Of Clay and Wonder

Chérie Rivers Ndaliko

“He listened ravenously to our every answer, listened as if his life depended on it. And that, it turns out, is precisely the thing: it does."

Like so many reckonings, mine began with a seemingly innocent question. “Mama,” he asked, “where are we from?” Truth be told, he asked it more than once. Incessantly, in fact. No matter what his father and I explained, no matter the pictures, the maps, still he returned, “But where are we from?”

Something about his insistence haunted me. It was not the precocious redundancy of toddler curiosity, though he was of the age. Nor was it inattention, much less forgetting—he listened ravenously to our every answer, listened as if his life depended on it. And that, it turns out, is precisely the thing: it does.

For his was not a question of logistics. The fact that his birth certificate boasts North Carolina, that his father’s nationality entitles him to a Congolese passport, were, for him, utterly irrelevant to the answers he sought. His was a fundamental question not only (or even primarily) about place but about possibility. And though he was young—three, perhaps four, at the time—his Black-skinned body knew enough life to understand his very existence, the very existence of all he holds dear, depends on the answer. And so he always returned, “But where are we from?”

With time, I learned to hear his question with wiser ears. I learned to hear it as, “What is in my bones?” and “What is the story of my being?” With time, and with a radical recalibration of my ability to imagine, I came to understand that he was not seeking the names of places but the stories behind the names.

The first stories were east of the Atlantic. From his father’s lineage, from a great-great-grandmother who was a memory-keeper. Whose memories, spanning the twelve decades of her life, began in Yira land and ended in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the fact that she, herself, never moved. Whose memories, and the twelve decades of whose life, began in a matriarchy allegiant to earth and water and the tending of life and ended in a colonial invention allegiant to the dictates of a capitalist state (despite the fact that she, herself, never moved).

Those stories taught me something particular about roots. They taught me something about what gets buried with a name. And for a time that was sufficient. But then, after hearing a particularly riveting account of the adventures of monkey, elephant, and Katcheche, came the next question. “Papa,” he asked, “can you take me to Yira land?”

In one sense, the answer was yes. Technically speaking, we could acquire the requisite travel permits and walk on the land his great-great-grandmother called home (at least those parts not yet privatized). But like its antecedent, this was not a question of logistics but of possibility. It was a question of whether we could take him to a place allegiant to earth and water and the tending of life.

And that is an entirely different question. That is a question that cannot be deflected with pilgrimages to “somewhere else” (no matter how sacred), a question that cannot be appeased with facts of time and space. That is a question that demands reckoning—for, if the answer requires going “somewhere else,” what does that say about how we live where we are? And where, in this time, is the “somewhere else” that is allegiant to earth and water and the tending of life?

Like its antecedent, this question haunted me, but more ferociously. Because there is no way to ignore the simple fact that our very existence, the very existence of all we hold dear, depends on the answer. And by way of answer, all I had at my disposal was a head full of stories and a patch of southern clay. That, and borrowed memories of a great-great-grandmother east of the Atlantic.

As a daughter of diaspora, her stories brought with them something I have always coveted: the luxury of a name. Though I, too, hail from her side of the sea, unlike her, I cannot, with certainty, name my ancestral lands beyond the violent intrusion of the capitalist state—and even if I could, they, like Yira land, would be strategically invisible on any modern map. Of necessity, I have learned to see this particular namelessness as a blessing as well as a curse. Of necessity, I have learned that names are shorthand for the accumulation of possibilities—and priorities—to which we do or do not choose to pledge allegiance. I have learned that even when we lose the names themselves, we can re-member possibilities and priorities, dismembered though they might be. And I have learned that absolutely everything is at stake.1

So, haunted by two seemingly innocent questions, I set out to re-member. Unable to start with a name, I started with a patch of southern clay. Which became an herb garden, which grew into a vegetable garden, which grew into a fruit orchard, which grew into an apiary, which grew into a pollinator meadow surrounded by goats and chickens and deep reverence for the simple miracle that life begets life. And for a time that was sufficient. But then I came to see that life, for all the awe it inspires, is not the only generative miracle I hold dear. Another is wonder. After all, the herb-garden-that-grew-into-a-vegetable-garden-that-grew-into-an-orchard-that-grew-into-an-apiary-that-grew-into-apollinator-meadow-surrounded-by-goats-and-chickens-and-reverence all grew out of a seemingly innocent question of origin, of the earnest need for one insistent child to know what was in his bones.

And it turns out he is not the only wonderer. For after the eighth generation of songbirds moved into the window box, and the tadpoles in the rain-filled wheelbarrow turned to frogs, and the turtle with the “crooked” shell deposited her fourth clutch of eggs in the sand by the creek, the wonderers began to come. On the surface their arrivals were easy enough to explain—for some, our small mahereko was on the itinerary of their summer internship; others heard about it from a friend; some, displaced from Yira land, came in search of the familiar on the other side of the sea.2

Less explicable (at least at first) was that they returned, but they did. Sure as pigweed, they returned again and again for the back-breaking pleasure of pulling saplings from rock beds in ninety degrees, for the bone-aching delight of chopping and hauling downed trees through brambles, for the punishing joy of weeding fields of nettle. Like the questions that preceded them, they always returned.

It’s plain to see the ways they helped transform this patch of clay. They eased the stranglehold of invasive intruders and restored to native species their rightful place. They cut back dead growth and let in the sun. They helped coax medicinals back into bloom. It’s plain to see they did all this and more, but the truth, they insist, is that this little patch of clay transformed them. That ki (the living earth, that is, whose animacy forecloses use of “it”) eased the stranglehold of invasive histories and restored to them their ancestors’ legacies of care. That ki redeemed the twice-corrupted urge to pledge their Black bodies to earth, and to water, and to tending life. By choice. That ki cut back dead habits, dead thoughts, dead fears, and let in the sun. The truth, they insist, is that ki coaxed them back to life.3

As I see it, both are true. For that is precisely the labor of re-membering as it applies to clay: it is, by definition, reciprocal. Growth begets growth. And growth, like re-membering, is not unique to clay. It is true that our first possibilities—and priorities—were forged of clay. They sprouted where our bodies intersected seed and soil; they gave us fruit, they gave us purpose.

All images from Alkebu Film Productions. © 2021.

Then, with that purpose, came the courage to re-member the moon. To heed her many tides—of when to plant, of when and how to gather, of stories to share at the crest of each wax, each wane.

Then, with the stories and the pull of the moon, came the courage to re-member fire. To galvanize our stories with flame both to incite the alchemy of possibility and to bear witness, to hold our feet to the heat of our choices.

Somewhere between the tides and the flames, for me, the vigilance of re-membering ceded to remembering. Of course, allegiance to cycles of earth and water and the tending of life inevitably seeds memory, but I mean something else, something still emergent. About the way the cool silk of southern clay sends goose chills up my spine. The way the lilt of these particular leaves stops me in my tracks. The way this particular choreography of fireflies and frog-song takes my breath and moves my feet. About the way the constellation of this whole storied place compelled me to recognize that I am not only a daughter of diaspora but also a daughter of southern clay. That my lust for names applies not just to where but who I am from. And that my “who” was—and still is—here, once by coercion, now by choice.

Yes, somewhere between the tides and the flames, the vigilance of re-membering ceded to remembering and, for better or for worse, this patch of southern clay taught me the story of my bones. It taught me and a sundry lot of wonderers to see, on both sides of the Atlantic, traces of allegiance to earth and water and the tending of life. Most preciously, it taught us that those traces are not a matter of past—neither lost nor found—but a matter of possibility and priority.

And that made all the difference. For somewhere between the tides and the flames the question of origin not only took root, it bore fruit. I know because, though still curious, our insistent Black boy no longer wonders where we are from, nor whether we might take him to Yira land (or somewhere else). Instead, he wonders when the cardinals will fledge, he wonders if we’re aware the snapping turtles have returned, he wonders whether the latest swarm of bees has decided they will stay. And like their antecedents, these questions turn to reverence and transform us.

But if he were to ask of origin once more, I would tell him this: We are of land of clay and wonder. Land on which re-membering begot courage, which begot remembering, which accumulated into the possibilities and priorities to which we pledge allegiance: the reciprocity of sweat and clay, the generative currency of wonder, the transatlantic lineage of earth and water and the tending of life, and the simple miracle that together our Black bodies can create “somewhere else” right here. By choice.

This essay was first published in the Sanctuary issue (vol. 28, no. 2: Summer 2022).

Chérie Rivers Ndaliko‘s work—as writer, teacher, mother, and radical Black ecologist—is rooted in her commitment to interrupting modern colonialism with the transformative power of imagination. Animated by this priority, she writes books about critical creativity, creates and teaches decolonial curricula, and runs an educational biodynamic farm that integrates the legacy of freedom farming with indigenous practices from central Africa.
  1. “Re-membering,” which Ngugĩ wa Thiong’o likens to Isis re-membering the dismembered body parts of Osiris, is a practice of re-membering that which was—and continues to be—dismembered by the ongoing project of colonialism. I evoke this term in that spirit.
  2. Mahereko is a Kinande word used to describe land that is shared, with respect, by human and nonhuman beings. One can plant and forage in a Mahereko, one can gather to celebrate or to mourn, but no one—human or nonhuman being—can take more than their share or more than they contribute. In this sense, a Mahereko is a sacred place governed by the principle of reciprocity.
  3. In her 2017 keynote “Mapping a New Geography of Hope,” Robin Wall Kimmerer calls for the use of “revolutionary pronouns … that transform our thoughts and actions,” including the pronoun ki, which she derives from the Anishinaabemowin word for the living and spirited beings with whom we share the earth. When referring to these animate nonhuman beings, such as plants and living soil, she proposes replacing “it” with “ki” to affirm our respect and kinship with the morethan-human world. I adamantly agree.