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She ripped up her manicured lawn and challenged the norms of gardening stories

Camille Dungy leaves the dead stalks of her sunflowers standing for winter interest and the occasional bird visitor.
Mickey Capper for NPR
Camille Dungy leaves the dead stalks of her sunflowers standing for winter interest and the occasional bird visitor.

"I love a person who talks kindly to plants," poet Camille Dungy writes in her new contemplative memoir. And for sure, Dungy can be counted among those who do exactly that.

In Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, Dungy describes her years-long project to transform her weed-filled, water-hogging, monochromatic lawn in suburban Fort Collins, Colo., into a pollinator's paradise, packed instead with vibrant, drought-tolerant native plants.

It took countless hours of backbreaking work: clearing her garden beds of hundreds of pounds of rock, amending the soil with compost and mulch, and turning the soil with shovel and pitchfork until she was drenched with sweat.

Dungy and I have been on similar garden journeys. Like her, I've done away with sod and replaced our D.C. lawn with all sorts of native perennials, friendly to pollinators. On a recent morning, we connect by Facetime video for a long-distance, D.C.-to-Colorado, garden-to-garden tour.

This is my garden in Washington D.C.
/ Catie Dull/NPR
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Catie Dull/NPR
This is my garden in Washington D.C.
Hot pink moss phlox spills over a stone wall.
/ Catie Dull/NPR
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Catie Dull/NPR
Hot pink moss phlox spills over a stone wall.

When we talk, my garden is bursting with bloom, with beds of deep purple columbine, hot pink and lavender phlox, spiky white foamflower. Because Dungy lives at altitude, her garden is a couple of months behind mine and her plantings still mostly dormant.

She leads me on a tour of what she calls her backyard "prairie project," which she's filled with native grasses like blue grama and little bluestem, and with perennials that will flower later in the spring: penstemon, bee balm, baptisia, echinacea, Lewis flax.

Dungy shows me the tall dried grasses that she's left standing from last season, along with the dead stalks from her milkweed and sunflowers. They stay up "to create winter interest," she says, "but also a lot of the native pollinators will nest or plant their eggs and larvae under and around many of these native plants. So right now we have a very blonde garden!"

Such a wild, unmanicured garden was verboten in 2013, when Dungy first moved to Fort Collins with her husband and young daughter. The local homeowners' association had a strict yard maintenance code that forbade anything that upset the homogeneous look of the neighborhood.

"In those early years," Dungy writes in Soil, "a woman walked around the neighborhood with a ruler, measuring too-tall grass and what she considered unwieldy or weedy vegetation, reporting homeowners to the HOA board for review and possible censure."

Dungy tends to spring onions growing in her garden.
/ Mickey Capper for NPR
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Mickey Capper for NPR
Dungy tends to spring onions growing in her garden.
Dungy believes building a sustainable world is not a solitary pursuit.
/ Mickey Capper for NPR
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Mickey Capper for NPR
Dungy believes building a sustainable world is not a solitary pursuit.

Now, those rules against "non-standard landscaping" have been eliminated: Fort Collins currently has an active initiative to encourage diversification of the landscape. "I was lucky," she says, "in having moved to a town that created a space for that embrace."

Dungy's garden, in its glorious variety, attracts bees, butterflies, and all kinds of birds – goldfinches, pine siskins, nuthatches, chickadees – as well as mountain cottontail rabbits who nibble on her plants. (Her solution? Plant much more of everything.)

In Soil, Dungy draws a connection between diversifying the plant life in her garden and diversifying the canon of nature writing. There is, she writes, "a pattern in nature writing that confounds and annoys me." Dungy mentions writers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Edward Abbey, as well as Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver. "The (nearly always white) men and women who claim to be models for how to truly experience the natural world always seemed to do so in solitude," she writes. "Just one guy – so often a guy – with no evidence of family or anyone to worry about but himself."

As she thinks about that pattern, "I wonder who is excluded," Dungy says. "These are all writers who are important and fascinating and write really key texts, and yet the absence of family and community troubles me."

For Dungy, building a sustainable world necessarily involves family and community, not just a solitary meander through nature. "As a mother, I don't have the luxury of just leaving my child behind and tromping into the woods for days at a time!" she says with a laugh. "If I did that, I'd need to bring her along, and then I have to bring like a million snacks and stop every few hundred feet!"

I'm aiming for a pollinator's paradise.
/ Catie Dull/NPR
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Catie Dull/NPR
I'm aiming for a pollinator's paradise.
One bonus of turning lawn into garden: no more mowing!
/ Catie Dull/NPR
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Catie Dull/NPR
One bonus of turning lawn into garden: no more mowing!

Rather than tromping far away in solitude in search of some elusive connection with nature, Dungy focuses her attention very close to home. "I just enjoy the process of writing about my backyard with the same kind of rapture that so many of the canonical writers write about far-distant, unpopulated, sublime spaces," she tells me. "And so why not normalize bringing the wild and the domestic closer together?"

As she nurtures her garden, Dungy – a Black woman living in a predominantly white city – says that thinking about land is, for her, inextricably linked with thinking about this country's history, and about race. She's constantly reminded of the labor of enslaved Black people who were forced to work the soil, and of the Native Americans forced from their lands.

"I can't dig in my garden," she writes, "without digging up all this old dirt."

Yet that same act of digging in her garden also provides Dungy with welcome relief. For a politically-engaged person, "a garden can be a balm," she says. "A garden can be a place of rest and beauty, and a retreat from that persistent, difficult work. But a garden also teaches me patience, and teaches me that ... the work of a politically-engaged person often requires true patience. And the garden supports my belief that that patience can very frequently pay off."

The radio broadcast of this interview was produced by Alejandra Marquez Janse and edited by Patrick Jarenwattananon. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.