The Colors of Nature: Deming & Savoy

The Colors of NatureI loved The Colors of Nature, edited by poet Alison H. Deming and scientist Lauret E. Savoy, one white and one Black. I took it with me as mum and I drove through the desert, read pieces of it in Tuba City, Chama, Mountainair.

Both women understand that human history and natural history are braided strands in the weave of their existence. This, too, is a common ground given to them by their differences. But no monochromatic sens of human history will suffice to express their certainty that the pain at the foundation of American culture–whether one’s ancestors have been on the side of the wounding or the woundedness–informs our sense of place on Earth and our connections with each other. And so the women begin a new conversation. (5)

First things first though:

…nature writing remains, for the most part, the precinct of the Euro-American privileged class. The editors of this anthology are convinced that the “lack” of nature writing by people of color reflects the limited perspective of both the defining audience and the publishing community more than the lack of interest in the natural world by writers of color. (6)

So now that is out of the way, I loved the conversation between the editors that serves as introduction:

Savoy: What I’ve seen as a great potential strength of writing about nature is that narrative inquiry of a larger world extending beyond human institutions could refocus our attention outward, situate us, and ultimately help us understand better how to live in that world responsibly and ethically. Such writing, and the visions created in story,  can inform and illuminate the processes of understanding ecological relationships, pattern and community within and beyond the human realm. But I also see this strength as only partially realized in that too many experiences of people not of Euro-American descent–experience that transcend history and point to deeply embedded cultural values and conflicts on this continent–seem to lie outside of the genre’s domain. (7)

Yet these are vital. Again and again it all comes back to where white experience is rooted. From Savoy:

The fulfillment of Euro-America’s exploration and empire–of land acquisition and use and expansion of a new nation on what was believed to be a clean slate of wilderness–owed much to the processes of colonization, of slavery, of dispossession and forced removal from homeland to reservation. (9)

From Deming:

Deming: Because the American past is stained with the ugliness of genocide and slavery (“No nation,” wrote James Baldwin, “has ever made so successful and glamorous a romance out of genocide and slavery”), most Euro-Americans continue to prefer seeing their lives as stories of rugged individualism rather than of culture making. And yet, just as every day of one’s life is embedded in nature, every day of one’s life is also embedded in this complicated cultural legacy. (12-13)

So these are writings that re-embed us, in community, in world, in culture. They do it beautifully, and so these selections — as so many of my ridiculously lengthy selections — are what happened to resonate most with me just now.

‘In History’ by Jamaica Kincaid (16-27) — a visceral reminder that our world was once so different. A reminder just how much has changed. A wondering about how we deal with that, think about that, write that.

What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?
Should I call it history?
If so, what should history mean to someone like me? (16)

Before Europeans brought slaves to these Caribbean islands, the genocide was almost complete…

It is when this land is completely empty that I and the people who look like me begin to make an appearance, the food I eat begins to make an appearance, the trees I will see each day come from far away and begin to make an appearance, the sky is at is always was, the is as it always was, the water surrounding the land on which I am just making an appearance is as it always was; but these are the only things left from before that man, sailing with his three ships, reached the land on which I eventually make an appearance. (21)

I have Kincaid’s book on gardens sitting in England, still unread. But a taste, here, of this tension filled love of plants and acknowledgment of the brutal history behind so many gardens and our botanical knowledge:

The botanists are from the same part of the world as the man who sailed on the three ships, that same man who started narrative from which I trace my beginning. And the botanists are like that man who sailed on the ships in a way, too: they emptied the worlds of things animal, mineral and vegetable, of their names, and replaced those names with names pleasing to them; the recognized names are now reasonable, as reason is a pleasure to them. (22)

From ‘At the End of Ridge Road: From a Nature Journal’ by Joseph Bruchac (49-66):

What European cultures call “wilderness,” carefully separating it from “civilization,” remained an intimate part of human nature in indigenous cultures. Rather than pasting human masks over the faces of the animals, we recognized the animals as people with nations of their own. (55)

I learned that all turtles have 13 large plates on their carapaces, and 28 smaller ones ring them!

There are thirteen full moons in any given year, roughly twenty-eight days between one full moon and the next. So it is that native people of the northeast say that the turtle’s back is a lunar calendar… (58)

Amazing.

From ‘Earthbound’ by bell hooks (67-71):

Humankind no matter how powerful cannot take away the rights of the earth. Ultimately nature rules. That is the great democratic gift the earth offers us–that sweet death to which we all inevitably go–into that final communion. No race, no class, no gender, nothing can keep any of us from dying into that death where we are made one. To tend the earth is always then to tend our destiny, our freedom, and our hope. (68)

I loved this story, loved the strength to be found in the land.

My sharecropping grandaddy Jerry would walk through neat rows of crops and tell me, “I’ll tell you a secret little girl. No man can make the sun or the rains come–we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature but the small farmer know. Earth is our witness.” This relationship to the earth meant that southern black folks, whether they were impoverished or not, knew firsthand that white supremacy, with its systemic dehumanization of blackness, was not a form of absolute power.

This reminded me of some of the thoughts of Wendell Berry, some of the ways I’ve been struggling with this difference between city and country.

…when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. (69)

From ‘Sharing Breath: Some Links Between Land, Plants, and People’ by Enrique Salmon (72-89)

All of these authors are now on my list to be read more fully, to inquire deeper. I loved this exploration of the meaning of plants in indigenous world systems. Again, we are back to the wholeness, the interconnectedness of everything.

Iwígara is the soul or essence of life everywhere. Therefore, iwígara is the idea that all life, spiritual and physical, is interconnected in a continual cycle…. Iwígara is the total interconnectedness and integration of all life in the Sierra Madres. (85)

We are back to throwing out that distinction between us and world, that idealization of pristine nature that permeates Romanticism and continues into our present.

When the people speak of the land, the religious and romantic tones so prevalent in Western environmental conversation are absent. to us the land exists in the same manner as do our families, chickens, the river, and the sky. No hierarchy of privilege places one above or below the other. Iwígara binds and manages the interconnectedness of all life. Within this web there are particular ways that living things relate to one another. All individual life plays a role in the cycle. (86)

Salmon briefly describes how through gathering techniques, plant dispersal, controlled burning, and selective pruning and coppicing, the Rarámuri have enhanced their ecosystem, increased diversity … all of these things theorised and practiced through permaculture, and the same knowledge found around the world in indigenous and peasant communities. It isn’t rocket science to understand that such communities have developed immense stores of knowledge that can only come through daily work in the same landscape over generations — but it is only recently, slowly, becoming recognized ‘officially’. Generally, where those groups aren’t getting too much in the way of quick profits.

Cultural survival can be measured by the degree to which cultures maintain a relationship with their bioregions. Ecologists and conservation biologists today recognize an important relationship between cultural diversity and biological diversity. (88)

A more foundational text from one of the founders of environmental justice theory — ‘Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century’ by Robert D. Bullard (90- 97). I find this useful:

The environmental justice framework attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce unequal protection. It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, why, and how much.” (91)

From ‘Dark Waters’ by Yusef Komunyakaa (96-112), a different view of Bogalusa than I am used to, I am looking forward to reading poetry, but I loved this:

I realized that I had attempted to present how toxicity taints the social and natural landscape. (101)

From ‘Burning the Shelter’ by Louis Owens (142-145), again back to deconstructing euro-american understandings of nature, of distance and difference:

Gradually, almost painfully, I began to understand that what I called “wilderness” was an absurdity, nothing more than a figment of the European imagination. An “absolute fake.” Before the European invasion, there was no wilderness in North America; there was only the fertile continent, where people lived in a hard-learned balance with the natural world. In embracing a philosophy that saw the White Pass shelter–and all traces of humanity–as a shameful stain upon the “pure” wilderness, I had succumbed to a five-hundred-year-old pattern of deadly thinking that separates us from the natural world. (144)

‘Becoming Métis’ by Melissa Nelson (146-152) was so useful in thinking through how to move forward, how to decolonise the mind of old ways of thinking, how to embrace other ways of thinking without appropriating. It is a fine line, no? One you hope to walk well:

To indigenous people, the basic tenets of deep ecology are just a reinvention of very ancient principles that they have been living by for millennia before their ways were disrupted, and in many cases destroyed, by colonial forces.

Decolonizing the mind is not disregarding rationality or European heritage. It is transcending the self-centered, ethnocentric, and exploitative patterns of Western hegemony. It is explicitly questioning the so-called objectivity and universal character of the Western scientific paradigm. decolonizing the mind allows other more diverse and mysterious ways of knowing the world to enter the field of perception. (149)

It is not an essentialised kind of thinking, does not depend on blood though it is certainly conditioned by culture. For many, it means abandoning much of what we think we know. It certainly requires great humility.

…there are no special spiritual “goodies” in being part Native American. Traditional knowledge is really a deeper knowledge of the self within a wider ecocultural context. It comes with patience, hard work, and sacrifice.

The reality is that white, academic culture does not teach this or even respect it. It does not demand the inner knowledge, nor the ways in which we must wrestle with history, fight current injustices, make our stands. It is also, to a great extent, about place.

‘They must learn to honor the local, the distinctive, in the place where they live.’ (150)

I want to think more about that.

Environmental justice is so much about place — how certain people are pushed into places, other trapped in places, and everyone fighting for those places where toxicity abides because they are not just places — they are homes, communities, relationships. In ‘Hazardous Cargo’ by Ray Gonzalez (163-170), he describes El Paso, and the I-25. We were driving the I-25, but a little further north. This opened my eyes to a different aspect of this freeway — the running of trucks up and down it to dump hazardous waste. Did we see the HC signs in white on green backgrounds? I did not know to look. We just knew it was beautiful. I suppose corporations only see emptiness, not the beauty, the life.

I-25

From a 1997 report on the waste generated by the maquiladoras that fills many of these trucks — Mexico insisted that it be dealt with north of the border when they signed NAFTA. But in 1997, only 12 percent of 8 million tons were found to be adequately treated (167). 8 million tons. I can’t even imagine where this quantity stands now. Where it is dumped, buried.

And finally from ‘Crossing Boundaries’ by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (171-180), this description of the concentration camp at Manzanar.

…we finally emerge into glaring light, Mount Williamson rising before us in the distance, my spirit’s life, as I remember how that peak inspired us during our imprisonment. Solid and steadfast, it remained immovable through all times. (176)

Manzanar monument

There was so much more here, so I have an expanding list of people to read more of — Al Young, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Gary Paul Nabhan, David Mas Masumoto, Diane Glancy.

A wonderful book.

[Deming, Alsion H and Lauret E. Savoy, eds. (2002) The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World. Minneapolis: Milkweed.]

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