Recently, I stumbled across the beautiful and timely book, Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens, by photographer Vaughn Sills. The hardcover book was published by San Antonio’s Trinity University Press in 2010 and features excellent black-and-white photographs of African American gardens in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. I was hoping for Texas gardens, too, but oh well. Still, these are striking and inspirational portraits of the American vernacular garden, a subject I’ve written about in previous posts and which, I fear, is rapidly disappearing from our history.
One of the things I like best about Places for the Spirit is how, after the wonderful Foreword, Preface, and Introduction (which are not over-lengthy by the way), we are presented with large image after image of the featured gardens with very little commentary. I appreciate this immensely and think it complements the subject well. It’s immediate, practical, and, well, no bull. The photographs, after all, speak for themselves and the occasional brief objective commentary by Sills is just enough to add insight to our viewing of these intimate gardens without making our mind up for us. Many, perhaps, will be surprised by the notion of calling many of these places “gardens” in the traditional, formal sense of that term. Yet, if you look, you can see quite a bit of form and structure to each of the garden’s organization and layout. Above all, they are moving, intimate portraits of the garden’s owners and the histories of a particular place, which is what attracted me to this book instantly. So often, nowadays, gardens are transient and lack history, not to mention personality and character.
Many present-day gardens also lack story. I’m not sure why folks are afraid of revealing themselves in their yards, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about what should and what should not be allowed into a garden, especially a front yard, as if there were rules for this sort of thing (though I’m afraid there are in some neighborhoods, sigh). We could benefit from a few more garden rebels, in my opinion. Of course, this doesn’t mean things shouldn’t adhere to their own rules, so to speak, listen to their own form and structure. They should, though perhaps more instinctually than intellectually. It’s just that the form of gardens–in this case, historic African American gardens–are built from their content, i.e. the stuff in their yards. What is available and has been co-opted as a garden element, for example, is essential to the garden’s form.
Perhaps the great eye-opener, for me, of Sills’ photographs in Places for the Spirit is that much that is discarded can be transformed into art and has been, by some folks, for quite some time. That fact alone makes this book timely and relevant, as more and more modern gardeners appear to be looking for regenerative solutions to the modern world’s emphasis on producing new materials with an ever-shortening lifespan. Here’s a rich history of people who have been regenerating the throwaways of the world and making do in endlessly creative and inspiring ways. It’s moving and funny and instructive, all at once.
Of course, I don’t want to overlook the title of this book: Places for the Spirit. The book is, after all, a document of spiritual gardens of the South. Somewhere in the book, we are asked to notice the references to wind in the placement of garden objects (windmills, clotheslines, etc.) that appear frequently in the gardens represented. This was a revelation to me and I am now noticing the rich legacy of this tradition in gardens throughout Austin, where I live. I have also noted the appearance of many household appliances and building materials in these gardens (tubs, sinks, doors, etc.) that I am pleased to see popping up in landscapes in my neighborhood and new books on the bookshelves. For those who saw the excellent 2006 documentary film, A Man Named Pearl, you’ll be pleased to see Pearl Fryar’s garden featured in here as well, side-by-side dozens of others each as inspiring as the last. A highly recommended book.