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

[Read Part One of this essay here]

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. In the year that the Golan Heights was still considered part of Syria, I was in Israel and went up there to see some flowers in bloom. I came across a beautiful iris that looked so much like a variety of Iris germanica, but it was really Iris hermona; the hermona must have been because it was in the vicinity of Mount Hermon, a mountain on the border of Syria and Lebanon. It was so beautiful, abundant in form and color. The day after I left Israel, the Golan Heights, according to the American president, were no longer a part of Syria. The Mount Hermon iris, I imagine, is indifferent to this. But will I be?

If I had not made a garden, I would not have read The Travels of William Bartram, an eighteenth-century American plant gatherer (or plant hunter, if I didn’t like him so much) who wrote an account of his travels to the southern part of the United States. This book is said to have been an influence on William Wordsworth and his friends. Bartram’s father John had been a Botanist to King George III of Great Britain and he found a plant that he named after the American diplomat Benjamin Franklin, Franklinia alatamaha, a plant that was never again seen in its natural habitat, all Franklinia grown today being descended from that collection. I fall into a huge dream if I think about that too much.

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I would not have understood the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, or understood the journals of Lewis and Clark, whose mission was really to make a claim to the contiguous northern part of that region of North America that was under Thomas Jefferson’s instructions; a great influence on Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis and Clark was the first journey that Captain Cook had made circumnavigating the world, and that journey of Captain Cook lead to sending breadfruit to the West Indies, where it was to be cultivated as a cheap source of food for the enslaved. I would not have known that Indians didn’t drink tea until the British sent it to them from China (Camellia senensis). I would not have understood the first paragraph, Chapter 3, in Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass

Colonel Lloyd kept a large and finely cultivated garden, which afforded almost constant employment for four men, besides the chief gardener, (Mr. M'Durmond.) This garden was probably the greatest attraction of the place. During the summer months, people came from far and near—from Baltimore, Easton, and Annapolis—to see it. It abounded in fruits of almost every description, from the hardy apple of the north to the delicate orange of the south. This garden was not the least source of trouble on the plantation. Its excellent fruit was quite a temptation to the hungry swarms of boys, as well as the older slaves, belonging to the colonel, few of whom had the virtue or the vice to resist it. Scarcely a day passed, during the summer, but that some slave had to take the lash for stealing fruit. The colonel had to resort to all kinds of stratagems to keep his slaves out of the garden. The last and most successful one was that of tarring his fence all around; after which, if a slave was caught with any tar upon his person, it was deemed sufficient proof that he had either been into the garden, or had tried to get in. In either case, he was severely whipped by the chief gardener. This plan worked well; the slaves became as fearful of tar as of the lash. They seemed to realize the impossibility of touching tar without being defiled.

I would not have known, I would not have known, oh the list goes on and on, and it would end with: I would not have known myself but who can know themselves?

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: “The Pontic Rhododendron,” 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