Tiffany Higgins is a 2022 Fulbright scholar to Brazil’s Amazon, where she will explore Indigenous and other riverbank peoples’ mobilization in response to a planned Araguaia-Tocantins industrial shipping channel. Her work, centering on traditional peoples’ narratives about their river homes, has been supported by the Pulitzer Rainforest Journalism Fund and the Banff Centre for the Arts. She was the 2020 Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. She is the author of two collections of poems, And Aeneas Stares into Her Helmet (2009) and The Apparition at Fort Bragg (2016). Her narrative journalism, translation, and poetry appears in Granta, Guernica, Mongabay, Poetry, and elsewhere. She is currently translating the poetry of Márcia Wayna Kambeba of the Kambeba people. She lives in Oakland, California.
In what ways does nature inspire or inform your work?
The Brazilian Amazon tends to get understood as a green canopy, useful for global carbon sequestration. I’m continually impressed by how little we, and I, know of the actual peoples and creatures who swim and row its rivers and keep the forest “on its feet,” as it’s said in Portuguese. Nature isn’t autonomous and doesn’t appear miraculously—it’s consciously tended and shaped by these peoples, and nature is intermeshed with culture. In my writing, I’m dedicated to learning about these knowledge practices of Indigenous and other traditional peoples, their cultures and historical and poetic narratives, and also the debates about what “development” means and who benefits from it. Investigating nature for me means continually tracking and setting aside my own preconceptions so they don’t distort the story, and instead listening carefully to peoples’ own narratives and giving them space to reach a wider audience.
What does it mean to you to be part of a thriving ecosystem?
People’s tending of the nature around them has always been an essential part of it thriving, from native Americans in my home state of California having tended the landscape with fire and planting, to Indigenous Brazilians selecting certain trees, such as the açai palm, to cultivate more than others, reshaping the forest as a result. In our tendency to romanticize “untouched” / wild nature, or even regard it as a self-replicating machine, we can lose sight of this ethos of care. We can practice such tending even in non-pristine places in our daily lives. In my own urban neighborhood in Oakland, I’ve been thrilled to be able to remove ivy from some Coast live oak trees (Quercus agrifolia) and a lovely Toyon tree (Heteromeles arbutifolia), whose bright red berries feed the local birds. I’ve become obsessed with planting native plants whose conical flowers can serve sips to the neighborhood hummingbirds–when they whir by, one feels all’s right with the world. The thriving may not be in how perfect a place is, but the care we bestow upon it.