Coming home to nature

There’s a stereotype that Black Americans don’t explore the outdoors. Historically, that hasn’t been the case.

 

When I was a young girl in rural Texas, my mother tended a garden next to our reddish-brown, Southwestern-style house. Under the shade of a simple wooden canopy, she grew cilantro and tomatoes, watching the sun so they wouldn’t fry to death. She showed me how to delicately pick a honeysuckle, bite off the end and suck out the flower’s nectar. “Hey now, get away from there,” she said to the deer snacking on the lower branches of our peach tree, gently waving them off. Then she helped me reach the upper branches to pick fruit for us to eat. We always had a dumb cane, or dieffenbachia, a houseplant that grew large, pointed green leaves. My great-grandmother gave that plant to my mother, who kept it alive for decades and eventually gave me a clipping.

These seeds of comfort with nature were planted deep within my Black family a very long time ago. In our family tree there were sharecroppers, who presumably had a close relationship to the humid wetlands and fertile cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. Many grew food, tended plants and tracked the seasons, and could teach one another about these things.

The author and her brother at Big Bend National Park in the 1990s.
Sarah Enelow-Snyder

That land was the only home that some of my ancestors knew, but it could also be a source of terror. The wilderness of Jim Crow was a gut-wrenching place filled with strange fruit. One of my ancestors was lynched in 1883, according to records at the Equal Justice Initiative. Even if such events were too horrible for a family to discuss out loud, the painful memories quietly dripped down the branches of a family tree.

Today, some Black families avoid remote locations or far-off hiking spots, associating them with danger. Many Americans think of outdoor recreation as a majority-white activity. If you define outdoor recreation narrowly, that’s true: An estimated 71% of actively camping households are white, while only 9% are Black, according to a 2019 report from Kampgrounds of America. According to the National Park Service, park visitation was 78% white and 7% Black in the mid-2000s. But Black Americans have always maintained deep connections to nature and the outdoors.

Efforts to diversify outdoor recreation are sometimes framed as introducing Black America to nature for the very first time. The contemporary stereotype that Black people don’t camp is sometimes accompanied by the suggestion that a lack of knowledge, or maybe low exposure, is at fault. Maybe if Black people simply prioritized getting outdoors, the thinking goes, there would not be a diversity problem.

My father, who is white, was an assistant scoutmaster for my older brother’s Boy Scout troop, and I tagged along on their camping trips. My father once took me on a special camping trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, just the two of us. We pitched our small tent on the cracked desert ground, pulled out a tiny propane stove, and heated up some bottom-shelf canned chili that somehow tasted fresh and spicy in that magical place where the sun sets below the cactus.

“Be careful where you set that bowl,” he said, time and again. “Watch the fire ants!” My father was raised in California and used to go backcountry hiking in the Sierras, and it was his father who showed him how to do that.

But while I may have inherited my comfort with hiking from my father, knowing how to pitch a tent and all, the smell of wild sagebrush whisks me right back to my mother’s garden, where I learned to enjoy nature early on. 

By the time I was in my late 20s, I enjoyed planning my own trips with friends. I had no problem being the only person of color at the campsite up in the mountains of northern Wyoming, in Bighorn National Forest — the only one of my friends kneeling by a stream, trying to style my curly afro. I hiked alone into fields baked by an afternoon heat that belied the cold swooping in at night. I even pulled on waders, picked up a rod, and tried fly-fishing for the first time. And there was sagebrush everywhere, scenting the crisp summer air.

I bet no one sat my mother down and said that nature is a place where Black people die, and that is why we do not go camping in the woods, even though we know how to grow our own food. Conversely, my father never sat me down and said, “You are safe in the woods.” He just showed me by taking me camping as though it were perfectly routine. 

But if I learned anything from my mother, it’s that there’s new growth ahead, if we make it happen.

It's been many years since I lived next to that peach tree in Texas, and now I’m married with an infant son. Our New York City apartment has no backyard, no patio and no balcony, and COVID-19 has made trees feel like a foggy memory. The last piece of my great-grandmother’s dumb cane is on life support, and I’m struggling to accept that I won’t have a clipping to pass down. But if I learned anything from my mother, it’s that there’s new growth ahead, if we make it happen. If she were alive today, she would tell me to go get a new plant and start fresh, the way she did when her tomatoes didn’t survive a Texas heat wave.

When the pandemic dies down and my son gets a little older, I want to show him the West Texas desert, and I want to explain that he has more options to experience the outdoors than previous generations of Black Americans did. My son can start with a garden: a clipping of dumb cane from his mama, some jalapeños, or some red peppers. He can also rent a tiny house, or even get into van life, or whatever form that takes 20 years from now. He could book a mountain retreat through a Black-owned business like Encounter Camp, or join a healing hike with Outdoor Afro, an established nonprofit that operates nationwide, encouraging Black Americans to reconnect with the outdoors. Oprah Winfrey recently did a healing hike with the organization’s founder in Oakland, giving incredible prominence to the idea that Black Americans are indeed going home to nature, not discovering something brand-new. In fact, it’s our heritage.

Sarah Enelow-Snyder is a freelance writer from Spicewood, Texas, based in Brooklyn, New York. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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