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The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans Paperback – April 1, 2007
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An original and exemplary kind of cultural study, The Earth Knows My Name is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the growing reality that an ancient ecological relationship, imaginative and religious in its intensity, is slipping away.—Geoffrey Hartman, author of Scars of the Spirit: The Struggle Against Inauthenticity
"We who are far removed from our own immigrant roots will do well to study these eloquent stories and learn from them. Patricia Klindienst has given us nothing less than a great gift."—Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets
"The Earth Knows My Name is a beautifully written testament to the transformative power of working the land—its capacity to create stability in the uprooted and exiled, to instill faith in the local, to shape history, and to lend promise to the future."—Jane Brox, author of Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm
"Klindienst's stories demonstrate the cultural and spiritual imperative that keeps us growing familiar plants and foods, and reveals the power of the garden in maintaining our connection to our homelands and to the natural world."—Michael Ableman, farmer and author of Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It
"A moving tribute to those who keep the ancient love of the land in their hearts, and who stand up to the giants of agrobusiness in their fight to preserve their cultural heritage." —Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace, and author of Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating
"A poignant book that shows, without undue sentimentality, the underlying element we all share and can bring to life with our hands." —Edie Clark, Orion
"This book's broad scope touches on the best of nature writing, singing the rhythm of growth in both plants and people." —Publishers Weekly
"A wonderful set of real life stories with broad appeal to gardeners, foodies, environmentalists, and those with an interest in their own experience as descendants of immigrants. The issue of cultural assimilation is handled sensitively and the prose is evocative of the people and places visited."—Donna O. Dziedzic (PLA) AAUP Best of the Best Program
"It lifts my heart to find the kind of intelligence, grace, and regard that are in this book's pages." —Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams
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And our author Klindienst doesn't sidestep the brutality and violence with which "immigrants" or "foreigners" [many of whom have lived here for generations] are perpetually oppressed.
This book is both beautiful and eye-opening, even for someone who's been thinking a lot about food, cultivation, culture, and privilege for some time now.
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 fulltime 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....
While The Earth Knows My Name will never be a musical, it is a marvellous testament to the importance of earth and water, seed and plant, and in sustaining not just our ethnic roots, but also our whole selves. Her words bring to life the feeling of warm sun on your back while you plant corn, or crisp autumn mornings harvesting beans. She lets you smell the scent of flowers, but also taste the flavor of language, in her profiles of 15 gardeners.
This book is well written, it is poignant, and it is gently honest, with the author's love of gardening, and sincere respect for her subjects masking the inevitable political undercurrents.
My only complaint is that there should have been more pictures - I craved a coffee-table presentation, with Klindienst's words matched to lush photographs.
But maybe the mind's eye is the better viewing choice. Buy the book, and decide for yourself. Better yet, buy the book, and plant a garden.