State of Grace

Our possibility is revealed in the repetition, the practice, the transformation of tragedy and trauma and pain.

Time flies when we’re alive, dear reader. It’s been three years since I joined you all in conversation about all things “green” on these pages. When we met, like so many of you, I was grappling with the impact of a pandemic that brought with it loss, isolation, and uncertainty, while being simultaneously confronted by our inability to reconcile the implications of an American history that continues to diminish and erase Black and Brown lives on the daily.

backpacking in mountains, and a mass demonstration

Next year is the 60th anniversary of both the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act, two pieces of legislation that have had a huge impact on the way we interact with the environment and each other. Pictured: Wilderness advocates Olaus Murie, Howard Zahniser, and Adolf Murie (left, courtesy of National Park Service), and civil rights demonstrators (right, courtesy of HUD staff / White House).

I wish I could say to you that I believed unequivocally that we are on the mend. But it’s hard to say that with enthusiasm when I witness the loss of life perpetrated around the world, sometimes by natural disasters (Morocco, Afghanistan), sometimes by human beings (Ukraine, Israel, Palestine). When Arctic sea ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, species are rendered extinct, and forests and oceans continue to suffer as our footprint on this world grows.

My adult eyes continue to be open in childlike horror at the devaluing of human and nonhuman life that we deem threatening, different, or insignificant. It’s hard not to feel small and inconsequential in the face of all this loss.

I say these things to be honest with you about my state of mind. Or should I say rather, my state of heart. I feel confused, exhausted, agitated, and sad. There are some things I want to share that are, as always, reflective of the work I do in the world. But I couldn’t do that today without first letting you know that I don’t do so in a vacuum. I know many of you are experiencing pain and loss, too. And I want you to know that I stand with you in solidarity. As one human being to another. I hope you’ll stand with me, as well.

A new year draws near as I write this, my last column in the Journal. Did you know that 2024 is the 60th anniversary year of both the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act, arguably the two pieces of legislation that have had the greatest impact on the way we interact with the environment and each other? I never thought much about the Wilderness Act until I began doing my PhD research on African Americans and the environment back in the early 2000s. The Civil Rights Act, of course, always had a place in my personal narrative — as an African American and as a woman, I understood even as a child that this legislation signified change and a chance for freedom for Black people like my parents who had survived the negative impacts of Jim Crow segregation. Black leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King and Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, had gathered with like-minded Americans at the Penn Center in St. Helena, South Carolina to create a document that would make clear the need to uphold “the protections and privileges of personal power given to all people by law.” Public support for the Civil Rights Act came from many different sectors and was evident at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, culminating in the delivery of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

But while the Wilderness Act may not have had a moment so resonate and indelible as Dr. King’s speech attached to its legacy, public support for this piece of legislation was also vociferous. Environmental luminaries such as Howard Zahniser, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir invested their time, energy, and love for the wilderness ideal into a document that elevated the belief that their environmental worldview was central to maintaining a healthy nation. Zahniser wrote 66 drafts of the bill between 1956 and 1964 and steered it through 18 hearings. His commitment was unwavering until his death in 1964, mere months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law.

If I had more space here, we could debate the efficacy of both pieces of legislation over time as well as what might have been left out and why. Instead, I want to share with you a little-known story from that same time period. In 1960, Dr. DeWolf, a White professor of theology at Boston College, arranged to go on vacation at a national park in Canada with an African American couple who were friends of his. Since it would be a few more years before Jim Crow was obliterated legally, Dr. DeWolf wrote to the owner of the Fundy Park Chalets in New Brunswick where they would stay, exhorting the fine character of his African American friends in an effort to stave off any disrespect that might befall them. He boasted of the husband’s four degrees and the “superior character” that the couple possessed. But the response he received was disheartening; the chalet owner did not want to risk the embarrassment that would ensue if the Black couple was treated badly by the park’s White visitors. The couple in question — Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King, who, exhausted from their civil rights work, were seeking physical and spiritual renewal in the wilderness. No doubt Zahniser, Muir, and Leopold would have supported their endeavor.

Here’s the thing: I’m hoping in the coming year we take a moment to acknowledge the energy, thought, and heart that so many people put into birthing these pieces of legislation. Whether you agree or disagree with the tenets in both, what is hard to ignore is what I believe is at the core of both documents: the belief by all parties that we can do better because we can be better as a people.

There is a caveat. As the story I shared with you above reveals, we ignore, erase, and diminish our complexities and differences at our own peril. I recently read an article in The Washington Post entitled, “In a fight to lead America’s future, battle rages over its racial past” that quotes Jonathan Zimmerman, a University of Pennsylvania professor, saying: “Most of our prior arguments were about who to include in the story, not the story itself,” and that “America has lost a shared national narrative.” I would like to challenge that sentiment, particularly in the context of thinking about the environment. I think it’s a conceit to assume that we ever had a shared national narrative. I do think that there has been a singular narrative that has been imposed on us, as a way to relegate to the shadows all the cultural practices, regulations, and day-to-day behaviors that implicate us all, to varying degrees, in a complicated history, one that includes forcible removal and genocide of Indigenous peoples, slavery, and extreme natural resource extraction. The legacy of this narrative is revealed in our conflicted relationships with each other and this earth on which we all depend.

By relying on a singular narrative to tell us who we are, we miss the opportunity to discover who we might become if only we bring ALL of our past into the light.

I recently invited the artist Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees, whose work “focuses on creative ways to evoke/invoke/provoke a regeneration of an essential relationship with Nature as a means of connection with the Sacred,” to speak to my class at Middlebury College. The conversation she had with the class was wide ranging and covered, among other things, the role that hope plays in helping us grapple with the current challenges that so many of us are facing. It isn’t as much about hope as it is about faith, TwoTrees said. Hope implies an outcome we desire, which, if we don’t get, we risk sinking into hopelessness. Faith, however, is steadfast. It does not rely on the outcome. Faith helps us to remain upright even in our most challenging moments. Faith reminds us of who we are.

Here’s what I have faith in: I believe in our capacity to do better. I believe in our willingness to take risks in order to gain. I believe in our humanity that is our birthright. I am because you are, as the Ubuntu saying goes. And together we can do what needs to get done. I don’t believe we need to wait till we’ve figured it all out or even come to some place of grace. Our possibility is revealed in the repetition, the practice, the transformation of tragedy and trauma and pain. Past and present. Accountability and redemption are not either/or but both/and. My story and your story matter. And I choose to believe that we are always playing the long game, not the end game.

I might be signing off on this column, but these are not my last words. If you wish to keep on with this conversation you can find me out in the world and at See you out there.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.