Finding God in My Garden

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

The Royal Botanic Gardens At Kew Celebrate Their 250th Anniversary
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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.

Environmentalism, I have learned, is simply about personal responsibility. Instead of taking on the responsibility of my mother, who has chosen not to live well in any sense of the word, I have transferred my attention and need for maternal attention to the garden, where I have some control over sentient things that are willing to grow and thrive. I do not meditate regularly, nor does prayer come easily. But planting things is its own worship, a specific creation care that feels right for me.

Now, as I brave the Texas heat to pick weeds and harvest basil, I feel responsible for a bigger universe, a space wider than the one between my mother and me. Going green, it turns out, is about more than the earth’s survival. It’s about my own. And Austin is perfect for planting roots.

Joshunda Sanders is a writer in Austin, Texas.

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