My earliest memories of gardening are from when I was a toddler with my six-foot plus tall grandfather, William McCoy, whom we called Pop-Pop. I have vivid recollections of following his every move from my playpen, as he tended to his rose bushes, flowerbeds and grapevines in his modest home lawn and backyard, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. His flowers were exquisite. They were the envy and pride of the neighborhood and he cultivated them with the care, delicacy and maternal gentleness that Alice Walker speaks to so endearingly, when writing of her “search” for her mother’s garden.
When I visited my Pop-Pop’s house in late February, (long ago sold to new owners) I discovered that his rose bushes are gone, as are the grapevines from which he used to make a wicked home-made brew. In my romanticized recollections, the brew would always leave him with teary eyes that held tight to the memories of my much beloved grandmother, Mamie, who died suddenly when I was still in grade school.
A descendent of teachers, preachers, butlers, sharecroppers and slaves, my family’s origins are North Carolinian rooted. When my grandparents were a young, married couple, they worked in a tobacco factory for Philip Morris. I was reminded of this sepia-tone sketch of my family’s history, ironically, while watching an early episode of Madmen. It helped framed for me, how the advertising industry’s persuasive arguments for smoking was inextricably bound to my grandparents, as the fieldworkers who helped harvest the tobacco crops for a multi-million dollar cigarette industry.
What I’m reminded in these memories and celebrations of fathers and grandfathers, is that black, red and brown folks are not new to the green movements that consume our critical, racial and social debates today, on such topics as gentrification, imminent domain and the inane question that asks why black people aren’t members of Greenpeace.org?
More recently, I wrestled with faculty colleagues over these very unknowns, as part of a Workgroup charged with making recommendations for increasing outreach and admissions for a Sustainability degree program. While some of us actively argued to use more explicit language and strategies for attracting people of color and urban-based folks, others were not so sure if prospective applicants from these groups would be interested—therefore, why bother? Even as I mediated the varying opinions and attitudes, I never lost sight of the fact that my family, alongside other migrant communities who have “trusted God and nature more than any man,” had longstanding knowledge of planting, seeding, raising animals, and balancing the concerns of the intuitive against science—for centuries—before any of these arguments could ‘seed’ time.
Much of what we remember is deeply embodied—whether the tragic or joy-filled. These memories that screech or gently shake us awake, do so, from the spaces and “temples” that are already “familiar”—and borrows from another of Walker’s book titles. My grandfather was not an academic. He was a unionized Longshoreman, a Mason and a family-man who loved to fill his hands with dirt. He taught me that green-work is sacred work and that by uniting his past with my new knowledge, I help continue the movement toward an alternative, sustainable future. Digging in my boxes of soil now, planting my seeds and pruning my own roses, was already pulsing through my finger-tips, my palms, my nostrils, and limbs. I also rub my lower achy back too, just like Pop-Pop did—after the dirt has settled.