'The Home Place; Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature' Walk and Talk Discussion
I would like to start by introducing myself, my name is Bri Hull and I am a Green Iowa AmeriCorps member, and as of writing this (July of 2023) I am coming to the end of my second service term. If you are unfamiliar with the program, each service term all members are asked to complete an individual professional development project. For my second service term I chose to focus on Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in our green spaces. Being a more fluid project there are several moving parts, and one section includes writing a series of blog posts sharing resources and information concerning DEI as they relate to our community and natural areas. This blog is focusing specifically on an event that I held as a part of my project, and hopefully it will inspire and help you to create a similar event.
In early October I was discussing my project with Laura Walter, the Plant Materials Program Manager at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. She told me about this book that she had been reading and thought I might be interested. The next morning The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature appeared on my desk. I was not sure what to expect and set off on my first read through that evening. J. Drew Lanham’s writing immediately sunk into my heart like a vulture’s beautifully curved claws. The way he described the different worlds he grew up in brought me right into the ramshackle in Edgefield, South Carolina. I could almost hear the call of the song birds and smell of the sweet scent of freshly chopped wood meant for Mamatha’s stove. Most of all, I got a window into the struggles of a person of color in the natural world.
Planning the Walk
After my first read through of the book I knew that I wanted to hold an event concerning the book. I reached out to the Cedar Falls Public Library (CFPL) and was directed to Megan Blackford, the Teen Librarian. She met with me and we worked out the plan and set the date for July 30th. Initially when I had entered the library I was unsure of what exactly I wanted to do and who I wanted the event to be targeted at. Megan was fantastic at directing my ideas into a walk and talk book discussion. From there I knew I wanted to share the University of Northern Iowa preserves, including Smith Prairie due to the connection that Lanham had with tallgrass prairies. So, by the end of the meeting we had a solid plan and set about ordering the book club reading set and advertising the event.
Megan also directed me to the reading list bookmarks that the CFPL produces for patrons. From there, I curated three different reading lists aimed at children, young adults, and adult readers. Each book was chosen due to the connection with nature and various underrepresented communities. If you are interested in any of the books included in the list, all are available at the Cedar Falls and/or Waterloo Public Libraries.
In preparation for the discussion I created a handout with information on the author and to guide our discussion. Armed with my small stack of papers I set off for Daryl Smith Prairie. I arrived 30 minutes early just to catch any other early birds. Upon 1:00 we had our group of nine ready to set off into the prairie.
Everyone in the group was ready and excited for the discussion. We started off with a little introduction to the space. An important element of my project was not only creating educational materials, but also creating awareness of the abundant green spaces hidden in our own backyards. I chose Daryl Smith Prairie due to its position right in the middle of Cedar Falls and its relative anonymity. While several in the group were more than aware of the prairie, they were unaware of the many connecting trails that lead to the UNI upland forest preserves and Cedar Falls bike trail.
Once the introductions were complete, we set a group discussion agreement consisting of the following;
Embrace the discomfort.
Recognize and take note of your discomfort. What triggered this feeling and how can you use it to learn more?
Listen to understand, not respond.
Respect all backgrounds.
Approach each individual as such, we all come from different circumstances and contexts.
Avoid speculation, blame, and inflammatory responses.
The establishment of a discussion agreement concerning DEI was a suggestion made in a presentation by member Lizzie Weems to establish group boundaries.
Upon entering the prairie we started by discussing our own experiences in nature and sharing our first memories. There were talks of eating the green apples, exploring with grandparents, and gardening. We turned to the importance of children experiencing nature, and how Lanham had discussed his own fascination with the natural spaces on his family’s property. We all laughed at how it is just like a child to think to lay still on the ground to get a vulture as close as possible, only to pop up and scare them away when they got too close to their eyes (an anecdote Lanham shared). Members who have children shared stories of how their kids had picked up sick bats without gloves, resulting in rabies vaccines. We all relate to that beautiful curiosity that children possess and how it developed into our adult interests.
The discussion then turned to the two worlds represented in the book, Lanham’s parent’s home and Mamatha's ramshackle. Both were snapshots of the times, the ramshackle built in the early 1900s and representative of the early south. The yard was a thing of diverse beauty that is often lost to the modern eye. His parents home was more modern, filled to the brim with scientific books and space to learn everything modern. The group continued through the prairie and discussed the different experiences and how it shaped Lanham’s view of the world and his interests.
The discussion moved on to how the outside world pushed in on Lanham’s life in the form of acute and generalized racism. We discussed how appalled we were at what he experienced while simply existing in a green space. Women in the group empathized, we often must read further into comments and remain more vigilant than our male counterparts. We recognized that women of color have the added layer of misogyny to accompany racism. No one can escape the struggles, but for many underrepresented communities, it is commonplace. This resonated with the group as we continued exploring the prairie, investigating the purple blooms of wild bergamot and the fuzzy bumblebees going about their business between plants.
We made our way into the wooded area of the preserves surrounding Smith Prairie and continued our discussion with direct quotes from the book.
‘The years have melted, softened, much that I once saw as black and white, morphing it into shades of gray. My good is Aldo Leopold’s good; an ethic of inclusion, promoting wholeness of nature and treating the land and the wild things that live on it as fellow citizens to be respected and nurtured.”
The Bluebird of Enlightenment, p. 142
We discussed the parallels between the discrimination against communities of color and between different species in the natural world. We have different plants labeled as ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ and ‘weeds,’ similar to how we have similar labels for people. Categorization is compulsive in humans, we like to have neat categories where everything has a place, and everything is in that place. When we are challenged to depart with the black and white and explore the gray area in between, we often end up in confusion and discourse. We as a community must become comfortable with this confusion and accept the world for what it is, a large gray area.
As we continued the group partook in the bountiful forage available in Smith Prairie. For some in the group, including myself, it was our first time trying wild cherries and gooseberries. I stood back and watched the group taste each of the fruits and couldn’t help but think of how Lanham and his family used their land. The Lanhams farmed, but they also foraged. His Mamatha’s front yard was a pharmacy filled with plants to cure any illness.
As the walk drew to a close, Anne Phillips, the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Tallgrass Prairie Center asked me what we can do ourselves to assist our communities. I explained that reading this book and having this discussion is a first step. As I mentioned at the top of this blog, dealing with the day to day prejudice is exhausting enough without having the responsibility of teaching others to empathize with their experiences. I encouraged the group to continue educating themselves, as they continue to recognize those biases the implicit become explicit and change can be made. Many members of the group expressed interest in continuing this activity with other books and sharing Lanham’s writing with other book groups. I recounted what Shelley Buffalo had told AmeriCorps members during a training call in the previous year, that when we enter communities to volunteer we cannot think of ourselves as saviors, but as guests. We may be helping the community, but in reality they allowed us to enter their space and learn from them. We cannot forget that as we continue to make our world more inclusive.
Special Thanks to J. Drew Lanham
I would like to close by thanking the author, J. Drew Lanham. Handling the biases and injustices imposed upon communities of color is exhausting enough without having to share your experiences. Thank you for sharing your story so that we may have a glimpse into one individual’s experiences and we may grow and better ourselves to better serve our communities.
Suggested Reading List
As a part of the discussion I created a handout that included all of our discussion questions, a brief author biography, self reflection questions, and a recommended reading list. If you are interested in using the same discussion questions, you may access the handout here. Below I have included the full list of recommended titles to continue your personal growth.
‘Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings–asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass–offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In a rich braid of reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles towards a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.
‘The Adventure Gap; Changing the Face of the Outdoors,’ by James Edward Mills. The story of the first summit attempt of Denali by Mils and his team of entirely African-American climbers. ‘Bridging the so-called ‘adventure gap’ requires role models who can inspire the uninitiated to experience and enjoy wild places. Once new visitors are there, a love affair often follows. This is important because as our country grows increasingly multicultural, our natural legacy will need the devotion of people of all races and ethnicities to steward its care.’
‘Black Faces, White Spaces; Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors,’ by Carolyn Finney. ‘Why are African Americans so underrepresented when it comes to interest in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism? In this thought-provoking study, Carolyn Finney looks beyond the discourse of the environmental justice movement to examine how the natural environment has been understood, commodified, and represented by both white and black Americans. Bridging the fields of environmental history, culture studies, critical race studies, and geography. Finne argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors” and determines who should and can have access to natural spaces.’
‘As Long as Grass Grows; The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock,’ by DIna Gilio-Whitaker. ‘Through the unique lens of “indigenized environmental justice,” Indigenous researcher and activist Dina Gilio-Whitaker explore the fraught history of treaty violations, struggles for food and water security, and protection of sacred sites, while highlighting the important leadership of Indigenous women in this centuries-long struggle.As Long as Grass Grows gives readers and accessible history of Indigenous resistance to government and corporate incursions on their lands and offers new approaches to environmental justice activism and policy.’
‘The Unlikely Thru-Hiker; An Appalachian Trail Journey,’ by Derick Lugo. Derick Lugo had never been hiking. He certainly couldn’t imagine going more than a day without manicuring his goatee. But with a job cut short and no immediate plans, this fixture of the New York comedy scene began to think about what he might do with months of free time. He had heard of the Appalachian Trail, but he had never seriously considered attempting to hike all 2,184.2 miles of it. Suddenly he found himself asking, Could he do it?’
‘Colors of Nature; Culture, Identity, and the Natural World,’ edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy. ‘Featuring work from more than thirty contributors of widely diverse backgrounds–including Jamaica Kincaid on the fallacies of national myths; Robin Wall Kimmerer on the language of the natural world; Yuself Komunyakaa connecting the toxic legacy of his Louisiana hometown to a blind faith in capitalism; and bell hooks relating the quashing of multiculturalism to the destruction of ‘unpredictable’ nature–The Colors of Nature works against the grain of this traditional blind spot by exploring the relationship between culture and place, emphasizing the lasting value of cultural heritage, and revealing how this health of perspectives is essential to building a livable future.
‘There’s Something in the Water; Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities,’ by Ingrid R.G. Waldron. ‘Ingrid R.G. Waldron examines the legacy of environmental racism and its health impacts in Indigenous and Black communities in Canada, using Nova Scotia as a case study, and the grassroots resistance activities by Indigenous and Black communities against the pollution and poisoning of their communities. Using settler colonialism as the overarching theory, Waldron unpacks how environmental racism operates as a mechanism of erasure enabled by the intersecting dynamics of white supremacy, power, state-sanctioned racial violence, neoliberalism, and racial capitalism in white settler societies. By and large, the environmental justice narrative in Nova Scotia fails to make race explicit, obscuring it within discussions on class, and this type of strategic inadvertence mutes the specificity of Mi’kmaq and African Nova Soctian experiences with racism and environmental hazards in Nova Scotia. By redefining the parameters of critique around the environmental justice narrative and movement in Nova Scotia and Canada, Waldron opens a space for a more critical dialogue on how environmental racism manifests itself within this intersectional context.’
About The Author
Bri Hull is the Communications Associate at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Bri came to Iowa to attend Wartburg College. In her time in Iowa she developed an interest in environmental science and stayed to learn more about ways she can help her community. In her time with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, Bri hopes to learn how to become more green and how to reach out to her community to do the same.
This blog is one in a series as a part of her 2022-23 Professional Development Project. Her project focuses on increasing diversity and inclusion in our greenspaces.