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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 790-800
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Kathleen M. Balutansky
"Gardening is like writing, I suppose; you don't really know what you are doing, but you don't really want to know."
—Jamaica Kincaid, June 26, 1998
I wanted to talk with Jamaica Kincaid about her garden. This was not to be an interview about her writing, I told her. I wanted to get an update on the garden she had talked about in her New Yorker gardening columns years ago. Of course, in these columns, gardening was always a point of departure for reflections about personal, cultural, and historical issues, but gardening was never merely a metaphoric frame. Beyond reflections on identity, history, and imperialism, the columns always marked a reverence for the specific botanical history of individual species and a real gardener's love of plants. There were real seeds arriving in the mail, real vegetables growing in the garden, real flowers blooming in the beds. In her recent essay, "In History" (Callaloo, 20.1 (1997): 1-7) Kincaid linked Columbus's imperial act of renaming the New World with Linnaeus's renaming of the plants that the merchant George Clifford had taken from the places that European Empires claimed (Clifford was a director of the Dutch East India Company) and had gathered in his greenhouses in Holland. This reminded me of Kincaid's own knowledge of these Latin names, her own love for exotic species, and other such paradoxes that the columns revealed. As a Caribbean/Vermont gardener myself, I have experienced similar paradoxes. I wanted to talk with the gardener and visit the garden.
There was a violent thunderstorm on the morning of the day I drove to Bennington, but by the time I was winding my way along the country roads leading to Jamaica's house, the sun had come out. The day had the crispness that typically follows such downpours and the beautiful clarity that Vermont is known for. In spite of good directions, I drove past the house, but immediately recognized it from a picture that had accompanied a New Yorker column. From the road, the front flowerbeds were colorful waves crashing on the sloping lawn. I turned around, drove up the shady driveway, and parked next to dozens of potted plants lining one side. On the other side stood a table on which a "Plant Sale" sign had survived the rain. Jamaica suggested that I walk around the garden for a while, after which she would join me. I was grateful for the opportunity to roam around the garden at my own pace and, starting from the driveway I followed a line of tall pines underplanted with many choice varieties of Hostas. Walking east, I wandered through the vegetable garden, through the arbor and berry [End Page 790] garden, then returned towards the front of the house and the front patio garden—a cottage garden where nothing is typical. Walking west and then north, back to the driveway, I stopped by the shady beds under towering spruces. When Jamaica joined me, we sat in the shade of a pendulous Hemlock branch, looking southward at a large flowerbed, the sloping lawn, the country road and, beyond it, the surrounding hills and distant mountains.
We interrupted the interview with walks to the garden, where we looked at and talked about individual specimens. I marveled at the Inula Magnifica and the Sea Holly, and Jamaica marveled at the blooming Foxglove that had remained hidden from her until then. She showed me the blue Campanula that bloomed with single flowers when she bought it years ago, but that now blooms with double flowers. We both pulled weeds as we walked along. Before I left, Jamaica gave me another tour of the front and back gardens, singling out the many Magnolias, an heirloom Petunia, a Wysteria, the rare Ligularia, and many other special plants that she nurtures in the protected enclosure of the vegetable garden. I bought three plants from the sale, and Jamaica gave me an Aster. Returning to my car, I asked about...