Finding God in My Garden

How saving the earth saved my sanity -- and fed my soul.

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My Austin, Texas, garden beds, with their young jalapeno and tomato plants, remind me of God.

Satanic bugs like fire ants and worms lurk below the surface, and sometimes they furrow into my yucky compost pile of dirt and table scraps, but God is still there. I see the divine in the resilient rosemary bushes, tall lilies, the young lettuce and the sprouting oak tree.

As Earth Day turns 40, just a few years older than me, green has become chic. Michelle Obama has added rhubarb to the White House garden which is now in its second year and probably the most famous garden in the world. A slew of celebrities from Don Cheadle and Morgan Freeman to Brad Pitt and Rob Reiner are now associated with organizations like Global Green, Solar Neighbors Program and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Closer to home, I don't know anyone who bags their groceries in plastic anymore--at least if they don't want sideways glares. That's one of the reasons I've chosen to live in this city for so long.

In Austin, the San Francisco of the South, even the city hall is green. Whole Foods Market, the corporate face of environmentalism, opened here in 1980. Lance Armstrong's cycling success has been part of what has entrenched the sport in the city's culture, but it is easy to love the outdoors when there are more than 300 days of sun here each year. Even the usually barren patches of grass beside the highways here have the bluebonnets and other wildflowers beloved by Lady Bird Johnson.

It was against this backdrop that I found myself starting to carry cloth bags with me to the supermarket all the time and declining to print out gas receipts because I didn't want to waste any more paper. When I installed a water-saving shower head, I knew I had crossed a line. I had become something I had no frame of reference for: a black urban hippie Texan.

Considering that I grew up poor, Catholic and the youngest child of a manically depressed woman, this was an odd, slow transition. My mother and I moved more than 20 times between homeless shelters and welfare-subsidized apartments from when I was 6 until I was a teenager and left home. Literal and virtual roots were a foreign concept until I bought a house of my own in 2006, and even then, I resisted putting things in the ground. Roots felt scary and abstract.

Remarkably, there are few black congregations or leaders represented in the Windsor Commitments, a set of creation care (read: green) commitments used among dozens of faith organizations, But I know there have to be other black folks out there like me, who find worship in ecology to be just as uplifting as the church. And it was a bag of fresh collard greens from the garden of Alice Walker that convinced me of this.

As a young reporter in San Francisco, I interviewed the earth-loving feminist author in 2004 before her biography was released. At the time, I was a skinny city girl out of place in the green-obsessed Bay Area. I knew only of mac and cheese, Doritos and anything with high-fructose corn syrup from bodegas and public schools. But seeing her happy-looking collards, their spines straight and opening out like forest fans, sparked my inner hippie. She thought it was sad that I had lived in apartments for most of my life "so far away from the earth."

"Black people are a people connected to the land," she declared. Her own ancestors were sharecroppers. Mine were slaves in South Carolina and Alabama. They had been forced to connect with the land for survival.

Years later, circa 2008, when my survival skills were tested, I realized how intimate this connection could be. It was 2008 in Philadelphia and my mother had just had a nervous breakdown. I hadn't lived with her since I was a teenager when, in a manic rage, she choked me and threatened to kill me. But when I heard her voice over the phone--shaking, delusions spinning--I felt helpless to help her, and desperately sad. Out of options, I took a shovel and began digging for two hours. Eventually, I had a garden bed surrounded by a sea of weeds. ... And, surprisingly, I felt better.

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