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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Jamaica Kincaid's Garden

Air Date: Week of

Author Jamaica Kincaid talks with host Steve Curwood about her passion for gardening, captured in her new book, "My Garden (Book):"


CURWOOD: Jamaica Kincaid is best known for her books The Autobiography of My Mother and Annie John. Both works chronicle life on Ms. Kincaid's native island of Antigua in the Caribbean, where it's always warm and often hot, and where gardens are tended year-round. Ms. Kincaid now lives in Vermont, where it's cold much of the year, and gardening is a short but passionate affair. Gardening is the subject of Jamaica Kincaid's latest work, My Garden Book. And I asked her to tell me how it all began.

KINCAID: My husband gave me these tools he bought at Ames department store for Mother's Day. I never asked him why he chose that. For some reason he gave me those things, those tools, and some seeds. And I just went outside. I can remember that Sunday very well. And dug up the ground, put the seeds in, and nothing happened.

CURWOOD: Because?

KINCAID: That's not how you make a garden.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) It isn't.

KINCAID: You really have to prepare for the thing you want. You have to till the earth. You have to prepare it in ways that I did not know. I just thought, well, you put things in the ground and they come up. And mine did not come up. And the end of that year, we moved to another house where I then started to garden seriously, obsessively. And even madly.

CURWOOD: Even madly. So, those seeds that didn't germinate somehow germinated a seed in you.

KINCAID: Absolutely. I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes.

CURWOOD: And you said, well, wait a second. I'm Jamaica Kincaid. (Kincaid laughs) These things don't grow. What's going on here? I can make something grow. I don't have a black thumb, I have a green thumb.

KINCAID: Oh gosh, well I have to say first of all I never say to myself, "I'm Jamaica Kincaid."

CURWOOD: Well, if you're not Jamaica Kincaid, who is?

KINCAID: Well (laughs) I am to somebody else. But to myself I'm just sort of this bumbling person. I bumble into everything. I did, when we moved to the new house, I did all sorts of wrong things. I put lime down in my garden, and it turns out that Vermont is very limey anyway.

CURWOOD: Yeah, it's very sweet soil.

KINCAID: Yes. So that's not what I needed. I did all sorts of things that were wrong. Because the other thing is, I've always determined not to read books about what I should do. Because I like to sort of discover what it is I should do through my own experience. So I didn't read any books, I just sort of did this and did that. When I began to read about the garden, it wasn't how-to books. It was, you know, the lives of people who had made gardens, which led me to history, which led me to geography, which led me to think that gardening is always something that's done by people who are well off. People who are not well off and grow things are involved in agriculture.

CURWOOD: So gardening is for the privileged, and farming is for the real.

KINCAID: Yeah. I wouldn't say for the privileged so much as it is a luxury. And that only happens in privileged societies.

CURWOOD: And so, your need to garden is not, then, for the food, but part of your connection with nature? Part of a spiritual thing for you? E.O. Wilson says there's a biophilia urge, what he calls the Biophilia Hypothesis: that we need other species and that people need to grow plants in part to be in touch with our need to be with other species. Is that what's happening for you?

KINCAID: I think, for me, it's an extension of why I read books. It's a pursuit I want to say of knowledge, and a pursuit of pleasure. Pursuit of a lot of things that are necessary for me, but not a lot of it I can articulate, or even want to, because it sounds so self-indulgent. No one really needs me to garden.

CURWOOD: Gardens are very personal.

KINCAID: They are indeed.

CURWOOD: How have you arranged your garden in Vermont? What does it look like, it's shape?

KINCAID: Well, the shape of it, it looks like a map of the Caribbean, and that was unknown to me when I was doing it.

CURWOOD: Unknown to you.

KINCAID: Yes. I made the most oddly-shaped beds. They have uneven, wavy borders. And I came to see that they looked like something I had to stare at every day of my school years. A map of the world, really, with the parts that were British in pink. But in particular, the map of the West Indies is what it looks like.

CURWOOD: Does this garden provide a way for you to remember certain events in your life?

KINCAID: I don't know if it provides me with memory or if my memory provides it. It's not clear to me.

CURWOOD: I have a section of your book I'd love you to read. If you could look on page 57, actually this is about the end of fall and the arrival of winter, which is the season which we're passing through right now, indeed.

KINCAID: And where should I begin? In early September?

CURWOOD: In early September.

KINCAID: Okay. (Reads) In early September, I picked and cut open a small, soft, yellow-fleshed watermelon, and I was suddenly reminded of the pictures of small girls I used to see in a magazine for girls when I was a small girl myself. They were always at a birthday party, and the colors of their hair, and of the clothes they wore, and of the light in the room, were all some variation of this shade, the golden shade of the watermelon that I had grown. I would wish, then, to be a girl like that, with hair like that, in a room like that. And the despair I felt then that such a thing would never be true is replaced, now, with the satisfaction that such a thing would never be true. Those were the most delicious melons I have ever grown. The leaves turned yellow and red and brown and then fell. The days grew short. The heat from the sun grew thin, then just wasn't there any more at all. I planted six different kinds of fritillaria and some flag iris and some peonies -- ordinary ones, not trees, that looked spectacular in the catalogue I had ordered them from. Then one day the long chill arrived, the chill that no heat can penetrate. Winter.

CURWOOD: My guest is Jamaica Kincaid. Her new book is called My Garden (Book): We'll be back in just a moment.



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