Diary: Jamaica Kincaid, The Kind of Gardener I Am Not

from Jamaica Kincaid

One time, when our four children were ages eleven, six, six, and three, my friend Sandy Frazier and I took them for a trip to Glacier National Park. We came in through the main entrance, meaning to go up to the Continental Divide by way of the “Going-to-the-Sun” Road. First we took a walk through a path to see some trees, but I was only interested in the Tiarella at their feet, since I had never seen that shade plant growing in its natural habitat before. Then we drove off on the road to the sun, going uphill, passing miles and miles (or so it seemed) of burnt trees and scorched landscape, the remains of a notorious fire; sometimes there was nothing to protect us from falling off either side of the road and the road itself was very narrow and winding, each twist revealing some natural spectacle liable to distract and perhaps lead to your doom; a road meant for a pilgrimage. Sandy then remembered a time not too long before this trip we were on with our children when he and George Trow had taken this very road and somewhere midway up, at what Sandy believed to be the most dangerous part, George began to recite the words to a song by Noel Coward, “I Went to a Marvelous Party.”

I went to a marvelous party
With Nounou and Nada and Nell
It was in the fresh air
And we went as we were
And we stayed as we were
Which was Hell.

He wasn’t able to recall the song in its entirety but he came up with enough that the children asked him to stop. He then decided he should explain to them the meaning of the Continental Divide and so went into the whole business of pouring a glass of water onto the ground and how half would end up in the Gulf of Mexico and the other half would end up near Alaska. That was met with a seemingly polite silence but when we got to the top of the Going-to-the-Sun Road and got out of the car, my daughter Annie, the eleven-year-old, looked around her, saw the sign that announced our geologic position, looked at the two adults, and said, in that forever annoying high-pitched voice of just-before-adolescence: “What’s a Continental Divide?”

After wandering around a bit in the park, hearing about roads closed because of the sightings of grizzly bears and baby elks out for a swim whose their mothers were dragged out of the lake by grizzly bears, and seeing meadows of flowers I was not familiar with, we headed off to our rooms in one of the park’s lodges, ate dinner, and slept soundly. The next morning I walked up to an alpine meadow where I was assured there were no grizzly bears. That was very nice. Everything was small-growing and intense in color: the Castilleja in particular were wonderful, especially since they were so new to me; Pulsatilla vulgaris, yellow Aquilegia flavescens, and so on. Awed and frightened by all this newness, I made my way back to breakfast and the rest of my travelling companions. I could see and smell breakfast as I approached our dwelling place, the kitchen was very busy. Just outside it, in the middle of loose rocks and gravel, I saw a clematis, the C. columbiana. I knew it immediately from pictures in the various books of flowers endemic to the area I had carried with me from my home in Vermont. To see a picture of anything that you imagine or know for certain that you will never see in real life and time (an angel, for instance, or a moon in one of the planets in our solar system that rotates on its side) creates in me (and perhaps, you) a realization of the incompleteness of my whole existence, the fragility of every thing I know (the little island in the Caribbean I grew up on, for instance), the grandness of a living member of the vegetable kingdom blooming without wanting to be cared about by me or anyone who came before me. The columbine grew here with abundance and generosity, as if it knew that growing so near the kitchen might bring at least one admirer: four narrow petals of a light blue, like the January sky in New England on a sunny day, not the everyday sky of the Caribbean that I want all things blue to be. It is because of C. columbiana that I remember that kitchen.

Leaving the park just before noon, I did not see Lilium philadelphicum growing in a ravine, though I did two years later when Sandy and I took our children to the Canadian side of Glacier.

All the same we exited the St. Mary area of the park and made our way to Browning, Montana, the place the Blackfeet Indians were consigned to for living by European migrants who had murdered many of them and stolen their land. At the museum we bought bracelets and hair ornaments and also admired the many examples of Blackfeet art and craft. Approaching the reservation from one side or the other, that is coming and going, small crosses festooned with plastic flowers appear in frightening numbers. Sandy drove carefully even though he knew that careful driving has never prevented the death of anyone.

We went on to Cut Bank, a town on the plains in Montana, some miles off. Along the way, from time to time, Sandy would stop the car to point out to us some relic of the journey of Lewis and Clark or some devilish installation of weapons related to the Cold War.  At first, the children got out dutifully and seemed to listen to his little lectures. At around the fourth stop, after hearing a few sentences of what he had to say, they started to chant in unison: “Back–in–the–car! Back–in–the–car! Back–in–the–car!”

Humiliated and defeated, we entered Cut Bank. There was still quite a bit of daylight so Sandy, who had been to Cut Bank before, drove us around the small town and then we got out and walked a bit. It was in Cut Bank that I saw the garden and the kind of gardener that I am not. In the front yard of each little house—the houses were small, bungalow-like, a style of architecture very much suited to vast expanses of landscape—were little gardens blooming with flowers. The flowers, almost without exception, were petunias (red, purple, white), impatiens, portulaca, and short, red salvia. There was one garden that seemed more cared for than the others and that had a plaque placed prominently in a garden bed that read: “Garden of The Week.”

And that is exactly the kind of gardener I am not and exactly the kind of garden I will never have. A garden made for a week is unknown to me. For years I have been making a garden and unmaking it too. It isn’t out of dissatisfaction that I do and undo, it is out of curiosity. That curiosity has not lead to stasis. It has lead to a conversation. And so it is, I have been having a conversation in the garden. And so it will be until I die.

Jamaica Kincaid is the author of nine books of fiction and memoirs, as well as two books about gardening and plants: My Garden Book and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya. This is the first in a series of gardening diaries for Book Post: Read her next installment, “The Walk to Robert Frost’s House,” here.

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(Photo of Glacier National Park from walkingcarrot.com.)