Before we were married, a man named Dustin would drive four hours from Ohio to western New York to visit me. He smiled and laughed so easy. He dug holes in my yard to plant lilies on his days off. I pointed, he dug. We were long distance, so to spend any time digging in the garden was luxury, and such a generous thing to do for a woman he’d started dating just a few months ago. I didn’t know about native gardens, or about pollinator gardens, then. I had just purchased a house by myself. I’d rescued a mini dachshund and named her Villanelle. I’d bought a lawn mower. Summer days when I had the windows open, I could hear my nosy neighbors gather on the sidewalk in front of my house and worry about “the Hindoo” all alone, doing yardwork by herself. The space between my eyebrows scrunched up like a golden raisin. I’m Methodist.
When our now thirteen-year-old was two, he loved to tromp in between the Asiatic lilies Dustin had planted years before, outside what became our first home. We called our son our garden gnome, because he would dig with his toy trowel and pretend he was helping us plant crocus to naturalize all over our lawn. He flung little mounds of sod and dirt over his shoulder and into small piles. It looked like a mole had started to ravage our lawn but got distracted. And he did get distracted: we all did. A baby brother joined him in 2010, and now they scurry and jump and climb and run into the woods, and I’m grateful to have moved to Oxford, Mississippi—a place where they can romp outdoors the way their parents did when they were growing up.
Here in Mississippi, Dustin and I made and remake and revise our pollinator garden, which we’ve filled with plants native to this region. Native plants require much less watering, attract songbirds and butterflies, and improve air quality too. Before we began this garden, I didn’t fully realize how easy it was to attract dazzling emerald hummingbirds and other pollinators with just a few plants. Once I learned that even the humble bumblebee is a keystone species—an animal upon which other animals depend—it was a no-brainer to try and help them succeed in our garden.
In revision, we surprise ourselves with wins and losses. When we moved here four years ago, we traced out the garden in the largest corner of our backyard. Our local Audubon center’s annual plant sale provided us with a number of starter milkweeds and a gorgeous bee balm that promised to thrive. I write this now at the end of October, during a pandemic. We wear masks to browse the selection of pumpkins at Chicory, our local market—an errand that takes on more importance now since my sons won’t be trick-or-treating this year. The last of the chartreuse chrysalises have cracked open along our fence line, and the monarchs are grown and have flown south for the winter, but our sons still check around the garden to see if any monarch caterpillars munch on the remaining bits of vermillion butterfly weed. Here in Mississippi no one asks where I am really from, like they do just about everywhere else. They let me select red peppers and popsicles in peace at our farmer’s market every Tuesday.
Here in Mississippi I want to know the names of everything I plant: aster, wax mallow, the difference between bee balm and bee blossom. I see a direct correlation between people who think nothing of making fun of a brown woman’s name (see: the video of Senator David Perdue making fun of Senator Kamala Harris’s name; see: 80 percent of the people who first meet me). Knowing names correctly is everything; it’s a key to connection and tenderness and a turn to kindness. Maybe if people knew that pipevine swallowtail butterflies nibble swamp milkweed leaves, they wouldn’t be so quick to dig up that patch of milkweed by the side of the highway and plant grass instead.
Or maybe if people knew that indigo buntings (which are bluer than a Mississippi summer sky) and not just “some birds” hang around a place called Sky Lake, they wouldn’t dump garbage in their home. Even the false dragonhead in our garden doesn’t ask what I am. Neither does the rubella or the swamp mallow. I am not othered in a garden. I promise to not make people feel othered in my garden either. And if I am stumped, I look it up. I sketch it. I smell it. I carefully break off a leaf and hold it up to the light to see the veins inside. Like my veins. Like Dustin’s. Like my sons’. What we carry is a different kind of light. When I’m in the garden, I feel like what we carry and gather and tend is called love.