Last spring, I helped to organize a local event as part of a national campaign to get people connected to nature. As much as I wanted to share how wonderful the event was, how well attended and rich the experience, until now I was unable to do so because there was a part of the experience that day that pained me, and has since sat like a lump in the back of my throat.
All the time I hear reasons why African-Americans do not engage with the outdoors. From experience, I know it’s not just because of the bugs, or a rustic engagement with nature that can signal a lack of modern-day progress, but sometimes because of the people they may encounter along the way. In some circles, whispers still remain of “strange fruit,” or a fear that bad things happen to black people in the woods.
Many have seen the satire of Blair Underwood, stymied over and over again by the way those he encountered responded dramatically to his unassuming hike in nature. For many black people who find ourselves on a back-country trail as the only person of color for miles around, each Underwood scene, no matter how humorously staged, rings true, and exemplifies the psychological barriers we must push through in order to simply enjoy nature: the nervous or inquisitive stares, questions about what we are doing, or the overly enthusiastic embrace that can leave us feeling like a rare, identified species discovered in the wild.
So I partnered with an organization I respect tremendously to bring youth and their families by bus from the local community to come out for a day of play in nature. Leading up to the event, we deliberately reached out to families who live in poorer communities within a city (like many) divided geographically and socially by class, with many never venturing beyond the ten-square blocks of their own neighborhood, much less into the remote wild that looms perilously in the skyline. In the weeks before the event, we personally invited people at local community meetings, and early-childhood development centers. We obtained the blessing of city park and recreation leadership and also made promotional materials available in a few languages. Our efforts left us feeling hopeful that the event would reflect the true diversity of the community not commonly seen in local nature.
What began as a diverse group of families exploring nature, many for the first time, was quickly shaken-up by the presence of a nearby and vocal resident, who demanded to know: “What is going on here?”
The concerned resident was visibly upset, struggling to string together words to name her distress. She mentioned that the event came to her attention because she found herself in her car, stuck behind a slowly climbing bus on her way home. She decided to follow it to see where the diesel carrier might go, what it might contain.
She followed the passengers off the bus into the public park, and along the trail leading to the narrow, curved strip of land where the event was staged. There, she found a temporary play space in an impacted clearing, with imported natural materials such as dried bamboo, palm fronds, mounds of dirt, rocks, native plant clippings, and plenty of wet mud. While surveying the new park visitors, she expressed concern about the presence of so many “non-native” species, and said she was troubled by the threat to the local ecology.
Feeling responsible, I stepped in to try to engage her in a discussion about how people can engage with nature in a variety of ways. I tried to discuss cultural relevancy and how the event was a safe, rare invitation for families to discover and begin to build a relationship with the wild spaces right in their home town. I tried to explain how the material would be removed once the play event was over. But as we talked, I saw she was not satisfied with my answers, and became more agitated and resolute. With a sinking feeling, I could see my expressed passion for connecting this community of black and brown folks to the outdoors was very misunderstood.
Without satisfaction from our conversation, the resident said that she needed to speak to someone else because I had an “attitude,” and therefore decided she was going to contact the City Council as well as a national environmental organization to protest the event. Feeling deflated, yet still hopeful for resolution, I led her to my co-organizers and colleagues (all white) who helped to reassure her of the merits of the event and clean-up plans. And I listened nearby with humility, as they were also obliged to vouch for my character.
My own feelings aside, I was actually more worried about who might be overhearing this passionate exchange, and how they might react; Would they feel unwelcomed? Would they ever return to nature again?
The resident was eventually able to calm, and I decided to get present to the gifts all around me. I observed my own giddy kids from afar building forts and fairy houses, the pride of families creating in nature for the first time, many muddy fingers and toes, and relaxed parents (relieved from always having to say “no” to play in their own neighborhoods) finally safe to say “yes.”
Yet it was heartbreaking that the concerned resident could not see past those magic moments and into the future of these youth and their families to become the conservationists our lands and their health so desperately need. She could not see that the seeds of love for self and the planet evolve from connectedness and relationship between land and people, most often through unstructured discovery and play – and that there were no invasive species that day after all.
Here are three short videos that share some of the beauty in nature experienced by all that day: