Camille T. Dungy: Against the Isolated Nature Writer
Lauren LeBlanc Speaks With the Author of Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden
In 2013, Camille T. Dungy, her husband, and daughter moved from Oakland, California to Fort Collins, Colorado. The move was professional—the university offered Dungy a full professor position as well as a secure teaching position for her husband—but this marked a triumphant return to her native state where she hadn’t lived since she was a toddler. There, she and her husband converted their yard into a diverse, eclectic home for pollinators.
Reading about their domestic landscape sparks excitement over the prospect of building and tending for one’s own garden. But this book isn’t just a pastoral portrait of the American west. It’s also a window into the care and awareness we bring to the spaces we call home.
Gardens inspire hope though the physical act of gardening demands considerable work, patience, and intense care. Entwined together, land and its stewardship changes a person. In Camille T. Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, a nonfiction book composed of linked essays as well as poetry and photography, Dungy remarks, “My life demands a radically domestic ecological thought.” She encourages readers to commit to a more mindful way of living that protects our world and immediate neighbors.
Talking about her peripatetic life as an academic, Dungy also examines the racism that forced her family and others (Native Americans as well as Black Americans among others) to move for education, work, and for safety and greater freedom. While some could say that we bloom where we are planted, what if we got the chance to keep our roots? What if we didn’t always feel in danger of suddenly taking flight?
Looking back, she considers the trauma and violence that prompted migration. Looking ahead, she describes the ways that climate change will uproot us all. Over email, we considered the personal and political implications of making a home, starting a garden, nature writing, transcending literary genres, and experiencing beauty through community.
Lauren LeBlanc: In your opening pages, after discussing your pending move from Oakland, California to Fort Collins, Colorado, you recount a conversation between your realtor and yourself in which her seemingly facile question—“Where do you think you want to live?”—becomes, for you, an existential question. How is this book an answer to that question?
Camille Dungy: Soil could be described as my journey toward discovering the truth about the place where I live and how I’ve learned to make peace with this truth. I love that saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Through the pages of Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden I learn a lot about how to tend and support the landscape around me. I learn about the history of the place I call home. And I learn new things about my home and my relationship to those human and greater-than-human beings who live with and around me. I learn, in other words, a great deal about where I live and who I live alongside. These discoveries help me build the kind of landscape and community I want to call home.
LL: Encouraging “every politically engaged person” to have a garden (“whether a plot in a yard or pots in a window”), speaks to interdependency, responsibility, and also the need to stretch yourself. Could you talk about the impact that gardening can create?
CD: I’ve chosen to garden with mostly native species. There are several reasons I’ve done this. One is practical. Native plants can tolerate the relatively harsh soil and climate of Northern Colorado with far more ease than fussy imported cultivars. When it snows here in late May or early September, the native plants seem to shrug off the flakes, or even to welcome the slowly released hydration. That’s a good lesson for someone who is politically engaged. In this relatively harsh political climate, it’s helpful to see examples of resilience and adaptation and unselfconscious strength.
LL: You had received a prestigious Guggenheim grant that provided the funding for a year devoted entirely to writing poetry, but this coincided with the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic which forever changed the way we experience time and health. Both are more precious than ever. You talk about how “[p]lants go into soil at different times and come up in their own time. Sometimes they seem to exist all at once. Sometimes not at all. This, too, is the reality of the speed, the slowness, the wildness of time as it passes in the garden.” How did this time shift what you think about as resources?
CD: Such a big question! One I’m still pondering and working through, to tell you the truth. In Soil, I confront the realities of what it means to be an artist who has been trained to need time and space and isolation to complete her projects. The world makes accessing that time and isolation practically impossible for many of us. Who are the artists from whom we’ve never heard or from whom we’ve heard far too little because of cultural constructs that suggest women and mothers and people of color and people of fewer economic means must devote their time to the care and tending of others? Who are the artists we haven’t heard from or have heard far too little from because of cultural constructs that suggest that true and worthy art separates itself from the quotidian aspects of domestic life?
If I was going to use the time afforded me by the Guggenheim fellowship, I had to figure out a way to be an artist who wasn’t working in solitude. I had to figure out a way to bring the hectic, interconnected, messy realities of my days into my writing. Otherwise, I would have spent that year not writing at all. And that wasn’t an option I chose to accept. I understood all this intellectually before that crazy year, but I came to live this reality during that time.
That year I began to embrace and embody this resistance to the cultural constructs that privilege the work of a solitary genius. But this work of resistance and reframing wasn’t (isn’t) always easy. In Soil I share a few of the bumps I hit along the road to this discovery. Perhaps I should call it a road to recovery! I recovered a possibility for being an artist in the world that centuries of a certain kind of thinking has worked hard to erase.
LL: In 2018, over chardonnay and lunch with an editor in Manhattan, you mention, “I want to write my [Annie Dillard’s 1974 classic nonfiction book] Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” She responds, “Sounds like you’re asking a lot of yourself.” Her response reveals publishing’s limited and biased expectations, grounded in an outdated notion of the nature writer working in isolation, without responsibilities or impediments. So many of these writers are also white and financially independent. You talk about the resonance you feel with writers like Mary Oliver, Willa Cather, and Annie Dillard, but could you talk about that tradition of nature writing and why it’s so important to break free from this mold and write despite obstacles?
CD: I am interested in (nature) writers who bring the dailiness of existence into the writing, but I am far less interested in the work of environmentally focused writers (or any writers, really) who continue to promote the concept that true connection to the greater-than-human world requires the writer to observe that world from a space of solitary isolation. That’s wholly unsustainable!
It belies the realities of this planet, where there is no place we can go that humans have not touched in some way thanks to the broad reach of biocides, plastics, and the effects of habitat encroachment and climate change. Furthermore, Indigenous people have inhabited and tended nearly every inch of this continent’s soil for more than ten thousand years. So the erasure of stories about the complexities of human engagement with the land and other living beings is a dangerous whitewashing of historical realities.
In so many of the canonical books, the isolated nature writer also refuses the realities of their present, acting as if their own mind and observations are all that matter, that they need not spare a thought for the pressing concerns of other humans who live alongside them in the world. I wanted to write with an interconnected, integrated, expansive vision. It turns out that I was asking a lot of myself. But not because I wanted to rewrite Dillard’s book. Instead, I wanted to write something almost entirely different.
LL: You wrote, “Terror can be someone else’s problem, somewhere else’s problem, until it spills into my own backyard.” While you are talking about the Cameron Peak Fire, I thought of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath of broken levees. For people who fear a future of climate disaster, so many of us have been living with that very reality for years if not decades. Could you talk about how we rouse people to action and vigilance in the face of what feels like doom?
CD: It’s easy to act as if you need not spare a thought for the pressing concerns of other humans who live alongside us in the world until the hardships faced by those other humans begin to impact our own well being. Writing as a Black person in America, a woman, a mother, I am touched more often and more quickly by many of the social and political hardships that a lot of those white male writers you mentioned above can more easily ignore.
That is part of why I couldn’t get far in this book project without bringing the realities of my days into the deeply observed nature writing I was producing. One of the reasons I think this is important is connected to the last part of your question. If our art tells us that the only way to truly experience beauty is to get away from it all and wander in some isolated sublime landscape spending hours just looking and thinking, then a lot of us will feel like there’s no hope of ever truly experiencing beauty.
A lot of us will never have access to an experience of isolation from other people and the pressing realities of our world. I want to be part of constructing a different kind of cultural understanding of art and peace and beauty. I want to help people see the ways they can find peace, hope, strength for vigilance, and access to sublime beauty in their own backyards. Look out the window or look into the faces of the people with whom they share a table. There is immense beauty and reason for activated hope right where you are.
LL: Publishing doesn’t encourage hybridity, but it’s the key to our survival on this planet. Throughout the book, you demonstrate the ways that nature writing (but also writing in general as well as publishing and academia) is too often the domain of those with the most advantages and privileges. Naturalists like John Muir and Thomas Nuttall stand out as examples.
While their impact is undeniable, I was struck by the resilience and creativity demonstrated by the poet Anne Spencer. As a figure in the Harlem Renaissance, she could have left the South, but instead, she created and maintained a tremendous garden in Lynchburg, Virginia. Could you talk about other writers who offer us insight into a history of resistance?
CD: I love how insistent Anne Spencer was in staying rooted. In tending her garden and making a space in her home where those who chose the mobile work of activism could stop for sustenance and rest. This puts me in mind of the work of Tricia Hersey, whose Nap Ministry makes it clear that, for Black people in America, rest is a necessary mode of resistance.
I wrote most of Soil during 2020, when many people in this country were waking up to an understanding of the need to engage more directly in putting in the work to demand positive social change. I am grateful to have more people awakened to the necessity for collective and progressive action. Anne Spencer was also deeply involved in the Civil Rights struggle. But she knew she needed to build a place for beauty and rest. She knew that she, and her human community, and many other living beings, needed her garden. I believe the same is true for mine.
LL: Your prose nonfiction book includes photography and poetry as well. Your career is in no way static. What does writing across multiple genres and artforms bring to your work?
CD: Thank you. Static things are often dead. I’m trying not to be dead. In Soil, I try to share the living world as I experience it. Sometimes I experience the world via poetry, and so I share poems I wrote alongside the prose for an expansion of the book’s vision. Same with the photographs and photograms. Those are also expressions of the kind of interconnected collaboration I believe in. The photos were taken by me or my daughter or our friend Mary Ellen Sanger.
I honestly don’t know who took which. And then we sent all the photos along with clippings from the garden to another woman, Dionne Lee. She rendered them as you see them in the book. They are stunning. I love the way they feel timeless but also very rooted in particular seasons. This sense of observing a specific moment that could also be many other moments is something I am hoping readers will experience in Soil. Being open to hybridity aided me in achieving this goal.