Author digs into the gardens of ethnic groups


During her childhood in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., Patricia Klindienst would go from yard to yard with her friends, eating fruit from the trees. The idea of neighborhood and community came to mean, for her, the sharing of food.

For her first published book, Klindienst returned to the garden. Her doctorate from Stanford is in modern thought and literature, and she taught in the English and humanities departments at Yale, but Klindienst spent three years studying the cultural and historic traditions embedded in gardens for her new book, The Earth Knows My Name (Beacon Press, $26.95).

Subtitled Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans, Klindienst's book is an examination of gardens created by Native Americans, African-Americans, Italian-Americans, Cambodian immigrants and others. The content of each garden is different, but each is governed by culture and the past.

"Researching the book was a total re-education for me," says Klindienst, who trained as a master gardener and still teaches writing at Yale every summer. "There was a moment in every interview when the subject said, `You waste nothing.'"

Her travels around the country took her from Stonington Point, Conn., to Bainbridge Island, Wash., from Amherst, Mass., to Santa Fe, N.M., with lots of stops in between. In the gardens maintained by two Gullah elders on St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina, the writer met Ralph Middleton, a tall, lean 79-year-old who has been farming on St. Helena, the largest of the Sea Islands, since boyhood. The 10 acres where he grows indigo and other crops have been in his family since Emancipation.

"If you work the land, you keep the land," Middleton said to Klindienst during her visit. "Lose the land and you lose the culture."

When his ancestors were freed, they took Middleton as their surname, after the name of the plantation where they had been enslaved.

Thousands of the captive people brought to work on the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century were from regions of the West African coast where rice had been grown for thousands of years. They were stolen for their labor, but also for their technology.

"The subject of the heritage garden is big now, so I thought, `Let's look at the people who've never stopped making heritage gardens,'" said Klindienst. Her writing is lyrical and informed, but not flowery. She is interested in the literal landscape of these gardens - that is, what is grown in them and why - but her focus is also on the cultural and emotional landscape they embody.

In the gardens made by Cambodians who have settled in Western Massachusetts, she notices the watergrass and arum - a taro cousin whose huge leaf is used as a wrapper in Cambodian cuisine. But she also notices the look on Sokhen Mao's face as he recalls the first two decades of his life, when he was a farmer in the country he calls Kampuchea.

"Everything is so mountainous. You walk to the woods, all you could hear, just animal cry. You could hear monkeys; you could hear deer chasing each other. You could see elephants grazing tall grass." In the New England fields tended by these refugees, known locally as the Khmer Growers, Klindienst sees a woman in a conical hat, tending plantings.

She closes her book with a story from a very old garden, very near her Guilford, Conn., home.

John "Whit" Davis of Stonington grows Indian white flint corn on his farm, where his ancestors have farmed since 1654, and where the Mohegan people grew the corn for a millennium before them. Davis' corn crop typifies the agricultural and social history at the core of Klindienst's book.

"Three hundred and fifty years ago," the writer explains, "the seeds of white flint corn that the Algonkian-speaking Indians had carried east with them a thousand years earlier passed into the hands of their European conquerors. In a quiet gesture of restorative justice, Whit Davis ... now gives them back."

During a conversation in her bright, first-floor apartment, its tables and counters punctuated by jars of daffodils, Klindienst says she "wanted the voices to shine through." The gardeners do, in fact, shine through. So do their gardens.

Anne Farrow writes for the Hartford Courant.

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