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Mothering. To mother. To need mothering. I always wonder at this word in English, how it almost transforms into smothering in my head, which exposes a diabolical patriarchal strain through the very bones of my native language. Or perhaps it’s merely our conditioning. I don’t know, but here’s what I do know: We all, regardless of gender or possession of a uterus, contain the ability to mother, as well as a need to be mothered.
Consider the mother trees that cast their root systems for miles to send nutrients, water, and carbon to their broods. And how many of these same trees, such as my beloved eastern cottonwoods, offer their healing medicine to the land and all its creatures? The earth mothers us, but what have we offered it in return? Endless extraction, violent loss, devaluation, and paving over so that even the rain from the skies cannot be absorbed.
Because of this belief that we are above — and not of — the earth, each of us carries a mother wound so deep and profound, it causes endless destruction. This past Monday, about 180 miles from me, an 18-year-old child drove down a neighborhood street firing three guns everywhere he could point them, slaughtering three elderly women (two of whom were mother and daughter) before being killed by police.
He has returned to the earth’s womb, the only place of healing left to him, and as I hold the pulsing, bloody heart of despair in my palm, I know I must go outside. Water the meadow sage, gather the spent Mexican primrose blooms, pray to the towering Abuela cottonwood outside my kitchen window. I must put my hands in the earth because, as the poets know, the soil will take the grief from me and turn it into something alive, like hope.
While reading poems at a Baltimore community garden event at the beginning of May, where I somehow brought the New Mexico desert weather with me, I foolishly walked around in the glaring sun in a thin-strapped blouse with no SPF protection for nearly five hours. In the evening, a deep red manifested on my chest, arms, and shoulders. I pulled out my poplar bud salve and applied a thick layer all over the burn. It numbed the infernal itching and pain, and the next morning, I woke up with all but the burn on my shoulders healed into a golden tan.
Balsam poplar is a cousin of the eastern cottonwood, both trees in the populus genus, and so I consider the word “populous,” whose root in Latin means “full of people.” It is here we can undo some of the damage by showing our children that the trees and plants (and all other creatures) are people. They are kin, and whether we believe that or not, they are still willing to help us, to mother us, to welcome us in.
In Camille T. Dungy’s new book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster), a memoir made up of interconnecting essays and poems set around her home garden in Colorado, the author argues this very point. She tells her daughter, Callie, who grabs a honey locust’s branches while jumping on a trampoline, “‘Don’t hurt that tree,’ I said. Without thinking, I added, ‘Trees are people, too.’”
This is also what I say to my son, barely 4 years old and with high-functioning autism, as he tramples through the plants on our walks. “Remember, plants and trees are people, too,” I repeat to him. “They can be hurt just as we can. They have feelings like you.” I often wonder if this message gets through, especially since he’s not yet able to fully verbalize much of what he’s thinking. But I teared up when his nanny reported back one day that he’d approached one of our trees and hugged it while saying, “I love you, tree.”
That glorious sentiment is abundantly apparent in Soil, along with the observation that much of the nature-writing genre, even when done by women, consists of an author leaving people behind to be solitary in “nature,” insisting that there can only be a “pure” nature when there are no people present — but especially not Black and brown people, or mothers/wives, or children. Purity as a concept is a Eurocentric, white-supremacist creation, honed by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. It holds that man can control nature and is, therefore, above it.
Dungy successfully places the Black mother and child back into the frame, her essays interweaving and centering her work as mother, poet, and naturalist. Her daughter is an integral part of both the book and Dungy’s garden, even in moments of the author’s acute despair over covid’s theft of a year of focused writing — gifted by a Guggenheim Fellowship — which slips away amid school shutdowns that force her not only to oversee her household, but also her child’s education.
My whole body seized in painful empathy when Dungy’s husband finds her crying over this loss and (not, I believe, unkindly) refuses her grief, saying they are alive and healthy, which is what they should be grateful for. My anger that a mother cannot grieve her own lost time to write is acute. I want to hold Dungy’s grief for her, for it is not only real but legitimate.
That time was meant to be hers, was planned for, and became tangible and alive. Then, suddenly, it was gone. A small death, yes, but a death nonetheless. What if mothers, especially Black mothers, were allowed to grieve the many deaths big and small in their lives? What if with each grief, they seeded a wildflower and birthed an entirely new, healing ecosystem?
And so it is that Dungy’s book is that prairie garden, peopled with native flowers, trees, and plants, wrought from the joys, griefs, and triumphs of her life, her parents’ and grandparents’ lives, and their ancestors’ lives, as well as the many Black farmers and gardeners, revolutionaries and poets who populate U.S. history unseen by our colonized textbooks and narratives. African women once braided seeds into their hair before being forced to cross the oceans on slave ships; now, many of those plants, integral to our medicines and diets, populate our gardens and agriculture across the so-called Americas. As Dungy writes in the book’s first poem, “let grow more winter fat wine-cup western wild rose”:
“prairie wants to stretch full out again and sigh —
purple prairie clover prairie zinnia
prairie dropseed nodding into solidago
bee balm brushing rabbitbrush — prairie wants prairie wants
Ina Cariño’s debut, Feast (Alice James Books), is a lushly beautiful collection that follows a world populated by mothers and daughters, the food and plants that connect them, and their Filipinx culture and language. When I was younger, I often felt food was the great connector between me and my family heritage, and now that I’ve studied herbalism and taken a class that focuses on herbs and plants of the Caribbean, I see how the meals we prepare are an accumulation of the native and migratory patterns of our ancestral homelands.
Cariño opens her book with one of my favorite poems, “Bitter Melon,” about preparing and eating the fruit, reading as both recipe and ritual: “balsam pear. wrinkled gourd./leafy thing raised from seed./pungent goya, ampalaya: cut/& salt at the sink. spoon pulp/from bumpy rind, brown half-moons/in garlic & sparking mantika./like your nanay did. like your lola did.”
Bitter melon, a vining plant also common in Puerto Rico and known by my people as cundeamor, grows throughout the Caribbean and parts of South America. The whole plant is medicinal, and different cultures treat it as medicine or food, as Cariño’s poem encapsulates. It originated in Africa and was widely cultivated in Asia before making its way to the islands.
Often, my Filipinx friends and I talk about the similarities that run through our cultures, and we point back to the Spanish as being our main colonizers. But reading Feast opens my eyes to the verdant and unique garden of wonder of our islands (despite their politics and horrors past and present) and reminds me that it’s truly the plants that unite us. How our mothers and grandmothers mothered us with their medicine, so the plants, and the earth, mother us in turn. This sentiment is very much apparent in “Hibiscus Dream No. 4,” where Cariño writes:
“will you search for me again
among verdant fronds? tell me
you need me tell me stories
of how diwata women
pluck me entire, sepal up,
their mallow hands mothering.
or at least, wear me behind
your ear — & gift me to those
who know you best: your lolo,
his stone grave cold your mama,
bold, unafraid. encanto —
enchanted ones who roam free.”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.