Last summer I received this book as a surprise gift from my son’s partner. The author is a like an aunt to her, and she thought I might enjoy it. I was very touched by this generous gesture and certainly hoped to like it; its vivid cover looked inviting and the topic intriguing, but my expectations were modest at best. Dutifully I delved into it – lo and behold, I didn’t just like it. I loved it. The writing is lyrical, the stories are powerful. Its narratives, chronicling the experience of people bringing forth food from the earth, put this book squarely on the shelf with Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle and Pollon’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.
English lacks a word for people who grow their own food while working a day job: hence the book’s dissertation-length title, The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans. “Gardener” connotes flowers more than edibles; “farmer” and “grower” suggest full time professionals, and “subsistence farmer” conjures up hardscrabble sharecropping. Our closest term is kitchen or cottage gardeners. The author highlights eight gardens, each created and nurtured by people whose pleasure in growing things and deep reverence for the earth are powerfully and poetically expressed – especially captivating since few of them would be comfortable writing their observations and experiences. The reader feels privileged to sit in on the dialogue between author and subject – lush descriptions jump off each page, allowing us to see, smell, taste, and feel the bounty of these gardens. Each day’s sequence of harvesting, preparing, preserving, and eating, along with endless garden tasks, including saving the best seeds for the next year’s planting, come to life.
Klindienst skillfully recreates the narratives of these gardeners speaking their truths and sharing their intimate knowledge of producing sustenance; their garden labors sustain them spiritually as well as physically. Most of them are immigrants who bridge their old homes and their new by connecting with the earth. Meet the Khmer growers of
Visit with Klindienst in Ruhan Kainth’s Punjabi garden in
The last of its eight chapters chronicles the wondrous story of Whit Davis, an 11th generation Connecticut farmer who has recently presented revered Indian white flint corn to the descendants of the Native Americans displaced by his colonial ancestors. Along with the seed corn, he sends the following instructions via the author, who is doing the actual presentation: “Tell them they should plant two, three fields of it and to keep them separated. After three, four years, they should take the best seed from all three and mix them together and start again. That way they keep the corn strong. Tell them that I wish them well. Tell them that I wish them good luck in all their endeavors.” I gave a copy of this book is my nephew Neil, a PhD in eco-biology, now a plant biologist developing drought resistant corn, and directed him to Whit’s story. Neil was astounded to read Whit’s instructions, because they describe precisely the methodology he and his team utilize in their experimental fields.
We live in a time of keen interest in food politics and increasing ecological concern. One of the books strengths is its subtlety in these matters. The stories tell themselves, but they also enhance the reader’s awareness of the need to support local farmers, preserve open space, and protect seed banks from corporate, monopolistic control. This book is suffused with deep and ancient wisdom. It is more than just an oral history book; it is a sacred text, helping us to relearn deep reverence and spiritual connection.
Considering how drawn in I was by Klindienst’s work, it came as no surprise to me when I learned that she has won a 2007 American Book Award for The Earth Knows My Name. This prize highlights writing which expresses
Warning: this book is powerful. Don’t be surprised if, come spring, you find yourself planting a cottage garden….
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