, for many people, sense of acceptance for difference. I hope people plant native plants. I hope people rethink their attitudes towards beauty and wonder and what grows up around them, both in terms of the plants, but also the people who we invite to be right around us and close to us.