Going Black To The Land During A Global Crisis

 

Writer Sydney Gore speaks with five environmental leaders about climate justice, being Black in nature, and the impact of America’s past and present on those whose history is deeply rooted in its greenest spaces.

WORDS BY SYDNEY GORE

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To be Black in nature has been compared to being an “endangered species.” Black people have never been more in danger. During such a chaotic time, I’ve found myself called out to by my roots—to the great outdoors for inner peace. There’s comfort in the soil where our ancestors once planted the seeds of our lineage, in getting lost in the woods where, like original Earth angels, they fled for freedom and the opportunity for a better life. Yet despite this widely known history that is recycled in our curriculums, there’s still a lack of visibility when it comes to diversity in the outdoors.

 

In the 1963 speech “Message to Grassroots,” Malcolm X declared land as “the basis of all independence” during the Black revolution for “freedom, justice, and equality.” Colonization has damaged the relationship that Black and Indigenous people have with land, a powerful connection that is deeply embedded within North America. Such erasure has stripped many of us from the natural instincts that were passed down from our predecessors who paved the way, their sacrifices made with future generations in mind and their survival never guaranteed. Still, they persisted and eventually migration progressed to the point where society evolved into the modern melting pot that it is today. But the trade of old resources for new technology has caused a greater disconnect within ourselves.

 

From racial uprisings to a global pandemic, it seems more of us are seeking ways to return to nature for healing along with more sustainable approaches to live. The reality is that, as a people, we have always belonged to nature—it’s been a part of our being from time immemorial. Yet the ever-present fear lives on for people of color who choose to show up in green spaces for rest and recreation knowing they could be harassed, attacked, or killed.

 

With a heightened level of interest in the Earth as months of isolation have carried on, a noticeable shift in values has occurred. There are so many different ways to get back involved, but for those that aren’t quite sure where to start in the wild, meet a group of individuals leading the way while paving their own paths: Leah Thomas, Cheyenne Sundance, Alysia Mazzella, Evelynn Escobar-Thomas, and Catherine Feliz orbit in different spheres of the outdoors, but their approaches to provide tools for their communities to survive all come from a place of environmental justice and anti-racism—who paint vivid pictures of the reality of being Black in nature and the origins of their calls to restorative work.

Cheyenne Sundance

Sundance Harvest

Sydney Gore

How exactly did you learn how to be a farmer?

Cheyenne Sundance

Because I had no mentors and there was no one else doing this work in Toronto, [so] I had to basically teach myself. I did some work in Cuba when I was 18—I hung out at this really cool communist farm for a bit—but most of my learning I taught myself. The worst thing I could have done (which I’m really glad I didn’t) is work on a white farm or a farm run by a white woman because they would not at all have the same experience as me. Most of it was self-taught, but [for] anyone who wants to learn, they should get hands-on experience—as much as they can.

Sydney

Can you recall a specific moment or experience that made you feel like you were being called back to the land to do this work?

Cheyenne

There wasn’t really any romanticization of the past or life because I didn’t really have the privilege of like “Oh, my grandfather has an orchard in Leamington, Ontario or something.” The reason I wanted to farm and how I was called wasn’t positive—it was mainly of me understanding that this is crucial work that needs to be done and I couldn’t find anyone in my city doing the work in a way that was ethical and rooted in justice, so I just started it. Once my awareness began to flourish around issues such as systemic racism, colonialism, and food injustices, I started thinking about starting Sundance Harvest.

 

I really, truly think that, to quote Audre Lorde, “You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” I think that’s the exact same thing with the food system. The current solutions we have, even white nonprofits, are not the solution. It takes those who are directly affected to create the solutions and their own destinies. I knew I would never work with a white farm. I knew I would never work with a white nonprofit to do the work [that] needed to be done because they never had the tools or the key.

Sydney

There’s a wide gap between many Black communities and urban agriculture. What has your experience been like fighting for food and land sovereignty in Toronto?

Cheyenne

The urban agriculture policy in Toronto has existed to the point where we have to fight to get chickens, but you only got them in the three rich wards of Toronto like rich neighborhoods with big houses. People who got chickens are using them as pets; that’s the amount of affluence they have. So, that’s the ethical magnifying glass for how Toronto works for urbanites: the rich get their toys and then the people who are low income, they don’t get community gardens, they don’t get urban farms—they really get nothing.

 

When I started Sundance Harvest, I had, like, zero supporters. And that is not me being dramatic or anything—I actually had no one. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I really got what I needed because I called a lot of people out and was like “Why do I have to find a solution for a problem I didn’t create?” So, I reached out to a few nonprofits; the only one I would say that ever supported me is Foodshare. They gave me some access to seedlings and let me borrow some tools that I couldn’t afford to buy.

Sydney

Even though it’s very exhausting and labor intensive, has this work been healing for you knowing that what you’re doing really matters and is making a greater impact?

Cheyenne

One thing that’s cool is when I was a kid, I wanted to be someone. I don’t want to say that as like “I want to be famous” or anything—I wanted to matter. I feel like a lot of young Black kids, you see yourself as very invisible in school because you are.

Sydney

What are some actionable steps others can take toward environmental justice and the dismantling of systemic oppression and institutionalized racism?

Cheyenne

I would say that if someone’s interested in environmentalism and all that stuff, the biggest thing they could do is action. Doing action looks like finding out if that piece of hydro-corridor in your neighborhood is owned by Hydro One or a privatized company. How do you acquire that land? It also looks like messaging your MVPs and city councilors. Beyond that, because policy is very slow and stale, I personally am of the school of thought where you can bike lock yourself to an area and start a farm. I’m not going to tell someone how to have a relationship with land, but creating more green space toward urban farming is what I think everyone can do and should do. That can look like a bunch of different things. It doesn’t have to look like physically sitting down in an area and saying “I’m not leaving until this is a farm” because that’s ableist of me to think that.

Sydney

What keeps you feeling grounded these days?

Cheyenne

For me and my personality, I like doing lots of projects: for Sundance Harvest right now, I’m working on three new sites. I feel like having myself continuously dream, and imagine and feel, and think about what a resilient system could look like keeps me grounded because the fact that I’m doing it in a way is a really good sign that I can do it again, and again, and again—in a bigger and bigger way. I give myself a lot of space to dream. Obviously, I’ve been rejected a lot of times and [that’s] not to say that every single new project of Sundance Harvest works—that’s a lie, it does not all work… just allowing myself to dream and also ensuring that it’s my dream. It’s not anyone else’s dream. I’m not collaborating with someone who doesn’t adhere to the same values as me.

Sydney

How would you describe your relationship with nature?

Leah Thomas

I am not a religious person but my relationship with nature is on that path. I was an environmental science and policy student and loved ecosystem ecology and really exploring the interconnectedness of everything. I think there’s so many beautiful metaphors that can be found in nature that help guide how I live my life and how I operate in this world, and a really good understanding of cause and effect. If you do certain things to the Earth, the Earth isn’t going to be super happy.

Sydney

Can you recall a specific moment or experience that made you feel like you were being called back to the land?

Leah

One of the most beautiful experiences in my life—which I didn’t realize at the time—I was a sophomore in college and I got an internship with the National Park Service in the middle of rural Kansas in a town of under 1,000 people. It was Nicodemus National Historic Site, which is in the middle of all of these wheat fields and there’s really nothing to the eye. But there’s such beautiful Black history in that space. (It’s actually the first town that was built after slavery by freed African-Americans west of the Mississippi.) They built one of the first schools and post offices in the area. There are still dugouts where you can see where people literally lived in the mud when they were just starting their new lives and having this new town.

 

It’s such a beautiful story and I got to meet some of the ancestors who are still there farming and hear their stories. I feel like that was a very defining moment for me. It was the summer after Ferguson, which happened close to my town, so to have Ferguson happen and then the following summer be able to spend three months in this town that was built by really resilient Black people in this country… It was such a beautiful back-to-nature experience to just be there in the stillness of the wheat fields and to see the beauty of a town that people created after so much pain and hurt. I think it’s one of the least visited national parks—we only had a couple of visitors a day—but that gave me a lot of time and stillness to be able to just appreciate the ground that I walked on and the stories of the people who were there before me.

Sydney

What are some actionable steps that people can take toward environmental justice in the long term?

Leah

Something that’s really important that we try to do with our platform Intersectional Environmentalist is show people that people have been there for years, sometimes for decades. There have been people of color, people from the LGBTQ+ community, and disabled community that have been outdoor activists, scientists, and environmental justice advocates for a while. I think the most important step is finding those voices. Hopefully we can make it easier if they just follow our Instagram, they’ll see at least 30 people they could follow if they want to. Using privilege in that way to say “Okay, the people are here so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

 

There’s this fancy term “intersectional environmentalism,” cool, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel too much. Just follow the people who are doing the work, amplify their causes, and stand beside them and let them be the leaders they always have been. I think a lot of times when well-intentioned white environmentalists finally realize, like “Oh wow, racism is permeating even environmental spaces,” they go very quickly into savior mode, like “How can I save minorities?” It’s like, that’s not what we’re asking you to do. We’re not asking you to be a savior, we’re asking you to ask instead “How can I amplify the voices of people who have been unheard? How can I use my privilege to further the efforts that they’ve already been doing that maybe didn’t get a lot of attention?”

Sydney

Why do you think there’s been such a disconnect between Blackness and the outdoors in the U.S.?

Leah

I would get this question a lot when I was working at Patagonia because they advertise a lot of water sports and climbing and would wonder “Why can’t I find the Black surfers?” But I feel like they weren’t looking at the data of the ancestral trauma that’s involved when it comes to water, specifically for African-Americans. Thinking about slavery and our ancestors being put on boats… that’s a lot of trauma. And then when we did have access to water, [it was] segregated and people could potentially face violence for even attempting to swim in the first place. I want people to take a couple more steps and look at the trauma that’s involved.

 

There’s also an access issue. Who has access to some of these really remote outdoor spaces? Not a lot of people. And then when people have access to these outdoor spaces, is it safe? My friend told me, “I don’t want to go hiking in the middle of nowhere. I might go hike out there and not come back.” That’s terrifying and there’s a real fear that people experience. I remember reading a story about a Black couple hiking and running into someone on the trails with a confederate flag hat. Little things like that, especially during such a vulnerable time in society during a civil rights movement, I can see why someone might feel uncomfortable going out in these spaces.

Alysia Mazzella

Backland Gardens

Sydney

How would you describe your relationship with nature?

Alysia Mazzella

My intimate relationship with nature revolves around being alone and returning to center. And reciprocity! My favorite place to go is into the wild woods, to the wild water. The untouched forest, undeveloped, or wherever makes me feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere. Especially when I find myself lacking faith or straight-up depleted—the woods replenishes, reintegrates, and reflects what is needed for me. One of the most influential teachers in my life, Shailly Agnihotri, showed me the importance of offering to nature in return. Acknowledging the silent exchange occurring. It can be anything for anyone, but I look to my Choctaw ancestry who offered tobacco or a song on the flute.

Sydney

What was your entry point into your respective line of work?

Alysia

I am a traditional beeswax candlemaker, medicine woman, author of Fourfold the Oracle, and cofounder of Backland Gardens. My brand’s motto is “cherish the candlelit occasion” because my creative work meets at the candlelit moment as intentional energy and honoring sacred time.

 

I found value in my family’s history as farmers. I remembered that I knew how to grow plants from seed—I had the space to do so—and I could learn from my mother about the full circle of gardening. Working with the Earth in a conscious way filled me to the brim. Growing food and herbs and flowers, studying wild and invasive plants, medicine making––it felt right.

Sydney

Do you feel like we have entered a new age of reclamation when it comes to the land?

Alysia

It is our human birthright to have access to land, wild and tended. I think the topic of returning to land is so bright. This idea is partially why we call our farm Backland Gardens, because firstly, it’s the back lands or the boonies, but secondly, I feel that I am reclaiming land, as the present day person version of my Choctaw and Black ancestors. With or without reparations, I feel a calling to find a sustainable life. One that is rich with what is needed and lucky enough to share with others. We as Black people are looking back to simpler times within our bloodlines: ancient wisdom, regenerative land keeping, living in harmony with the seasons, a reverent relationship with Earth.

Sydney

What makes you feel the most at peace with your environment?

Alysia

Without my phone, without my laptop, without access to my email or notifications, removed from the hustle, sleeping in a tent with my partner, lighting beeswax candles in prayer, listening to the crickets and frogs at night, the coyotes howling in the distance, the owls in conversation, watching the night sky get darker and darker until I can see the Milky Way… until I can see the stars between the stars.

Evelynn Escobar-Thomas

Hike Clerb

Sydney

How would you describe your relationship with nature?

Evelynn Escobar-Thomas

I would describe it as almost like a companionship that is always growing and evolving. Growing up, I didn’t have a serious connection with nature aside from the typical kid things where you’d play in the woods. My parents weren’t taking me to do sort of outdoorsy things—I didn’t grow up with that. It wasn’t until I started to put myself in those environments because I always had that interest there that I was really able to sort of facilitate the relationship that I have now. There’s definitely some sort of solace and healing that is there that I go to nature to seek.

Sydney

When did you start developing a serious interest in hiking?

Evelynn

Growing up, I would go hiking in L.A. with my aunt when I would visit so by the time that I moved there, I had already done all the major hikes. Even in L.A., when I would see another person of color on the trail—and when I say person of color, I’m specifically talking about Black and Brown people—we would give each other a nod of acknowledgement that we were one of the few people out there. Going to visit national parks and seeing that I was maybe the darkest skin person on the trails—if I’m the darkest skin person on the trails, that’s leaving out a large representation of the population who actually do care about nature or even have an interest in nature.

 

Those experiences drove me to create this group that is facilitating and holding the space in nature for women specifically to heal and to be able to come together safely because I would hike solo a lot and obviously that’s not that safe when you are a woman.

Sydney

Where do you think the disconnect between Blackness and the outdoors in the U.S. comes from?

Evelynn

Well, it definitely stems from the systems of oppression that are in place that have literally kept us out of these sorts of places. I grew up in Virginia and Shenandoah National Park was one of the last national parks to integrate. If my great-grandparents were told to not go there because of the risk of violence or having to deal with segregation and these facilities that were less than, then they obviously wouldn’t tell my grandparents to go there or feel welcome to tell them to go there, and then my grandparents wouldn’t tell my parents—you know what I mean? It’s sort of this unwritten knowledge that we were like “Okay, those places weren’t necessarily for us because it wasn’t safe for us to go to.” That is why a lot of the stereotypes that we see in the outdoors today still stand and why it is still such a white space.

Sydney

How have you responded to being called to the land?

Evelynn

Seeking a greater connection to the Earth and listening to that calling is definitely what even got me to live in Los Angeles. The allure there was the accessibility to nature so it’s like all of these whispers from my inner voice that I’ve continued to follow have gotten me to this point. When we talk about Black people’s inherent connection with the land, in this country when we look at the history of how we got to the point where now Black people are in cities, we tended to the land, we were the farmers, and we were the cultivators. Obviously, we were freed from our forced labor and we fled to these cities to flee the violence and persecution that we were facing, but we lost that connection. Going back and reading some of these books that touch on this in particular like Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks, she talks about that and how even though people fled to the cities they would come back or they would mourn the loss of not being able to have these sort of natural moments connected to the land because it was such a big part of us.

Sydney

What are some actionable steps that people can take toward environmental justice?

Evelynn

To talk about it generally, the acknowledgement of the history. One of the things that we have been really going hard on for Hike Clerb specifically with rewriting this narrative, it’s important for us to teach history and explain why we’ve gotten to the place that we’ve gotten. The reality is we all exist on stolen land. It is because of the displacement of the Indigenous people of this land that we were even able to have the conversation about national parks and things like that. A group like Hike Clerb is getting women of color, with a specific focus on Black and Brown women, into the outdoors and showing that we not only care about this—but we know that this is important for our healing and we are facilitating this space for collective healing. Whether that’s you going out as an individual, with a friend, or with a safe small group of friends—it’s just getting out there, taking up space, having this conversation, and exploring what nature does for you, what it means for you, how it makes you feel, and continuing to pursue that inner voice and inner draw to nature for what it is.

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thanks for seeing me 🦋repost from @indigequeers As a diasporic kid who's not on their ancestral lands, it's been the source of both so much pain and magic. I've continued to find a sense of belonging by connecting to the land spirits around me, and other inbetween humans. In NYC here where I grew up, the energy of the tributaries and underground caves is so prominent and it feels etched into my being. Connecting to these energies can be as simple as deep listening and introducing yourself to the new land spirits wherever you travel. I think this truly goes to the root of making radical transformations possible. Like you don't need to read a book to understand why colonial borders are violent just look at how healthy rivers are when they're running free and look back to the refugee lives of your ancestors under empirical rule to see how radical it is to embody our earth based spirit wisdom. And two spirit people don't need your fucking permission to exist! I see my two spirit identity constantly reflected in the spirit world and the elements of nature. I see genderfullness in the loa family of rainbow serpents of creation (Damballah), and irreverent queerness in the family of lesbian loas (Erzulie). They're like "yea go ahead and fuck up their whole illusion!" lol. @___cimarronx___ & @abuelataughtme 🌿 They/them, Afro-Taino ✨ Lenapehoking and Canarsie Lands 🌈 #indigequeersoutdoors to be featured

A post shared by 🌹catherine ⚔️ feliz 🌹 (@___cimarronx___) on

Catherine Feliz

Artist & herbalist

Sydney

Can you recall a specific moment or experience that made you feel like you were being called back to the land?

Catherine Feliz

I grew up in Washington Heights and Harlem and didn’t get many opportunities to leave the city as a young person. But I remember doing this long backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail through this free program with a white-savior complex whose mission it was to expose poor inner-city youth to the outdoors, and I absolutely fell in love with the woods. The way my body moved along the mountains felt so natural, freeing, and empowering that I was like Wow! This is deep in my bones. I need to return. I want to root deeply with the land.

Sydney

What are your thoughts on this return to nature in the midst of a revolution?

Catherine

It’s exciting, of course! Earth is our teacher, our healer, our provider. We’re collectively being called to be in better relation with Earth and all of life, and that includes shifting our lives away from the colonialist capitalist grind that poisons us all. What’s really powerful is that there are non-Black people making commitments to financial and land reparations that’s helping to make these long held visions a present reality. I really do hope this momentum continues to build because we need sustained reparations to heal generational wounds and rebuild a world for future generations.

Sydney

How do we go about repairing our relationship with the Earth? How have you personally navigated that healing process?

Catherine

This responsibility of restoring sacred balance is so layered. We have to decolonize. We have to care for each other and lead from our hearts. I think that the collective healing work of rematriating land, tearing down the border walls, and so much more will start to feel inevitable as we’re doing our own personal healing work and able to see and love ourselves for what we are.

Sydney

What keeps you feeling grounded these days?

Catherine

Walking barefoot on the ground. Even if it’s just for a few minutes in the morning when I’m sipping my coffee.

Sydney

Where do you feel the most at peace?

Catherine

Within myself.

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