“It’s best to accept what you have and not take from others what they have that you don’t…” – Jamaica Kincaid, “My Garden [Book]», 1999
Jamaica Kincaid made this statement in a chapter titled The Garden in Winter, in which she explained that she had to learn to accept the fact that in her adopted home in Vermont there is a season, winter, that she don’t appreciate. Kincaid wrote: “…what I would really like is to have winter, and then just the region which is my garden would be the West Indies, but only until spring comes, the season that I like the best…”
Although this particular statement was made in the context of conservatories, it embodies an idea that resonates throughout ‘My Garden [Book]and in most of Kincaid’s fiction and non-fiction works. It is the idea of counter-colonialism – rejecting the two-pronged ideologies of racism and imperialism that have repeatedly justified “taking from others what they have and you don’t”.
Before reading Kincaid’s garden book, I was unaware of the close connection between planting and uprooting people in one place and planting and uprooting plants in that place. However, I only had to pay more attention to the word “colonize” to recognize that the root comes from the Latin “colere”, to cultivate the land. Thus, colonizing a place is linguistically linked to racist and imperialist notions of “cultivating and civilizing” indigenous peoples.
In the Americas, as in other places around the world, this has meant removing indigenous peoples from their native lands, as well as removing native plants that support them and local ecosystems.
On the Caribbean island of Antigua, where Kincaid grew up, the Taino population was wiped out by disease and violence and replaced by European settlers and enslaved Africans (Kincaid’s ancestors). Likewise, native plants, such as the West Indian mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), were cut down for mahogany exports and to make way for large plantations of sugarcane, a grass native to Asia.
Some of Antigua’s native plants, such as wild plumeria (Latin name P. alba), were sent to botanic gardens in England where they were renamed, studied and “improved” through hybridization. By the time Kincaid grew up on the island in the 1950s and 1960s, most Antiguans, including Kincaid, were more familiar with imported plants than native plants.
The same story can be told in North America. In fact, advocacy for native plants in the United States grew out of growing concerns about the decline of native species, the disappearance of wild areas, and environmental degradation, all of which resulted from economic expansion. colonial. Gardeners who “decolonize” their garden and landscape by uprooting non-native plants and replacing them with native species often do so in conscious response to the botanical legacy of colonization.
(See the sidebar article on an Oregon State University Extension Service study that reveals 10 native plants that support high numbers of native pollinators.)
Yet it is important to decolonize the gardener and not just the garden. For many gardeners, this means learning stories about gardening and garden plants other than the stories woven by European colonizers.
What did native plants call the indigenous peoples who lived where we garden today? How did they incorporate these plants into their food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and ceremonies? What stories did they tell about these plants that were passed down from generation to generation?
To decolonize the gardener is also to increase our awareness of the role that our ancestors played in the colonization and uprooting of indigenous peoples and plants. My ancestors came to America from England in the 1600s and settled in western North Carolina, where they moved Cherokee families to grow tobacco and food crops on small farms. At least one of my ancestors married a Cherokee and benefited from a land treaty that was meant to help the native peoples retain their independence.
As the number of tobacco farms and plantations increased in North Carolina, much of the native flora, including wild strains of tobacco (called tso-la-a-ga-yv-li by the Cherokee), that supported the Cherokee way of life and the local ecosystem disappeared under the plow. By 1840, approximately 16,000 Cherokee men, women, and children had been forced to relocate to “Indian Territory” (present-day Oklahoma). Many of them lost their lives during the 2,000 mile trek.
Learning this part of my family’s history is disturbing, but I strongly disagree with critics who claim these accounts are meant to shame white people. Yes, acts of colonization, uprooting and removal of native peoples and plants are shameful. However, maintaining ignorance or even denial of these acts only serves to perpetuate a colonizing state of mind which, as they say, condemns us to repeat our colonizing history.
I grow a flowering tobacco (N. alata) in my garden to honor my tobacco growing ancestors, whose love for the land was passed down to me. Combining my respect for them with acknowledgment of their complicity in exploiting the tobacco plant and the Indigenous peoples who depended on it helps me better understand the complexities of being human.
Perhaps gardeners are better placed than many to accept the contradictions of human nature; after all, growing plants requires us to work alongside nature’s contradictions. For me, decolonizing a garden(er) means thinking of my garden as a place to rethink my (ancestral) relationship with plants and become a more environmentally and socially just human being.
There is certainly no shame in striving for it.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher, and writer. See Literarygardener.com or email him at [email protected]
OSU Extension Names 10 Super-Pollinating Native Plants
A three-year study by the Oregon State University Extension Service found 10 native plants that support an abundance of diverse native bees. All plants grow well in full sun and require little supplemental irrigation during the summer.
The 10 plants are: 1. the small-leaved phacelia (Phacelia heterophylla); 2. globe gilia (Gilia capitata); 3. Douglas Aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum); 4. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica); 5. farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena); 6. pink checkermallow (Sidalcea asprella ssp. virgata); 7. showy tarweed (Madia elegans); 8. Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); 9. Oregon Sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum); and 10. yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
For more information on growing these native super-pollinator plants, see the OSU Extension website, extension.oregonstate.edu/.