Walden, Or Black Life in the Woods

Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.

The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.

No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.

Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…

In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.

Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.

Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.

Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.

Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.

If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?

Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.

Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.

Sailing on a Half Moon

A Hike in the Forest

Sunlight spilled in the forest, highlighting the trees craning their necks to reach the golden god.

Songs flirted in the air, the melody sung by a rose-breasted grosbec, the rhythm set by a woodpecker. More voices joined the chorus, warbling a lullaby of life.

I stopped, spread my arms wide, raised my head to the sky. I wanted to dance, to celebrate the joy of life.

Common sense won. A Black woman shaking her backside, and dreadlocks, to her own inner music in the woods, could be a runaway. From the asylum. Or a voodoo priestess awakening the ancient spirits. In either case, she was up to no good.

Damn the double–consciousness. This sense of ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’ Limiting one’s activity to fit convention. Just in case…

A shadow flickered in the corner of my eye. My smile was as wide as the ocean as a deer pranced by. I bowed my head and thanked the ancient ones for this gift of life.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Birding While Black

The flock of birdwatchers meandered along the trail in the meadows. Suddenly they stopped. Binoculars raised, the group scanned the copse of trees on the left. Someone softly called out a yellow warbler. The birders drifted along, stopping and starting when a new bird was seen or heard.

There was a rare bird among the birders. Me. A Black woman participating in an activity that is almost exclusively white. I raised my binoculars too and spotted the great blue heron flitting above the tree line. A turkey vulture did lazy circles high in the blue-less sky.

Outdoor recreation is a racialized hobby. Whites do it. Blacks don’t. Birding fits that general pattern as almost ninety per cent of birders are non-Black. In general, birdwatchers are middle-aged, have high income and education, and appeals to slightly more women than men.

It does not cost much to start off as a birder. It’s enough to borrow a field guide to local birds from the library. And that’s it. If one gets hooked, the next real cost is buying your own book and a pair of binoculars. For about $100 one is now set up as birder. That’s about the same costs of buying a pair of sexy sandals or running shoes. Cost is not a barrier to birdwatching as it is to so many other outdoor recreation activities.

Skill is not a barrier either. I can confidently identify about thirty birds, starting with the common ones that I see daily in the city streets such as gulls, pigeons and starlings. In the large ponds in the parks it’s the swan, Canada geese and the squawking red-wing black birds. The more one stands still, look, and listen, the more birds seems to be flying, perching or hopping about.

Race is a factor in birding. A scan of the ornithological clubs in Toronto has lots of images of birds. And of white people. The human images do not get more colourful in the USA or in Britain. So why don’t Black people get into birding?

For a start we never see ourselves in birding ads, books and magazines. This creates two problems. The first is a negative feedback loop, as if you don’t see or know someone like yourself, doing an activity you are less likely to try it. Second, the birding media – just like the rest of the outdoor recreation folks – has created a visual apartheid implying that Black people are not wanted in that space, as they are always absent from it.

I always feel a little self-conscious when out alone on a birding walk. Really, I do not want to join another nerd club!  Wearing hiking boots, a safari hat, and with binoculars dangling from around my neck, people do wander what I am up to. I am out looking at birds, but sometimes you see strange things in the parks. A birder told me to be careful once. She had seen a flasher in the bushes. And it was not a bird.

In birding groups, my racial radar is always turned on. As the sole Black person in the group, I am half waiting for a question on where am I really from, are my dreadlocks real hair or a negative comment about ‘them.’ It’s not paranoia, it’s simply the reality of my Black experience.

I met another Black woman on a birding hike. Two of us. That is as rare as a phoenix. Dr. Drew Lanham is an African American ornithologist. In his experience, he expects to meet a fellow Black birder once every two decades or so. When I first read his statistics, I thought he was simply wrong. Then I reflected on my experience dabbling in birding. He was right.

Birding organizations can start a revolution. Simply putting Black people their ads will catch everyone’s attention. Birding – cheap, easy and done in the city – could be a gateway to getting people of colour into the conservation and environmental movements. Black birders want to fly too.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

How to Go in the Woods

The run started off well enough. I jogged along the banks of Grenadier Pond as squirrels and chipmunks scampered out of the way. A blue heron stood in the reeds lining the pond. It gazed at the water, looking rather serious, or maybe it was just constipated.

I ran into a gaggle of people around the bend. Even the children were quiet. All were watching a pair of egrets larking about in the water. Cell phones and cameras clicked at these unusual visitors. I tiptoed pass the birds and the crowd.

Next I ran up a century of steps to the top of the hill. This time, I did it without panting like a dog. My lungs were fine. Suddenly my belly was not. I could feel the gas working its way down along the miles of intestines. I belched a few times – the unladylike sound muffled by my hand.

Oh my belly.

I started to run again, this time following a secluded trail. I had done five kilometres and had another five to go. My steps were light and quick; I felt free, floating on nature’s high. No more burping, all was fine.

Until the gas in my stomach sank. The sound was bad enough, but the smell was worst. I had to run away to escape the pollution.

The gas kept blowing with each step. So I stopped. The gas got worst and something else seemed determined to escape as well. I was deep in the park, on a trail seldom used except by adventurous dog lovers. And men who like to play with men in the bushes.

I remembered that yesterday I ate six cobs of corn. Each was boiled and then smothered in butter, pepper and spices. I loved corn. And it had always loved my stomach – until now it seemed.

There was no time to come up with a plan. Nature was determined to take its course. My only option was whether it would be in my pants or could I squat fast enough to let it drop in the earth.

Behind a tree I crouched, praying that no poison ivy would touch my delicate parts. And that no dog would come bounding out to sniff where its nose did not belong.

A stream of yellow escaped, semi-solid, not liquid. Using a rotting log as a shovel, I covered up the fresh and steaming fertilizer with earth and leaves. Then placed the log on top. I sprinted home, straight to the shower. I have not eaten corn since then.

A Black History Travel Guide of London

Leslie Spit: A Paradise for Cormorants

 

Rotting fish. The smell perfumed the air long before we were even close to the cormorant colony. I tried breathing through my mouth, but one can’t do this and talk at the same time. The sharp smell of ammonia stung my nose.

The cormorants cackled, sounding just like the demented people in my neighbourhood, busy screeching at ghostly enemies. Leslie Spit, officially called Tommy Thompson Park, has the largest colony of cormorants in North America. Some 25,000 of these birds have made a home for themselves along the peninsular coast. It’s a remarkable come-back for a bird that was on the edge of extinction in the 1970s due to poisoning from DDT pesticides.

Across the turquoise inlet the city shimmered in the afternoon light. The CN Tower, that white phallic icon of Toronto, poked the cloudless sky. All it took was a ten minute walk from the bus stop to leave the city behind. I was leading a 10 km hike for my outdoor club. It was a short and easy urban walk to while away a Sunday afternoon.

The cormorants were everywhere – on the ground, in the water and in the air. The trees were white nearest their colony. The leafless branches did not quiver in the breeze. Many cormorants were perched on the limbs, their outstretched wings drying in the sun and wind. They looked like vultures on a bare, gothic Christmas tree.

Cormorant poop is white and rich in ammonia. It is lethal to trees, and not a single one was alive near the colony. The quiet bleached tree were in stark contrast to the dark squawky birds perched on it. It looked like a simple pencil and paper sketch of black life and white death. The cormorants idea of paradise is a rocky island or cliff, covered in dead guano-coated trees with plenty of fresh fish in the water. It doesn’t look pretty and is stinky to us. But it works for them.

About the size of a chicken, with a long hooked beak, snake-like neck and too-big wings. Cormorants are definitely not cute and cuddly to the eye. They are clumsy on land. Under the water they are elegant and expert divers. Their webbed feet and those long wings enable them to fly fast through the water, quicker than their prey can swim.

Millions and millions of cormorants once bred in Canada. The birds and their eggs were a staple part of the diet of Indigenous people. The cormorant population shrank as settlers took over the shore for shipping and drained the marshes to create farm land.

Humans and cormorants both love fish and that has led to conflict between the species. Cormorants are smart and adaptable birds. They are just as good at fishing as sports fishermen and fish farm managers. Marinas and fish farms and are the closest man-made structures to the bird’s natural habit. It is far easier to blame the birds for ‘poaching’ fish than to look at how humans have altered the environment. Some people prefer to cull the cormorants through bullets, poison or oiled eggs.

The cormorants are seen as a nuisance, vermin or over-populated only when they compete with humans. There is space for cormorants, fish and humans on the lake. We have to learn that we are part of nature too, and need to share its bounty. As the top predator on the planet, it’s easy for humans to be arrogant and assume that we will always have that role, and can control the environment to our will. The dinosaurs probably thought that too.

Reaching the lighthouse at the tip of the spit, we paused for lunch. Then we turned around and headed back to our lives in the city. Some of us were going home to a dog, a couch or a bottle.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

John Muir: Trekking in Slavery Lands

I have spent many blissful Sundays hiking the Bruce Trail with my outdoor clubs. The best hikes left Toronto early in the morning and returned to the city at dusk.

John Muir hiked the Bruce Trail too, long before it was known by its more familiar name. Muir is a father of conservation and the co-founder of the Sierra Club. He did the heavy lifting to get Yosemite and other US National Park established. His books are a bible in conservation circles on both sides of the border.

I assumed that Muir had nothing to say about race, and that it had no impact on him or his work. After all he is the colour of snow, much like the conservation and environmental movements. Black and other people of colour are largely invisible in the movements. I decided to check my assumption, prompted by something I learned in my PhD seminars – always trouble sleeping dogs and other accepted wisdoms. You need to know what is hiding behind them and who benefits from it.

Social justice scholars tend to be activists or shit-stirrers, depending on one’s perspective. I seems to be following in the steps of that noble tradition. In the case of Muir, the first step was actually reading, and not just adlibbing about him, as we tend to do around the campfire. I soon found out that like a thorn, race has a habit of pricking sacred icons.

Canada has been a sanctuary for American draft dodgers since its Civil War in 1861. That is how Muir came here. He did not want to fight in President Lincoln’s anti-slavery army. Muir spent two years in Canada, returning to the USA once the war was over.

In 1867 Muir did an epic hike, recorded in his book A Thousand Mile Hike to the Gulf. It was a hardscrabble trek involving much sleeping in caves, fields and cemeteries. He loved every hour of it. Muir cadged food and water where he could. Half the time the providers were either Black or White people.

On the first days of his walk, and on the first pages of the book, Muir is stranded crossing a river. A Black boy and his mother helped him cross, using their horse as a ferry. They sent him off to a large homestead to find fresher water. The homestead had an airy and large home that was rustic but comfortable. It is surrounded by the Negro quarters, which were big enough for a village. Muir describes it as a “genuine old Kentucky home, embosomed in orchards, corn fields and green wooded hills.”

Let’s trouble this description by unpacking its layers of meaning. First, the context. Muir is hiking in the woods in the direct aftermath of slavery. For this Black population, freedom did not yet bring economic gains. No doubt some stayed on the plantation because it was the only home they had ever know. Most remained because they had little choice. It was work the cotton fields or starve.

The situation was different for the White homesteaders. They grew fat from slavery. And continued to do so after its abolition. Their assets, in the form of land, did not diminish. And labour was cheap in a situation where the labour had little choice. All the White families Muir stayed with had substantial homes and farms. Some were damaged in the war, but the families were quickly recovering.

The richest Black family Muir bunked with had their own home, which was little more than a shack. The furniture was so rickety that the chairs had no bottom and the table was propped up with planks.

“Many of the Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed up a subject that interest them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” Muir wrote this after cadging a ride from an old Black man driving an ox team. They talked about the fighting which occurred in the area during the Civil War. The old man is unnamed like most of the people Muir met on his trek. In Muir’s words, the old man is shown as an individual and not as a caricature. This is significant when most writers of his era did the reverse.

Near the end of his trek, Muir took a side trip to Cuba. In Havana, he noted the colourful livery of the Black men driving the carriages, as their owners paraded up and down showing off their wealth. Before Muir’s ship could leave, it was checked ensure that it did not harbour stowaway slaves. Slavery would not be abolished in Cuba for another year, in 1886.

For Muir, nature was a refuge from the mess and stress of urban life. The Sierra Club was formed to ensure that the wilderness would not be devoured by human greed. Many preferred a nature that was chopped, dammed or drowned for profit.

Today the Sierra Club has a membership of about one million. From its website, magazine and social media accounts, it is hard to see how much the membership has changed since Muir’s days. Most are still the same colour as cotton wool.

As the White population ages, membership is declining in outdoors and conservation clubs. It would seem to make sense to get people of colour, soon to be the majority of the population, into the clubs. Muir wrote about the Indigenous, Black and other people of colour that he met on his hikes. Why won’t the outdoors movements continue this tradition? A simple first step would be putting us in the ads. Black people have always been in the woods. Just ask John Muir, a father of conservation.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Audubon: On Birds and Slaves

The great blue heron twisted its neck down to reach the water, even as its beady eye stared straight at me. The look was not friendly. Its thin scissor-like beak was long enough to spear my gut.

I stared back at the bird, captured on the page of an elephant-sized book by John James Audubon. The book and its author are icons of the conservation movement. Walking through the art gallery, I browsed some twenty prints from the magnificent Birds of America.

Audubon is a staple of conservation chats around the campfire. He is the founder of modern ornithology and pioneered the methods still used for studying birds, such as banding and annual bird counts. Birds are an early indicator of wildlife and ecological health. Audubon and slavery. These two words rarely appear together in most conservation talks, websites and books. As a Black woman playing with birding, I am always looking for evidence that we too have a history in the outdoors. The search led to Audubon.

He fancied himself as the rock star of outdoor living. Audubon boasts of his tight pants, silk shirts and his curls flowing in the wind as he charged away on his horse. He, and women, loved his muscles of steel. Men admired his sharp-shooting and hunting skills. Some probably liked his muscled chest too.

Audubon was a gifted painter, writer and fabulist. He created and massaged his image as an American man of the backwoods. On publicity tours he wore buckskin pants, loose, and fur-trimmed leather jackets. The truth was twisted and spun, much like his birds, they to fit the page, his to enhance fame.

Let’s start with his birth in 1785. Audubon spent a lot of time insisting that he was white and American-born. He could never quite keep the story straight, or perhaps, others noticed his slight tan, even in the winter. Audubon was born in Haiti on his white father’s sugar plantation. The race and status of his mother is still debatable. The conflicting claims about her serves only to highlight the fact that it was not a black and white case.

The Haitian Revolution spun Audubon into the USA. He arrived with enough money to start his own business at Mill Grove. There, he owned nine enslaved people, buying and selling them as needed. In his autobiography Audubon called them his servants. They did the housework, farmed the vegetable garden, ran the mill and the shop, dug the fish pond, and rowed the boats ashore. The slave labour gave Audubon the freedom and the money to pursue his love of birds.

On his treks in the USA Audubon passed through many plantations. He noticed the birds and the plants, but not the enslaved people, except on one occasion. On a birding expedition Audubon slid into a fugitive man hunting in the Louisiana swamps. Guns cocked, the stand-off ended with the men sharing dinner in the bayou.

Over the small fire, the enslaved man told his story. He, his wife, and three children were sold to separate owners. The man feigned sickness for a few days, biding his time. He escaped. He tracked down his splintered family, and one by one reunited them in the swamp. Always, they were on guard for slave catchers. When food was low, they visited the plantations at night, knowing that the enslaved people there would feed them and keep their secret. The story then takes an improbably turn. Audubon says he persuaded the runaway family to return with him to their original owner. He persuaded the owner to rebuy the family and to promise never to sell them again.

The story is significant, as it highlights how enslaved people resisted the shackles. For some it was to flee into the woods, living a precarious life. For others, it was aiding the runaway, a symbol that freedom was indeed possible. The story also shows that slavery was such a common and accepted institution that it never occurred to Audubon to free the enslaved family.

The bird man visited Canada in 1833, as he wanted to paint every bird in North America. He succeed in capturing some 450 of them. It is an astonishing achievement. He insisted on paining life-sized images of the birds, hence the massive size of the deluxe folio edition of his books. His paintings are dynamic, showing the birds in movement, whether flying, hunting or swimming. There is an unsettling urgency to his prints. It feels as if he was rushing to capture creatures on the verge of extinction. If he could fix them in oil, colour, shadow and light, they would live.

Audubon knew the world was changing rapidly. The woods he hiked as a youth were replaced by roads and cities in his dotage. He noted that the government policy of destroying the buffalo was intended to decimate the Indigenous people. He saw their disappearance as the sad but inevitable price of civilization. Audubon died in 1851.

In 2011 Sotheby’s sold an original Audubon deluxe folio for $12 million. The man’s legacy increases with each year, there are many parks, school and centres named after him. Mill Grove, his original home is now a national historic site. I plan on visiting it one day. I want to see where the nine enslaved people work. Will there be a monument to mark their role in supporting Audubon’s talent, and the continuing wealth of those who own his original books and paintings?

Audubon white-washed himself throughout his life. The conservation movement does the same by ignoring the racial context in which he lived. Slavery built America. Conservation and environmental groups are still seen as white institutions with white agenda. A first step in changing this perception is putting race back into the conversations around the campfires.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London