Charlotte/Charlie: How do you talk to the land and how do you hear the answers?

I’m biracial or multi-ethnic. When it comes to gender identity, I’m still kind of exploring. I see the benefit of the gender non-binary and non-conforming genders. Because I grew up identifying as a woman, I will respond to ‘she’ quickly. So, my pronouns are she/they – I’m happy with either. As far as my name goes, I sometimes say Charlotte, sometimes say Charlie. I kind of like the ambiguity of both. I like having both and responding to both.

Charlotte is studying how various sweet potato cultivars grow in the Willamette Valley, as well as researching how sweet potatoes were adopted and used by the African diaspora. They also help manage the student-run Inter-Cultural Learning Community (ILC) Garden at OSU.

My Journey Towards Gardening

I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland – a suburb of Washington, DC. Gardening for me was often hanging out with my mom in the yard. We didn’t grow much for food. I was pretty much raised on fast food and eating out. My mom was a single mother that worked really hard to provide for her children. Gardening to me was more about the flowers, and the beautification of my mom’s yard. It was a way for me to connect with my mother and also to give back. I think it’s one of these challenges in the human experience – How can you ever, as a child, give back to your parents in a way that feels like an equal exchange? So for me, yardwork and gardening was a start.

My dad is Black, and he grew up in North Carolina. His dad took him out of high school to pick cotton for 15 cents an hour. By age 14 he left home to work on a tobacco farm. His relationship with agriculture and horticulture was pretty traumatic. I think he got out of it as soon as he could.

On my dad’s side, my relationship with gardening, growing food, and tending land was severed. Whereas on my mom’s side, it was more like a study or practice of beautification.

I would say another big influence was my grandfather, my mom’s dad. His relationship with gardening has definitely influenced both my mom’s and my gardening. My grandparents have a home in Florida, It’s been two years since my grandfather passed. My grandmother still lives in the same home where he tended the garden. There are trees in my grandparents’ garden that are over 60 years old – mango trees, avocado trees, lychee trees. I think watching my grandfather influenced my connection to plants.

When I came to Oregon, I started to feel more connected to the food systems. I was able to start connecting the dots of how food comes from the soil and makes it to the store. Before seeing the fields of produce in Oregon, I had never deeply thought about where it came from. Driving through the Willamette Valley, you see fields and fields of different crops that you don’t see often when you live in the suburbs of a major city. It’s really an amazing experience to be able to recognize what your food looks like as it grows through its life cycle. So that experience was revolutionary for me.

When I came to OSU, the seeds of curiosity had been planted – and then nurtured and nourished as I took classes in plant science, soil science, and sustainability.

My Relationship to Gardening, Today

I think the first word that comes to mind is reclamation. When growing up biracial, especially with black and white heritage, it gets . . . . (long pause). Being Black in America can be a difficult experience to put into words.

Especially when you start to look into your heritage. My mom goes deep into our family’s ancestry. She has done all sorts of family tree work and digging into our ancestral history. And she’s tried to do so on my dad’s side of the family as well. But you get to a certain point where it gets very convoluted and confusing and there’s missing information there. And that can be really challenging for somebody who is trying to figure out their identity. Especially when you’re young. Being in your twenties in general brings up these questions of identity: ‘Who am I? How do I fit in this world? What is my purpose here?”.

This project that I’m working on, the Intercultural Learning Community Garden (ILC Garden), is centered around the idea of culture and how we define and experience it. How do you know what your culture is if your history is one of displacement or refuge? My mother’s mother, my grandmother, is German Jewish. Her family migrated to the United States as Jewish refugees right before the Holocaust.

When I go through my family’s history, I find that there’s a lot of displacement and people coming to America as settlers. This leads me to think about questions like, ‘What is my culture?’ and ‘How do I connect to my ancestors?’. Gardening has been something that has felt like an outlet for reclamation of identity. I find myself saying, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t know all of the practices. They weren’t passed down through the generations to me. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the right and the ability to look into those practices and to find the ones that work for me, the ones that feel right intuitively.’ So gardening has been a really beautiful process of exploration of identity and re-connection to ancestral roots.

When I’m in the garden, I feel connected. I feel like the plants are also my ancestors and my kin. I learn so much from them. It’s like this bridge between myself and the generations that came before, because maybe we all tend to the same or similar plants, just at different points in time.

Do you have any cultural traditions that you integrate into your gardening?

Not really…or at least not yet. There are things I have thought about dabbling into, like maybe some divination rituals. I like the idea of asking the land and the plants what they would like, so that we’re all co-creators in this project, and it’s not just me making all the decisions. Because I do recognize the land and the plants and all the beings in that shared space as sentient beings. I think that is something that comes intuitively, and I think it comes from my ancestors.

Out of all my grandfather’s grandchildren, I am probably the most enthusiastic about his trees and his garden and the work that he did. I would visit my grandparents’ house once or twice a year, pretty much my whole life. And I always really loved being outside while I was there. I went back this year with a completely different perspective, because I have been learning so much about plants. I have become a plant mom.

Admiration, I think, was something that my grandfather had for his garden. It was his happy place. He lived until he was almost 97 years old and I think he was in his late 80’s when my grandmother finally had to stop from climbing upon the roof to pick mangoes. He was like 6’5”. So, you can imagine this tall man up there!

I think that sense of admiration and the joy of being in the garden has definitely come from my grandfather and that’s something that I want to carry on. I believe my grandparents’ house will stay in our family, and I would be happy to tend to the mangoes and the avocadoes for as long as we’re stewarding that land.

The Garden Practices that are Important to Me

When I get to the garden, I will say hello to all my plant friends. I’ll check in, take my time walking through, and I will even pet my plants. If I’m in the garden by myself, I like to sing and play music. I really love to dance with hula hoops, and sometimes I’ll go and actually dance for the plants.

So, these are not quite things that were modeled to me. But if I were to ever work with children . . . I really love children . . . and I’ve always dreamed of running an outdoor daycare, I would definitely teach the children to sing and talk to plants.

Based on our watering schedule for the garden, I’m typically there around sunset. It’s one of my favorite times to be in the garden. I love watching the moon come up and the first star come out and, and just soaking in that golden hour. By the time I leave, it’s almost night, so I just call it ‘tucking the plant babes in’. I’ll tuck them in, wish them all sweet dreams, and tell them that I’ll see them in the morning. Really treating the plants like family because that’s what they are to me.

The Plants that Are Significant My Cultural Traditions

The last time I went to Florida, I brought home about 20 mangoes. I picked mangoes from my grandparents’ tree, I filled a suitcase and I brought home as many as I could. I’ve been germinating mango seeds and I’m very excited about it. Mangoes are my favorite plant. They’re my favorite fruit. They’re my favorite food. To me, they’re like sunshine in solid form. Edible sunshine. That’s what mangoes are to me. So I’m really excited to be tending to and taking care of mango plants.

And then there’s sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are my new-found love. When I think about sweet potatoes, I think of their importance to the African diaspora and the whole story behind that. It’s important to understand that yams and sweet potatoes are different plants. That has gotten very confusing in the modern US market, because most produce sold as yams in the US are actually sweet potatoes, even though they are from different families.

True yams are native to Africa, and many were brought to the Americas with the trade of enslaved Africans. When there was no longer access to yams, people of the African diaspora made a resilient and resourceful transition to accept sweet potatoes in place of yams. And so sweet potatoes became an important plant in the African diaspora.

When I think of sweet potatoes, I think of my mom’s sweet potato casserole that she makes for the holidays. And I think about George Washington Carver, who is one of the first black agriculturalists I remember learning about. Now, with the research that I’m doing with sweet potatoes, I’ve learned that you can eat the leaves. Which to me is so revolutionary and mind-blowing, to think that you could live for 26 years, and I have no idea that a part of a plant is edible just because it’s not common in your culture. The Intercultural Learning Community Garden has been so special and important to me because it’s giving me the opportunity to learn about cultural traditions of other people. I am learning to adopt practices that work for me, not in an appropriative way, but in an appreciative way and trying to uplift those stories and those customs.

Growing sweet potatoes has been this transformative experience for me. It’s taught me a lot about trust: trusting my own intuition and trusting my choices and decision-making processes. It’s taught me a lot about patience as well, because I can see what’s growing above ground, but I have no idea what’s going on underground. It’s all about trusting the process, being patient, and waiting for the opportune moment to harvest. So yeah, growing sweet potatoes has been a truly amazing experience.

And the last plant in the garden that I have to make a shout out to, because this plant is just so beautiful, is called Lagos spinach. My sister did an ancestry test, and found we have West African roots, specifically in Nigeria. So that is part of why I was so excited to grow Lagos spinach, sometimes called Nigerian spinach. Lagos spinach is this gorgeous purple- and green-leaved plant, that has been thriving in the garden here in Oregon. We have a few Lagos spinach plants at the ILC Garden, and they are some of my favorite plants to show to people and to spend time with. I tell them they are my favorite, and I tell all the other plants to close their ears.

My Gardening Practices that are Significant to my Cultural Traditions

Again, I could say my dancing and singing, and my intuitive self-expression, would be considered a practice. I think its my version of a divination ritual, of checking in with the cosmos and the powers that be. It’s my way of tuning in to those frequencies of the ecosystem that I’m a part of and making sure that the decisions that I make are in alignment with the highest good of all the beings that I’m impacting. It’s an honest outpouring of love. I would say that those all fall into the divination rituals that I’m trying to establish.

This is the first growing season that I’ve been able to steward this land. And I think by the second growing season, come late fall when we’re starting to prep the soil for next year, I would love to have a larger scale divination ritual with the community. Just connecting with the land, and asking the land for ideas and inspiration, just tuning in and listening for the answers. That often brings up questions like, ‘how do you talk to the land?’ and ‘how do you hear the answers?’… And I think that comes differently for different people. That’s something that I’ve thought about for the next growing season – having a night or two where we just sit with the land to reflect on what the past growing season was like. Were there things that we could’ve done in a less destructive way, in a more constructive way? What did the land appreciate of what we did, and what can we do better? I would consider that a divination ritual and practice I’d like to carry forward.

My Advice to Others

I think it can be a healing experience for folks questioning their culture and their identity to try gardening. I used the internet to find plants that grew in places where my ancestors were living, and it’s been a powerful experience for me. There have been times where I wonder if it’s right or appropriate for me to be exploring these plants in this way or bringing plants that are not native to Oregon to try to grow them here. I’d like to offer words of encouragement to people who are questioning their identity or feeling disconnected from their ancestry. Gardening has been a really beautiful and transformative way for me to feel connected to ancestors that I have felt disconnected from in the past.

Read Charlie’s tips for growing mango, sweet potatoes and lagos spinach, including a recipe.

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What a wonderful article. Thank you Charlotte for sharing so much of yourself, your experience, and your connection to plants with the OSU community.

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