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!
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.
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.
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.
(Another, slightly more fleshed out version of this essay is on Medium. The thoughts below were written in a frenzy after watching Lemonade the weekend it was released.)
Mother dearest, let me inherit the Earth.
The first few frames of Lemonade show weeds and reeds rustling in the wind, growing out of literal ruins. The framing device — a giant, mature live oak tree, dripping with Spanish moss — is the constant, the ever-present protection and watcher, growing still despite its painful Southern history. A cluster of powerful, creative, assertive black women adorn its branches, gazing firmly into the camera. Later, those same women will till the fertile earth and pull from it food and sustenance, coaxing life from the land, coated in color and sunlight.
There’s a part of me that deeply and actively loves nature; boldly surrounding myself with it, shamelessly looking at it, smelling it, plunging my hands into it, listening for evidence of it, paying close attention to its myriad expressions. There’s another part of me that knows it’s a temporary love, a love defined by an essential distance. I am part of nature, but I am separate from it. I know nature, but being human I can never fully integrate into it. I can observe and appreciate and cultivate, but I will also clumsily inhibit and knowingly destroy.
I find myself living in two times: today, current time, when there is still beauty and life worth protecting; and the barren future, the time which will come to be, when our haphazard misuse of the land and aggressive overconsumption of its resources renders the earth uninhabitable for our species and all the others.
This dual existence has a name: shadowtime. A concept developed to describe an understanding of the world on two distinct but somehow simultaneous timescales. It’s the unsettling realization that the way we live now is most likely going to be very different, very soon.
I often struggle to reconcile my relatively quiet tendencies toward nature writing and outdoor recreation with the tumultuous anarchy and deep environmental chaos that I feel we’re hurtling toward. I’ve been a conservation steward, spearheaded greening movements, and voted for candidates who stump for ecological causes. But there remains a dull ache. A pinprick of worry that it’s too late and we can’t fix it.
So what do we do? Well, I write, of course. And I also read. These days there’s an endless stream of environmental reportage, most of which is either boring (let’s be honest), or too terrifying to fully comprehend. But every so often something equal parts informative and engaging rises to the surface. A perfect example is Robert Macfarlane’s recent piece in The Guardian, Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet forever.
It’s an incredible introduction to the current geological era, and a selected catalogue of the contemporary writing and art it has inspired. The piece is ambitious and excellent, and I’m fascinated by the ways artists are interpreting and connecting over this concept. It would be easy to crumble under the weight of understanding that our actions today will be worn in the earth’s strata record for millions of years. But artists are approaching the environmental debate in a different way: by developing new terms to describe the emotional impact of living in a world on a deadline; by unapologetically painting an accurately fearsome future for us to ponder; by connecting to the earth via connecting to their own human instinct for shared narrative. By doing what they do best: creating.
Perhaps creating is the only comfort we have in the face of our difficult reality and future. The impulse to create definitely carries its own brand of uncertain turbulence. But it may still be the only relief we get from the looming weight of shadowtime.
“While we are able to do so, let us note the distinction. A park is a managerial unit definable in quantitative and pragmatic terms. Wilderness is unquantifiable. Its boundaries are vague or nonexistent, its contents unknown, its inhabitants elusive. The purpose of parks is use; the earmark of wilderness is mystery. Because they serve technology, parks tend toward the predictable and static, but wilderness is infinitely burgeoning and changing because it is the matrix of life itself. When we create parks we bow to increased bureaucracy and surveillance, but when we speak for wilderness we recognize our right to fewer strictures and greater freedom. Regulated and crowded, parks will eventually fragment us, as they fragment the wilderness which makes us whole.”
– Wayland Drew
The word “wilderness” is likely to evoke about a million different thoughts and images. Everyone’s got a slightly different version, either experienced first-hand, or dreamed up in some corner of their imagination. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced true wilderness, the kind of wild space that makes you forget there’s an alternative. At this point it feels almost impossible, a living environment that’s unknowable and borderless, one that edges on dangerous, or that we haven’t even touched or taken it upon ourselves to maintain.
Wilderness has become a popular word lately. It features in many trending hashtags and hangs on the pages of blog posts and well designed quarterly magazines. It pops up in print and digital advertisements and beckons from within high budget SUV and credit card commercials. It’s a bit of everywhere, but it’s still something very few of us experience. The mystery and inaccessibility may hold our imagination, and we may be inspired to hike out in search of our own brush with wilderness, but where are we actually going when we head into the wild?
In the United States, 80% of us live in urban environments. That’s a huge number of people who likely have more experiences with the outdoors via Google Image Search than they do in real life. We’re deeply separated from nature, both physically and psychologically. The distance grows greater every day as cities expand up and out. Everyday, concrete and steel facades reach higher heights and spread farther into formerly natural areas. We’re constantly encroaching on and compromising spaces that are necessary for plant and animal populations, and are therefore systematically reducing the portion of Earth that is truly “wild.” To bridge the gap, technology has advanced to allow us to take virtual tours of national parks and nature preserves. The distance between us and a backcountry hike is equal to the amount of time it takes us to search a tag on Instagram.
But we all know the digital experience isn’t enough. Looking at a photograph of a mountainside at dusk — no matter how beautiful or perfectly composed — doesn’t even come close to standing there in real time, inhaling the scent of junegrass and listening to the buzz and chatter of the creatures around you. So we seek out the wilderness. We seek to immerse ourselves in it. Millions of us, and more every year, drive, fly, hike, ski, and climb to the places we picture when we close our eyes and imagine “quiet.”
Maybe true wilderness doesn’t exist anymore; the kind that’s dark and deep and lonely and frightening because you don’t know if you’ll make it back and even more so because you don’t know who you’ll be once you get there. Or maybe wilderness is whatever place that brings us closest to that type of experience. Maybe it’s the place where we have enough space and time to ourselves that we can look both outward and inward with equal amounts of terror and courage.
It seems that wilderness isn’t a specific number of feet away from the trail, or a quota on the number of other people who have accessed a protected area. Wilderness is what you make it. It’s somewhere distant and remote, and it can also be the local park down the street. It’s somewhere that expands your understanding of nature and your place in it. It’s somewhere that makes you question yourself. It’s somewhere that makes you whole.
In Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, he discusses the necessity of moving toward a more holistic view of the environment. Crucial to this movement is a change in how we perceive the natural world. He argues for seeing wildlife as subject rather than object. He argues that plants and animals are, and should be considered, main characters in their own stories. That they have their own lives, and needs, and motivations that we may not share, but with which we can certainly identify. They are subjects who are worthy and capable of maintaining agency over their own lives — not objects who may rely on human intervention or whose survival is less important than ours.
When we start to think about other living beings as unique and vital agents in their own stories, we’re much more likely to empathize and relate. The switch away from thinking of plants and animals as an estranged “them” and toward thinking of a coherent “us” is a crucial first step in understanding that all the earth’s wildly diverse biomass is connected. That when rainforests in Brazil, or mangroves in Australia, or prairies in Illinois are threatened, so are we. That their safety is our safety. Their abundance, our abundance. Their progress, our progress.
Talking about conservation, the late environmental studies professor John R. Rodman explained, “When perception is sufficiently changed, respectful types of conduct seem “natural,” and one does not have to belabor them in the language of rights and duties. Here, finally, we reach the point of “paradigm change.” What brings it about is not exhortation, threat, or logic, but a rebirth of the sense of wonder.”
So, what about us? What about people? All the different kinds of people, and all the ways we look and act and are. It’s so easy for many of us to ignore those who aren’t like us, to only consider the ones we know personally, or the ones with whom we share common ground. But isn’t every person the subject of their own story? Aren’t we all an “us” too?
Perception goes a long way in forming our beliefs. The world is complicated, so our brains try to make sense of it by simplifying and categorizing. Much of this distillation happens quickly and subconsciously, but when it comes to understanding other people, seemingly simple categorizations can be flat out wrong, or at their worst, deadly. The more simply we see the world, the simpler we’ll expect it to be and the more dangerous real diversity will start to feel.
As we’ve pushed our world deeper into industrialization, we’ve over-simplified so much about it: its physical structure, its immaterial wealth, the roles we play here as stewards and co-inhabitants. Complex nature thrives only when it is allowed to exist as it is, an array of individual and beautifully interconnected systems. An environment where each biome is as unique as it is dependent on the existence of all the others. And as we are part of the environment, we must see ourselves as linked, to the Earth and to each other.
This holistic environmental view means there is a place and a purpose for all of us. It means we must think of neighbors, strangers, animals, and plants as an extension of our families, and of ourselves. It means biodiversity and human diversity are one and the same, and equally critical. It means overt and aversive racism, sexual violence, gender bias and homophobia, age discrimination, class prejudice, lack of accessible global education, undue cruelty to animals, disregard for the health of the environment, and active and passive destruction of the Earth are all unthinkable and unacceptable.