In Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), acclaimed poet Ross Gay offers space to unpack the work done in community orchards. Rooted in his experience as a founding member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, the collection offers a chance to examine what grows amid public fruit plantings and how the power of tone, style, and verse changes the stories we tell.
Now, let me say: My research centers on the Bloomington Community Orchard, a volunteer-managed acre of public land that offers, as their slogan goes, “free fruit for all.” Before turning my researcher’s eye to the project, I was a volunteer and board member alongside Gay. I was pleased to be in the audience for a local reading when Catalog was released, watching as fellow volunteers responded to and took hold of this work as yet another fruit of their labors. Am I close to this book? Yes. But this collection is not a simple celebration of the Orchard or of urban agriculture. Catalog uses stark contrast—of grief and celebration, of marginalization and trust in the act of growing fruit—to reflect on the lived experience of others.
Catalog offers a new lens on urban agriculture, lingering on what we as humans bring into them. The reader never loses sight of the bodies doing work or the speaker’s internal reflection. The poems are intimate, unpacking the mundane, quotidian moments of urban agriculture that get lost in larger narratives of community development or urban renewal and the truths that make such projects feel essential. In “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” the reader visits Philadelphia in a moment of communal harvesting, mingling with strangers yet never forgetting the other stories our cities tell:
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
When orcharding together, as I have fussed over newly planted things, Gay has been quick to remind me, “Plants just want to grow.” He has also been quick to remind me that they may die and that we will plant again. We will continue to nurture the earth, and each other, through loss and rebuilding. Across the poems, the speaker shares his losses: a father, a lover, a tight hold on the edges of himself. Then, through the moments of community, planting, and connection exemplified by the poems that bookend the collection (“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” and “Last Will and Testament”), we learn how we grow around these losses that form the pit of ourselves. The vulnerability and honesty of Catalog’s speaker allows us to see how viscerally structural violence, ideas of nature, and the need for joy are woven together in the motivation for urban planting, and so offers an opening to critiques of such projects that are driven by individuals—bodies, moments of contact, the fig tree itself.
As critical food studies scholars, we are well-versed in both bodies and the internalized experience of food. However, as scholars who (must) prioritize peer review, we are less good at remembering our own voices, ourselves, in writing. In a moment when academics are increasingly exploring platforms beyond peer-reviewed journals, it is worth turning to today’s strongest narrative voices for inspiration—and Gay’s is among them. (His list of accolades is long and includes a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the National Book Critics Circle Award.) So, read this book. But do not read it simply to put it in conversation with other texts. Put it in conversation with yourself. Let yourself crack open, as Gay does in the title poem, extending an invitation to the reader:
and friends this is the realest place I know,
it makes me squirm like a worm I am so grateful,
you could ride your bike there
or roller skate or catch the bus
there is a fence and a gate twisted by hand,
there is a fig tree taller than you in Indiana,
it will make you gasp.
It might make you want to stay alive even, thank you (84).
What stories would you tell if you could use poetic form? What voice would you use in those stories? How does that shift what you are able to share, to tap into? Dig deep. Then, find a way to use that voice. Find power and unabashed pleasure in the words you are writing.
Megan Betz is a PhD candidate in Indiana University’s Geography Department. She is currently writing her dissertation, which examines how multispecies relations inform community development in community orchard projects. More broadly, her research interests include the narratives that emerge in—and in critique of—local food and urban agriculture projects. More of her work can be found at meganbetz.com. She tweets at @megbetz.