I’ve never been a gardener. Growing up on a reservation in the Pacific Northwest, I never had to be. My backyard was lush with old growth. Towering cedars, moss-covered nurse logs, and sword ferns took up the space where flower beds might have been. My Coast Salish ancestors were not gardeners either. They fished the rivers, picked wild huckleberries, and harvested cedar. Beautifying a space by planting flowers wasn’t something we practiced. To say growing up on the reservation was a privilege feels wrong, but the landscape of my childhood was remarkable. It may have been the reservation, a community founded on oppression and built by settler colonial trauma, but it was also a rainforest. My backyard, as complicated as it may have been, was a paradise.
To uproot something is inherently traumatic. It says so on every potted hibiscus and jasmine start I’ve put in the ground. The instructions are simple: handle the root system with care, be gentle while arranging it into its new home. Transplanting shocks plants, but with enough care they will adapt. Lately I’ve been adapting to my partner’s home in Southern California. I’ve been handling myself with care. But my roots are up the coast, solidly grounded in wet earth, and the transition has been rocky.
When I arrived here, I was still dreaming of home, dreaming of beaches so vividly I could feel the slate gray sand beneath me, the cold mist on my face. I blinked my partner’s bedroom, our bedroom, into focus, shocked to find myself in this bright space. Oh yeah, I realized. Here I am.
To combat homesickness, I decorated. I brought my grandmother’s cedar baskets and my uncle’s paintings of longhouse ceremonies. I hung a decal of a forest, and plants that stretched their vines along my ceiling. We call this my Northwest Room. It’s part Twin Peaks, part Coast Salish cultural exhibit. I created an imitation home, but still woke up missing the sound of rain.
Growing up, I’d walk for miles behind my house, on forested trails along streams and salmonberries. San Diego is different. We enter our yard through the neighbor’s driveway. Hot pavement, palm trees, and corner stores abound. There is an element of convenience here, with bookstores and burritos just a bike ride away, but even when frolicking in the turquoise water of La Jolla, I missed the harsher beaches of my childhood, full of stones and driftwood. I missed the bite of the Salish Sea.
To uproot something is inherently traumatic.
Overwhelmed by my displacement, one afternoon I broke down in tears. Sometimes as a Native person, it’s too heavy to feel so far away from ancestral places. When my partner asked me what I might need to feel more at home here, I surprised myself by saying, “I need a weed whacker.” I realized I hated the yard. The itchy, overgrown weeds reached my hips and stunk like dog urine. The yard was just a place I had to traverse to reach the front door. It wasn’t home.
So we bought a weed whacker. I spent a week digging, unearthing piles of fossilized dog shit and trash. I discovered two rosebushes, a brick-lined flower bed, and terracotta pots with cactus plants still growing in them. Beneath the weeds I found a succulent garden struggling for sunlight. I marveled at the most sci-fi garden box I’d ever seen. Hot pink and neon green foliage reached upward like tentacles. Spiky tendrils, more weapon than plant, climbed up out of concrete. Somehow, they had survived.
At first the garden was just a distraction, a way to keep busy while I wasn’t teaching or writing. Each morning I checked on my sci-fi garden, delighted to see the strange plants thriving. On dog walks I filled tote bags with clippings. I found a prickly pear cactus growing in a ditch and collected pieces to add to my garden. Was I stealing plants? I’m not really sure. I mostly just took small bits growing in public spaces. I was fascinated by how you could pluck them from their homes and—with a little water and sunlight—they’d come back strong. I fell in love with their resilience, their ability to adapt, to withstand drought and displacement.
I filled the yard with jade pinwheels, ghost plants, and burro’s tails. I planted hibiscus and night blooming jasmine. The yard no longer smelled like urine, but fragrant and floral. We repurposed things the previous tenants left. An old door became a plant shelf. I trained bougainvillea to grow around a rusted gate. Our yard began to feel like a sanctuary.
When I was ten, my mother gifted me a book. Mandy is the story of an orphan who runs away and stumbles upon an abandoned cottage in the forest. She fixes it up, learns to garden, and makes it her own. Intoxicated by the fantasy of making a home out of nothing, out of abandonment, I loved this book as a kid. In her yellow dress, Mandy kneels in the flowers, the tagline floating below reads “The magic of finding a home.”
As I watched September’s harvest moon rise from my garden, I thought of my grandmother. Her family followed the salmon and berries, moving up and down the Skagit River. Her mother brought a piece of linoleum and laid it down on the ground to create a home wherever they were. I looked at my salvaged door turned shelf, the cactus flowers in pinks and pale greens, their blooms strangely beautiful encased in spikes. A group of blue-crowned parrots flew overhead as my partner gently removed the spines of a bunny ear cactus from my fingertips. I was home.