In this episode, I talk about the fear that many black people feel--due to historical trauma--in natural spaces. And, my guest--my cousin Johnna Brantley--and I talk about the beauty and joy of the fruits and vegetables we were introduced to as children.
Welcome to Black to Nature, a podcast about the environment and identity and the many ways we engage ourselves and the natural world. I’m Professor Stefanie Dunning and I’ll be your host. Each episode, I’ll read an excerpt from my book, “Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture” and bring a guest on the show to talk about the role that nature plays in helping us know and deepen into who we are. On this show, we’ll be talking about rural life, histories of environmentalism in the black community, and even spirituality--because the natural world is our first temple.
Join me, for insightful, funny, and generative discussions about the intersection of being and nature.
It is July 2016, and I’m riding in my cousin’s big Suburban in rural North Georgia. She’s invited me to a resort where a co-worker has gifted her a big multi-room suite. There isn’t much to do at this resort if you don’t play golf except go to the swimming pool. The first day we go to the swimming pool, we’re relieved that our family isn’t the only black family there. Our sheer numbers seem to diffuse the discomfort of the white swimmers.
Almost. I try not to notice as white people slowly leave the pool when we enter. I manage to focus on my family, the sunshine, and the fresh crisp smell of the Southern spring air.
On the second day, my cousin tells me there are some beautiful waterfalls nearby. It’s a short hike from the trailhead to the waterfall and we all set off—me, my daughter, my cousin and her mother, her son, and two other cousins and their children. In all, we are five women with five children. We pull up directions on my phone’s GPS app. It takes us deeper into the woods, into the country, until there is no longer a signal. We find ourselves creeping up a graveled road too narrow for two cars to pass side by side. There are few signs and no other travelers. My cousin gets nervous, and as we round a corner only to reveal more unending country gravel road, she stops the car and backs up.
“What are you doing?” I ask. I’m a hiker, a backpacker, a regular camper. I was looking forward to this family hike.
“It’s too deserted. I can’t do this. I can’t take the chance.”
“The chance of what?” I ask.
“Of bumping into the wrong white people out there.”
Stefanie: So let's go back to that day. What..what was...if you think back...on that incident, so there we are, we are on that gravel road and suddenly it's like, OH HELL NAW (laughter).
Johnna: Right! (laughter). I was like, Turn around!
Stefanie: Not today! (Laughter)
Johnna: Not today, right!
Stefanie: I'm speaking with my cousin, Johnna Brantley. She lives in Atlanta. We were born the same year, the same week. To say that we are close is an understatement. We spent most of our young lives together. And my earliest memories of nature were shared with her.
Stefanie: So where do you think, in that moment, what's the historical memory or the thing, where did...do you have a memory of the first time you felt it was unsafe to be in a wilderness, backcountry, rural space as a black person? You know what I mean?
Johnna: Well, on that day, I just remember us going to see if we could find a waterfall. Do you remember?
Johnna: We just wanted to see that day...we googled it and we put it in GPS and it said we were going to this nature walk or place and I was fine...until we got to the one-lane road and the dirt road, the gravel road; and there were no signs...and we had the children with us and I did not feel any ease. We were in Tennessee or somewhere not far?
Stefanie: Didn't we go to Helen (GA)?
Johnna: That's right, we drove over to Helen. But, that was fine. The Helen part...because it was open, there were a lot of people, and there were signs. But on that road, um, I don't know, I felt uneasy...I felt unsafe. I felt something was going to jump out. I didn't know who or what was going to jump out, but I just, you know, I didn't feel at ease at all. And, that's crazy.
Stefanie: I guess what I'm hearing you say is that it's not so much nature itself as it was the isolation.
Johnna: That's it. With me...the isolation. It felt like we had gone off the grid. It felt like we were out there, all by ourselves, and on our own. And I didn't like it. I didn't like that feeling.
Racial violence in rural places is one of the reasons that many black Americans avoid activities like hiking, camping, and backpacking. The history of lynching, as collective historical and political memory, disincentives black participation in nature because the vulnerability one feels in isolated, natural spaces can be overwhelming. In the song “Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday, the ways that nature has been weaponized against black people can be intuited in the famous lines, “Southern trees, bear strange fruit.” This juxtaposition of lynching violence and nature can also be observed in Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me.” In the poem, the speaker is walking in the woods and comes upon the evidence of a murder. “And the sooty details of the scene arose, thrusting themselves between the world and me,” he writes. The speaker is referring to the charred remains of a lynched body, which drives a wedge between him and the natural world. This is the history, and the contemporary circumstance, that intervenes in the black person’s relationship with nature. Just last week, in July 2020, a black man in Indiana was illegally and violently detained by a group of angry white men in a state park. Yet media reporting on black people and nature often implies an indifference about the environment in black communities. But such perceptions of black disengagement from nature ignore the ways in which nature has been forced to collude with racism, turning places of beauty into reminders of death.
Stefanie: Yeah. And you know in the book, I open the episode by reading the first lines of the book. And after that section, where I am done kind of narrating that day when we didn't do the hike and we didn't see the waterfall, the next line is 'My cousin had a point.'
You know, because there is this whole history of black people being lynched in the woods, isolated, alone--out there and vulnerable. And even though now, much more of what we see is black people being at risk is much with the police or vigilantes, like a George Zimmerman type of person, there is still this lingering historical feeling of the isolation of the wilderness, of the woods, of being in these rural landscapes.
And I think, for me, as somebody who is doing this work there is always a question of how we can negotiate this work. Because there's a couple of different things...first of all--the sad, sad and painful truth is that as black Americans there is no place we are 100% safe.
Johnna: Right. Not one.
Stefanie: Not even your own home.
Johnna: Exactly. I was about to say that.
Stefanie: So if I'm not safe anywhere--I might as well go into nature because I love nature. But I think there are a couple of different levels there that get teased out when we were trying to find this waterfall in the middle of nowhere. This tiny road...no signs...in the middle of nowhere...the vulnerability of that...
Johnna: But the thing is...we were on a two-lane street. You could see the lines on the street...but the further we went into the woods it became a one-lane road and it was just crazy...it was just crazy. And like you said, you want to feel one with nature but you want to feel safe as well.
And, like you said, as a black person...or black people..where do we feel safe?
Stefanie: Safe ground. What would it mean for us as black folks to find safe ground? Whether we are in the city or in the country. I'm really interested in this idea of how we can reclaim natural spaces as safe ground for ourselves.
Johnna: Where do we feel safe?
Stefanie: At least in the city or the suburbs, you have a witness. You can feel like I have a witness. And I think there is something about the woods that feels like...I could go out here and never be heard from again...and no one would be able to say what happened to me.
Johnna: Um hmm. Exactly.
Johnna: That's true. And your backyard is beautiful and that's enough for me. I can go deep into your backyard and feel like I am one with nature. But even my son's father lives in Barnesville and some back roads...I don't feel safe. So it's just not up North, this is down South...in South Georgia. For me, it's just the loneliness and not feeling safe...knowing that you're the only one and that any time and at any moment anything could happen.
Stefanie: This is the trauma of this. Where we constantly have to think about what might happen when we're just trying to live day to day. But I want to say that even up here, up North, Miami is in a very rural area...I used to jokingly tell my students that if I ever broke down on the little road that goes from Miami to Cincinnati...I would never knock on the doors of those little houses. I will crawl into the trunk and wait until the morning.
Johnna: Oh my.
Stefanie: I mean that's the sort of palpable sense of being in these rural, predominately white landscapes. Knocking on that door, you don't know who is going to open that door.
Johnna: Right, you don't know who is going to open that door.
Stefanie: And many of them are unhinged, so that transforms the landscape in some really frightening ways.
I find myself drawn to the poetry of Lucille Clifton. I love the way she decenters the experience of death and pain a racist history has stitched into our understandings of nature. Clifton emphasizes in her poem, “the earth is a living thing,” all the many things in nature that are beautiful and black: a black shambling bear, a black hawk circling, a diamond blind in the black belly of coal..and finally, she defines earth as a black and living thing...a favorite child of the universe, rolling her hand through her kinky hair.
Like an apple tree apples (verb), the earth peoples (verb). Black people, earth’s first people, are earth-fruit dropped upon rich soil, ripe with life and human origin. is a black hawk circling. This overdetermined word, nature, bears the historical trace of not only trauma but also divinity: some faint echo of a grand, organic spinning: Anansi[i] as God; the world as web. The earth precedes humans in every cultural account, and there has never been any question that the earth is the womb from which we arose. Out of the primordial soup of the seas, we came, breaking our mother’s water, wiggling to land, looking for our feet.
When Lucille Clifton asserts, and in fact feels the necessity of asserting, that the earth is a living thing, she is speaking against the pervasive notion that the earth is a dead and inanimate thing, an Enlightenment notion that inaugurates the anti-blackness upon which the foundation of Western civilization rests.
Can we do, in our daily life, what Clifton does so powerfully in her poetry? Can we find the portals to ourselves and to each other at the place where rich black soil meets the horizon? Could I see a tree and not see the noose? Could I find a place, somehow, where I can be alone with the purr of owls and the smell of pine?
At stake for me in my embrace of wild places, of the natural world, is my connection to the divine. To be deprived of that connection is for me, a futile attempt to devalue me so thoroughly that it suggests--to me and to the world--that I have no place in existence, in being itself. When I walk with bare feet in the forest, I am reminded that there is another story about my body and my being; that there is another place where the sun etches my secret name into my skin and where wind and rain hug and cling to me because I am a favorite child of the universe.
That is true of all of us, black, brown, and white; neuro-typical and neuro-atypical; cis and trans; straight and queer--we belong to this earth that made us and loves us. I refuse the history that tells me I don’t belong here. I did not come into the world; I came out of it. We are all the fruit of this ancient tree. I know that the earth wants me because it made me; I am its child and no violence, no matter how horrific, can make that untrue.
Stefanie: So you mentioned my yard. So let's talk about the back-back part of the yard. The last time y'all were here, you didn't go into the back-back part of the yard.
Johnna: And that is enough. (Stefanie laughing). When I want to feel one with nature...and I'm not that person, you know that...but if I would feel safe on your grounds.
Stefanie: Everyone is safe on our grounds. And especially you. (Pause, music).
Stefanie: So one of the things we were talking about...in relation to this nature thing, this nature piece is how the vegetable truck guy would come around and Grandmama would go down and get these farm-fresh vegetables.
(Stefanie): My grandmother, Elizabeth Frazier, spent her childhood in rural Georgia and knew the quiet language of plants and filled her house with them. Her gentle way with plant life was mirrored in all of her relationships and she remains, in my memory, the most accepting and joyful person I have ever known. After she passed away, with 3 dozen of her family members holding hands in a circle around her hospital bed, I dream of her as an ageless angel, standing in a field of purple flowers.
I have a sense that black enjoyment of the natural world does not show up as a narrative of conquest or manifest destiny. Instead, what I see in the work I examine in my book, and in my relationships, is what I call “interbeing” with nature, a concept borrowed from Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Zen teacher, where one of the ways the interconnectedness between black people and the land shows up as a gentle and joyful relationship with plants and food.
Stefanie: And I just remember that you could just really feel something about the land in that. It's hard for me to describe. Do you know what I mean?
Johnna: Well, number 1, it's not like it was coming from the grocery store and had been cleaned. It had dirt on it. There was no wax or anything...the greens felt like that came from the earth...everything had to be washed...I remember when Grandmama got whatever she got...the greens, the squash, the tomatoes, the okra...everything was green and it was so fresh and she had to wash it. I remember her washing it and it was really fresh and it was earthy.
Stefanie: That's the first organic produce, right? That we were lucky enough to have access to because our grandmother had this connect to this vegetable guy. And then Granddaddy would bring these Muscadines.
Johnna: Yes, and watermelons. And he introduced us to yellow meat, as they called it. The yellow watermelons on the inside. It's not one of my favorites...I prefer the red. But he used to call it yellow meat.
Stefanie: Oh yeah!
Johnna: Muscadines and what else?
Stefanie: Cantaloupes. And those cantaloupes were so sweet. It's hard to find cantaloupes that sweet in the grocery store now. Now for the people who are like Muscadines? And pulling out their google search.
Stefanie: Muscadines have that thick outer skin, that's almost prickly. And it's very tart.
Johnna: The hull is tart--but if you get a good one, the inside is very sweet. And it reminds me of a plum and a grape.
(Stefanie): There is a reverence for the natural world in these memories that we conjure together--of our ancestors, of the land, of the plants which sustained us in childhood and hold us together now, filaments of experience which reveal our enjoyment and love of the natural world--and the way our grandparents taught us to recognize our relationship to it--bubbling up in this beautiful conversation.
I am grateful and honored for this living archive of the natural world that grounds me to the earth and to my family--illuminating my right to be here.
Stefanie: We discovered the natural world together as children, I love you and thank you for being on the show.
Johnna: Love you! Mwah!
(Stefanie): I was recently asked to participate in the Black American Tree Project. Here's what it's about.
Danyetta Najoli: Hi, my name is Danyetta Najoli.
Freda Epum: And I'm Freda Epum.
Danyetta: And we are the authors of the Black American Tree Project.
Freda: The Black American Tree project is a unique participatory experience that foster understanding, truth, respect and reconciliation about the experience of black Americans from precolonial Africa through contemporary America.
Danyetta: We began work on this project in 2019 and would have imagined when we began this project that we would need this project now more than ever. Three things we want you to know about the Black American Tree project is: We place our thoughtful gaze on the black American and the experience of being taken form their home in Africa, captured and sold into a life of slavery to build a country that was never expressing intended for them.
We then explore how the fracture in the family impacts those left behind, either in America or Africa, and how that impacts the family for generations.
Freda: The last thing we look at is the institutional forces that impact Black Americans and their family. We look at what were the justifications for suppressing the Black family and their ripple effects. These effects were not only on the Black Family but on people within the institutional forces themselves.
So we hope that you can participate in the Black American Tree project. Our hope is that you can become more educated about the Black American experience from this unique perspective.
Danyetta: And that you will use this new learning to courageously find your way into the Black American story where you can begin to change the culture for the better for us all. Thank you.
(Stefanie): If you’d like to know more about the black american tree project, check out my Facebook page Black and Country, where you’ll find more resources about this project and information about
how you can bring this dynamic performance piece to your campus or organization.
Before I conclude this episode, it’s time for a segment I hope to include on each show. I’m calling it The Black to Nature CampBook --A temperature check on all the places I, and my listeners, visit. I’m riffing off the Green Book here, a guide that used to help black travelers safely navigate Jim Crow America. In this segment, I hope to give you the information you need as a camper, hiker, or backpacker of color about my experience at all the places I visit so you can make the best choice about your next wilderness adventure.
Parks and places where I’ve had positive experiences and have no hesitation recommending will get a 5-star rating.
In this episode, I’m going to review Stonelick State Park. This park is about 45 minutes out of Cincinnati. This state park is quite close to where I live so I’ve spent a lot of time there.
The 2000 acre park offers hiking trails, a beach area by the lake, as well as non-motorized water sports, such as kayaking and fishing. There is a campground with camping spots that offer both electric and non-electric hookups. There are bathrooms, a shower house, and dumping areas for RVs, as well as water hookups. The campground is very clean and very well maintained. There is a gathering area equipped with a movie screen where on weekends they screen family-friendly movies. Dogs are allowed on leash. There basketball courts, a playground, and the park officials are in the process of creating what appears to be a truly epic frisbee golf course.
I just camped in Stonelick a few weeks ago and the community of campers was predominately white but there were two other black/interracial families camping as well as two Indian-American families camping. I saw zero confederate flags and zero campaign flags of any kind. One of the long term campers, who serves as a kind of unofficial park employee, does have a Blue Lives Matter flag and “don’t tread on me flags” all-around their specific RV/camp area.
As for accessibility, Stonelick’s shower house is the most accessible for those who may be in wheelchairs or walkers, since you can drive up to it and there is a paved walkway with no stairs leading into the shower house.
Camping spots book quickly at Stonelick, so if you want to camp there book now! Or, if you’re in the Cincinnati/Dayton area of Ohio, consider a day trip.
Overall, I’m going to give Stonelick a Black to Nature Campbook rating of 4, mostly because a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag right at the entrance of the park is an unwelcoming sign for most BIPOC and LGBTQIA folx. Check out my post about Stonelick State Park, complete with photos, on my Facebook page, Black and Country--or, on Instagram at Black_2_nature.
(Audio of hiking)
Stefanie: I wonder what kind of bird that is. (Makes bird sounds) I'm not a very good bird caller. You want to give it a try?
Omi: No, mom.
Stefanie: (laughs) What do you think about when you're hiking?
Omi: When it will end?
Stefanie: My book, Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture, is forthcoming from the University of Mississippi Press in Spring 2021.
Stefanie: I'd like to thank my cousin, Johnna Brantley and my daughter, Omi Elizabeth, who are both featured on this episode. I'd also like to thank my partner, Andy Brath, and all my friends and family who support me in bringing this content to you. On the next episode of Black to Nature, I talk to my friend Alyson Jones about "Camping While Black." That episode drops on 9/1. Until then, keep on blooming.
Stefanie: When was the last time you had a Muscadine?
Johnna: I don't eat them anymore, but my mom and her friend go muscadine picking when they are in season.
Stefanie: Oh wow.
Johnna: Next time you're here, you and Omi need to go Muscadine picking. Has she ever had one?
Stefanie: No, she hasn't. I don't think you can get muscadines up here above the Mason-Dixon line.
(Hearty laughter from both).
Johnna: Come on home, Sugar.
Stefanie: I'm on my way.
All of the music used on this episode can be found in the Youtube Audio library, which is a channel dedicated to search, catalog, sort and publish No Copyright Music, Vlog Music and Royalty Free Music for content creators · The music in the Black American Tree Project segment is called “We are Slaves” and was written by Fat Steve Beats. Check him out at http://reverbnation.com/fatstevemusik or check Black and Country for the link to his page.