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What does it mean to decolonize a garden?

“It is best just to accept what you have and not take from other people the things they have that you do not have …” — Jamaica Kincaid, “My Garden [Book],” 1999

Jamaica Kincaid delivered this statement in a chapter called The Garden in Winter, in which she explained she had to learn to accept the fact that in her adopted home of Vermont there is one season, winter, that she does not appreciate. Kincaid wrote, “… what I would really like is to have winter, and then just the area that is my garden would be the West Indies, but only until spring comes, the season I like best …”

Although this particular statement was made in the context of winter gardens, it embodies an idea that resonates throughout “My Garden [Book]” and throughout much of Kincaid’s works of fiction and nonfiction. It is the idea of counter-colonialism — rejecting the dual-pronged ideologies of racism and imperialism that have repeatedly justified “taking from other people the things they have that you do not have.”

Before reading Kincaid’s garden book, I was unaware of the close connection between planting and uprooting people in a place and planting and uprooting plants in that place. Yet I had only to pay closer attention to the word “colonize” to recognize that the root comes from the Latin “colere,” to cultivate land. Thus, to colonize a place is linguistically linked to the racist and imperialistic notions of “cultivating and civilizing” native peoples.

In the Americas, as in other places all over the world, this has meant removing native peoples from their homelands, as well as removing the native plants that sustained them and local ecosystems.

On the Caribbean island of Antigua, where Kincaid grew up, the Taino population was removed through disease and violence and replaced by European colonists and enslaved Africans (Kincaid’s ancestors). Likewise, indigenous plants, such as the West Indian mahogany tree (Swietenia mahagoni), were cut down for mahogany exports and to make room for large plantations of sugarcane, a grass that is native to Asia.

Some of Antigua’s native plants, such as the wild plumeria (Latin name P. alba), were sent to England’s botanical gardens where they were renamed, studied and “improved” through hybridization. By the time Kincaid grew up on the island in the 1950s and ’60s, most Antiguans, including Kincaid, were more familiar with the plants that had been imported than with the plants that originated there.

The same story can be told in North America. In fact, native plant advocacy in the United States developed from increasing concerns about native species decline, disappearing wilderness areas and environmental degradation, all of which have resulted from colonial economic expansion. Gardeners who “de-colonize” their garden and landscape by uprooting nonnative plants and replacing them with native species often do so as a conscious response to botanical legacies of colonization.

(See the sidebar article about a study from Oregon State University Extension Service that reveals 10 native plants that support a large number of native pollinators.)

Yet it’s important to decolonize the gardener and not just the garden. For many gardeners, this means learning narratives about gardening and garden plants other than the narratives spun by European colonizers.

What were the native plants called by the indigenous peoples who lived where we garden today? How did they incorporate these plants into their food, shelter, clothing, medicines and ceremonies? What stories did they tell about these plants that were passed from one generation to the next?

Decolonizing the gardener also entails increasing our awareness of the roles our ancestors played in colonizing and uprooting indigenous people and plants. My ancestors came to America from England in the 1600s and settled in western North Carolina, where they displaced Cherokee families in order to grow tobacco and food crops on small farms. At least one of my ancestors married a Cherokee woman and benefited from a land treaty that was intended to assist Indigenous peoples in maintaining their independence.

As the number of tobacco farms and plantations increased in North Carolina, much of the native flora, including wild strains of tobacco (called tso-la-a-ga-yv-li by the Cherokee), that sustained the Cherokee way of life and the local ecosystem disappeared beneath the plow. By 1840, an estimated 16,000 Cherokee men, women and children had been forced to relocate to “Indian Territory” (present-day Oklahoma). Many of them lost their lives during the 2,000-mile trek.

Learning about this part of my family’s history is unsettling, but I strongly disagree with critics that claim these narratives are meant to shame white folks. Yes, the acts of colonizing, uprooting and removing indigenous peoples and plants are shameful. However, maintaining ignorance and even denial of these acts only serves to perpetuate a colonizing mindset, which, as the expression goes, dooms us to repeat our colonizing history.

I grow a flowering tobacco plant (N. alata) in my garden to honor my tobacco-farming ancestors, whose love for the land has been passed down to me. Layering my respect for them with recognition of their complicity in exploiting the tobacco plant and the indigenous peoples who depended on it helps me to better understand the complexities of being human.

Perhaps gardeners are in a better position than many to accept the contradictions of human nature; after all, growing plants requires us to work alongside the contradictions of nature. For me, decolonizing a garden(er) means thinking of my garden as a place to rethink my (ancestral) relationship with plants and to grow into a more environmentally and socially just human being.

There is certainly no shame in striving for that.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.

OSU Extension names 10 super-pollinator native plants

A three-year study conducted by the Oregon State University Extension Service revealed 10 native plants that support an abundance of diverse native bees. All the plants grow well in full sun and require little supplemental irrigation during the summer.

The 10 plants are: 1. varileaf phacelia (Phacelia heterophylla); 2. globe gilia (Gilia capitata); 3. Douglas’ aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum); 4. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica); 5. farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena); 6. rose checkermallow (Sidalcea asprella ssp. virgata); 7. showy tarweed (Madia elegans); 8. Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); 9. Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum); and 10. common yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

For more information about growing these native super-pollinator plants, see the OSU Extension website, extension.oregonstate.edu/.