When I hear the words “environment” or “nature,” a collage of memories and histories swirl around in my mind instigating a cascade of emotions that I try to rein in and comprehend through my creative work and lived experience. Simply put, it’s complicated.
Unlike my parents, I have had the privilege of pursuing multiple college degrees which exposed me to libraries filled with theories and ideas about the nonhuman world and our relationship to it. But the knowledge gained did not always sit well with what I was experiencing out in the world. I can’t think about the environment without thinking about land ownership, access, and belonging. I can’t think about nature without thinking about how my place in it has been regulated, legislated, and dictated in part because of the color of my skin. Does that mean I love nature any less? Absolutely not. Does that mean I have to call some things out in order to call us all into a new relationship? Absolutely.
There was no recognition of my parents who had stewarded, cared for, and loved that land for most of their adult life. Just like that, we were gone.
This summer, I took part in a three-week residency at the New York Botanical Gardens. I had the opportunity to return to the nearby estate where I grew up, which no one in my family has had access to for 18 years. In 1958, my parents were employed by the owners to care for 12 acres of gardens, trees, and a small pond. My family lived on this land, about 40 minutes from midtown Manhattan, for nearly 50 years. Eventually, the property changed hands, and we had to leave the land in 2003. The only proof of my family’s presence remained in the form of a weeping cherry tree that my father had given to my mother as an anniversary gift many years earlier.
A few years after their departure, a conservation easement was placed on the land. As I read a copy of the letter sent by the land trust to everyone in our old neighborhood, I felt the same dissonance I experienced when I tried to reconcile what I learned about the environment in graduate school with the complexity of what Black, Brown, and Indigenous people experience out in the world. I agreed with the land trust when they touted the need to protect the wildlife that called the estate home. I understood when they wrote about the importance of the location in the watershed. I supported the need for intentional stewardship of the land. But when I got to the end of the letter where they thanked the new owner for his conservation-mindedness I felt that familiar knot in my stomach: There was no recognition of my parents who had stewarded, cared for, and loved that land for most of their adult lives. Just like that, we were gone.
Erasure. Invisibility. Lack of access. The truth is that in this country, we can’t talk about nature and the environment without considering the role privilege plays in determining whose story and experience counts. That a well-meaning organization can overlook the labor that went into caring for that land doesn’t make them bad people. But it does raise the question of accountability and responsibility.
During the past year I found myself in conversation with the land trust, the New York Botanical Gardens, a documentary filmmaker, and the new owners of the estate about the possibility of coming together to honor my family’s contribution by acknowledging the cherry tree and telling a new “environmental” story. But in December, the story took a turn for the worse: We discovered that the cherry tree had been cut down.
I was devastated. For three days, I stewed in the anger, resentment, and deep sadness that comes with acute loss. Where was my story with a happy ending? But maybe this is the story. A story of erasure and loss, of people and nature, of relationship and change. And stories are fluid and filled with potential. What if we planted a new weeping cherry tree in its place? What if we all participated in creating a new story which we are all responsible to?
I am still processing the experience of planting a new tree this summer with a group of thoughtful, generous, and hopeful people from different walks of life who came together in what I can only call an act of love. What if we were mutually accountable not only to the environment, but to each other? I am overwhelmed by the possibilities …