Photo of hands tending to a garden
Meron Menghistab

Housekeeping Is Part of the Wild World Too

The idea that Black people can write out of a personal relationship to nature and have done so since before this nation’s founding comes to many as a shock.

Almost every day since the beginning of 2020’s COVID-19 lockdown, I have texted with my friends Suzanne and Kate. We’re not all that similar. I am Black, and they are white. We live in different parts of the country. They are in long-term, child-free relationships. I am married and have a child. But we are all writers who share a deep connection with the natural world. And our writing reflects our frustration at the way many people’s stories are erased from books held up as masterpieces of environmental literature.

Some years ago I edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. One of the anthology’s most remarkable statements was that Black people write with an empathetic eye toward the natural world. Because of erasures from so many narratives about the great outdoors, the idea that Black people can write out of a personal relationship to nature and have done so since before this nation’s founding comes as a shock to many people. Conducting a review of more than 2,000 poems included in key nature-poetry anthologies and journals published from 1930 to 2006—80 years of the environmental literary canon—I found only six poems by Black poets.

Book cover of Soil by Camille T. Dungy
This article is adapted from Dungy’s forthcoming book.

But that doesn’t mean Black people weren’t writing these poems. Like so many writers who wander out into nature to find themselves, Black writers also find peace in connections to nature. Just as strong as the pull of legacies of trauma that this nation inflicted—and inflicts—on Black people is the self-recognition some of us find in stories of hope and renewal that grow out of the wild world.

“Thank you,” one Black poet told me when I requested poems for Black Nature. “I have been writing this way my entire life, but no one has ever seen me in this light.”

People are part of the natural world. And yet, loads of canonical nature writing excludes people. Such writing spends so much time in solitary meditative observation that the writers ignore nearly every human experience outside their own. During the early days of the shut-in, in March, I texted Kate and Suzanne about some books I’d recently reread, including Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, about the passage of a year in Roanoke Valley. “Why,” I asked my friends, “had Dillard felt the need to erase the messiness of both mundane domestic undertakings and complex national politics from her book about the world?” Dillard expressed doubt that people would want to read a memoir by “a Virginia housewife,” so she left that part of her own story out. Her book also deletes the daily experiences of many other people in her direct vicinity. Around the time she was writing, some of the most significant integration struggles of the civil-rights era roiled just beyond her door, but Dillard’s book maintains a segregation of focus and care. Such books don’t only erase Black neighbors. They erase nearly everyone.

“Dillard adopts the whole ‘man-alone-in-the-wilderness (or in her case the pastoral)’ trope,” Suzanne added to our text thread. “I mean, Edward Abbey was generally with one of his four wives out there in the desert, but they never show up. It’s pure fantasy.”

“That’s part of why I like Amy Irvine’s Trespass so much,” wrote Kate, referring to the wilderness activist’s 2009 memoir. “She’s so fucking honest.”

Published in 2018, Irvine’s next book after Trespass is the contrarian meditation Desert Cabal. That book deals with the implications of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—the same Abbey who stayed in the desert as frequently by himself as with one of his wives and their children, though you wouldn’t know about his family from what he wrote in that seminal book. In this case, there could be no more appropriate descriptor than seminal, a word often used to laud the unmatchable genius of an individual man.

Why disappear the people who people your world?

“Irvine doesn’t get that level of love for Trespass,” I wrote to my friends. “Partially because she was so busy raising her kid that she couldn’t do the promotional work. But partly because nature dudes like a certain kind of story.”

The nice thing about texting is that I can carry on a conversation while vacuuming or stirring risotto. Sometimes seconds pass between messages. Sometimes long days. The flow of thoughts can meander as well. “It’s noteworthy that Dillard wanted to write in a ‘genderless’ way (read: presumably male),” I continued, “but they wouldn’t let her publish the book as A. Dillard.”

Suzanne, who had been offline, came back to tell us some of the phrases an editor used to replace the simple dialogue tag I said in her manuscript. Many of the substitutions magnified a kind of servile femininity: I pleaded, I confessed, I admitted, I bustled, I apologized. “As in,” Suzanne wrote, “‘I’m sorry,’ I apologized.”

“Every time the word bustle comes up,” wrote Kate, “we’re doing a shot of tequila.”

“I need to read Trespass,” wrote Suzanne.

In Desert Cabal, Irvine writes about the precautions she takes as a woman, including giving careful thought to what she drinks and with whom. She writes about the ways her life—the life of a white, culturally and economically privileged woman—is often in jeopardy in the wild. Especially when she’s in the company of men.

I returned to an earlier moment in our conversation—“There’s so little quotidian honesty in nature writing during that generation”—and started my own contrarian environmental-lit list. Several books by contemporary writers do pay significantly more attention to the realities of domestic life than I’ve seen in previous generations. For The Book of Delights, Ross Gay wrote small daily essays about things that delighted him in the everyday world. At some point, he even describes someone doing the dishes. And I know of at least two places in Deep Creek where Pam Houston shares her shopping lists, including what she planned to prepare for her housemates at dinner. Gay and Houston write of lives surrounded by both nature and people. Though they are sometimes prone to ecstatic reveries, they also deliver instruction on how to live in the occasionally brutal landscape of our world. In Gay’s case: in a Black man’s body. In Houston’s: as a white woman and survivor of childhood abuse.

“Maybe what I’m missing particularly is the parenting aspect,” I told Kate and Suzanne. “Child-free writers versus mothers.” The routine tasks that consume a parent. I wasn’t reading about what keeps me from writing one small essay a day.

I’m not judging the reasons a person might not be a parent, or why they might not write about motherhood even if they do have a child. I’m being honest in my own writing about that for which I hunger.

Even though they aren’t mothers themselves, Suzanne and Kate admitted an interest in such stories. “I think Ellen Meloy and Eva Saulitis both write with quotidian honesty,” wrote Suzanne. “But as you say, both were childless. You have me running to my bookshelves!”

We have to deliberately search out these books, because the environmental imagination we were trained in did not admit children, or the women who raise them, into the canon of work about the wild. Just as something in that same imagination had not admitted Black writers.

But it’s not hard to find writers who defy such limiting narratives. In more than one of her nonfiction books, Barbara Kingsolver writes about the family garden and her children. Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (Book), which she published in 1999, begins with a gift of gardening tools she received on Mother’s Day. In 2013’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer reimagines the ways we might interact with the greater-than-human world. She also writes about lessons she learns as a mother. And in World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, published in 2020, Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes about the family she creates with her husband almost as much as she writes about her own childhood and family of origin. Still, what’s the old saying? The exceptions prove the rule.

I didn’t write anything else to Kate and Suzanne about books that followed or resisted the limitations of this genre, because I got caught up preparing and serving my family’s dinner. Then the nighttime rituals: combing and braiding my daughter’s hair; asking, “Did you brush your teeth and wash your face?”; removing still-unfolded laundry from the bed so she could sleep. The thicket of human happenings—a different kind of woods. Suzanne wrote, “Nothing more natural in humans than the messiness of giving birth. She bustled.”

“Drink up, sister!” wrote Kate.

I may or may not have had a drink that night. I didn’t write it down. What I know is that in the rush before picking my daughter up the next day, I threw a handful of fruit into a smoothie, without turning off the blender’s blades.

Next in the text chain: a photo of my cabinets coated in vegetal goo. Instead of following up on ideas I shared with my friends or cutting back the winter scrabble that wilded our March garden, I focused on cleaning the kitchen walls and cabinets and floors.

I couldn’t draft a text in the same way as so many old, white, mostly male nature writers. Not on a morning like that. I couldn’t look away from the messiness. I wouldn’t want to erase the goo, or my girl, or my Black hands scrubbing our kitchen from my account of the wild world I so deeply love.

This essay has been adapted from Camille T. Dungy’s forthcoming book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.

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