There’s plenty of evidence that American popular culture takes an off-kilter view of who cares about the environment and belongs in the outdoors. On the first night of MEC’s recent annual meeting in northern Michigan, members gathered around a stone fireplace in a cozy riverside lodge surrounded by woods to explore that concept with geographer and author Carolyn Finney.
During Finney’s informal evening discussion and reading, she shared selections from her new book, “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.” She also read from “Ode to New York: A Performance Piece,” which she wrote in answer to the question, “How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic?” It reads, in part:
We, the human animal, are one of the faces of nature and the city is our home place where we get to build, experiment, blend and grow…Get down, put your ear on the ground. Together with the sound of the subway and cars and footsteps of hundreds of people marching in tune to their faith and their hope, you can hear the soil, the water, the roots of the trees, the insects, the plants, the energy bursting forth, connecting us to ourselves and the places in which we live.
The lodge itself—tucked out of the way in the heart of the Manistee National Forest—provided the perfect setting for the open, intense and challenging discussion that followed. It’s a haven for fly fishers and kayakers, and a good jumping-off point for other Pure Michigan adventures like backpacking, trail running and birdwatching.
Such natural places, Finney suggests, are too commonly seen as a “white” domain. In reality, African Americans have their own long history of connection to natural places, such as Idlewild, the black resort just down the road from the lodge. The black experience of nature, and the American legacy of racism and exclusion that long defined it, provides groups like MEC with fertile ground to broaden the conversation about where nature is found and who cherishes it—and by extension, what voices are valued in the environmental movement itself.
“We talk about changing our relationship to nature,” Finney said, “but first we need to change our relationship to each other.” Read more