Love Notes

By sharing our love of Nature, we can call each other into a better relationship with the Earth and with each other.

It has been quite a painful time for the world. The war in Ukraine bleeds into our daily existence, a reminder of our fragility, our brutality, and also our resilience; the fervent push to overturn Roe v. Wade escalates our need to control and confine each other to singular ways of thinking; the anticipated end of a pandemic is — well — not really the end. No wonder we’re exhausted. All the news and noise of the world is a reminder that we are continually challenged to stand in relationship across our differences in a way that serves, respects, and protects us all.

Despite all we do as human beings, the Earth is always here for us, giving us what it can every day. Photo by Mark Seton
Despite all we do as human beings, the Earth is always here for us, giving us what it can every day. Photo by Mark Seton.

In the many conversations I’ve had this past year through my work to engage people on race, environment, belonging, and difference, one subject that came up often was the legacy of the conservationist John Muir. Here was a man — a White man — who dared to move through the world (and was privileged to do so) guided by his passions and his love of nature. His commitment to nature is arguably beyond reproach. Muir was a prolific writer and his words reflected a deep respect for trees and landscape that he moved through with joy. But the same could not be said for his thoughts about the Black and Indigenous peoples he often came into contact with on his travels. Though his views seemed to improve with time, as a Black woman, I find his words about people who look like me cutting, hurtful, and ignorant. How can we hold that dissonance between his respect for the land and his lack of respect for those who looked different from him?

About six years ago, I took a shot at reconciling this dissonance. In 2016, as part of the National Park Service’s centennial celebrations, I was invited to a plenary session with other geographers where we were asked to answer the following question: Is John Muir still relevant? I decided to get creative with my response. I was frustrated: Why do his views get all the play whenever we mention “environment”? How might we consider a different point of view? What if one of John Muir’s books had been told from a Black woman’s perspective? I proceeded to create a character — Sojourner Washington Douglass — and reimagined Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, in which he details his 1867 trek from Indiana to Florida, from her point of view.

Through working on my presentation, The N Word: Nature, Revisited, I realized the problem isn’t that John Muir had the privilege of having his vision of the world elevated. It’s that we ignore, dismiss, or erase Sojourner’s experience of the world. And when we try to universalize our experience, we all lose. I also realized that, though Muir and I are in an uneasy relationship, I can choose to find commonality in our shared love of Nature.

Following the conference, I explored this idea further, marrying my theater background with my educational experience and my love of story. With the help of the New York Botanical Gardens, I began working in earnest on a participatory theater piece last summer. In performances, I spend about seventy minutes sharing stories about my family, the land we cared for, and my travels in the world, always with the specter of John Muir’s narrative of Nature in the background, one that hasn’t always seen all of us as we truly are. At the end of the piece, I ask audience members to open their programs and pull out the section entitled “Love Notes.” And I ask for their help. What would they say, I ask, to a place they love — a place on this Earth, no matter how big or small, that has served them, held them, taught them about who they are?

My hope with this practice is that we might celebrate how, despite all we do as human beings, the Earth is always here for us, giving us what it can every day. That by sharing our love of Nature, we might call each other into a better relationship with the Earth and with each other, rather than dismissing those whose views differ from our own. That by revealing what it is we love, we honor our common ground and our common humanity.

What would you say in a love letter to a place you love?

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