Finding My Climate-Conscious Tribe: Black Nature Lovers and Writers

An Appraisal (and Update) of Lit Hub's Climate Library

Scrolling book-reveals for Lit Hub’s Climate Change Library I sighed, “Here we go again.” On the first day, “Part One: The Classics” listed 48 books written by mostly white authors. The four exceptions, Robert D. Bullard, a Black American and Winona LaDuke, an Indigenous North American, along with authors Vandana Shiva and Subcomandante Marcos, seemed to be flukes.

Of the 48 books on the list, I’d read 21 of them. Years ago. And though I’m grateful for the classic works of Rachel Carson, John McPhee, Bill Bryson, and Terry Tempest Williams (who along with Robert Macfarlane, send me into my outdoorsy “feels”), today, more than ever, I sense the privileged dissonance setting them apart from me.

I hunt my library shelves for authors of the African diaspora. I touch the hard cover spine of PlanetWalker (2005) by environmentalist John Francis, who walked across America protesting dependence on big oil, foregoing the use of cars and airplanes. Twenty years walking, seventeen years of it in silence, his banjo his mouthpiece. His tipping point was the 1971 oil spill when two tankers, owned by Standard Oil Company of California, collided on January 19, spilling 800,000 gallons of oil in the San Francisco Bay.

One cannot come into nature to play or make experimental or scientific observations and ignore one’s ancestors. And while this may not be evident in PlanetWalker, where Francis rarely, if at all, explicitly frames his journey through his Black West Indian roots, that is not the case in The Cooking Gene (2017) by Michael W. Twitty. Twitty writes with anointed grace, stamped with the awareness of generational oppression. I reverently thumb my paperback copy.

Twitty, a culinary and cultural historian, takes us on an African American journey through the South as “a forgotten Little Africa,” an agricultural landscape dominated by the presence of people enslaved. Twitty weaves his memoir with information gleaned from family genealogical documents, genetic ancestry DNA results, and firsthand accounts as he travels to tobacco, cotton, and rice farms where he cooks in the Southern tradition, from local gardens—as inspired by Africans enslaved and free—and in historically preserved plantation kitchens, indoors and out.

How many generations does it take for descendants of systemic oppression to write about their love of the natural world and to champion its health, healing?

The Cooking Gene combines places where Twitty’s ancestors lived with ancestral remembrance and food history to bring light (and life) to the stories of enslaved generations while showing how the nexus of past land use, land ownership, and land stewardship impacts present-day racist disparities. Twitty’s lens on the land compels readers to acknowledge the deep connection of African Americans to the land, whereupon their intellect and bodies, in tandem with Indigenous oppression, made it possible for America to grow as a world economic superpower.

Readers of The Cooking Gene will find similar resonance in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (2015) by geologist Lauret Savoy, (listed in Literary Hub’s Part Four with another book she coauthored). Trace is an exquisite account of Savoy’s travels reveling in the earth’s literal formations as she traces footsteps of her mixed-race lineage to find a deeper sense of self, and of those who’ve come before her.

“I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world.” This quote is attributed to Arctic explorer Matthew Henson (1866-1955). In 1912, Henson wrote A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (2001) a book about his experiences with Robert E. Peary during their 1909 expedition to the geographic North Pole. Born of two freeborn black sharecroppers, I wonder what Henson would say about today’s shifting of the North Pole due to melting ice and aquifer drainage altering the pole’s distribution of mass.

In Mississippi Solo, A River Quest (1988), Eddy L. Harris chronicles his adventure canoeing the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to New Orleans. He’s real about the racist threats he encounters navigating the sinuous tributary, but the overriding narrative exposes readers to his determination to learn how to read the river. I remember reading and reminiscing about my own canoe trips in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota where I paddled, portaged, and reclaimed a peace within.

In The Lost Daughter: A Memoir (2013), Mary Williams, the daughter of a Black Panther family who was adopted by Jane Fonda as a teen, shares highlights of her solo-hike on the Appalachian trail. Online searches reveal other stories of Black hikers on the Appalachian or Pacific Coast trails, but none have yet published full accounts of their feats. The exception is Rahawa Haile, an Eritrean-American writer whose memoir about solo-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2016, is forthcoming.

Online, I read histories of 29 African American environmentalists, compiled by San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. The list includes agricultural scientist and inventor, George Washington Carver, born in 1864 and Warren M. Washington, an atmospheric scientist of this century. Dr. Washington pioneered “the development of coupled climate models, their use on parallel supercomputing architectures, and their interpretation.” In 1997, he was the recipient of the Department of Energy’s Biological and Environmental Research Program Exceptional Service Award for Atmospheric Science, for his research and application of advanced coupled atmospheric-ocean general circulation models to study the impacts of human activities on future climate. Of the environmentalists listed, the authors I look forward to reading are:

Warren M. Washington’s Odyssey in Climate Modeling, Global Warming, and Advising Five Presidents (2007) · Dianne D. Glave’s To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History (2005) and (listed in Part Four) Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage (2010) · Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care (2010) by Audrey and Frank Peterman · Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers (2007) by John C. Robinson · The Environment and the People in American Cities: 1600s-1900s. Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change (2009) by Dr. Dorceta Taylor · The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How Government Response to Disasters Endangers African-American Communities (2012) and Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (2009) by co-authors Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright · Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin (2010) · Race, Poverty and the Environment Journal, a periodic publication edited by Carl Anthony.

Authors exploring intersections of race, environment, and climate change remind us nature doesn’t stop at the boundary of farms, woods, or national parks. In addition to the above “environmental justice” authors, I can also recommend:

Sustainable South Bronx: A Model for Environmental Justice (2007) by Majora Carter · Diary of An Environmentalist (2009) by Norris McDonald, who founded the African American Environmentalist Association in 1985 · Black Faces, White Spaces (2014) by Carolyn Finney (listed Part Four) · Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018) by Leah Penniman (“the first comprehensive ‘how to’ guide for aspiring African-heritage growers to reclaim their dignity as agriculturists and for all farmers to understand the distinct, technical contributions of African-heritage people to sustainable agriculture.”)

My social media feed and follows include hundreds of Black folks who are birders, naturalists, gardeners, farmers, earth scientists, marine and wildlife biologists, archaeologists, outdoor junkies, nature-loving trekkers, global travelers, campers and environmentalists. Some publish in blogs, vlogs, online zines, National Geographic, National Audubon Society, and Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Some are as young as Mari Copeny, who at eight years old in 2014, became the inspiring lead activist in Flint, Michigan’s water crisis.

Some are parents, educators, or librarians whose love of nature pushes them to write for middle grade audiences, like Mélina Mangal’s The Vast Wonder of the World, a stunning illustrated book about Ernest Everett Just (1833-1941), an African American biologist whose work within marine biology, cytology and parthenogenesis (egg fertilization), advanced the study of whole cells under normal conditions, rather than breaking them apart in a laboratory.

Some, like Jason Ward, make you want to crane your neck—waaay back—to the sky. Ward, in an Audubon article, shares, “My connection to the Peregrine was instantaneous. To me, it represented not being constrained by boundaries. Here was a bird that was able to leave an unfavorable situation for greener pastures. I was hooked. That was the moment that made me a birder.” Ward is also the host of a new series North American Birds that launched March 2019.

Climate change consciousness did not begin with white or European writers or scientists.

In part three of Lit Hub’s list, “Fiction and Poetry,” I’m thrilled to find sci-fi writers. (I once inhaled the essence of Octavia Butler: in a chance meeting I sat and chatted with her at Anchorage International Airport, two years before she slipped and fell and left us, twirling in this realm.) As a geologist, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy made me a lifelong fan, as does anything by Nigerian-American, Nnedi Okorafor. But the list of Black writers past or present, whose work extraordinarily centers place (earth or alien) and characters into “unstable” physical environments, is long. FIYAH, is one of many zines seeking Black writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

Part four of the list (“The Ideas”) includes The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (2016) by J. Drew Lanham, a wildlife biologist and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009) edited by Camille T. Dungy. My recent read of poet Mary Moore Easter’s The Body of the World (2018), fits the category. Her prose slashes through race, slavery, feminism and gender with a brilliantly keen eye on sky and things of earth.

How many generations does it take for descendants of systemic oppression to write about their love of the natural world and to champion its health, healing? And get published? We are living in the gap between the question and any number of responses. We are living in the bubble between dreams and the real, where science meets reflective memoir. Where science meets fiction and flings a storyline into the ether.

In the past 40 years, there has been a surge of Black writers whose fiction, sci-fi, and magic realism sends me. A few months ago, I finished A. Rafael Johnson’s The Through (2017), about a Black ghost town, that “interrogates blackness in the New South and the ways it is haunted and revisited by the old [South].” Johnson’s narrative of natural settings is extraordinary.

It should be no surprise that Black Americans, descended from multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural Africans of the transatlantic enslaving trade, Blacks of the African diaspora, and native Africans, flourish in all literary genres. Many more than I’ve been able to list here deserve to be part of Lit Hub’s Climate Change Library.

I like to think Black writers are in a renaissance, healing from generational trauma that can only make us more present and powerful in advocacy of climate change and planetary awareness. Wangari Maathai (listed “Part Two: The Science”), said “Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and, in the process, heal our own—indeed, to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.”

Climate change consciousness did not begin with white or European writers or scientists, who’ve benefited from systems that enshrine their access to land, clean water, higher level education, and recreational pursuits in nature at the expense of marginalized communities. Any “climate change library” must start with honoring peoples, past and present, on any continent, who lived and live in balance with their natural resources.

I encourage other Indigenous/Black/People of Color (IBPOCs) to contribute their favorite IBPOC authors to Literary Hub’s Climate Change Library. I’ve only just begun. For us to succeed as human beings, the literary canon, just like the real world, must be freed of its colonial gatekeeper mentality. We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift, social and political. IBPOC masses have awakened and will continue to dismantle systems that fail to acknowledge humanity as diverse, and that resist a world in which clean water, food, education, and the pursuit of dreams is not available to all.

Our collective footprints dent deeply our exquisite planet, and billow beyond our stratosphere—I cannot speak for the IBPOC millions, but I can for my recent ancestors, whose climate change consciousness began as survivors of the transatlantic enslaving trade and America’s brand of enslavement. I will speak for my way-back ancestors, homo erectus, who almost two million years ago witnessed Pleistocene earth and flourished and evolved because of climate cooling. At times, I am both frightened out of my wits and happy, dancing with hope, to be alive at this time, pondering my impending death and the systems of the earth, its cycles of dying and changing. Of us adapting.

All the climate modeling in the world will not help us if we don’t squarely face the oppressive systems of our past. So let’s do a tiny thing right. Seek, read, and put IBPOC-authored books on your most beloved climate change booklists and bookshelves.

Featured image: Arctic explorer Matthew Henson.

Kim-Marie Walker
Kim-Marie Walker
Kim-Marie Walker writes non-fiction and fiction, and formerly worked as a remote sensing geoscientist analyzing satellite and airborne earth imagery for energy and environmental applications. In 2016, she went on a solo pilgrimage to 20 of America’s 50 historic transatlantic slave ports. For more information on published works and works-in-progress, please visit www.kimmariewalker.com.





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