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.
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.
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.
I don’t often have the opportunity to go back to California, the state where I grew up and lived my first eighteen years. Flights are expensive, time off is scarce, and my wandering eye is always scanning the list of places I haven’t yet been. But my imagination and subconscious pull me back to the golden state often. Remembering the exact shade of firey orange I see from behind eyelids when my head is turned up to the wide, hot sun. Remembering the soft, rolling mountain ranges – cloaked in straw yellow in the fall, scrubby green in spring.
I had never been to the Marin Headlands before, but the sound of my shoes scuffing across gold gravel paths told a different story. The wide trail undulated beneath my legs, legs long retrained for the flat midwest, legs now unaccustomed to even minimal change in elevation. As the trail stretched out ahead of me, a long, winding ramp, it reminded me of what these legs are capable of. Of where these legs belong.
When we started our hike at the Tennessee Valley trailhead, it was late morning and the gray sky felt heavy. But by the time we caught our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the sun had broken through the cloudcover, reflecting scattered white waves across the bay. The vast ocean, almost unbelievable in scale, unfolded indefinitely toward the horizon. It’s taut shimmer was only broken by the hard diagonals of the headlands. The ridges of land inhaled and exhaled, the chaparral growing in surges of green, the sun pulsing in the veins of the plants’ thin, waxy leaves.
The plunge to Pirates Cove began as stairs etched into the mountainside, and then quickly dissolved into a jumble of broken crag. Scrambling down to the beach, I held tight to each boulder, steadying myself against the earth before shuffling deeper toward the rocky surf. My legs shook involuntarily, already exhausted from the slow steady climb they’d endured, and now being thoroughly tested on the swift descent. But they carried me: past a trickling waterfall, spring runoff on its way to reuniting with the ocean; past native plants and opportunistic newcomers flowering just out of reach; past a mishmash of organic detritus, wooden bits washed up from a tumble in the sea; and finally, over the colony of smooth black stones that lined the curved, sandless cove.
Climbing back up to the trail, back to the sandy path that flexed against the hillside and down into the main valley, I felt held in place. Like the roots of the coastal shrubs holding together the headlands’ rocky soil, like the heavy mountains of earth hugging and holding the edges of the sea, I felt the elements that make up this familiar ecosystem pull me back into it’s tight grasp. The native sedges reached out and tickled my ankles. The giant windswept cypress trees sheltered the trail, catching the first few drops of rain before they could even think to reach my head. I poured myself into the bowl of the Tennessee Valley and felt welcomed, at ease, like I had rediscovered a place that felt like home.
Getting to the Tennessee Valley trailhead isn’t easy if you don’t have a car, but if you’re able to find a ride or carpool, you’ll enjoy a scenic trip over either the Richmond Bridge (coming from the East Bay) or the Golden Gate Bridge (coming from San Francisco). It’s a good idea to plan your arrival for earlier in the day, as the trailhead parking lot fills up quickly. Once on the trail, you can choose from a few different hikes. The main trail that leads to the lovely Tennessee Valley Beach is flat and family-friendly. The trail for Pirates Cove is less so, but was a rewarding challenge. If the tide is low and you’ve planned wisely and packed a lunch, you’ll be able to find a quiet spot to eat overlooking the crashing waves. If you didn’t bring a meal and feel ravenous when your hike is finished, head to Tamalpie in Mill Valley for delicious thin crust pizza.
The other night, I met a good friend at the Garfield Park Conservatory. What is usually a mid-winter daytime pilgrimage turned into a late night walk through the deep forest, just a few miles away from our homes. The Conservatory is open every day of the year until 5pm, but on Wednesdays, they turn on the lights and let wanderers stroll until 8.
A part of me worried that the rooms of the conservatory, glorious to behold in the daytime, would look stark and unwelcoming at night, with bright fluorescents beating down from overhead. But it was quite the opposite. Bold spotlights gelled in brilliant colors lit up the undersides of ferns, bounced off the bark of tropical trees, dribbled down rocky waterfalls and into rippling, bottomless pools. The sounds of rushing water mixed with the echoes of children laughing in the Sugar from the Sun room. Our footsteps fell on damp stone and shuffled beside leaves rustling in the fan-fed breeze.
There, that night, the air somehow felt more humid. Our ears perked at the chorus of crickets, our noses caught wind of the peat and loam stuffed in crevices at our toes. Some walkways sat in total darkness, and our brains rushed to fill the gaps. In the Desert room, tall columns of cactus masqueraded as men standing perfectly still. Neon colors got caught on succulent leaves and sharp spines, throwing strange shadows on the walls and windows surrounding us. All our senses sharpened to make up for what we couldn’t see in the dark.
I love the sun, and crave the light. Here, on the winter solstice, the precipice of the coldest season, I feel myself falling deeper into the darkness. On the other side of today, the days begin the get longer, minute by minute, but what might I learn by sitting in these shadows, unbothered, unmoved?
As I wandered through the Conservatory that night, I walked past a young woman sitting on a wooden bench in a barely lit room. Her face was calm, her eyes closed, breathing even. I can’t know what she was thinking about, if she was meditating or considering some hidden train of thought, but the sight of her reminded me of what’s special about this season. Now is the time to sit in the shadows, to explore the darkness, wade in it, and get lost in what could be. These dark days hold lessons for us all. And what more perfect place than this to open our eyes wide and wait for them to adjust.
This small serviceberry was a landmark, and a marker of time. I’d been taking photos of it for the past year, hoping to capture it at its peak in every season. I watched its flowers grow and fade, watched its leaves change color and fall. It wasn’t a big tree, maybe around my same height, which is possibly why I noticed it so easily. I could see it get swept through the seasons as wildly as I felt I did — bright orange disks catching the sun on a warm autumn day, and bare winter branches twirling up toward the darkened sky, reaching for the waning light.
This summer I got busy, too busy to take a minute, too busy to remember to slow down. So I didn’t get around to taking any photos of the tree. I noticed it everyday on my walk to work, but would say that there were still months or summer left, still weeks. And when the leaves started to turn, earlier than usual, Oh well – I said – I can get photos of it next summer when the leaves are green again, when the sun shines bright again, when I have more time.
I watched the for sale sign go up, and the for sale sign come down, and saw the new decorations go out, and the tree’s autumn leaves start to fall one by one. And then one morning, there was a patch of mud, a flurry of men digging and tamping and wrangling mangled branches. The little serviceberry tree sat thrown to the side, a clean, decisive cut at its base. No chance of saving the roots and replanting, no chance of the summer photos I’d been planning on, no chance of a winter hibernation or a new spring.
The lesson here is obvious. Or it should have been obvious, but I counted on time nonetheless, something that simply cannot be counted on. The most finite resource, the one we’re least aware of in our daily drudges. I thought what was there would always be there. I thought time was on my side, and that I could delay without consequence. A small tree being cut down in someone else’s yard isn’t the worst thing to happen. I have enough perspective to realize that. But my experience remains a potent reminder.
Do not wait. Do the thing. Admire and appreciate what’s here now.
Pull out the camera, put the viewfinder to your eye, and press the shutter.
We awoke before sunrise, eyes dreary and stomachs flipping. Night hadn’t brought me more than a handful of minutes of sleep — my conscious and subconscious juggling the unfamiliar sounds and smells, eyes registering, even from behind closed lids, the bright red numbers on an alarm clock that did not belong to me. We had already driven south from Illinois to Indiana, and now we were up early, our new destination farther south still: a small piece of public land just over the border to Kentucky. A sandstone bluff hovering above an old growth pine forest. A place to lay our blankets down, gulp trail-warmed water, and peel off our eclipse glasses at the precise moment of peak totality.
Before this year, I had never even heard the word. But in the months and weeks leading up to what was branded The Great American Eclipse, totality was on everybody’s tongue. We gobbled up every bit of content – lists, how-tos, longform essays, pinhole tutorials, super-spliced videos edited to perfection – all meant to clue us in to what we were about to experience. Day turning to night. A brilliant ring of sunlight in a suddenly dark sky. Bats flying, crickets chirping. Something weird, and wild, and beautiful.
The day of the eclipse, we packed the car under early morning’s damp blue haze, and then took off. Driveways turned to old state roads, parkways merged with interstate highways. Low-lying patches of fog were slowly burned away as the sun made its hot, red arrival. I wondered if the birds swirling in the sky, the small herds of grazing cattle, the sun itself, had any hint at what was coming, any hint at the cosmic display scheduled for later in the day. We spotted other rugged hatchbacks, roof racks packed tight, bumpers sprinkled with clever stickers, and interior cabins filled with eager-looking faces. The rest of the natural world might have been none the wiser, but we humans were beside ourselves. The road ran below our wheels as we traveled south over hill and bridge. Morning’s wispy clouds dissolved above us, opening the door for a perfect summer day. The viewing conditions were ideal. Anticipation grew.
On the way down, we passed a handful of open fields filling with SUVs and campers, other adventuresome folks staking out their spots, but when we made it to our destination, only a few clusters of cars sat huddled along the side of the gravel road. We stretched our legs and grabbed what provisions our arms could carry. After our densely wooded half mile hike to the edge of the bluff, the sky opened up above us. We stood at the edge of the sandstone outcrop, where sixty feet below, the tops of trees ran out for miles in every direction. We found ourselves a spot, pulled on our eyewear, and peered up at the sun. The eclipse had started. The sun was being eaten, a small chunk missing from its edge. A timid arc, almost unnoticeable, but we all saw. Camera phones were held behind protective plastic lenses. Photographers perched on cliff’s edge readied their setups, and soon enough the light began to change.
As we moved closer to totality, shadows deepened, colors grew more saturated. The world looked like an underexposed photograph whose details were hazy and indiscernible. I squinted to try and sharpen my gaze, reached to remove my sunglasses before I remembered I wasn’t wearing any. I felt my heartbeat speed up. The sun, which I had just seen with my own eyes, looked right at it for the first time in my life, was disappearing. A man nearby spotted Venus, bright as an airplane’s blinking lights in a moonless night sky. And then we were in it. The small crowd, all of us instinctively, cheered aloud as totality pulled into view. We briskly removed our glasses and gazed directly up at the sun’s glowing white corona. Cicadas began to scream, the colors of sunset brightened on the horizon, turning giant cumulus clouds pink, orange, and blue, even as the sun itself continued hiding directly above our heads.
From our vantage point in Western Kentucky, totality lasted two minutes and 36 seconds. The time felt longer, and infinitely shorter. To say it was a beautiful thing to witness is a vast understatement. As the tops of the farthest clouds began to turn back to fluffy white, the signal that daylight was on its way back, I felt full of wonder, joy, gratitude. To see a total eclipse is to see something equal parts extraordinary and completely ordinary. The sun and the moon cross each others’ paths multiple times a year, it’s not rare or remarkable. What’s remarkable about it is that we stop to take notice. There are billions of natural events happening around us every day — flowers blooming, clouds shifting, tides rising, winds eroding. It’s a total improbability that we’re here at all, that we have this planet to call home, that we can experience the very real cosmic activity happening around our planet. It’s incredible, and it’s something to be aware of and grateful for everyday, not just during a total solar eclipse.
It took us a while to muster the motivation to pack up and head back down the trail. I hesitated leaving behind the experience we’d just had, and the beautiful place we had it in. But the sun, which had followed us throughout the day, stuck by our side the entire return trip north. In the evening, the tops of cotton ball trees ignited in rosy pastel hues, their branches and trunks glowing bright orange against the dimming skies. The morning’s fog turned to evening mist and the sun finally dipped below the hills, throwing the silhouetted trees into perfect contrast against a sky streaked with early evening color. At moments, the sky looked almost identical to how it appeared hours earlier, at 2:35pm, during peak totality. The main difference was how I perceived it, and the entire world around me.
We drove south to Princeton, Kentucky to view the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area has a beautiful lookout point called Hunter’s Bluff, which is about a half mile hike up from the gravel parking lot. The trail is not very well maintained, with lots of overgrown plants and fallen logs. Wear sturdy shoes. And if you make the trip, make sure you bring ample water and food, and a trowel – the WMA has no public restrooms or running water. The basic amenities, however, are easy to deal with when your view is so incredible.
My favorite part of any long nighttime car ride is near the end, when you turn off the highway, leave the whirring doppler effect behind, and pull onto a dusty two-lane street. With the windows open, you can hear the clicking and humming, insects and other small bits of life, vibrating in the forest beyond the reach of your headlights. Pulling into Indiana Dunes State Park last night, the orchestra took flight, the sounds of bugs pulsating, shaking like a full band of maracas.
When we parked and walked toward the roaring waves of Lake Michigan, the air turned cool and damp. We pushed through the mist hovering just above the dark sea of dune grass. Cold sand sifted between our toes as we waddled to an open spot on the beach. The loud crash of lakewater slowed and dampened as we laid out blankets and lowered ourselves down.
Getting your bearings in the dark is tough, but our eyes slowly adjusted. An inlet of rippling water to our left, miles of soft, quiet beach to our right. Black masses lay in gathered groups on the sand, couples, families, reclining spectators awaiting the show. In the distance, a group of eager stargazers waved glowsticks below the deep black silhouette of the hulking forest. We pulled on hooded sweatshirts and huddled close. We arched our necks and searched the sky.
Millions, billions, innumerable families of stars gazed down at us, their unwavering eyes gleaming curiously, so many lightyears away. Airplanes and satellites blinked overhead, wading in the unknowable distance. The sky was alight, gorgeous and indifferent to the aura of light pollution radiating from Chicago. We looked up, eyes darting between constellations, and suddenly, quickly, a bright green streak rushed across the blackness. The shrieks and gasps swelled among the crowd, index fingers jutted from balled fists, pointing up toward what just was.
A meteor, sometimes the size of a marble, more often no bigger than a grain of sand. Crashing into our atmosphere, compressing the air around it, heating to an unimaginable degree, and burning away. A scientific explanation for what feels, in the moment, like magic. Like a secret, shared only by those lucky enough to catch the same shooting star. I took no photos, I have no evidence of what I saw, all I have are my memories of staring into the abyss above, asking my questions, and receiving the answers in the form of dust and ice, mass meeting gas.
After the show — meteors bursting every few minutes, the wind whipping from all directions — the clouds began to crowd the sky, obscuring the stars from view. That’s when, from behind the towering tree-topped dunes, an even brighter glow caught our eyes. The three-quarter moon, cratered and luminous, enveloped by a rosy pink halo. She climbed, filling the void, shining a cold heat, dancing slowly to the soundtrack of spindly arthropod legs fluttering in the forest. This is the moon that followed us all the way home; back down the two-lane road; back onto the roaring highway; back to the concrete puzzle of streets where we laid our heads to sleep, dreaming of the magnetic splinters of light we saw spark, stretch, and disappear.
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.