I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book, The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst. The author takes us on a journey around the country exploring the food gardens and farms of Americans of different cultural backgrounds, some of whom (Native Americans and the Gullah people of South Carolina) have been here for a long while, and some who are first or second generation immigrants.
Klindienst, who identifies strongly with her mother’s Italian heritage, wanted to discover how gardeners keep a culture alive despite the uprooting that comes with displacement and change. She visits with Latino gardeners in New Mexico and Massachusetts, Polish and Japanese farmers working side by side in Bainbridge Island, Washington, a Punjabi gardener in California, Cambodians relocated to New England, Native American growers of New Mexico and Connecticut, Italians at opposite ends of the country, and two African-American Gullah gardeners on St. Helena Island. The book is a tribute to people who love food and community, who’ve come through poverty and war and conflict but held on to a traditional valuing of land and its produce. Klindienst uses her skills as a writer to frame the stories and describe their settings, but she lets the gardeners speak for themselves as well, which is what I’ll do for the rest of this review.
“Many of us had to make it on the land when we didn’t have any other jobs here. This was our source of life for years. That’s why we don’t like to see fences. We hate gated communities, most of us do, because everybody here was raised to feel free to walk anywhere, and you respect it, that freedom.” Ralph Middleton, St. Helena Island, South Carolina
“In Puerto Rico, having a garden is about growing your own food. Here it’s not only about food. It’s your way out of your apartment if you don’t have your own house. It’s a stress reliever. And it’s a way of screaming out, ‘I want to keep my culture. I want to give this tradition to my children and leave them with this gift, this pride.’ When you talk to the elders, you see the pride in their eyes.” Hilda Colon, Raíces Latina community garden, South Holyoke, Massachusetts
“People from my own county who came by and saw me back here working in the garden said, ‘Why are you digging?’ Why wasn’t I inside watching TV and doing American things? …. I realized that I was offending people. But here, I don’t have my gardeners. I don’t have crop-sharers. I have only myself. I want to have a garden, a beautiful garden. And I am my only resource. The pleasure of planting a seed and making my own garden is a pleasure that should not be denied me.” Ruhan Kainth, Fullerton, California
“He got his seeds from friends. They would go to each other’s gardens and investigate and talk. If somebody’s crop–say, lettuce–didn’t do well, they’d give them some. There was a lot of exchange. That was a gift they could give to their neighbors. They never bought seeds. They didn’t spend money on the garden. Otherwise, they thought they were defeating the whole purpose of a garden.” Tullio Inglese, Leverett, Massachusetts, on his father’s gardening community just outside Boston
“So he pointed at each item on my plate and then to the field that it had grown in–the poles on the horizon with the hops, and the fields of barley for the beer, the fields of rye for the bread and the potatoes, the cabbage for the sauerkraut. And then he said–and it haunts me to this day–‘If you cannot see where your food comes from, you are doomed to live in ugliness.'” Gerard Bentryn, vintner of Bainbridge Island, Washington, on a brewer he met in Germany
“To be close to the earth–that’s what we grew up with, that’s what I’m about. I never had words for it before. It’s part of who I am. I’ve completely acknowledged that now.” Loretta Fresquez, Monte Vista Organic Farm, Española, New Mexico
Read this book – I promise you will learn something! And perhaps give some new thought to your own heritage and what it does or doesn’t contribute to your love of gardening.