From Grief a Garden Grows

A photo of a Black man working in a field. He is bent over holding a pickaxe and looking at the camera. the ground his is standing on is churned. The sky is blue behind him.

I pull into Black Oaks, weaving my car through the stands of shaggy oaks, and park just past a greenhouse. There, I make my way to a group of people chatting and milling about in the main courtyard, all of whom are involved in food sovereignty advocacy. They are touring farms in the U.S. and have stopped here at Black Oaks, a sustainable living center in Illinois focused on preparing and teaching others to plan for energy descent, a time when energy usage begins to decline rather than increase. Part of that preparation is learning to produce and distribute healthy food with fewer fossil fuels. Dr. Jifunza Wright Carter, one of the founders of Black Oaks, is leading a tour, beginning with the front yard garden still flush with arugula, celery, kale, and amaranth.

We wind over to the library, where, in addition to numerous books on farming and gardening and herbal medicine, there are herbs and spent plants with the little rattles of their seedpods drying in the rafters. We pass beehives humming with the season’s last gathering of nectar and make our way to the hoop house, where the center will overwinter chard, spinach, and arugula. A patch of sweet potatoes grows in loamy soil in the corner, thick green tendrils sprawling into an adjacent bed.

On the other side of the greenhouse are five beds forming a kind of star, or an outstretched hand, which Dr. Jifunza tells us is the ancestral garden. It is here that she pauses and invites us to lay down our sorrows, to lay down the wounds of slavery and colonialism, the precise violence inflicted upon our ancestors with the land, violence from which many of us have yet to recover. Dr. Jifunza tells us that when Black Oaks hosts children from schools in Chicago, this is one of the first places the staff takes them, allowing the kids to feel the sorrow and pain of their history, but also to witness the way a garden or farm can convert such sorrow and pain into food and beauty. Into what nourishes. Such that the land might become, again, what it is: our safety, our possibility, our home. In the silence we observe, I realize few things in my life have sounded as true.

In the center of the circle is a rusty and grizzled plow, its blade just dipping into the earth. Dr. Jifunza and her husband would later tell me that they tried to haul the plow from that site, but the axle on their tractor started whining, and they figured the plow belonged there. I do not say so, but I’ve seen that plow before, in a dream that made me want to write the book I am at Black Oaks, in part, to work on. In the dream I am walking a dusty road, and just ahead and up an incline I see a bunch of Black people milling around outside a big shed. As I get closer I can tell they are farmers there for an auction. Weaving among them I notice they are inspecting old farm implements, scythes and shovels, turning the gnarled things over in their hands, running their fingers over the weathered handles, holding the rusted blades close to their faces. Another smaller group is kneeling around what I now see is the very plow lodged in the center of Black Oaks’ ancestral garden. And when I look into the faces in the dream, all of us kneeling around and touching the plow before me, I recognize every one of them.

Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against WhichBringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. In addition to his poetry, Ross has released three collections of essays—the New York Times bestseller The Book of Delights, Inciting Joy, and his newest collection, The Book of (More) Delights. He is an Orion contributing editor.