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For this poet, working on her garden is exploring history, race and sustainability

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLING)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And why not? It's spring, so let's get out of the studio and into the garden.

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BLOCK: Like many of you, I bet, I've spent a lot more time in my garden during the COVID years. We've ripped up all the sod, and we filled what used to be lawn with flowering perennials. They're mostly native, friendly to pollinators. And about 1,500 miles west of me...

CAMILLE DUNGY: Good morning. How are you?

BLOCK: ...In Fort Collins, Colo., Poet Camille Dungy has done the same thing.

DUNGY: I'm going to walk you first through what we call the prairie project.

BLOCK: We connected by FaceTime video, garden to garden.

DUNGY: Sunflowers - and I love this one. It's called pussytoes. It's got these little...

BLOCK: Oh, lovely.

DUNGY: ...nice, little tufts. There's some rabbitbrush and...

BLOCK: And pretty soon, as if on cue...

DUNGY: There's a bunny. Do you see the bunny in the distance?

BLOCK: Oh, yeah.

DUNGY: Yeah. So that's...

BLOCK: Now, you have managed to make peace with your bunny rabbits in a way, Camille, that I have not.

DUNGY: I have made peace with the rabbits. They...

BLOCK: Now, my garden in D.C. is bursting with color. I show Camille some hot pink phlox, some spiky white foamflower.

And there's some purple columbine - sort of a deep plum color.

But I can see that, out in Colorado, Camille Dungy's garden, at altitude - it's a couple of months behind mine.

DUNGY: That'll be the start for the poet's daffodil, which I planted just because I had to have a poet's daffodil in my yard.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Sometimes it's all about the name, right?

DUNGY: It is all about the name.

BLOCK: And she hasn't cut back the tall, dried grasses from last season or the dead stalks from her sunflowers. They stay up all winter.

DUNGY: To create winter interest and something more interesting to look at - but also, a lot of the native pollinators will nest or plant their eggs and larva under and around many of these native plants. So right now, we have a very blond garden.

BLOCK: Camille Dungy has spent many years turning her weed-filled, water-hogging, suburban Colorado lawn into a pollinator's paradise filled with drought-tolerant native plants. She writes about this in her new memoir, titled "Soil: The Story Of A Black Mother's Garden." Her book is about transforming and diversifying her garden, but it's also about motherhood and community and how, for her, a Black woman in a predominantly white town, thinking about land is deeply rooted in thoughts about this country's history and about race. I can't dig in my garden, she writes, without digging up all this old dirt. Dungy says every politically engaged person should have a garden - could be just a pot in a window or a plot in the yard.

DUNGY: A politically engaged person is anybody who lives with an interest and concern about the daily complications of moving through the world for so many of us. And that's exhausting to live with that kind of attention. And a garden can be a balm. A garden can be a place of rest and beauty, but a garden also teaches me patience and that the work of a politically engaged person often requires true patience. And the garden supports my belief that that patience can very frequently pay off.

BLOCK: Hmm. You also link, Camille, the notion of diversifying your landscape with diversifying what we think of as sort of the canon of nature writing, which you mention and, as something that really confounds and annoys you, a lot of it has been written mostly by men - white men - wandering alone. You mention John Muir. You mention Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey - men with nobody to think of or worry about but themselves is how you put it. Why is that so annoying to you?

DUNGY: I wonder who is excluded if the spokesmen for that issue are solitary white men? And in the cases where they are women, those women write themselves into that tradition of solitude. And...

BLOCK: You're thinking of Annie Dillard there, especially.

DUNGY: I'm thinking specifically of Annie Dillard and also Mary Oliver. These are all writers who are important and fascinating and write really key texts. And yet, the absence of family and community troubles me because I don't see a way forward, realistically, without engaging people who have people. Also, as a mother, I don't have the luxury of just leaving my child behind and tromping into the woods for days at a time. If I did that, I needed to bring her along. And then I have to bring, like, a million snacks and...

BLOCK: (Laughter).

DUNGY: ...You know, like, stop every few hundred feet. I'm writing out of a suburban landscape, where I have neighbors and community, and it's a very different and I think much more practical set of questions for how to build a sustainable world if I think about it from my house and who's in my house and who's right around it.

BLOCK: There's a moment that I love in the book where you describe your daughter, Callie, who has accidentally broken two branches of a honey locust tree, and you blurted something out without even thinking. What was it that you said?

DUNGY: And I have to correct that. I do not think she accidentally broke those branches.

BLOCK: Ah.

DUNGY: I think she was jumping and purposely grabbed the branches...

BLOCK: I see.

DUNGY: ...And broke them because she enjoyed the sound of the snap. And so it just came out of me. I said, don't hurt that tree. Trees are people too.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

DUNGY: And everybody at the party sort of looked at me with this confusion. And I realized at that moment that my empathetic connection with other living beings was not necessarily a normalized point of view and particularly not, you know, in the backyard of a suburban home. I just enjoyed the process of writing about my backyard with the same kind of rapture that so many of the canonical writers write about - those sort of far, distant, unpopulated, sublime spaces.

BLOCK: You do love listing the names of the plants in your garden and the animal life that flocks to your garden. And I wonder if you could read a section that I especially loved where you say their names sound like music. Could you read some of that?

DUNGY: I can do that.

(Reading) If you come to my garden, you'll see what I mean. Say them with me - Rocky Mountain bee plant - purple crazy-headed flowers on bright green waist-high stalks; little bluestem and sideoats grama - native prairie grasses; pine siskins - little brown birds; painted ladies - brown-, orange- and white-spotted butterflies who feed on our hollyhocks, allium, echinacea and hyssop. I do not tire of repeating the names of the many lives I am learning to love.

BLOCK: I love that section so much. It's beautiful.

DUNGY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Camille Dungy, thank you so much. Thanks for coming out into the garden with us today.

DUNGY: Thank you for inviting me, Melissa, and sharing your garden as well.

BLOCK: That's poet Camille Dungy. Her new memoir is titled "Soil: The Story Of A Black Mother's Garden."

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.