The Earth is in Her Hands

The story of women and plants is a tale as old as time. From Eve in the Garden of Eden and Demeter in the fields to early female botanists crossing oceans dressed as men, forest foraging herbalists brewing tinctures in back rooms, and tool wielding women tending backyard gardens. In a new book, The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants, author, gardener and radio presenter, Jennifer Jewell, pays homage to the long legacy of ladies who have left their mark upon the earth, and the network of leading plantswomen who shape how we think about horticulture today.

As Jennifer writes in the opening paragraphs: “There is no telling the whole story of women making their lives with plants or women broadening the field of plant knowledge and practice. I can’t even superficially acknowledge all the women who’ve cultivated this territory before us, except to say the compost-rich soil they left behind is what germinated the seeds that grew the vibrant women I’m writing about today.”

Reflected in the pages that follow are 75 women who are leading figures in the field of horticulture; their expertise ranging across disciplines as diverse as academia, botany, social justice, floristry, photography, writing, design, agriculture, science and public policy. Of this collection of womenfolk, Jennifer writes: “Their work illustrates how the many challenges of our world can be met through cultivating an interdependence with plants. It is a rebirth in many sectors. And like all birthings, this one is being sung, screamed, crooned, whispered, hummed, and rocked into existence by distinctly female voices.”

Erin Benzakein of Floret Flower Farm. Photographer: Chris benzakein. Image provided by Timber Press.

The individual plant story of each woman profiled is detailed – the Head Gardener of Tockachi Millennium Forest in Hokkaido, Japan, Midori Shintani, describes a childhood collecting artemisia and miscanthus along the rugged coastline of Wakasa Bay – as well as their plant of choice – old-growth chaparral with gnarled manzanitas, dimpled bigpod ceanothus, and buckwheats, according to Carol Bornstein, a native Californian plant specialist and Director of the Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. 

For people to read about these women effecting change every day from their specific places gave me more hope for our own individual agency than I have had in a long time.

Jennifer Jewell

Turning each page, a different female face is championed – from Eliza Blank from The Sill, nurserywoman Flora Grubb, urban farmer Yolanda Burrell, photographer Claire Takacs, academic Elizabeth Hoover, landscape architect Martha Schwartz, seed-harvester Ira Wallace and writers Alys Fowler and Planthunter editor Georgina Reid. In selecting only 75 women to represent, Jennifer describes the process as akin to “mapping mycelia pathways between collaborating organisms in the soil of a forest”.

Most interesting to me is the web of women that is spun within the book, as each person profiled includes her own plant women of note. Comprised within these lists are the names of other thought-provoking, inspiring and radical women, including Rachel Carson, Kate Cullity, Dolores Huerta, Buffalo Bird Woman, Jane Goodall and Carolyn Robinson, as well as mothers, grandmothers, sisters and friends. You can imagine this book being passed between households, with each person handing it on to the next, their own list of inspiring women scribbled into the margins.

Hemlata Pradhan, botanical illustrator, with a botanical art student. Photographer: Christophe Jobert. Image provided by Timber Press
Carol Bornstein, native Californian plant specialist and Director of the Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Photographer: Mario De Lopez. Image provided by Timber Press.

I recently spoke with the author of The Earth in Her Hands, Jennifer Jewell, to find out more about her ideas and intentions for the book.

The dedication of this book is to your parents, Sheila and Samuel. Can you tell us a little bit more about these two people and the strong influence they have had on you and the compilation of this book. My mother and father both grew up on the east coast of the US. After they met and married, my parents moved west for my father to do his PhD work in wildlife biology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. When I was very young, my mother worked in a nearby nursery and some of my earliest memories are of playing in the potting soil under the potting bench in the nursery while my mother worked. To this day, the scent of a moist, warm greenhouse – especially as sanctuary in the darkest, chill of winter – is pure balm; it is my mother in so many ways. She went on to be a professional gardener and floral designer, and we had a lovely big back garden where we lived in the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

My mother and father both loved native plants and wildflowers, trees and associated wildlife and ecosystems. My sisters and I helped my mum in the garden and at her business, and we learned to hunt and fish, hike and camp. My parents modelled their own love and respect for the natural world and the importance of plants to us in everything they did. Reading a river with my father, or deadheading, flower arranging or harvesting from the garden with my mother are activities I continue to hold very dearly as an adult. 

Gardener, radio presenter and author of The Earth in Her Hands, Jennifer Jewell. Photographer: John Whittlesey. Image provided by Jennifer Jewell.

Why were you drawn to telling the particular story? When Timber Press approached me about writing a book about women working in horticulture, I was thrilled at the chance to celebrate women and the skills and values they often bring to a workplace, as well as to explore some of the really interesting shifts and lively threads I had been listening to in my podcast, Cultivating Place, over the past decade.

The reinvigoration of legacy projects, the work towards true ecologically integrated sustainability in our garden lives, the ways in which plantpeople, by virtue of doing what they loved, were having really meaningful impacts on larger cultural issues such as social justice, as well as healthier economic relations, communal and individual wellbeing and accountability – these were ideas I was interested in exploring within the book.

You note in the introduction the legacy of unwritten, unmentioned women who created the compost-rich soil of today. Could you please talk a little more to this history of unacknowledged women of the earth? For a very long time in many cultures women have been, and in many ways remain, the primary caretakers of children, households and home gardens. They are the seed keepers, literally and metaphorically. While I could not represent 1500 women in the book (for lack of time and space, not for lack of women) I was able to cast a wider net, asking each woman to list others who inspire and influence them. Their lists were so moving, often including mothers, aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who’d passed down seeds. The Antiguan-born American writer, Jamaica Kincaid, cited the inspiration of Sacajawea who had led the botanists Lewis and Clark in the expedition across the US west to collect seed and plants for Thomas Jefferson. As Ms. Kincaid pointed out, she was the one who knew and found the plants, but the white men got all the credit. 

Can you tell me about the process of creating this book? In many ways, I have been writing this book for years, through my work with the Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden public radio program and podcast. In my interviews, I have noted the many ways that gardens and gardeners have incredible and positive ripple-out impacts into the wider world. These intersections and their effects have been an area I have been interested in researching and mapping, particularly in relationship to the role of women. 

In the creation of this book, I had to decide which areas of horticulture most broadly I wanted to try to cover, and then identify the women who were not only doing great work in these fields, but also interesting and expanding work – work that made the general person, home gardener or amateur naturalist see, think, or talk about plants in new, different and more expansive ways. It was hard to narrow these selections down to 75, of course.

Eliza Blank of New York plant shop, The Sill. Image provided by Timber Press.

Were there any surprises for you in the book’s creation? One of the biggest surprises to me was how often these working women still maintained, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance, very traditional, gendered roles of homemaker, childcarer and multitasker – taking kids to work with them as needed, caring for elders in their families, etc. These women are engaged not in a livelihood so much as a calling and they fit it in around everything else in their lives, often driven by a personal event or experience that motivated them. Their intense devotion to making the work meaningful is powerful.

What are your thoughts around offering this collection of women’s stories into the world of today? For people to read about these women effecting change every day from their specific places gave me more hope for our own individual agency than I have had in a long time. These women, their devotion and multi-faceted impacts, show how resilient and regenerative our own work can be. I am humbled and grateful every day that I was allowed the opportunity to immerse myself in their work and to amplify them as models in this world.

In one sentence, why is this book important? We are all longing for connection and meaning in this world – to our places, to the natural world we feel is imperilled, to our human community, and to leaders we can admire and trust. The women in this book model renewed ways of cultivating and manifesting all of these elements.

The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants by Jennifer Jewell is published by Timber Press and is available in bookshops in North America, Europe and Australia.