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Civil Rights to Wilderness: African-Americans Reconnect to America’s Wild Places

The Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act were both signed into law fifty years ago, but the two movements behind the landmark legislation didn’t join efforts in 1964, and real integration between wild places and minority groups remains elusive today. One organization is working to change that. Outdoor Afro reconnects the black community with natural spaces and outdoor recreation through organized events and social media connections. Founder Rue Mapp wants to disrupt the “false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature.” She suggests that with the 50th anniversary of both acts, “we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.” However, the disconnect between black people and nature is rooted in part by very real fears. She points out that “in the collaborative efforts around the country to re-invent African American connections to the environment…it is often essential to address fears that linger about the wild. These fears are not only about potential contact with wildlife: there are still perceptions among black folks that one might be susceptible to violence in the cover of the wild.” Consider, for example, the plaintive refrain of Billie Holiday’s haunting Strange Fruit:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Adding insult to fear and horror, many people of color are coldly distrusted and even apprehended when they do visit national parks and other wild places, many of which are located in western states with overwhelming white majorities.

How can such a frightening legacy of fear and distrust Outdoor Afrobe overcome? One national park ranger wants to reframe the African-American engagement with earth and dirt and wild as a continuation of the civil rights struggle. Shelton Johnson points out that access to America’s wild places is ultimately about freedom, not just preservation, and he believes securing that access is a critical piece of today’s efforts to secure all Americans’ civil rights. In his book Gloryland, Johnson argues that a relationship with the earth is both possible and essential. He suggests that “visiting the biome of Yellowstone might also mean a chance to reclaim what it means to be Yoruba, Mandingo–or African-American. Whatever you call yourself, it matters little, because it is all the same people, the same earth.”

While the reconnection of black people and wild places is far from done, Outdoor Afro’s Mapp believes that “with a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations [can help] people re-invent connections to natural places both near and far through a variety of peer led activities. One experience at a time, we can replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder for all ages in our lands.” She argues that despite the divide between the original networks and movements that produced the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act, “we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.” The question she asks is “Where shall we go together in nature from here?”

How millennials can save wilderness (and the planet)

Election got you down? Climate deniers in command? Planet in peril? To the dismay of many progressives, the most populous generation in history hardly showed up at the polls, but there remains vast potential in their collective voice and heart. Here University of Montana graduate student Abbey Dufoe suggests that the generations ahead of her can help hers save wild places by mobilizing the millennials. I think she’s right.

Environmental Explorations

I don’t have to take a Buzzfeed quiz to know I am the stereotypical millennial.

Okay, okay, I did take a PEW Research Center quiz. Questions included whether I have a cell phone, landline or both (I only have a cell phone), whether I watch an hour of TV per day (Netflix, duh), and whether I read the newspaper regularly (I don’t). Electronics attached to limbs is the stereotypical definition of a millennial.

On a normal day, I watch TV on my iPad, text my friends on my iPhone and answer e-mails on my computer, sometimes all at once.

This is why some older wilderness protectors seem to have lost faith in us, the technologically-savvy, sassy-mouthed, social networking-obsessed generation. But what happens when you can harness that power to help save Earth’s most pristine places?

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What Can You Learn From A Coyote?

Wildlife, wildlife, wildlife. The grandeur of Wingate cliffs and the delicacy of a Colorado columbine draw me into wild places, but wild creatures connect me to deserts and mountains with a particularly vivid immediacy and intimacy. Whether I’m startled by a snake rustling fallen leaves or awed by a soaring hawk, I’m thrilled by the lives of creatures so different from me but dependent on the same water, air, and land that I am. When I leave the built environment to engage with the natural environment, I allow for marvel and humility, a glimpse into the intrinsic value of wild places. Or at least wilder places. Here, author Susan Imhoff Bird rides her bike up a Utah canyon to find a wildlife wonderland that ignites her own wild places.

the coyote in my canyon by susan imhoff bird

approaching the final curve before the hill’s crest, the sun is moments from advancing the sky from dawn to day.  particles of the night’s darkness hang in the air and everything—rocky hillsides, trees, the road itself—blurs gently around surfaces and edges and my headlight throws a fat cone of weak light that illumines naught but hovering molecules of night.

nothing is sharply defined, and all is tinted by the watery mutedness and appears mottled green or one of sixteen shades of earth.

when a dust brown creature suddenly appears at the far reach of my vision it shifts from apparition to solidity slowly, my revolving wheels lessening the gap between us and changing fuzz to fur, brown, mottled, four legs, a slender torso, a long and narrow tail.

it is my coyote.  he has crossed the road south to north and disappeared into the tall grass and scrub edging the asphalt. I watch the spot with intensity, wondering if he will wait and watch me pass as he often does.  the steep grade retards my approach and I am still half a dozen yards away when a howl shatters the air.  bark, bark, howl. I see him now, he sits in the sage and cheatgrass, his back to me, and howls.  another bark, and a long howl sent out over the valley opening below him.  the sound dancing on those lingering particles of dawn, dropping on trees and shrubs, falling on leaves, tickling the ears and minds of squirrels and rabbits.

parallel to him, now uphill of him, he howls again, ignoring me, or perhaps serenading me with nonchalant neglect. I pedal, he howls, I reach the top of the climb after his vocalizations have ceased, their reverberations no longer trembling blades of grass. the air is still, and the sun, lifting itself over the furthest eastern mountain, has removed the last vestiges of dawn and what had been soft is now sharp, what was unclear is now illuminated.

this morning’s sighting is my seventh, and each has brought me as much delight as the one before.  it’s an unspoken hope each time I ride, let the coyote cross my path today.  he is curious and, other than the single concert, silent.  for a canine he is surprisingly cat-like, his paws like fog.  he has dashed across the road behind my descending wheels, he has hovered on the side of the road.  he has feinted toward me like a pugilist, then apparently thought better of it and retreated to the shoulder to watch me pass. I’ve been studiously ignored; I’ve been studied as though I’m the first human he’s encountered.  he brings what’s untamed, wild, to my border and dares to cross into my land.

great horned owls hunt in my canyon as the sky releases its deepest ink and the world becomes one of silhouette, their wings spread wide in flight, to scan, to attack. I look to treetops, utility poles, seeking that familiar elliptical shape focused on examination of the shrubs and ground below.  details cloaked, it is shape, silhouette, everything dark against a sky of baltic blue.  porcupines amble and deer startle, bounding up hillsides of scrub oak and balsamroot.  a stretch of road is silent, then the cacophony of bird song reigns for the next mile.  raccoon eyes shimmer between scrubby brush, a rabbit turns tail and runs.  but not a creature is anything like my coyote.

perhaps it is the teeth, its predatory nature, the fact that it is only size that keeps me from being at risk.  or perhaps it’s that he is only evolutionary steps away from being a household pet.  that my mind and heart think dog when he trots across the road or seems to consider interaction.

or maybe it’s the howl.  a howl that send shivers up spines, that declares desires and needs, that energizes air and speaks to all within earshot.

the canyon is not mine, nor the coyote. but at the edge of dawn and day when all is dirt brown and muddy green, I am transported to a world of deepest truth and being by four-legged creatures that leap and amble, bound and jump and trot, and, when all my stars align, occasionally and resonantly, howl.

Reposted from the tao of cycling | susan imhoff bird

Look for Susan’s exploration of the wolf controversy, Howl: Of Woman and Wolf, in May 2015 from Torrey House Press.

The Great Western Land Grab: Ad Nauseum and Funded by You

Which of these things is not like the other?

1) “The ultimate objective…is to liquidate all public ownership of grazing land and forest land in the United States…The immediate objectives make this attempt one of the biggest land grabs in American history…The plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the states, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually to private ownership. This is your land we are talking about.”

2) “The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land.”

3) “Since its inception in 2012, the [American Lands Council] has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative front group backed by the oil and gas industry and billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, to pass state-level legislation demanding that the federal government turn over federally owned national forests and public lands to Western states.”

Answer: though they all sound ripped from today’s headlines,  only the last one is from this century.

ugly drilling land

The first quote appeared in Harper’s nearly 70 years ago. For twenty years, writer, historian, critic, activist Bernard DeVoto wrote a column, The Easy Chair, for the venerable magazine, and by the time this passage from “The West Against Itself” was published in 1947, DeVoto had already played an instrumental role in converting a land-grab fever into the 1946 formation of the Bureau of Land Management, thus preventing a potential sell-off of the West. It wasn’t the first time ranchers, energy interests, and developers had demanded private ownership of public lands, and it wouldn’t be the last.

The second statement is from an essay written for The Atlantic Monthly nearly thirty years later by DeVoto’s protege, Wallace Stegner, who spent his long and distinguished career writing about America and advocating for the protection of the West. His “Wilderness Letter” of 1960 ranks with works by John Muir and Henry David Thoreau in the conservation canon and was used to introduce the 1964 Wilderness Act in Congress. Despite his successful influence in establishing one of the most effective conservation laws in America, Stegner remained frustrated with the culture, practices, and mythos of West, and in this 1964 article, “Born a Square,” Stegner exhorted the West to “take a hard look at itself and acknowledge some things that the myths have consistently obscured”: it is politically reactionary, ruthless, and exploitative. True fifty years ago and true today.

This last frightening scenario was reported last week by Matt Lee-Ashley, a former communications director for the Department of the Interior who now follows public lands, energy, and environmental policy for the Center for American Progress. Lee-Ashley points out that the recent attention on public lands policy in the wake of Cliven Bundy’s refusal to obey court orders to remove his cattle from sensitive public lands is only the latest episode in the the West’s ongoing conflict about what wild lands are for. But the funding mechanisms behind today’s campaign to turn over federal lands to states or the highest bidders–which ultimately amount to the same thing–are staggeringly insidious, powerful, and frightening. The Koch brothers and ALEC have helped the American Lands Council extract more than $200,000 in taxpayer money from 42 mostly rural counties in nine Western states to “advance an aggressive and coordinated campaign to seize America’s public lands and national forests for drilling, mining, and logging,” Lee-Ashley asserts at ThinkProgress.org. Of course, the state of Utah is adding even more taxpayer funding to the extractor-fueled greed: the Republican legislature has already spent more than $500,000 to study a proposed takeover of federal land and has set aside an another $3 million to fight the federal government in court.

The crusade by special interests to wrest public wild lands from public ownership is as old as American statehood in the West. What’s new is that Western taxpayers are helping to pay for this effort to enrich the few at the cost of the many. Somehow, I don’t think DeVoto or Stegner would be surprised.

Where the Wild Lands Are

SAMSUNGI’m giving my feet a chance to recover. After a week in New York visiting friends, meeting with media, and walking as much as time and rain allowed, and THEN hiking 20 miles in a day and a half at Bryce Canyon with my son, Matt, I’m putting my feet up and thinking about wild lands while looking out the windows in Torrey. These last two months have offered a lot to ponder: Cliven Bundy and his militias defending his 20 years as a law-breaker, Bundy’s son riling up a crowd to trash Recapture Canyon on off road vehicles, the Garfield County Commission passing a resolution declaring the cowboy a cultural resource. There appears no reverence for wildness among those who call themselves locals, which I think means having at least five generations living and extracting resources in the same area. Of course, it’s not a new story, this insistence on the cowboy myth, this denial of destruction by hoof and road, and neither is the effort to recognize and reverse the normalized degradation of the last open spaces in America. Decades ago, Wallace Stegner, the dean of Western letters, declared that “the West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that, too.”

It’s tremendous to live in the West, to hike spectacular mountains and deserts, drive miles on back roads without passing another car, explore the past and present cultures that have been shaped by wild lands. It’s also damn discouraging to have state legislatures handing laws and tax dollars to wolf killers and extractors of all kinds, who are unwilling to bear their own production costs. Manifest destiny is no longer a societal value, and we know that sage steppes and riparian areas cannot withstand the pressure of miners, drillers, and grazers. But policy and practice lag far, far behind society’s current understanding and values. So, at Torrey House Press, we publish books that tell the stories about land issues and the wonders of wilderness, and Mark and I serve on the board at Wild Utah Project. And to keep myself feeling I have a handle on something real, I’m on a continual quest for truth as demonstrated through science–you know: research, data, evidence. As long as successful publishing and wild lands conservation remain elusive goals, you can find me thinking about books and wilderness and doing small research projects on this and that, and writing about it all here. Happy reads & happy trails!

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