Monday, December 24, 2007

The Book of the Year: The Earth Knows My Name

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 Western Massachusetts, aging immigrant survivors of genocide. Over time they have created a flourishing New England community garden featuring South Asian fruits and vegetables. In their garden these two sisters are at home, at peace. From early spring to late fall they are busy every minute nurturing both their plants and the younger family and community members who help out; their organic produce is in great demand by local fans and restaurants. When the harvest season ends, the garden’s proceeds fund wat restorations and schools in their home village in Cambodia as well as new local Massachusetts Buddhist communities. When winter settles in their aches, traumas, and flashbacks reappear. Cooped up indoors all winter, they long for their garden, a surrogate for their past lives, only feeling hopeful again when spring revives their spirits.

Visit with Klindienst in Ruhan Kainth’s Punjabi garden in Fullerton, California. Had she stayed in her comfortable home in India, Ruhan would have enjoyed the many privileges of high economic status, but she would not have been free to garden – in her home culture, such work is considered beneath her. She learned about the wonder of growing things by collecting tenant farmers’ rent for her physician father who worked abroad. In California she can, and does, grow everything she wants. Her South Asian American friends find it all very puzzling. Why would she want to get dirty? A visit to her recreated semi-tropical garden answers that question – she has her own private paradise, a quarter acre with over 50 fruits, vegetables, and herbs, including the centerpiece, a neem tree, one of only a few in North America. I gave a copy of this book to my South Asian friend Meenal, a newbie gardener, and recommended this particular chapter. When her parents recently went back for a visit to their native India, they asked Meenal what she might like them to bring back. Her answer: “Seeds!” So Ruhan already has already raised up a disciple. Perhaps one day Ruhan and Meenal will even trade their best seeds along with their stories, who knows?

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 America’s multicultural heritage. Just one suggestion: read the prologue after reading the main body of the book, at which point you will have fallen in love with all her subjects, and realize what an artful volume Patricia Klindienst has created. By then, reading her own story will make more sense. Another reading tip: there is a coherent order to the chapters, but each stands on its own, so no need to read them in sequence.

Warning: this book is powerful. Don’t be surprised if, come spring, you find yourself planting a cottage garden….

If you're interested in purchasing the book directly from Beacon, you can get a 20% discount by using this code at the purchase: BEACONFF.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

from Marc Silver:
Hi. I tried to make a comment on the blog but wasn't sure if it went through. No problem, though. if it didn't.

Whit Davis is really a true Connecticut legend that has been featured contantly in human interest stories on television stations here. The following link is to the Stanton-Davis Homestead, which was the family home now converted into a museum about colonial life and the history of the Mohegan Indian tribe. I did a day trip there years ago and loved visiting the place. It is in Pawctuck, Connecticut, which is in the southeastern corner of the state next to the Ct/Rhode Island border. The link is as follows:


In one of the television pieces that was aired on CPTV a few years back he describes the method of planting the Indian flint corn. If you are up this way this homestead/museum is a great stop as is also the surrounding larger fishing community of Stonington, which is very similar to Gloucester, Mass. and New Bedford, Mass. in that they are old fishing communities and have many colonial buildings still standing and many of the old whaling and fishing boats on display. On the Connecticut shorline Stonington is my favorite town.

It sure sounds that by your description Whit is still alive and kicking even though it's been a few years since I've seen a piece on him on TV. Also it's great that he dictated a chapter for the book on the planting of the corn. Before the Mohegan tribe got federal recognition and built the Mohegan Sun Casino and subsequently built a museum on the history of their tribe, this homestead was the prime repository for that history. It could be that visiting these casinos may not be your cup of tea but they do have a huge museum about their tribe. I've never seen it as I've only been to the casino once (because it is federal land smoking is allowed in the place and I can't stand the smoke nor can Bev) but according to features done on Whit there is a part of that museum dedicated to his efforts to help the Indians plant corn. However if you dislike casinos and cigarette smoke the Stanton/Davis homestead is the place to go.