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RECONNECTING TO MY BODY WITH THE ANCESTRAL PRACTICE OF GARDENING

My ancestors knew ways of being with their bodies and being in community with the Earth and each other that I do not, but I am trying to learn.

CW: This essay describes trauma and racial violence

By Gwendolyn Wallace

Every summer, my family and I used to take a trip to the South Carolina Lowcountry to see my grandparents. My favorite part of these visits was getting to spend time in the beautiful garden that took up much of their backyard. Most impressive to my young eyes were the dozens of pots sprinkled around the yard holding just bits of pieces of plants. From my perch on a wooden pallet, I remember watching my grandmother ever-so-carefully pluck parts from her larger plants and place them in one of the pots scattered around the yard. Weeks later, those broken sections would grow into plants all of their own. This was magic to me. The story of Christ rising from the dead was nowhere near as exciting the resurrection happening in my grandmother’s patchwork garden. Nothing seemed more important than learning exactly how and where to break a plant so that you could take that small piece of its being, give it its own pot, and watch it, growing, green. 

For the last few years of my grandfather’s life, he suffered from severe dementia. Once my grandfather started to “deteriorate,” my grandparents moved to a nursing home in Virginia, leaving all the plants behind. One summer, I remember being shuffled out of my grandparents’ room with my younger brother. In the middle of the room was my grandfather, a six foot tall man who had grown so frail over the years before that his walk could barely be called a shuffle. He began to yell and struggle to get up. His shouting was incoherent, as most of his speech was by that point, but the fear in his eyes was unmistakable. As soon as it became obvious that my grandmother could not calm him because he didn’t recognize her, my younger brother and I were removed from the room. Along with common symptoms like memory loss, confusion, and jumbled speech, my grandfather also experienced moments of paranoia and intense fear. During these episodes, he was convinced that a group of white men were on their way to lynch him. A few weeks after the episode described above, my father took my brother on an errand to buy my grandfather a metal baseball bat and some mace, in hopes this might make him feel safer. 

At the time, I was 17 years old, and my brother 11. My grandfather transitioned not too long after. But this moment sticks out in my head as the time I realized that I may have less of myself than I thought. We all will die, and, if we are tasked with living that long, many of us will experience various degrees of mental deterioration in old age. That I may be able to come to terms with. But it is a whole other existential plight to grapple with the idea that, surrounded by the cool blue of a nursing home, it is possible to die certain of nothing about one’s life except that it is going to end at the hands of a lynch mob—that one might become strange fruit. I do not yet know if the conversations that were happening in the body of my grandfather are also happening in mine. Many days, I wonder where the trauma my body claims sleeps at night.  

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In her book Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals, Aurora Levins Morales writes, “The problems in our relationships with each other and with the socalled natural world are the same.” I have come to believe that our problems in our relationships with ourselves and this “socalled natural world” are the same as well. If we cannot see the trees as both kin and ancestor, what also are we unable to recognize in ourselves? Settler-colonialism and capitalism teach us not to be in relation with our bodies and their stories in any meaningful way. In school, I learned about the different parts of nerves and veins, what sections of the brain glow when we read, how to manipulate a body and then measure it within an inch of its life. Of the utmost importance was understanding what a “healthy” person looks like, which was always rooted in ableist, racist, gendered, fatphobic, and eugenic ideals. 

Biomedical hegemony insists that our health rests somewhere in the future, with the promise of new pills, new technologies, new procedures. Capitalism demands that we remain disconnected from our bodies, each other, and the Earth to focus only on unfettered growth. As a result, the power of our elders, ancestors, and their indigenous practices are consistently undermined by the state. 

Just a couple weeks ago, I began an herb garden for the first time in my life and my small green relatives are growing so beautifully. They remind me that there need not be a “normal” way of being in a body, of going about the daily work of breathing and growing. Sylvia Wynter and Frantz Fanon both work to help us understand that the idea of the “human” and its separation from this “socalled natural world” was crafted by colonialism. To that end, the notion of becoming healthy transforms, in part, into a journey towards interconnectedness. Healing might begin by asking ourselves how do we learn to listen? To our bodies, to the practices of our ancestors, to the water?

I am trying to practice hearing the spaces inside me that are in pain and breathing intention into them, holding them with the same tenderness one holds a new seedling. I am also trying to hear the spaces inside me filled with love. My ancestors knew ways of being with their bodies and being in community with the Earth and each other that I do not, but I am trying to learn. My health and liberation are dependent on knowing that, just as pain can transcend space and time, so can care. My body is as much as a connection of traditions and songs and stories as muscles and veins and bones. 

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My grandfather was alive and now he is dead. After living a long life as Black, he died with one of his last and clearest thoughts being one of chests lacking breath, eyes on the verge of betraying their sockets, and pointed toes grazing green grass. In her essay I See the World, Jamaica Kincaid writes, “in life itself there are lots of dead in it, the kingdom of mammals, vegetable, mineral, and all the others, are all in the living sometimes but in the dead all times.” I often wonder if we spend so much time trying to run from this space between life and death that we neglect to notice that such a space does not exist at all. Memories of both the living and the dead are in conversation within my body at all times, just as they were in the broken bits of plants sitting in pots throughout my grandmother’s garden, and just as they were in my grandfather’s body. 

I am alive right now and someday I won’t be. And because I am woman and Black and dark, it might be sooner than I expect. When I die, I will return to the dirt that will nourish my children and will be moistened by water that holds the memory of all water before it. For however long I am here, I must devote myself to the continuous work of re(planting) myself. When I spend time with my body now, I see trauma that has found a way to heal in its own pot, and I also see pain that I am allowing to become compost. When all is said and done, I hope whatever pushes its way through the soil in my place is beautiful. 

Gwendolyn Wallace (she/her) is a senior at Yale University pursuing a BA in the History of Science and Medicine, concentrating in Gender, Reproduction, and the Body. Her research interests include histories of community health activism, reproductive justice, and the intersections between race-making, science, and medicine. Gwendolyn enjoys working with young children, gardening, and searching for used bookstores to explore.

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