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© Christian Cassiel

Claire Ratinon: Why I wrote Unearthed

Published: June 2, 2022 at 8:00 am
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Organic gardener and food grower Claire Ratinon explains why she wrote her new book, Unearthed. Photograph by Christian Cassiel

Becoming a food grower completely transformed my life. It may sound hyperbolic to say so but career changers, like myself, have a tendency to wax lyrical about the thing that rescued us from feeling unfulfilled – and, for me, that thing was growing the plants that feed us. At the start of this journey, growing edible plants was all I wanted to do with my days. Pushing seedlings into welcoming soil, harvesting sun-warm, ripe tomatoes and heaving crates of produce until I was deeply exhausted was the happiest I’d ever felt. After years over-working in a media career, I imagined a life spent seed sowing, planting and harvesting and felt hopeful. Back then, I had no aspirations to write or teach or speak about this work. I just wanted to grow.

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Looking back now, I see how naive an aspiration this was for someone like me. Not only because growing food is arduous and poorly paid but because I quickly found it impossible to do this work, and experience the profound sense of reconnection with the natural world that it made possible, without reflecting on why I had felt so disconnected from it all in the first place. I felt myself called to interrogate how certain forces – colonialism, imperialism and Empire – have shaped the agricultural and horticultural landscape, both historically and into the present day, and how clearly I could see the influence of those forces mirrored in the (mostly erased) story of my Mauritian heritage. I came to realise that to grow food and care for the soil in the land where I was born but had long felt unwelcome in offered me the possibility of cultivating a belonging that had thus far evaded me.

Messages and comments showed me how desperately we need new stories that depict the myriad, diverse ways that we grow plants, steward the earth and experience our interconnection with the natural world.

And so, while planting climbing beans in the heat of a greenhouse in Tottenham and harvesting salad leaves from a site I tended in Hackney, these feelings and thoughts started to coalesce in my mind. I felt the urge to write my own journey into food growing – alongside all that it had caused me to reflect upon around identity, race and ancestry – into a story that would make sense of how and why I’d suddenly found myself covered in soil in my late twenties. I carried the pieces of a narrative around in my head and heart for a number of seasons before I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write it for publication.

I wrote Unearthed through multiple pandemic lockdowns. It was an enormously emotional process to undertake at a time when all the things that I would ordinarily lean on for sustenance – family, friends, eating together – were unavailable. I thought I’d feel pride and relief on handing in each draft but spending all those months, at a time of global upheaval and climate crisis, with only my thoughts and words – and a very messy garden – for company left me feeling lost and self-indulgent. I couldn’t fathom why I’d devoted so much time and energy to writing a book about my own peculiar journey.

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But then, a few days before Christmas, I shared the news that I’d written Unearthed on social media, and the messages and comments that followed showed me how desperately we need new stories that depict the myriad, diverse ways that we grow plants, steward the earth and experience our interconnection with the natural world. In the face of climate catastrophe, we need every person to be able to see themselves as stewards of the earth and my hope is that, in sharing my journey from unknowing to entirely devoted to the soil and the plants that grow in it, other people might see themselves stepping onto a verdurous path of their own. Stepping towards rootedness, towards belonging, and towards living in respectful kinship with the ecosystem of which we are a part.

Unearthed is published on 2 June by Penguin Books. Look out for our review in the July issue of Gardens Illustrated.

Unearthed by Claire Ratinon
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