When BIPOC writers pen narratives about the natural world, there is no separation between themselves and their subject.
In July 2020, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, published an open letter. As monuments to colonization and imperialism were being pulled down across America, the Sierra Club was forced to confront its own history of racism, and the practices of exclusion born out of the environmentalism movement. Brune wrote:
“The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea — one that’s still circulating today. It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs. Such willful ignorance is what allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks. It allows them to overlook, too, the fact that only people insulated from systemic racism and brutality can afford to focus solely on preserving wilderness. Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color continue to endure the traumatic burden of fighting for their right to a healthy environment while simultaneously fighting for freedom from discrimination and police violence.”
The Sierra Club, Brune went on to say, was responsible for the harmful idea that wilderness could be a kind of sanctuary worth conserving — but only for white Americans. While Black Indigenous and People of Color environmentalists are challenging those histories and the face of stewardship today, I have seen a simultaneous emergence of BIPOC writing — memoir and poetry — that offers a new imaginary for land, wilderness, race, and gender in America.
Here are three books that fluidly intermingle those themes and that bring nature into close relation with culture. In each of these examples, the natural world is not something to conserve that is separate from our human lives, but a presence that is cultivated in ourselves, too.
They’re not light reading by any stretch, but as this year wears on and the need for reconciliation on all fronts hastens, uncovering new and old ways of belonging, and of being kin to the natural world and each other, seems utmost.
Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem takes its title from a poem of the same name, which opens the book. Diaz, who was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, speaks of her tribe, the myths created about it as a result of Manifest Destiny, and basketball on the reservation with a sense of both love and sorrow. Her poems and play with words envisage queer relationships in the form of minerals, snakes in the desert, and the heliotropic scorpion weed. My favorite is “The First River is the Body,” a poem that begins with these lines: The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States — also, it is a part of my body.” She goes on to note that saying so isn’t a metaphor, but a way of describing how the river resides within her and all the Mohave relatives. The word for tears, she goes on to explain, is the same for river and so her mourning for its loss and her actual tears are inextricably linked to the river itself.
In Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, Lauret Savoy describes having grown up on the West Coast, where she first learned to love geology. Savoy, who is Professor of Environmental Studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, writes that before age seven, “Sun filled my body as it seemed to fill dry California hills, and sky flowed in my veins. Colored could only mean these things.” The essays are simultaneously memoir and travel diary, an exploration of the states where she might have ancestry and the ways that she related and continues to relate to those places as a woman of mixed Black and Indigenous descent who also studies deep time. A trip to the Grand Canyon as a child, for instance, opens up into a winding narrative that braids together doctrines of discovery with her own coming to consciousness about race. In one memory, Savoy recalls standing in line at a tourist shop and waiting until all the white customers finished their transactions before she could pay for her postcards. Throughout, she toggles between this human time and her reflections on race, and the slow but unending unfolding of geologic time in the landscape. Both, she intimates, are entwined.
Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge