Photo Credit: Left-Mike Blakeman, Right- Beowulf Sheehan

Radiant Thinking: A Conversation between Pam Houston and Camille T. Dungy

On land stewardship, the quest for progress over perfection, resiliency, and rhubarb

In which Pam and Camille discuss Camille’s new book Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.

Pam Houston: This book is structured a little like a garden in which the seeds have been broadcast in wide spirals. There is an insistence on the relationship between all of the subjects within it: motherhood, climate collapse, social justice, botanical history, but also a commitment (at least as I see it) to a kind of disorder, a refusal to manage (or manhandle) the topics in relation to each other, but to let them flower naturally, in each other’s proximity, and inform each other associatively rather than according to logic or outline—a little like a swath of prairie, all the plants and animals coexisting in an organic design. Can you talk a little about how the book found its form? 

Camille Dungy: Thank you, Pam! It is so gratifying to hear you articulate my ambition for the book in such a clear manner. It is true. As I composed Soil, I found myself resistant to limitations of linear story structure. Early in the process of revising the manuscript, I had several conversations with a podcast producer named Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, who worked with me on Immaterial, a podcast from The Met and Magnificent Noise that I host. Adwoa and I discussed how best to incorporate non-Western modes of storytelling into some episodes we built together. These non-Western stories take their strength from circularity and what might be considered tangential thinking, though I prefer to think of this kind of thinking as radiant. Such cyclical and radiant thought patterns feel organic to me. Much of my experience of the garden, and of life, manifests in a revolutionary fashion. At major points along key cycles are arcs that sometimes loop back to the main course and sometimes radiate outward without ever fully returning to what one might call the beginning. Once I open myself to this mode of experiencing life, I understand intuitively how to return to the main cycle after following one of these side routes. And I experience the pleasure of a collective experience rather than solely concentrating on a narrowly focused path. It felt crucial that I honor this mode of storytelling, which is a mode of storytelling (and of living) that resists many of the prescribed hierarchies of value that Soil also resists.

PH: What was the most surprising turn Soil took in its making? 

CD: I was continuously surprised in making this book. I hope as a reader you also make discoveries along the way. Or at least that you come to a clearer and deeper understanding of ideas you might have already perceived but not yet had clear words to define. I think I learned better how to trust interconnection while composing this book. Sometimes I’d begin to write toward an idea that might have initially seemed unrelated, but this book taught me to see how so many things in our world are deeply connected through the past and present, and into the future.

PH: One of the book’s refrain lines is about how Black people cannot afford to spend every waking hour rehashing the multiple microaggressions directed at them every day, or they would spend their lives mired in rage and desperation. Your garden, and particular plants within it, offer your family alternative models for responding to the world, to dwell in a beauty (and diversity) of your own making, surrounded by metaphors for resistance, reclamation, and joy. What is your favorite plant as metaphor that currently dwells in your garden?

I prefer to think of the rhubarb as a concrete example of how to lead a consistent, robust, self-sufficient life.

CD: The rhubarb in the backyard is beginning the first stage of unfurling right now. That plant consistently amazes me. I love how it seems to completely disappear every year. Then it comes back in early spring, rising bigger and bigger, and growing more and more green with the warming sun and lengthening days. Most parts of the rhubarb plant are of no use to humans. Some summers, I harvest the edible stalks. Some years I don’t even bother. I never water that patch. I usually forget to augment the plot with compost. But it doesn’t seem to matter whether I tend to the rhubarb. Every year in April and May, that rhubarb will wake from a long winter’s rest and start to grow bigger and stronger, providing shelter for local bunnies, and producing plenty of stalks I can convert into sweet treats if I put in the effort. I honestly don’t think I want to call this a metaphor. I prefer to think of the rhubarb as a concrete example of how to lead a consistent, robust, self-sufficient life.

PH: Your garden is a place of wonder, and it is also a place of hard work. I am thinking, say, in comparison to our friend Ross Gay’s garden, which seems more like a place of play. In Ross’s garden, the plants seem to grow themselves and people are dancing and laughing and feeding each other figs. Do you want to say anything about the relationship between hard work and wonder in your garden and in your life?

Read more about Ross Gay’s garden here.

CD: Ross’s garden does seem like a lot of fun. But Ross is a lot of fun, so that’s not surprising. He works to build a space of welcome and delight with all that he touches. That said, Ross also writes about having to make tough decisions about intensely pruning a diseased plant. He agonizes over the kind of cutting back that feels frightening but is necessary to keep an individual plant healthy, and he undertakes the task of supporting the viability of the whole garden. And I will also note that Ross has written about the fact that his father’s ashes are buried under one of his trees. So, in addition to laughter and delight, there are places in his garden for work and sweat and probably tears. That’s the way to live a whole life. I must make space for sweat and tears if I want to truly experience joy and laughter.

PH: We see glimpses in this book of how your parents, particularly your father, influenced your ways of thinking about the world, and perhaps more indirectly, your prairie project. Are there any other stories you want to tell about him and the way he has shaped your life? 

CD: Too many to list here. I am one of the lucky ones, blessed with a loving, steady, present father. Which I know is not a blessing bestowed equally on everyone. I also know this image of a kind, smart, gentle husband and father is not necessarily the perception of Black masculinity that pervades the American imagination. But I don’t think that men like my father are as rare as some would like us to believe. Maybe that’s another important legacy of my life with my father. I’ve grown to trust that there are quite a lot of good people in the world, despite messages all around that suggest this isn’t the case. My trust in people’s potential for goodness means that, even when I am confronted with some of the worst examples of how people can treat other people and how people treat the rest of the greater-than-human world, I fundamentally believe that there are plenty of good people acting conscientiously and compassionately all around me, and that the focused dedication of these people is going to make a positive difference in and for the world.

Revisit Camille’s quest to convert a portion of her yard to native prairie

PH: You call yourself out many times in the book, for driving a car, for being a consumer, for wanting to be the last newcomer grandfathered into the city of Fort Collins, for grieving the loss of hours granted to you by the Guggenheim Foundation to homeschooling during COVID 19. Can you talk a little about self-implication in memoir, about what they call in AA answering the question, “What is my part?” 

CD: I am reaching toward a kind of radical honesty in Soil, which means that I have to be as honest about myself as I am about my community. I am not perfect, as I make clear in the book. But are any of us? We wouldn’t need to be doing this work if we were perfect. I’m not seeking perfection. I’m seeking progress. Progress and perfection aren’t the same thing. I don’t even think you go about achieving progress in the same way you would go about achieving perfection.

You mention AA as a place where this kind of self-implication is put into practice. That makes sense. There can be no progress without perspective. As a parent, I find myself putting self-implication into practice every day. If I ask my daughter to clean her room, I have to be honest about the fact that my study is often quite cluttered. Being honest about that allows me to offer Callie some organizational tools that might benefit her (and perhaps may also benefit me) for a lifetime. If I chastise Callie for not waking up on time, I should also ask what filled her previous day and how my own behaviors and expectations might contribute to a lifestyle that is robbing my daughter of the rest that she needs. It’s the same with writing memoir (and with living a conscientious life). If I ask my readers to reconsider the ways their environmental choices impact the planet, I have to be honest about my own choices as well. Together, we are much more likely to make positive progress.

PH: I can tell, in this writing as well as in all your books, there is a part of you that wants to just write the beautiful and evocative names of things that exist in your garden in a sort of incantatory fashion and leave it at that. That you want to say to the reader, what more do you need than the recitation of little bluestem, showy milkweed, sweet William, yellow columbine? I share that desire. To just say the names of things, like a prayer, and be done with it. The names you give the creatures in your yard, particularly the bunnies, also feels very important to both you and Callie. You also talk in the book about the power of naming, of who was given that power and how it was used and misused through the centuries. Without simplifying any of those themes, I do want to ask a really simple question, which is: How does it make you feel to say those names out loud? How conscious are you of giving your readers that pleasure of saying those words inside their own mouths and minds? 

CD: Yes. You’re right. I am trained as a poet. I trained as a musician as well. I love the sounds of things sometimes purely for their incantatory glory. The naming and saying of names work a kind of magic in the world. The magic of recognition and realization and respect.

Order Soil today!

PH: Sometimes I feel that my primary job as a writer is to work to close the gap between the human and nonhuman world, to offer my readers a view that does not put us at the top of the food chain, to suggest the radical idea that I have no more right to my life than a polar bear, or a narwhal. I wrote in my memoir that if I could give my life to repopulate the ocean with all the endangered species of whale and enough food for them to eat, I would not hesitate. It’s a thought experiment that is hard to prove my earnestness about, because no gesture of mine can bring back the whales. To close this gap in my own life, to connect more consciously to the nonhuman world, I have chosen lately to return to horses, mares in particular, to let them teach me the things I forgot to learn. I see you doing something similar in your garden. You also write in Soil about the way giving birth connected you to your animal self. It is weird, by the way, that so few nature writers have children or, if they do, how few talk about birthing and raising them as part of nature. It seems to me that you have made this garden for the sake of beauty, and your own pleasure, and the pollinators of course, but above all else, I believe you have made this garden for Callie. I love it that her hands are in so many of the photos. That is a beautiful addition to the book. I think back to the opening of your essay “Manifest” in your Guidebook to Relative Strangers, how you want to give her the whole world by saying the names of plants, birds, and animals. In what way is this garden, this book, a gift to her?

CD: So much in this question swells my heart, Pam. Thank you. I am thinking of your conversation with dear Amy Irvine in Air Mail, and I cherish this opportunity to share just a tiny snippet of such a conversation with you. The two of us live in the same state, and yet in many ways, we seem often to live in different worlds. And yet we have such similar urges. The urge to connect with other like-minded thinkers. The urge to share with others, through language, our abiding and immense love of (and fear for) the greater-than-human world. The belief it is weird that so few nature writers talk about birthing and raising children as part of nature. In the end, those connections feel more important than the mountains that separate us. Yes?

To your point about Soil perhaps being a gift to Callie: Everything I do is for Callie. Everything. She will inherit the Earth. I don’t mean that in the sweeping sense of Manifest Destiny but in a deeper, more rooted sense wherein I understand that all the decisions and actions of my life affect the directions and possibilities of hers. It sounds like a burden when I use that language, but it is also a blessing. She’s all over my pages because I am forever and completely connected to her.

I invited my friend Mary Ellen Sanger to bring her fancy camera over one spring afternoon to take pictures of the garden. Callie wandered around the yard with us, and soon she was taking the photos while Mary Ellen coached her. Then we bought Callie a camera of her own and she took more photos. Now we don’t know which photos came from Callie, which from Mary Ellen, and which from the two as a collective eye. I love this. This blurring of visions feels absolutely appropriate for Soil. The urge to share with others the joy we discover in the garden comes out in these photographs, and this is one of the reasons there are so many hands in the images. We’re all in this together, bodily. It doesn’t really matter who clicked the shutter. And then the amazing Dionne Lee took the photos, as well as clippings from my garden, and she made these phenomenal images that are in the book. True collaboration!

I’ve grown to trust that there are quite a lot of good people in the world, despite messages all around that suggest this isn’t the case.

PH: And as follow-up, the question I ask all the people I love and respect: How do we live with ourselves when we know the earth is dying at our hands? (I know in answer you would probably just take me for a walk in your garden.) That’s how, Pam

CD: Oh, how I would LOVE to take you for a walk in my garden! Let’s make that so sometime, please. Then we can marvel at the rhubarb, which finds a way to rest and then come back year after year to continue the work of living, which also means fighting and resisting (most of the rhubarb plant is inedible because rhubarb has developed a way that protects its broad leaves), and also means caring for others (those broad leaves then provide shelter for other lives in the garden), and also means being our bold beautiful selves in the world (the rhubarb never fails to knock me out in the way it is simultaneously unassuming and magnificent).

That reminds me of something I could have said in answer to your question about surprising turns my writing took in the making of Soil. I used to write a lot of sentences like that. Long winding doozies with lots of clauses and parentheses. But I realized they weren’t terribly inviting, so I revised the whole manuscript to include far fewer convoluted and recursive sentences (insert heart emoji here). I want Soil to be a welcoming read. So, maybe that’s another way I live with myself knowing the damage humans are consistently wreaking on the world. I know that day by day I am also teaching myself new ways to make the world a more welcoming and hospitable place. It’s a constant effort, but there are many ways to do the work that needs doing.


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Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has edited three anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Her honors include the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an American Book Award. She is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University and Orion’s poetry editor.

Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.  Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century among other anthologies. She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is a professor of English at UC Davis, and cofounder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.