If you’re looking for a good book to read on days when it’s too hot to be out in the garden, might I recommend Patricia Klindienst’s The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans? I just finished this engaging, but gentle, almost meditative book. The author visits farmers and gardeners all over the United States whose gardens both feed their bodies and nourish their cultural connections, whether their homeland is Cambodia, Italy, or India, or their ancestors have farmed the same land since long before European settlement. Klindienst provides space for the farmers to speak for themselves, revealing the stories of their gardens as ways of telling their personal and cultural histories.
I was struck by the diversity of experience within growing food, which is done all over the world, in very different situations and environments, growing very different crops. Yet there is a deep commonality to this practice: an intense connection to the place, the land, and the particulars of climate and ecosystem, as well as the attention paid, care given, skills perfected, and community built. For the people in the book who had left their homeland to forge a new life in the United States, their gardens—their traditional practices and techniques, as well as the crops they grow—serve as a way to ground them in their new homes and tangibly connect them back to the places and people they had left behind. For people such as the Gullah farmers of South Carolina and the Native American farmers of New Mexico, growing food is an embodiment of their heritage, a continuous line from the past through the present to the future. For all of the growers in the book, their gardens are deeply healing places, and their relationships with their gardens seem akin to familial bonds, or even extensions of themselves. “The earth is the actual ground of our lives—we grow out of the soil too. If it dies, we die. If it lives, we eat and live. You know this when you grow your own food,” Klindienst reminds us.
Referring to her garden, Italian-American Maska Pelligrini tells Klindienst, “It’s our life, you know.” Klindienst reflects that “Maska’s all-embracing phrase, ‘It’s our life,’ included the whole garden—soil, plants, worms, birds, insects, water, sun, wind, and her. In her marvelous, encompassing, humble phrase, ‘our life’ extended to include ‘their lives.’ Her garden was an interdependent community, a democracy.”