Gardening As Resistance, Gardening As Joy

In a time when many of us have rooted in and down, while yet more of us venture out to care for the sick and provide the services that keep us all going, I have found it useful to garden, if haphazardly. Daffodils, winter squash, poor kale half buried in weeds, herbs that keep going through winter and save our soups from monotony.

And in a time when home spaces must expand to fit people’s entire imaginations—our social lives, the classes we teach, the readings we attend—I find it restorative to imagine other gardens, and the ways other writers and makers and tenders have cared for the places closest to them. One such garden, brought to my attention by Ecotone postgraduate fellow Sophia Stid, provides the image on this issue’s cover. Anne Spencer, a poet, librarian, gardener, and member of the Harlem Renaissance, lived with her husband Edward A. Spencer in Lynchburg, Virginia. In their home and in the gracious garden they built behind it, which they named Edankraal, Anne Spencer wrote poems and letters, raised a family with Edward, and entertained luminary writers of the time. In 1918, she co-founded a chapter of the NAACP in Lynchburg. Her writing appeared in major anthologies, and she kept up a lively correspondence with writers including Sterling A. Brown, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Her work was holistic in ways many of us hope our own can be—encompassing the garden and home, the written word, and activism toward much-needed social change. As Johnson wrote to Spencer, in a letter dated February 24, 1951, “I do not separate you from your garden, your elegant verse and your sure philosophy.”

A black and white photo of Anne Spencer standing at the pond with Edward and two of her grandchildren
In a photograph from around 1930, Anne Spencer (1882–1975) stands in her garden, Edankraal, with Edward A. Spencer, her husband, and two of their grandchildren, Barbara Jean Stevenson (Taylor) and Anne Bethel Stevenson (Johnson). The garden, adjacent to the Spencers’ home in Lynchburg, Virginia, was restored in 1983, and again in 2007, including the rebuilding of a historic pergola, arbor, and pond. Photograph courtesy of the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum Inc. Archives, Lynchburg, Virginia.

It’s easy to see, even in photographs, why Spencer’s garden is so beloved: it is beautiful, with intimate arrangements of hedges and seats, beds and paths, and flowers, flowers, flowers. And her poems make clear how well she knew those flowers—take, for instance, her “Lines to a Nasturtium”: “Flame-flower, day-torch, Mauna Loa, / I saw a daring bee, today, pause, and soar / into your flaming heart . . .” Edankraal has been restored twice, once in the 1980s and once in the 2000s, to great acclaim. Along with her poems, it is a testament to the creativity and resilience of Spencer and her family in the face of the ongoing threats to Black creativity by white supremacists and the racist structures at the heart of the United States. Spencer’s garden thrived, and thrives now.

We’re thankful to Shaun Spencer-Hester, Anne Spencer’s granddaughter, for permission to feature on the cover a photograph of Edankraal circa 1920. Spencer-Hester runs the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, and when it’s safe to travel, you can visit. I intend on it. And in the meantime, I’ll dream with Anne Spencer’s irises and peonies, and scheme about what to plant for the coming spring.

This year it’s felt, sometimes, as though even the simplest tasks have a scrim of difficulty over them. That effect makes me even more thankful than usual to our contributors, who have kept on in the work of making writing and art, and who have kindly shared it with us. I’m doubly thankful, too, to Ecotone’s staff, including Sophia; our assistant art director, Michael Ramos; and our MFA student staff, who have worked on the magazine throughout the pandemic with vigor and cheer, patience and resolve. For a team who particularly values being together in real time and space—turning off our phones when we come into the Ecotone work room for weekly meetings, reveling in rowdy discussions at the big wooden table, replete with good snacks—well, it’s hard to go from that to living in a screen. Like so many people, I feel the difficulty of it. I’ve also felt, these past months, how kind and resourceful these editors and designers and readers and fact checkers are—how they genuinely want to know both how each other are doing and how to do this work better, how they cheer each other on, how they delight (yes, me too) in seeing each other’s cats and lunches and cross-stitch projects on screen.

We offer this issue to everyone who’s had the impulse to make a garden—whether yours is an ambitious home garden, like the ones Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Camille T. Dungy share here, or a windowsill collection of succulents, as in Rose Skelton and Nomi Stone’s linked essay and poem “Little Starts,” or a handful of beans planted next to the driveway, as in Mary Quade’s poem “Beans.” We offer it as well to everyone who has loved a green and growing place, as Pinky remembers the hills of Darjeeling in Oindrila Mukherjee’s story “The Confidante,” or as Anni Liu and Corrie Williamson show in their poems “Ditch” and “[one moment it is summer, glasses].” As we enter a new year, I hope the work in this Garden Issue provides you with a bit of extra fortitude, and time to think, and joy, as it has for us.