Diary: Jamaica Kincaid, I was never really making a garden so much as having a conversation (Part One)

But I was never really making a garden the way that most people, who are intent on making a garden and who will have ideas at the outset about what it should mean in some way that they might not even be conscious of; I was never really making a garden in that way so much as I was having a conversation, a conversation with all the components, all the attributes, all the dangers, all the failures and pitfalls, all the moral and immoral dilemmas, all of the history of the garden and the way it has formed, starting with the Edenic prelapsarian ideal/idyll and its postlapsarian catastrophe. There isn’t a garden that I have ever encountered, whether it be one created by a king in France or a woman raising children in Cut Bank, a small town on the Great Plains of northern Montana who in her spare time made a garden of flowers, annuals that were foreign in origin to her region of the United States—nasturtiums, petunias, zinnias, portulaca, marigolds—that I haven’t, however unknowingly, involved in this ongoing conversation I have in my head: before the Fall, after the Fall.

I grew up on a small island with the Atlantic Ocean on its north side and the Caribbean Sea bordering its south. I saw an ocean and a sea every day of my small child’s life but I hardly saw fresh water for the island had been denuded of trees by colonial settlers from England in the seventeenth century. The garden, that place in which things were grown in an enclosed area and were meant to excite at least two of the senses, the eye and the nose, existed for me only in a book. In a book, people walked in them, sometimes in silence and alone, sometimes in silence but with a companion, sometimes to make mischief, sometimes to just show off how rich they were. Gardens were separate from the place where food was grown. Where food was grown was associated with labor. Gardens were the place where flowers were grown, the place where the plants existed for the sole purpose of pleasure and thoughtfulness and reflection. Later when I myself began to happily drown myself in the world of the garden I saw how that division between sustenance (food) and knowledge is reflected in the creation story. In Eden, the first garden in Christianity’s mythology, The Tree of Life (agriculture) comes before The Tree of Knowledge (horticulture); and that place called the garden comes with an explicit suggestion of there being plenty to eat and so thinking can begin. In the world of the garden someone who looks like me is associated with agriculture. I am descended mostly from enslaved Africans, the people whose forced labor made the world of the garden as we have come to know it possible, the people whose very presence itself makes the modern world possible.

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I came to see all this and so many other ways of looking at the world in the garden. Why are the people who now inhabit that little island I am from so averse to field labor? They will not be employed in cotton fields nor will they cut sugar cane for money. Such work was the work of slaves, our ancestors. The first gift God gave to Adam was the pleasure of naming things and in that way he gave Adam a sense of power, for to name things or people is a way of possessing them. This revelation (for to me standing in the garden with a plant in my hand, wondering why it was called by this or that name, and then suddenly going back to the creation story, was a revelation) lead to Carolus Linnaeus, the great Swedish doctor and botanist and the inventor of the binomial system for naming living things. So much of the unwelcome European intrusion in the lives of people living more or less quietly by themselves in the other places in the world is entangled in his little life. It is like this: Linnaeus was on his way to London for one reason or another when he stopped off in Holland to see his friend, an Anglo-Dutch businessman named George Clifford who was associated with the Dutch East India Company. Clifford had a greenhouse filled with plants native to East India, tender plants, and to him they had no names. Linnaeus spent two years examining them and giving them names based on his ideas regarding classification. And that act/game of classifying, which they extended to people, led to race and racism, a way of looking at people and judging them to be worthy or not-worthy. That spell of Linnaeus staying with George Clifford led to his great work Hortus Cliffortianus, a book I spent hundreds of dollars acquiring because I wanted to read it. I then had to purchase a Latin dictionary and a botanical Latin dictionary, for it is written in Latin.

Linnaeus is not the least of the troubling people I have met in the garden. The modern garden is full of the history of the last five hundred years, at least since 1492. What were the Dutch people like before they met potatoes and the tulip? Are there any flowers native to Holland, for though their main export is plants, in particular bulbs, none of these are native to Holland. The Dutch iris comes from somewhere in Spain. The tulip comes from Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, and those areas. And yet Dutch national identity seems to be very wrapped up in the tulip. It’s a common way Europeans have of looking at the world: love the plants, hate the people.

This is what I mean when I say that I have not been making a garden so much as having a conversation with the idea of the garden … [Read Part Two of this post here]

Jamaica Kincaid is the author of nine books of fiction and memoir, including two books about gardening as well as her most recent novel, See Now Then. She is writing a series of gardening posts for Book Post; find them here.

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Image: “Tulips,” New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeu: The Temple of Flora (1799–1810), by John Robert Thornton. From the online exhibition acccompanying the symposium, “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century”(2013) at Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, DC