“Perhaps a future of environmental writing is in those who haven’t yet spoken, and in those who haven’t yet been heard. So many, like stars in the sky,” writes Lauret E. Savoy in her essay “To See the Whole: A Future of Environmental Writing,” published originally in Ecotone and collected in Trespass (Lookout).
As we look forward on this Earth Day 2023, we also offer a glimpse back at writing by Black women trailblazers from the pages of Ecotone and Lookout Books. In the four essays excerpted below, authors Lauret E. Savoy, DW McKinney, Camille T. Dungy, and Latria Graham share their insistent and probing perspectives on the outdoors. Ranging from an urban garden’s hidden beauties to the far reaches of the Pacific, these writers offer lyrical turns on the natural world while grappling with complex questions of environmental equity.
Lauret E. Savoy, “To See the Whole: A Future of Environmental Writing”
Originally published in Ecotone vol. 3, no. 2 (2008) and reprinted in Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism (2018)
Prompted by Aldo Leopold, an environmental-studies professor reimagines the boundaries of nature writing through the lenses of race, class, and language.
“Perhaps a future of environmental writing begins in trying to meet all people where they are, wherever they are. Not where you think they are, or where you think they should be. It’s acknowledging and honoring difference as enriching, and at the same time finding, across divisions, common interest and common humanity. Diversity is a condition necessary for life, so why not bring difference to bear? Such writing would attempt to call into dialogue what has been ignored and silenced, what has been disconnected or dis-membered—whether by a failure of imagination, by narrowed -isms and -ologies, by loss of memory-history, or by an unwillingness to be honest.
In reimagining and enlarging our language and frames it might be possible to have creative interaction with many audiences, a calling back and forth, an exchange. So we can be in contact with and confirm each other. So through the multiplicity of true voices, we can limn larger stories that all of these are part of. So that—from land distribution, poverty, suburban sprawl, to even how and by whom so-called nature or environmental writing is defined—we can dismantle the patterns of living in this country that fragment and exclude and allow people to believe they don’t have to think about or care about . . . some other.”
A woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage, Lauret E. Savoy writes about the stories we tell of the American land’s origins and the stories we tell of ourselves in this land. She is the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College and a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. The ideas in this essay were later developed and expanded in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.
DW McKinney, “In the Water’s Grip”
Published in Ecotone vol. 18, no. 1 (2022)
Under the waves of a storm off the Galápagos Islands, a biology student confronts her childhood fear of and fascination with the ocean, exploring the legacies of exclusion that have denied Black people in the United States access to swimming.
“U. S. racism spun the stereotype that Black people can’t swim into a fear, a genetic inability, a deficiency—all of which were spoon-fed to the public as truth. This ‘truth’ kept Black folks from water-related activities. We didn’t swim because we didn’t get wet; we didn’t canoe because we didn’t own boats. We couldn’t get stranded in deep waters because we were afraid of water in the first place.
. . . The truth is that I am always searching for a safe place for my body. A place where I can be me, completely. A place where the shape of my body doesn’t matter. Where I am required to do nothing except commune. I believe that water is that place. It slaps me down, it pushes me away. Yet I continue to believe that the water will offer salvation if I keep trying. If only I’m able to drift out far enough.”
Read the entirety of “In the Water’s Grip” on Ecotone‘s website.
DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers. Her work appears in Nonwhite & Woman: 131 Microessays on Being in the World.
Camille T. Dungy, “Reasons for Gardens”
Published in Ecotone vol. 16, no. 1 (2020)
On a trip to New York, a poet is enlivened by a garden photo shoot, during which she contemplates the ways green spaces—from bustling community gardens to peaceful backyard ones—can not only provide physical sustenance but bolster our spirits and enable the work of activism.
“In the photo we took in that garden, I am standing in a bank of maple leaves, and I am looking off somewhere, toward other beings who are thriving like I believed in myself, in that moment, also to be thriving. I am smiling a genuine smile. Because in gardens, I find hope.
The photographer told me that day that the mayor of New York had been working to get rid of community gardens like the one we were in. Often founded on vacant lots as a way of re-engaging and resuscitating overlooked land, these gardens, according to the mayor, are a waste of potentially valuable property. Imagine the revenue that could be gleaned from a building full of shops and condos on that lot. Imagine how many people could be housed—at what a high price—in that now-wasted space.
Such imagining leaves out the people who had found homes there already. The photographer and the other members of the community garden. The koi and the songbirds and the butterflies I watched with excitement during the hour I spent on that lot. In some cosmologies, worldviews I honor, these fish and birds and butterflies are also people, living beings, with lives of value. The tree people who found space in that garden not afforded to the trees on your average New York City street—what a high price we would pay upon felling them. What they give us, these trees, is a different kind of wealth. Carbon capture and a payout of oxygen, a space that absorbed the clang and bustle of the surrounding streets and enveloped us in a dampened, cooling, calming quiet. So much beauty. How do you quantify the economic value of beauty as compared to the tax revenue of another human structure in what is now a garden? A garden is never wasted space.”
Camille T. Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. Her most recent book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, is available for pre-order. She has edited anthologies including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and her four collections of poetry include Trophic Cascade.
Latria Graham, “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream”
Originally published in Outside magazine’s September/October 2020 issue and reprinted with permission in Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic (2022)
In 2018, Latria Graham published an essay in Outside about the challenges of being Black in the outdoors. Countless readers reached out to her, asking for advice on how to stay safe in places where nonwhite people aren’t always welcome. She didn’t write back, because at the time she had no idea what to say. In the aftermath of a revolutionary spring and summer 2020, she responded.
“Vacations are meant to be methods of escapism. Believing this idyllic wilderness to be free of struggle, of complicated emotions, allows visitors to enjoy their daily hikes. Many tourists to Great Smoky Mountains National Park see what they believe it has always been: rainbow-emitting waterfalls, cathedrals of green, carpets of yellow trillium in the spring. The majority never venture more than a couple miles off the main road. They haven’t trained their eyes to look for the overgrown homesites of the park’s former inhabitants through the thick underbrush. Using the park as a side trip from the popular tourist destinations like Dollywood and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, they aren’t hiking the trails that pass by cemeteries where entire communities of white, enslaved, and emancipated people lived, loved, worked, died, and were buried, some, without ever being paid a living wage. Slavery here was arguably more intimate. An owner had four slaves, not 400. But it happened.”
Latria Graham is a writer living in South Carolina. Her work often sits at the intersection of southern culture, gender norms, class, and environmental racism. Her forthcoming book, Uneven Ground, is about her attempt to preserve her family’s legacy and 100-year-old farm, shedding new light on epidemic Black land ownership loss and redefining her own identity and sense of rootedness and creative possibility. Read more of her work in Outside and in Garden & Gun.
For more information about partnerships and funding for nature ventures, Graham recommends the National Park Foundation’s African American Experience Fund.
We recommend these additional outdoor organizations—all founded by Black Women entrepreneurs—that offer other wilderness opportunities for stewardship and connection to environmental community: Blackpackers, Outdoorsy Black Women, Outdoor Afro, Vibe Tribe Adventures.
Thank you to Lookout staffer Laurie Clark for compiling this article.