Reading: Belonging

Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks / Darker than Green

Daddy Jerry always tried to get his grandchildren to come out in the pitch dark “to learn the dark” – to learn its comforts and its solace. We can do that and learn to be comfortable in the darkness and beauty of our skin. No one can take that spirit of belonging away.

bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, from chapter 18, Healing Talk

There are books that wrap you up in another person’s story, immersing you in their new and different world. And there are books that, like a freshly cleaned mirror, reflect your own experience right back at you. From the very first page of the first chapter, “Belonging: A Culture of Place” was my mirror.

Belonging has been a central pursuit in my life since childhood. I felt a connection with the earth from a young age, but felt kept apart from it for many reasons. Not owning a home, not owning any land, living at the whim of landlords and gatekeepers – I learned my place by learning what places were not and never would be mine. As a young adult, I left behind the city where I grew up and started to learn what my new place could be. I’m still on that journey. I’m still in search of the perfect place, the place that welcomes and holds me, the place that remembers with me, the place I can feel at home.

With “Belonging,” bell hooks is telling her story. It’s a non-linear narrative, a series of essays ranging skillfully in topic and tone, but throughout the book she builds her own path toward a fully realized sense of place. Generously, she brings the reader along as she ventures inward, deep into her memories and personal experiences of finding and losing her connection with the world around her. The thread of this book weaves through issues of race, of gender, of environmentalism and self sustenance, of legacy and family, of art and artisanship. hooks swivels effortlessly from autobiography to rich critical theory, and references a diverse group of texts in almost every chapter. Many of my favorite writers are quoted (eg, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker), as well as essayists and critics I was unfamiliar with, but who now have prominent spots on my reading list.

Throughout “Belonging”, you gain an increasingly deep and complex understanding of what the process of returning to oneself looks like. hooks takes us with her, back to Kentucky, the land where she was born, back to the physical places she knew as a young girl, to uncover the elements that together create a sense of belonging. She also introduces us to some of the historic and systemic barriers to belonging – segregation, unchecked capitalist society, white supremacy, and the well known, widely shared, but ultimately false narratives about who we are, the narratives told to us over and over again, both internally and externally.

The most powerful plea hooks makes is for black people to remember their agrarian roots, and to rediscover the ways of knowing that were once central to our personhood, but that we drifted from in the rush to align ourselves with dominant capitalist culture. hooks’s beautifully wrought cultural criticism helped make me aware of my place in that legacy, the legacy of black people being deeply connected to the land, the legacy of being country people, southern people, earth people – the power in maintaining that knowledge of self, and how being separated from that legacy and history is one of the great sources of our generational pain. In speaking about agrarian black folks, hooks asserts “it is my destiny, my fate to remember them, to be one of the voices telling their story.” Reading this book, I realized that my work rests on that same line. That bearing witness to the natural world the way I do brings me closer to the people we were, and to the people we can be.

While reading, I found myself constantly reminded of experiences and thoughts I’d had, fragments of ideas I myself had written, and realizations I’d never been aware of, all laid out before me in a dazzling quilt. hooks is a master of critical theory, and at times I had trouble keeping up with her arguments, but she’s also a master of the personal essay, and has written her life and the lives of her family members so vibrantly that I almost feel as if I know them intimately. Nearly every page of this book left me vocalizing, the generations of black women who live on inside me, acknowledging recognition of themselves and their green lives lived. Nearly every page begs to be quoted, nearly every sentiment needs to be read aloud to whoever will listen.

As soon as I finished “Belonging”, I wanted to pick it back up and start it all over again. I delayed returning my cherished copy to the library, avoiding the calendar like in the days leading up to taking a visiting loved one back to the airport. Reading this book was like an extended therapy session. I felt seen and known. I felt part of a community of thinkers and writers, artists and storytellers, creative and resourceful lovers of the land. With every turned page, I felt the comfort and relief you feel when you come home at the end of the day. I saw the map slowly appear before me, the invisible ink darkening on the page, marking the way toward finding the place I belong.

Buy on Indiebound / Buy on Amazon / Buy on Abe Books

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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


Jackson Park and the south side

View toward Wooded Island, Jackson Park, Chicago / Darker than Green

We shook up our Labor Day tradition, choosing not to travel out to the suburbs to browse the Botanic Garden, and opting instead for a walk in the woods, right in the middle of the city.

Jackson Park sparkles. It’s the kind of park that astounds you with its sheer size, its diversity of plant life, the variety and depth of its tints and shades. You can watch your reflection in the slow-moving lagoons, the green-gray water swirling below weeping willows and mature pin oaks. You can travel through multiple ecosystems in a matter of minutes — tallgrass prairie at Bobolink Meadow, dense forest on Wooded Island — and end your wander among the traditional Japanese plantings and meandering paths of the Garden of the Phoenix.

It’s an exquisite park. But Jackson Park is on the south side of Chicago, which means that if you don’t also live on the south side, you might not even know the place exists.

Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Meandering path in the Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Purple Japanese Maple in the Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

People like to talk about the south side, everyone has an opinion, even people who’ve never actually been there. So many of these conversations are haunted by the specter of crime and dark terror, the area’s violent reputation hovering on their tongues. Rarely, if ever, do they mention the beauty of the south side, the pervasive greenness, the regular people who live, work, learn, picnic, or walk garden paths there.

“But, isn’t it unsafe?” Unsafe — a blanket term deployed to describe any area inhabited largely by people of color. When I first moved to Chicago, I lived a fifteen minute walk from Jackson Park. I strolled through its large drifts of yellow coneflowers, wild onion blossoms catching my ankles as I crunched along on freshly mulched trails. I lingered below the giant gnarled tree limbs, heavy with thick-veined leaves and quaking cottonwood pods. I walked the streets alone, at night. I was fine. Still am. The south side isn’t perfect (which neighborhood is?), but it’s where I first began to fall in love with Chicago. It’s where I first began to actively learn about this new city where I’d chosen to set roots.

Meandering paths in the Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Raindrops on the lagoon, Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Maybe you know some of the history. Our textbooks show us the south side of centuries ago gleaming bright white, the perfect neoclassical buildings of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition beckoning curious visitors from near and far. Popular historical fiction introduces us to unimaginable devils carrying out unconscionable murders, the crisp pages memorializing both victims and perpetrator. But today’s killings we hold at arm’s length, the circumstances too real, too dark, too ugly. Yesterday’s south side stands still in romantic sepia tones, while today’s south side pulsates, fully saturated in blacks and browns, fiscally ignored and harshly patrolled, misunderstood and antagonized on the global stage.

It is possible to appreciate a space without knowing its history. In many instances, it’s easier that way, easier to enjoy the uncomplicated beauty of nature, blinders up to the violence and injustice. But to ignore the truth, to ignore the context of Jackson Park and the area it inhabits, is careless. So I choose to see it all, the artifacts and lessons of the past, the challenges and solutions of the present, as well as the physical charm and natural grace.

Native plants in Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Near the end of our day in Jackson Park, the clouds gathered above and summer’s last raindrops began to fall. Inside the tangle of Wooded Island, late season blooms shuddered beneath the rhythmic shower, coaxing out the thick scent of fallen leaves, perfumed seed pods, and deep, dark loam. As we walked, the sounds of the south side found our ears – the slow roar of car engines on Cornell Drive, the airy hiss of the double-long #6 bus, laughter and 70s soul drifting from an unshakable family’s holiday cookout. We trudged through spongy grass to get a closer look at the huge gold figure beckoning from the median, a relic from when the White City hugged the southern end of the park. 24 feet of gilded bronze, dripping with rain, boldly wearing the wounds of a century of exposure to the harshest elements. She stood, drenched and weathered, but still mesmerizing and triumphant. A magnetic force, impossible to ignore, beautiful, strange, perfect. Just like the south side of Chicago.

The Statue of the Republic, Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Native plants in Jackson Park / Darker than Green

Jackson Park is located on the south side of Chicago, right along the shore of Lake Michigan. Despite what might feel like a great distance, it’s actually very easy to get there, even on public transportation. Leave from downtown on the scenic #6 bus, which runs express along the lake, or take the Metra Electric line, which is a little more expensive, but a smoother, quicker ride. Packing a picnic to enjoy in the park is always a great idea, but if you want to explore more of the Hyde Park area, Plein Air Cafe is a close walk away with multiple vegetarian and vegan options and great coffee. Plus it’s right next door to the world’s best bookstore. Go south!

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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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On She Goes

The view toward Pelican Bay from Cayo Costa, Florida / Darker than Green

A new website has recently launched, aiming to support and connect female travel writers of color through personal essays, city guides, travel tips, videos, podcasts, and forums. It’s called On She Goes, and I’m thrilled to have a piece live on the site. I wrote about the camping trip I took in February in Florida, to beautiful and remote Cayo Costa State Park. I’ll be posting more photos from the trip, but in the meantime, here’s the story: Reconnecting with Nature on Cayo Costa.

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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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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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Interviewed on the REI blog

Simone Martin-Newberry, REI member / Photo courtesy of REI

When I went on the campout at Northerly Island back in August, an REI staff photographer asked if I’d be comfortable with him shooting some photos of me for a possible member portrait on their website. Lo and behold, a few months later, the portrait is finished and published! Check out my feature, posted along with some of my photographs from the past year. Let me know what you think!

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