A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way to lunch downtown, and decided I wanted something to read as I ate. So, I stopped into Bison Books and had a browse through their cookbook section. In among the cookbooks, I found two or three interesting non-cookbooks. After leafing through them, I decided upon The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans, by Patricia Klindienst.
The Earth Knows my Name recounts two journeys, interwoven together. One journey consists of Klindienst’s visits to various ethnic gardens throughout the United States. The other journey takes the author back to her Italian roots.
The journey back to her Italian roots is sparked by a discovery of the effects of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial on her family. As she researches this infamous event, she uncovers a description of Vanzetti’s garden. Written only weeks before his final denied appeal, it lifts the reader from the gloom of the prison cell to the beauty of the Italian countryside. It takes the garden from a place to simply grow food to a place of refuge.
One of the outgrowths of the Vanzetti trial is that the Italian community turned inward. Many, including the author’s own family did much to hide their roots. This, combined with Vanzetti’s account of what his garden had meant to him, is what sets Klindiest on her journey through the gardens of ethnic America.
As she relates these visits, patterns repeat themselves over and over. There is no distinction made between refugees and immigrants. Some left their countries looking for a better way of life while some fled in fear of their lives. Many of the stories implicate the United States as part of the reason people were for to flee. In other cases the slave trade and the slaughter of the indigenous populations brought about the dislocation.
A common theme that emerges is that each ethnic group is treated as suspect by those already living on the land. Their gardens become a way for them to remember what they have left behind and to retain a connection between the new land and the old.
It is also a hopeful book. Connection with the soil helps immigrants to connect with the homes they left, and serves as a reminder of their heritage. Along the way these gardens also offer points of connection with the new world the immigrants have entered into.
One thing that comes up on more than one occasion is how the gardens have started out facing opposition from the broader community, but over time have taken a pride of place among those communities.
Although the book is hopeful, there is also a note of caution sounded. While many of the first generation Americans feel a deep connection to the soil, that connection is not always shared by the second and third generation. There is a sense of urgency that we need to find ways to cultivate a love of the soil in younger generations to ensure that this connection to the soil doesn’t disappear.
Of particular note is Klindiest’s focus on the place of both Indigenous and African American gardens. Both of these point to ways in which gardening can be a place to begin reconciliation and restorative justice. They may only be symbolic acts as outlined in the book, but they may serve examples for larger scale actions.
Written just over a decade ago the book is very much a worthwhile read today. For one thing it reminds us that the place of the immigrant in a new society has never been a secure one. Although the book is American, many if not most Canadian immigrants could relate to the lack of a place in a new country. Definitely a great read for anyone interested in the broader and deeper dimensions of gardening.