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Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden

By Camille T. Dungy

Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden details seven years of my family’s efforts to build a more diverse and sustainable landscape from the ground up.

Soil is about being a Black woman who loves the American West. About being a mother, wife, and woman who is a child of this place, despite all the ways I have to fight to make a home here. Or, in simpler terms, it's a book about my family and our garden.

When we moved to a predominately white community in Northern Colorado in 2013, my family had to figure out how to build a safe home for ourselves. To do that, we worked to renew our connection to the local landscape, restoring the native plants that would have grown here before settlements that led to our arrival changed expectations about what kinds of growth should be encouraged around our homes. When we first moved into our house, plants were supposed to look a certain way, or they would violate the community’s codes.

As the only Black family in our neighborhood, understanding the community’s rules about which lives were favored and which are not was much more than a theoretical question.

Soil is also about what happened inside and outside my house from the last spring frost through the first killing freeze of 2020. Since it’s a book about the garden, I spend time on the animals and plants I watched more closely during that home-bound time. I learned to understand the place where I lived better as I came to understand the lives that gathered around me more and more frequently as we built a more welcoming space in our yard.

But even as I worked to build a space of welcome, this country reckoned directly with the violence that intolerance promotes and condones. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain are in these pages because, while working in my garden, I consider the social and political unrest many Americans saw more closely during that tumultuous year.

Mountain cottontails, prairie dogs, damselflies, milkweed, sunflowers, catastrophic wildfires, and the personal costs of the COVID-19 lockdowns are some of the subjects I explore in Soil. I also write about the history of Colorado, early pioneers of North American botanical science, and the settlement of the American West.

Why consider so much when this book is meant to be a story about a garden?

In Soil I work to be honest about the interconnected realities of my life. I am a mother, a poet, and a black woman who often feels excluded from the stories this country tells about itself, stories that privilege isolation over the complex entanglements I experience day to day. Through historical explorations, critical looks at the cannon, and observations about the nature of neighborliness, one of the tasks of Soil is to figure out why so much canonical environmental writing favors pristine landscapes, unpopulated vistas, and a dangerously narrow set of people who are tasks with describing the world.

I am concerned with the erasure of mothers and people who raise children in so much of the environmental literary canon. Specifically, the erasure of Black people and Black mothers. I am concerned about all of the possibilities for understanding and experience that this absence has also erased.

As the book follows my family’s progress in diversifying the garden, it also follows my quest to diversity the imagination. So much that is amazing, sustaining, and nourishing will flourish in spaces where our welcome is wide. I want the welcome offered by Soil to be very wide.


Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the book-length narrative, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster: May 2, 2023). She’s a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for her debut collection of personal essays, and she’s the author of four collections of poetry, including Trophic Cascade, winner of the Colorado Book Award.

Dungy edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, the first anthology to bring African American environmental poetry to national attention, and co-edited two other anthologies. You may know her as the host of Immaterial, a podcast from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.

A University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University, Dungy’s honors include the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, and

fellowships from the NEA in both prose and poetry.


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