Today’s itinerary: New Quay–Dylan Thomas walking tour, writing workshop, beach, Llanerchaeron Gardens, writing workshop, reading with poet Kathy Miles
(This is one of the pieces I wrote today. Zoe and Ryan, it’s about Mimi, and a little bit about the two of you. I went to the beach and ate ice cream today, so I owe you one.)
I took the photos at Llanerchaeron Gardens in Wales this afternoon. It wasn’t raining.
There was very little there when we first came. The dog had to be put on a chain—no boundaries. An aggressively crotchety old Italian woman next door who raised holy hell when a ball went into her yard. There was grass—a place to play baseball and croquet, plenty of room to snake the hose up the side of the house so Edmund and I could spray it into Josh’s window. That was excellent, and it happened before we needed the hose for anything else.
My mother must garden. Must have her fingers in the dirt, must see results. We were poor to start with, living on the side of a mountain, Appalachia, huge garden. The turtle ate eat the strawberries, the deer ate—well, everything.
In the city, the need for beauty, sustenance and tranquility was no different. To say I have never mastered tranquility would make her laugh, as it understates the case on such a massive level.
My brother always helped with the heavy lifting, wheelbarrow jolting mulch across the grass as the garden grew, one plot at a time, in the sun and shade. Vegetables, flowers, herbs, bushes, running vines up the new fences. My grandfather had always lovingly tended red maples. One is in the front of our house.
Behind the house is my mother’s workshop, her re-working of life and self and all I’ve ever done is walk around in it. I walk through the neighborhood, across beaches, in the woods, at the edge of her gardens. I throw the ball for the dogs, make sure my children don’t kill anything. They grow things with my mother. My uncle, my father, my grandfather when he was with us-other hands create alongside her across her canvas. I have been walking.
My life is a tangle of weeds, lost in the long grass, fighting off ants as I sit under a tree in my own yard—yard is right, like prison yard, like yard arm. It’s only fun for the kids to play in because they need a lot of space for hobby horses, soccer nets and our dog.
My workshop has been the classroom, the stage. I’ve encouraged growth there and it’s just as visceral an experience in its way. Spotting the shoot of a tell-able story, relentlessly pruning what doesn’t speak to an audience. At the settlement table, soup kitchen, Sunday School, conferences, acting lab, assessing houses, writing up research, taking care of sick relatives, raising my children—everything is growing—sometimes exponentially, as piles of papers topple in the dining room and it’s not entirely that damn cat’s fault.
I drove a florist’s van long ago, and I stretch notions of the past like runner beans up a pole today at two National Parks with fourth graders.
My garden only grows certain things.
“What kind of tree is that?”
I don’t know.
But I too am looking for new growth and digging for results.
“Tell me about the enslaved persons who lived here.”
I can tend to that story.
-So that’s the end of one piece of writing, but there’s a coda. Where am I tending the story about enslaved persons? Hampton Plantation in Towson, Maryland–you can read more here:
…and hopefully there will be significantly more soon from the amazing ethnographic team of researchers who has been tracing descendants of enslaved persons on the property. Our EKIP (Every Kid in a Park) program for fourth graders in the Baltimore City Public Schools focuses on the experiences of enslaved persons and indentured servants over more than a hundred years of bondage on a property that started out as an iron foundry.
I am not intending, with the images from today, to draw a direct correlation between the stories of Hampton and the stories of Llanerchaeron, any more than I am intending to claim that the photos are from my mother’s back yard. But an odd synchronicity happened today in terms of time and ideas. At the very moments of writing in the gardens in Wales, rangers were giving a school tour that I would be giving had I been back in Baltimore. Before we even met our tutor for the workshop, I read the pamphlet at Llanerchaeron which is all about partnerships on the estate which have sustained through centuries.
What that pamphlet calls “self-sufficient partnerships” is a reference to farming and growing still done on site–what is grown is consumed by staff and visitors, and the gardeners there today are very eager participant/partners in working the land, as my mother is in her own garden. The pamphlet also describes some nineteenth century servants as “loyal” and possessing a “sense of duty.” At which point it was hard not to draw a few comparisons.
I did a bit of additional reading after that–an interesting article follows to take a look at, which does not have direct bearing on the spot I stood on today, but the land I travel over these two weeks:
At Llanerchaeron Gardens, we did not go into the house, which was designed by the celebrated John Nash. So I don’t know what stories they tell inside and I will do my best to find out. Perhaps the power imbalance in all of these partnerships is the focus of the house tour.
The impressions I have formed are from “Working Together, or Gweithio Gyda’n Gilydd,” which I was given on arrival. It is good that the booklet is in both English and Welsh. In including the Welsh language, the organization is working to repair centuries of the English mute button on Cymru’s native tongue. I do not yet know how various language barriers affected who was forced into servitude in Wales, so that’s next on the list to learn. I had the Welsh portion of the pamphlet translated, hoping there was some sort of different message than “loyalty” and “sense of duty” in the Welsh passage–sadly it stays the same.
The people who tended the gardens, created wealth and made the lifestyle of the Lewis family possible had very little choice in their situation and the notion that they were part of equal partnerships or worked together to achieve a rosy sense of achievement and mutual trust requires some careful consideration. “Self-sufficiency” on eighteenth and nineteenth century estates on both sides of the Atlantic and all over the West Indies meant that rich white people used money, coercion and often violence to force black people, poor people, and other oppressed groups to take care of them.
We were asked today to consider the potential of gardens: providing sustenance, peace of mind, healing medicinals, a community space, and the greening of cities. I know what working the gardens does for my mother and our family. But not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone is that free. Historically, not everyone was connected to the land by choice. Around the globe, many have been connected to the land by shackles, by poisonous contracts, by abject poverty and loss. New planting must also grow new stories if we are ever to give all people a chance at the joy my mother feels in her garden.
I am thankful to last night’s poet, Rufus Mufasa, for her stories of activism and social justice that she takes all over the world. I don’t have the poetry for it yet, nor the tune, but I am trying to learn the words, in conversation with teachers and families at a historic…unhome.