TIE Podcast Preview: Camille Dungy on Environmental Justice and the Making of Soil

Illustration of a Black mother and daughter planting in their garden against a green background.

In honor of Earth Day, Toward Inclusive Excellence is delighted to share with you this interview with poet and Professor Camille T. Dungy, conducted by Alexia Hudson-Ward. In the course of their conversation, Professor Dungy discusses her book Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (2023) and the changes it underwent as she wrote it during the COVID-19 pandemic, how canonical environmental literature and the environmental movement can inadvertently alienate people, how environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked, and how the restrictiveness of home owners’ associations (HOAs) can impede native landscaping and run counter to what is best for the land.

Listen to the full conversation below:

TIE Podcast · Camille Dungy on Environmental Justice and the Making of Soil

Camille T. Dungy is University Distinguished Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program in the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University. She has written four collections of poetry, including most recently Trophic Cascade (2017), winner of the Colorado Book Award, and Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. Further honors include the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and fellowships from the NEA in both prose and poetry. Her interests lie in the intersections among literature, environmental action, history, and culture.

Professor Dungy’s book Soil, which chronicles how she grew her garden over years, was originally intended to be a book of nature poetry. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she realized she would need to radically alter her plans to readjust to a world in flux. As Professor Dungy describes, she set out to re-wild her garden, despite restrictions imposed by her HOA, in the hope that the association would realize the value in what she was doing. Thankfully, they did, but she notes in the book instances in which many other people have faced serious consequences for not keeping their yards manicured in line with what HOAs and neighborhood associations demand. Her hope is that Soil paves the way toward normalizing nontraditional landscaping that aligns more honestly with the natural world. As she notes in the interview, “a lot of native landscaping is really funny looking for a while” because it’s not meant to be ornamental. To conclude, she advises those who feel conditioned to be unable to relax in nature, to “steal back” their connection to nature, which has been stolen from so many and which can ultimately serve as a healing balm and a link to past legacies, both harmful and hopeful.

We hope you’ll enjoy this illuminating discussion.

Here is a quick peek inside the episode:

On reflecting on the process of writing her book Soil:

“From really early in the process of writing this book I realized that I was thinking about the multi-directionality of life, that we come from some histories and we pass along histories, just as the ways perennial plants root and regenerate and root and regenerate, so many of my community members have modeled for me ways of working in the world for the world in just and loving ways. So, how am I embodying that set of models myself in my daily actions, and then how am I modeling that for my daughter became one of the really key questions for me throughout the process of the book.”

On the binary of environmental literature:

“My experience of the foundational environmental literary texts that I was trained up on as canonical texts are incredibly misanthropic. They may be writers who are greatly in love with the world and deeply connected with the greater-than-human world, but there’s not a single other person present in the work, and I do not understand how we’re going to figure out workable solutions if the only answer is either you love the natural world or you love people. It cannot be an either/or question. And because it’s that way, and because it doesn’t make any sense, a lot of people just assume that they have no place in the environmental movement because the movement has no place for people … And so, we lose huge readership, workers, community, possibilities by just continuing this idea that you just gotta wander off by yourself. And so, I just didn’t want my book to participate in that.”

On environmental justice being inextricably intertwined with social justice:

“I think environmental justice has been at the center of my ethics for a long time, and so, it is endemic to the book Soil because it is central to my core, my ethical and moral core. I don’t understand the difference between social justice and environmental justice and the ethics of those questions. But, I think that sometimes when I was writing Soil I had to slow down a little bit because when something is a given to me, I cannot assume that it will be a given to everybody else. And so, I did sometimes have to stop and say ‘this is why’ or ‘this is how I see these things working in the world.’ And so, Soil ends up—it’s a memoir of rebuilding this garden, as you say, and the bulk of it was written in 2020, and so it also chronicles that crazy year really from like the beginning of the first blooms until the first hard frost of that year, so one real growing season … But also, there ends up being all this crucial criticism, and I’ll talk about major books and describe why I have issues with them. Or I will describe other key historical figures or moments that I just can’t assume everybody knows … I love literature, I still love literature, that asks me to think about what’s happening to people and with people at the same time that I’m understanding what’s happening to the land … I thought that it would be interesting in the 21st century to begin to create texts that were able to be as capacious in attention, the directionality of our attention, as most of us actually are. I’m just going trust my readers to think that most of us are thinking about several things at a time, and you can read a book in peace that thinks about several things at a time, and  I don’t have to have pocketed, segregated thought processes. And so, back to the king of social justice/environmental justice question, then if I’m talking about land-use questions, or I’m talking about how and why certain animals are endangered, I can talk about economic factors and historical factors and cultural and gender and all of those other things at the same time that I’m talking about a lovely landscape.”

Watch the video interview here:

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