We will protect what we love. And she will protect us.
– Naima Penniman, from “Concentric Memory,” A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars ed. Sharkey
I have cared about the environment for a long time. When I was a kid, my troop learned about recycling in Girl Scouts and I was motivated to start in our St. Paul home’s kitchen. When worrisome commercials filled the spots between evening sitcoms, I convinced my mom to virtually adopt a polar bear. I was a member of my school’s Earth Corp and planned an annual punk rock concert called Rock Your Mother to raise money to convince school leaders to stop using Styrofoam trays and disposable utensils in the cafeteria.
Later, I worked on an urban farm with teenagers who taught their neighbors how to start backyard composting projects, in addition to transforming vacant lots into vegetable gardens. Coming up in the Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires era, I believed that if we each tried hard to reduce our waste, reuse what could be reused, and recycle every scrap, we could prevent the ozone layer from disappearing and save endangered animals. Now I know that the challenges we face are larger than individual efforts alone can reverse, and the challenges continue to mount. In addition to thoughtful consumption, systemic change and change at the policy level are what we need to truly face the climate crisis.
Black people have been wrestling with systems for generations. And, over the last few years, issues with our “in-justice” system have been in the forefront of the public conversation as we contend with very public examples of police violence and unevenly distributed policing and state prosecution. And, too, the question of the individual vs. the system has been at the forefront of the conversation about racial justice and equality.
Concurrently, the real changes that are necessary to address the climate crisis and the unequal impact of environmental injustice need to be made on the systems level. Rather than individual piecemeal changes, systems-level action is essential for corporations, governments, and institutions.
Over the last several years, I have been editing a collection of original essays, A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars (Milkweed ’23), about the relationship of Black folks to nature since the first days of the America project. In the zenith of this research and crafting, I have learned about the ways Black folks have persisted in relationship to nature despite systemic public policies aimed to separate us from nature like Jim Crow Laws, Redlining, Sundowner town policies, and incomplete abolition. It is not surprising that environmental injustices follow these same patterns, leaving marginalized, under-resourced communities to contend with the worst consequences of toxic waste and industrial pollution.
The history of our country is marked by legislation and policy that worked to separate people of color from nature. Despite these barriers, Black folks have been in relationship with nature since before this country was a country. These relationships have been tainted and shaped by structural racism, but the marks of Black people’s stewardship and evidence of the African diaspora can be found across the landscape.
Three years ago, I entered a new relationship with nature through a particular piece of land and its stewardship. At the height of the pandemic and in the summer of 2020, a group of friends and I were invited to consider this new relationship with 36 acres of land in central Minnesota. I am uncomfortable with the traditional concept of land ownership, especially in a state and a country covered with stolen land and broken treaties. We talk about this work of care as stewardship and at the heart of the work is sharing. The Fields at Rootsprings is a retreat and respite center in Annandale, MN and there we are centering BIPOC and LGBTQ folks for rest. People visit the land to get away from the city, to wander the paths, to plan for the future, to grieve and mourn losses, to have fun with friends or their family, and some come to heal their relationship to nature. This is my new commitment to addressing the climate crisis.
By making space, by taking space in the outdoors, and by welcoming folks to join us we are fostering all kinds of new love for the land. And, it is the love for the land and our own wellbeing that will help us model and demand the changes needed to reduce strain on the environment.
My wife, Zoe, and I split time between Rootsprings and our place in the Twin Cities. The land welcomes us back when we arrive on the land, whispering that we are safe. The land is familiar but new each time. A gaggle of chickens and guinea hens meet our car; two tabby barn cats call out to announce us (and to demand the canned food they crave) and rub against the cuffs of our jeans. I am beginning to understand that there aren’t four seasons here but more like 25, changing every two weeks. One week is the week of the dragonflies, who dart across the path to the lake, the next is the week of the milkweed bobbing in the breeze. We’ve seen the Northern Lights and meteors, watched the juvenile deer watching us. There is order and mystery to it all.
We are confronting the evidence of climate change here on the land: seeing the little lake’s shores recede and the stream that feeds it shrink over the last two summers; facing record drought alongside farmers and gardeners across the state. Record snowfall last winter taxed the land. Our bird feeders sat empty a few times for a few months last year for fear of spreading avian flu. Big storms have blown through and fell trees in the forest. Buckthorn and other invasives have spread in our wetlands.
I know this land now, enough to love it and feel responsible to it and for it.
And I know that I am just beginning to get to know it.
We need to be in relationship to care, to feel a part of efforts towards a future. It is ours to care for and we are in deep need of its caretaking as well because we are nature. Our relationship to it and to each other matters.
Erin Sharkey is a writer, arts, and abolition organizer, cultural worker, and film producer based in Minneapolis. She is the editor of A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars (Milkweed Editions ’23). Erin is a founding coop member of the Fields at Rootsprings, a retreat and respite space in central MN, and co-founder, with Junauda Petrus, of an experimental arts collective called Free Black Dirt. She is the producer of film projects, including Sweetness of Wild, an episodic web film, and Small Business Revolution, which explored challenges and opportunities for Black-owned businesses in the Twin Cities in the summer of 2021. Sharkey has received fellowships and residencies from the Loft Mentor Series, VONA/Voices, the Givens Foundation, Penumbra Theatre, Coffee House Press, the Bell Museum of Natural History, Black Visions, Headwaters Foundation and the Jerome Foundation. She has an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University and teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.