Leaving no trace in the city

Rainbow sky over the Chicago skyline from 90/94 / Darker than Green

The Leave No Trace principles are the gold standard for how to behave in the backcountry. Adhering to them when we’re outdoors is a must, a non-negotiable, as the responsibility for maintaining public lands is our own. But what about when we’re not in the backcountry? What about when we’re on our own street, in our own neighborhood, in the cities and towns we actually call home?

I wrote about my experience incorporating the LNT principles into my daily life in Chicago for Issue 9 of RANGE Magazine: Leaving No Trace in the City: Seven Principles for Considered Living in any Environment. If you’ve read my work before, you know that I care as deeply for urban environments as I do for epic postcard vistas and national parks. This essay shares some reminders for how to treat our cities with the same kindness and reverence that we give to those wild natural spaces.

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Finding Nature in the In-Between

Simone Martin-Newberry at Shawnee National Forest / Darker than Green

Earlier this month, Gale Straub, the wonderful woman behind She Explores, interviewed me for an episode of her podcast. The episode is now live and I’m so proud of it. Gale and I chat about all sorts of topics that are close to my heart: plants, seeking out nature in and outside of the city, my relationship with my master gardener mom, the importance of public land and acknowledging the history of the land, growth and discomfort, and moving through the world with eyes open.

Because I’m a practitioner of radical honesty, I’ll admit here that I was wildly nervous before the interview, terrified that I wouldn’t make sense, or wouldn’t sound smart enough. It took a couple gentle nudges from Gale before I even agreed to do it. But the lesson here is clear – fear isn’t a good enough reason to say no. Sharing my perspective via this podcast episode has been revelatory. And being able to connect with others based on our shared experiences has been tremendous.

Listen to my episode here: Episode 66: Finding Nature in the In-Between
And afterward, queue up your next listen: She Explores podcast


In print, on paper

The past few weeks – months, really – I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing to revisit an old love. Drawing was always my first outlet, the one that stayed and morphed with me as I got older and eventually developed a career. When I’m not writing here or wandering with my camera outside, I’m making art, drawing for clients, and more recently, for myself.

Earlier this month I got a selection of my personal illustrations hand-screenprinted – the prints are now up for sale. If you want to bring a bit of the outdoors in, or have a blank wall begging for some artwork, I hope one of my pieces catch your eye.

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Essay published in Waxwing

Big cactus on Hayworth Ave, Los Angeles / Darker than Green

Many months in the making, I’m proud to announce that an expanded version of my essay about Los Angeles is now live in the Spring 2017 issue of Waxwing Literary Journal. If you’ve ever asked me about the place where I grew up, or if you keep an eye on my instagram, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with L.A. I try to unpack some of that in this essay. If you’re into southern California and rich plant-based imagery, read on.

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So I’m grateful

Marin County hill, California / Darker than Green

No, I’m not immune to the fear. It follows me throughout the day and it’s one of the last things I think about at night. I struggle to identify what to do, how to act, who to reach out to, when to protest, what to say when I do speak up. I worry, hunched over a twitter feed, mind racing through what possibilities remain. But in the moments in between, I seek out the small stuff. It builds me up. It restores me with power I thought had disappeared for good.

These are the things that helped calm my mind, refocus it, sharpen and soothe it, strengthen my resolve to do good, reenergize my will for change. Now, just reminding myself about what’s good in this world isn’t the thing that will make progress imminent. But I definitely believe it could be part of the equation.

So I’m grateful for the small, feathery seed that made its way onto my city bus; catching the wind from the heat vents and the back door swinging, floating down the center aisle past stainless steel grab bars and leathery hang loops, looking for a spot to sit like the rest of us evening travelers. I’m grateful for people are who aren’t afraid to ask questions, even if it may reveal a lack of knowledge or experience within them. People who aren’t afraid to start over, and hold themselves and their neighbors to a higher standard of shared responsibility. I’m grateful for unexpected messages of love and support, the recall of old memories, the observance of the past, and the celebration of the possibilities of the future. I’m grateful for the giant, twisting flock of pigeons that live at the intersection where I catch my ride every morning. Their synchronized turns and dips, the organization and spontaneity of it. The endless iterations of their flight and landing and disappearance and relaunch into the thick, gray sky.

I’m grateful for two unknown neighbors, walking hand in hand down the street. Watching them shuffle up their front stoop, and into their home. Quiet and graceful in care and movement. And I’m grateful for a roomful of now known neighbors, standing together to let themselves and each other be heard, speaking up against the erasure of their needs and rights as citizens. I’m grateful for information being dispersed, books being lent, passages being copied and pasted, power and resistance being split up and passed around between households and generations, like a sourdough starter, or a packet of heirloom tomato seeds. I’m grateful for a most well known voice, a perfect and specific range of tones that wake up with mine every morning. A voice that drifts down the hallway from the back room, finding my ears and filling me with the gentle realization that I’m not alone.

I’m grateful for hard frozen ground, and still green grass, peeking out from between flattened piles of leaves and crosshatched mats of fallen twigs. I’m grateful for flowers, growing on cacti and floating in bowls of hot, shared soup. I’m grateful for the briefest patch of sun, and the perfectly placed leaf that rose to catch it. I’m grateful for new roots, and old growth, low lying clouds, and hot, dry air. I’m grateful for fog, dense and wet; the all-encompassing haze, and holding tight to my faith that soon enough, it will lift.

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Speaking about diversity

Simone Martin-Newberry in the McDonald Woods, IL / Darker than Green

My voice and story were included in a recent episode of the She Explores podcast. In the first of two episodes tackling the huge subject of diversity in the outdoors, I talk about how difficult it can be to be a black person in the outdoors, how the interactions with other people on the trail can be uncomfortable and unwelcoming, but how important it is to go outside and connect with what truly matters to me: nature itself.

I’m proud to have lent my voice to this topic, and I’m grateful that there are people out there 1) acknowledging the barriers to access underrepresented communities face in the outdoors, and 2) working to dismantle them via discourse and action. Thanks to Gale from She Explores and Liz from Snowqueen & Scout for putting this podcast episode together. Have a listen and let me know what you think.


Fear, discomfort, and dreams

Burning bush in fall / Darker than Green

Looking for a way forward, I’ve been reading. So much reading. Some of it typed up by shaky, fearful hands. Some of it brassy and strident.

I’ve been trudging through digital collections of hate crimes, most performed under the name of our new President-Elect. Of course, these things were happening before Tuesday’s election results rolled in, but the difference is: now it’s being done in broad daylight, by people who are sick of being overlooked, people who are proud to take action under the name of their new leader. Also, now, the media is paying more attention. A lot of us are paying more attention, I guess.

I’ve read inspiring captions on Instagram, and impassioned longform essays, and transcripts of podcasts and interviews. I hoped the words would come, I hoped the reading would help put my own thoughts in some sort of coherent order. But they didn’t. I stayed silent. I hid in my home. I fretted. I called my family.

This morning I read Heather Wells Peterson’s piece on the purpose of art in our current moment of unrest. I think my mind was too clouded to fully absorb the stoically motivational thesis, but a short paragraph did jump out at me:

A friend of mine, a black poet living in Florida, hasn’t been able to write a poem in months. He’s worried they’ve stopped. And I understand that — sometimes art isn’t enough, or everything else is too much.

This moment, this feeling that the world has knocked itself off course, has left us rushing to catch up and drag it all back into equilibrium. But I’ve been pushing myself to consider that this is the way the political right has been feeling for the past eight years. As so many of us have been hazily going through our days, quietly proud and bolstered by the existence of that beautiful black family in the white house, the other half of the country has been angry, fearful, frustrated that their voices and values have gone ignored.

I’m wrestling with my fear of what a population of emboldened xenophobes are capable of. And I’m wrestling with the knowledge that matching their fear with my own won’t push this country closer to mutual understanding and an equitable distribution of opportunity and justice. While I cannot sympathize with their violence and hostility, I do acknowledge that rejecting dialogue is what brought us to this moment. This is an uncomfortable place to be, where my thoughts scare me as much as what I see happening in real time in the news. But change doesn’t happen accidentally, you have to want it. Change isn’t engendered by hope alone, we all have to fight for it. The events of the past week have radicalized us all. Whether we like it or not, whether we understood what we were wading into, we’re all in the water now.

Earlier this year, I watched a wave of acknowledgment ripple through my online community as the national police force waged a one-sided war against unarmed black people. I watched people showcase their temporary solidarity and then quickly return to their travel tips and gardening tutorials. It all felt hollow, rootless, convenient. The current anger I see in protesters’ eyes, the hand holding and cries for reform, I hope it sticks around. I know that what we’re facing is a lot, but I hope we all keep eyes trained on the long road we have ahead of us instead of turning back toward acceptance and unearned ease.

I look forward to the day when my poetry returns to me, when the beauty of the earth is what I see first, not the exponential terror its human inhabitants can spawn. This planet and its beautiful diversity of life is still my first priority, and I still think time spent outdoors can be deeply healing (an excellent, timely example). But I also want my art to inspire action, not just provide escapism or soothe readers into complacency. So the posts will continue, and I’ll continue to look for ways to imbue them with politics, and real talk, and meaning.

A web outlet recently dubbed me ‘The Green Dreamer’. Well, I’m awake now. I hope you are too.

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Wild plantain / Darker than Green

These days the hard asphalt feels miles thick. Solid. Impenetrable. The endless sidewalk unrolls for blocks, dirtied bubblegum dotting the peeling curb, crumbling and worn by the hot summer sun.

My eyes, magnets for green, spot the plants squeezing through cracks in the street. Many like to call these plants weeds. Nuisances, pests. So-called invasive or foreign species, identified as outsiders. Aggressors gobbling up space and resources. Taking hold in soil never meant for them.

Weeds / Darker than Green

In this country, black people are weeds. Brought over from a foreign land, we were cultivated, domesticated, beat back, and disposed of when deemed too wild or unprofitable. We’re seen as opportunistic and greedy. Our features are considered vulgar and undesirable. Experts gather to discuss methods of blocking the spread of our blight. And we’re deliberately eliminated — razed when we take up too much space, destroyed when we simply try to exist somewhere we’re not welcome.

There are things I know how to talk about because I know them so well. And then there are things I struggle to talk about because I know them so well. The helplessness of seeing people that look just like me be systematically overlooked, held back, locked away, and murdered. The hopelessness that comes with learning our history, discovering that the oppression may have shifted gears, but that it’s never really gone away. The frustration of witnessing people continuously deny and belittle experiences they have never had and could never have. The resentment from watching those people speak for me and down to me. The confusion and anger from knowing that some minds can never be changed, that some people will never recognize their privileges, that some truths will never be acknowledged. The emptiness I feel when the dizzying thought crowds my mind: what if justice is an impossible, unattainable dream?

Weeds / Darker than Green

I’ve been keeping an eye out lately for construction zones, not for the buildings in progress, but for the plants that often take advantage of the newly open space. It seems that the rigid asphalt can actually be broken away quite easily — like the shell on a hardboiled egg — revealing the loose, damp earth below. In some emptied lots, the prairie has already rushed in, that grassland that develops after the humans have gone and the earth is left to settle and heal itself. The place where weeds and wildflowers sprout freely, plants differentiated only by context and perspective.

Many of these pop-up gardens won’t make it past the summer. They’ll be sprayed or chopped or smothered. And many of us won’t make it another year. Black people continue to be murdered, black communities continue to be fragmented, our voices continue to be drowned out. But despite their attempts at mowing us down, we keep rising up. We keep growing. We evolve. We sprout thorns to protect ourselves. We blossom.

I have a soft spot for weeds. Unwanted. Misunderstood. They persevere, finding the will to thrive under less than ideal circumstances. They get cut down, pushed over, uprooted, and they keep coming back, stronger than ever. They are resilient. They are beautiful. And so are we.

Weeds / Darker than Green

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Outdoorsy and black

Darker than Green

The solstice has come and gone, which means it’s officially summer. People are parading to beaches in droves. Gardens are filling in. National parks are being crossed off bucket lists. I don’t have any imminent plans for specifically outdoorsy travel, but it’s always on my mind. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of rivers and canyons and mountains and deserts that I want to experience. My hope is that there’s enough time (and grit and money) to ensure I see them all, and it’s always my hope that having visited these places, I’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the land, myself, and the people who came before me.

I often think about how love of the outdoors is typically represented in the mainstream. Sometimes it’s about getting away and connecting to nature. Often it’s about fitness or extreme adventuring. Very rarely it’s about heritage and cultural sensitivity. Also very rare: depictions of capable, interested people of color spending time outdoors and enjoying it.

I’m a person of color — a woman of color, no less — who loves nature and being in it and learning about it. I don’t usually see a lot of other people who look like me on the trails, or on the catalog pages of outdoor equipment retailers. But I know we exist. Because I exist.

Midwest sunset / Darker than Green

The Code Switch podcast recently did an episode on Being Outdoorsy When You’re Black and Brown, and it was beautiful. They talked to people of color about how and why they get outside. They talked about how many different ways connecting to the outdoors can look and sound and feel, despite the lack of representation and historic barriers of entry. They talked about organizations working to increase access to the outdoors for people of color. It was a dialogue about inclusion, and positivity, and growth. It made me proud to know there were other people out there wanting to have these conversations. And then I looked at the comments.

I’d seen it before, not the exact words, but certainly the anger. “Why is it always about race??” “Can NPR report on something without tying it to skin color??” “How is this a story?? Just go for a hike and relax.” A complete dismissal of the personal accounts, the nuanced reporting, the richness and diversity of experience. I saw this same sort of visceral negativity in the comments in The Guardian’s April feature on Outdoor Afro. I’m consistently amazed at how negative people can be when presented with an idea or experience they’re unfamiliar with. There’s so much I don’t know or understand about the world around me, but I try my best to keep an open mind and acknowledge when I’m coming at something from a position of privilege. It seems like something as earnest and crunchy as talking about building community in nature wouldn’t become a battleground for statistics and claims of race baiting. But now we discover that no topic is safe.

Bug in the prairie garden, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

My impulse is to run away. To take a break. To take a hike. To go outside and water my garden. And I suppose, in one way, this may be the best way to combat the history that tells me these spaces aren’t for me and the indignant commenters that tell me my experience has no merit. Do I want to walk into an outdoor store and see adventurous women on full bleed marketing collateral that look like me? Yes. Do I want to purchase a ticket to an outdoor excursion and know that I’ll be around people who value diversity and new experiences as much as I do? Definitely. Do I want to browse the interpretation plaques in a National Park visitors center and see text acknowledging the displacement of indigenous people and the environmental stewardship efforts pledged by the Park Service? Of course. But I also know change is slow, and the people in place to make the change are usually very hesitant to do so.

The answer may just be to venture out, to go camping and kayaking, to climb mountains, to canyoneer the narrows, to tend our gardens, to acknowledge and protect nature, to create beauty where before there was none. But we should also make sure to continue asking questions, and having conversations, regardless of how uncomfortable they make people feel. The answer may be that in nature, like everywhere else, our presence and our voices are equally important.

Simone Martin-Newberry / Darker than Green

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