The African American Church Never Left the Outdoors

Many pieces of a puzzle are on the floor of my living room. More are in a large gray tub upstairs. I am looking at the pieces of what has been my interest lately: the African American church and the environment. Going back even further, I’ve long been drawn to learning and sharing about African Americans and the environment–the great love of my life–for about 23 years.

As is true in my life, I shift back and forth between peaks and valleys. A bit of a peak is coming up. In late March 2014, I head to the 12th National Black Writers Conference as a panelist on the “Saving Our Communities, Saving Ourselves” panel sponsored by The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. Thank goodness they haven’t asked for a title yet but I am leaning towards “The African American Church Never Left the Outdoors.”

The literature on the subject continues to grow though still small:

Veronica Kyle, Faith in Place

I am hoping to blend scholarship with my other concern: environmental activism in and through the African American church.

And the first person who comes to mind is Veronica Kyle, Congregational Outreach at Faith in Place.  She has been faithful and busy:

“Veronica joined the Faith in Place staff in August 2008 to engage in the much needed work of linking/involving African American churches to the work of Faith in Place. In addition Veronica works with other Faith in Place partners in the movement to share, coordinate and support congregations that are new to the idea of living out their faith while serving as good stewards of the environment. Veronica lived and worked for the past twelve years in the Caribbean and Southern Africa for a faith-based organization in the areas of social justice and development. She received her B.A. in Religion and Women Studies from Vermont College of Norwich University and her Masters degree in Gender Studies from University of the West Indies, 1999.” (“Our Staff,” Faith in Place)

Veronica works with one of many grassroots environmental activists in or with churches:

As I continue to consider this puzzle, take a look at a classic scene of African Americans having church in the woods “Beloved,” the film. Steven Spielberg, the director, was smart to use what sounds like Toni Morrison’s exact words from her novel Beloved:

Soul Pitt Quarterly Green Issue: Spring 2012

Take a look at “African Americans . . . The Environment . . . Healing” in the Spring 2012 Soul Pitt Quarterly, an urban magazine in Western Pennsylvania. I was overjoyed to read three other black and green articles including: “A Conversation with ‘Black Into Green‘ Blogger Gloria Johnson from Cleveland.”

2012 State of Diversity and the Environment Blog Carnival

Another Blog Carnival Presented by Rooted in the Earth! Read the original call for blogs.

I am going to keep this simple: my hope is to join with each of you  to meaningfully and fruitfully gather together face-to-face focusing on people of color and the environment in the near future. In 2009, Audrey Peterman did just that with Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors.

Some thoughts on some wonderful work in 2011 and where we are headed in the future including 2012:

~ Andrea Roberts’ Extending our Useful Lives Being Honest About Sustainability and Mortality

~ Rue Mapp’s The Year of Relevancy

~ Dianne Glave’s She Wolf  Transitioning to the New Year of 2012

Go to the blogs to read thoughts, ideas . . . some are transforming thoughts into action.

Do contact me at dianneglave@gmail.com if you would like to add your blog to this carnival.

She-Wolf: Transitioning to the New Year of 2012

Tulips in Bloom, Chicago

Right now I’m caught up in series of novels titled Game of Thrones, and the HBO series based on the novels.  Creatures called dire wolves–from the Ice Age and now extinct–are central to one of many over-lapping  story-lines, with dire wolves in symbiotic relationship with young royals. 2011 transitioned so quickly cart-wheeling into 2012, and I am embracing my she-wolf. I don’t bite but am running hard and fast down two different paths: the environment and health. Like the story-lines in Game of Thrones, the two paths have and continue to overlap. I’m including some of my favorite photos from 2011 some with and without rhyme and reason in relationship to the text. Put simply, these photos like so many I took last year simply touched me.

The first path is environmental. I continued my life’s work, a ministry to people and the earth, sharing the gospel of African Americans and the environment. Back in 2010, I published Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Continuing into 2011, non-profit organizations invited me to do speaking engagements, some of the content based in part on the book:

At Barnes & Noble with a Little Fan

I also did a radio interview with Groovin 1580 FM and a book-signing with the Wildlife Federation at Georgia Tech. In 2012, I will continue to share an environmental gospel, speaking at the Tuskegee Institute Historic Site in Alabama and Getty College in Pennsylvania.

From Fall 2010 to Summer 2011 when I  continued my environmental opus, I was in an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education Program training for chaplaincy. I managed to complete the program, while still blogging.

Interestingly, the Rooted in the Earth WordPress Annual Report differs from my favorite blogs “penned” during part of the program. The highest ranking blog going back to 2010 was (drum roll please) Predators: Survival of the Fittest in a Busted Paradise. Perhaps not so surprising since my blogs on film and television ranked higher than some of the historical blogs. People like popular culture. Well, so do I.

Grand Isle, Louisiana, 2007 (ok, not 2011!)

I also love history and my personal favorites included Kentucky, African Americans, and the Environment, Harriet Tubman Working Nature, Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental History, and 2011 MLK Day: Remembering Martin Luther King, the Environmentalist. Hey, I’m a historian. What can I say. I’m back on the steep happy hill–that’s the she-wolf in me on the move–blogging again in 2012 with a call for blogs for a State of Diversity and the Environment Blog Carnival.

So what’s that second path as I continue loping on winding path?  Back in 2010, I never imagined that graduating with an M.Div. in “Faith, Health and Science” at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University would be life changing concerning my health. Over the last year I lost 17 pounds and hope to lose about 20 more. No rush. One pound at a time. Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers . . . make it happen like Mariah belts out in the recent Jenny Craig commercial.

I continue being heart healthy with nutrition and exercise. I serve as a pastor at Crafton United Methodist Church and some of the members have followed my example joining Weight Watchers. Others have been serving healthy options like veggies at Coffee Hour after church. And yes, I found time to blog about spirituality and religion at BeingEphesus.com.

Korean War Memorial, Washington, DC

I am grateful to everyone in my personal life who patiently listened to my stories about being on paths of the environment and health. In addition, so many colleagues invited me into their institutions trusting me to share one vision of  an African American environmentalism. I did not take that trust for granted because many of the people in the audience were college students. I honored to continue working with young people, my favorite “demographic.”

Now I stand among many talented and committed in an environmental family with shared interests in diversity. One kind and generous person in stood out in 2011: Na’Taki Osborne Jelks. I knew Na’Taki for years going back to 2005 when I went on a hike with Keeping It Wild in Georgia. It wasn’t until she organized several events for me that I got to know her better. I am grateful for Na’Taki and so many others devoted to the cause.

I invite you to continue with me embracing your inner-she-wolf (or whatever creature works for you) on paths to protecting the planet and good health, with a dash of science. Thank you for coming along with me.

Photos by Dianne Glave

Science and History: Mirrored Interviews with Rana and Dianne Glave

The internet is an interesting world where I have met so many people with overlapping interests. When I was a guest facilitator/editor/organizer for a blog carnival, Rana happened about the call for blogs. She was kind enough to re-post the call on her blog because of her generous spirit and interest in diversity and the environment. We agreed to interview one another. Read Rana’s interview with me and my interview with Rana as follows:

What’s the story behind the Frogs and Ravens blog as a title?

There isn’t really a story!  *laughs*  People have asked me about it, and about the tagline “Some days we are ravens, other days, frogs” pretty much from the beginning.  The rather uninteresting answer is that the name and the phrase just popped into my head, I liked them, and that’s it.  I have learned, however, that there are a number of Pacific Northwest myths about both frogs and ravens, so maybe I was channeling that subconsciously.  Both animals also have human qualities – frogs in their shape, ravens in their intelligence – and are creatures of more than one world – water and earth for frogs, air and earth for ravens.  They also offer an interesting contrast in that frogs are quite vulnerable to environmental change, while ravens (like all corvids) are opportunistic and adaptable.  And, of course, frogs are not infrequently prey for ravens.  So there are a lot of interesting resonances to play with.

Tell me a little about yourself and your Frogs and Ravens blog.

I always have trouble summarizing myself, and similar difficulties with summarizing the blog.  I have a lot of interests, so it’s a bit hard to fit either into a nice little package!  That said, there are a few areas that I find myself returning to time and again over the years.  These would be photography, writing, academia, politics with a small p, animals, and the environment.  Yoga and crafts like knitting and sketching make their way in as well.  I’ve always loved the non-human world, so it’s not surprising that I keep being drawn back to it.  I’ve long thought of myself as a creative person – my favorite classes as a kid were art, dance, and story-time – and I’ve been writing and taking photographs and camping since I was a kid.  The blog reflects these somewhat scattered interests.

What interests you concerning diversity (human) and the environment?

As a white environmentalist with a middle-class background, and as a historian who studies the environment, it’s been pretty obvious that environmentalism in this country has (like the rest of American society) problems with race and diversity.  My own ignorance embarrasses me – I have some sense of the issues from my work in American Indian history and from teaching the environmental history of early America (including Southern slavery), but it’s clearly coming from a position of racial privilege – and so I’m grateful to those who have something useful to say about it.  Directing others to blogs like yours seems the very least I can do.

Do you have any concerns about the lack of diversity (people of color) in the environment(alism) dialogue? If so, what? What would you like see change?

Oh, yes.  The two main issues as I see it are (1) a lack of attention by mainstream (read, largely white and middle-class) environmental organizations to the concerns of people living in rural areas and in urban areas, many of whom are people of color, and (2) the very reasonable response of many people of color to see environmental issues in terms of a bunch of privileged white people who are more worried about trees and non-human animals than with their fellow human beings.  It’s not at all surprising that this is the way things have played out, but it bothers me both on a practical and a philosophical level.  On the practical level, we need as many people as possible to care about the environment and its health – and that includes the health and welfare of human beings.  On the philosophical level, I have real issues with the idea that environmentalism is something one does as a sort of privileged leisure activity, and an activity that’s only appropriate for those with the money and time to pursue it.  There are lots of ways of respecting the planet and its species, and no one way is perfect.  I particularly find it troubling when middle-class white people fetishize indigenous cultures’ relationships with the environment as a way of excusing their own passivity in the face of environmental threats, or when they try to ease their guilt over their privilege by paying other people to take inner-city children camping for one week, rather than questioning why such access to healthy outdoor activities isn’t a part of everyone’s daily life.

But, then, as a person speaking from a position of privilege myself, I feel wary of being too proscriptive in my suggestions.  If people like me are the only ones talking, then the problem hasn’t been solved; it’s just more white people talking to themselves about what they think people of color need.

I was enthralled by your photographs focusing on nature at Zenfolio. Why do you find nature photography meaningful?

One of the best things about photography, for me, is the way it forces me to slow down and pay attention.  So taking photographs is a sort of focused meditation on the world.  It’s also somewhat selfish, in that it allows me to capture things and moments and take them home with me, to be appreciated after the moment has passed.  I think of them as a sort of external memory, a tool for looking back at a moment in time and seeing things that escaped my notice the first time.  I don’t know that I think of myself as a nature photographer, however.  As the case with the blog, my photography is more about my perspective than about the genre; the strand that keeps the whole thing together is my interest and ways of seeing the world.  I happen to like subjects that others define as nature, but I’m also interested in things like garbage and buildings.  If I have anything resembling a formal philosophy for my photography, it’s that I do portraiture – but my portraits are not always of living things.

One of my favorite photos titled “Yawn. What was going on here?

If I remember right – it’s been nearly 20 years since I took that picture – I was spending the afternoon at the San Diego Zoo testing out this brand of black-and-white film that could be developed using color processes.  When you had it processed that way, instead of using black-and-white chemicals, you’d get these interesting grainy sepia tones.  Anyway, in this particular case, I remember watching not only the primates on the inside of the glass, but also the human primates on the outside.  And this mother with her infant was very calm in the face of all these excited children and adults staring at her, and I just wanted to capture that feeling.

I went back and (re-)read some of your posts. I wondered if you would elaborate on what you think:

Do you expand on your ethical response to the genetic modification beyond “Feral Canola,” the title of the blog:

In linking to this piece, I was mostly struck by the adjective “feral” being applied to plants.  I’m used to it being used in reference to animals like dogs and cats, which are not simply pets that have ended up homeless, but animals which have reverted to a wild, unsocialized state.  Such animals tend to react to human beings with the same fear and aggression you see in wild animals that were never domesticated; a feral kitten, for example, is not just a pet that hasn’t been housebroken yet, but a fairly savage little animal that will bite and claw if it is captured.  So it was interesting thinking of plants in this way.  What makes a plant “feral” as opposed to escaped?  What makes it different from a plant that is a weed, or something like a wildflower (which is not domesticated but not unwanted like weeds).  Is becoming “feral” something that only gene-modified plants can do, or is this something that might happen to any domesticated plant?  Does “feral” when applied to plants evoke that same sense of something hostile and suspicious of humans?

Please tell me more about your garden. The metaphor of battle is powerful in “Garden.”

Here I was reacting to my observations of the pea plants and the cucurbits.  Both of these like to reach out and wrap tendrils around objects in their path, and when said object is another plant, may end up pulling it down and cutting off its sunlight.  So, like when I was thinking about feral plants, I was intrigued by the idea that we tend to think of animals alone as the active, assertive species in ecosystems, but my observations made it clear that plants can be just as aggressive, albeit at a slower pace.  So, I was wondering, why do we think of plants as passive, and of active “nature” as animalistic?  (Just think of the connotation of “vegetative” versus “animalistic.”)  Certainly our own encounters with weeds – and now, feral GMOs – ought to suggest that wildness can be vegetable as well as animal.”

This also riffs off of my on-going fascination with how human beings like to define “nature” as if it’s this solid, concrete thing, instead of a bunch of human cultural constructs applied to a great variety of objects and living things, not all of whom co-operate so politely with their human-imposed expectations.

Photos Provided by Rana

Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction Blog Carnival

Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction is the Second Rooted in the Earth Blog Carnival. This time the focus is on environmental fiction or literature. Although I lean towards history and popular culture, I so dearly love fiction too. After reading blogs by the contributors to this carnival, look out for the Third Rooted in the Earth Blog Carnival in the near future.

Many years ago, I learned that Lauret, my friend, was editing a volume that included environmental fiction. The result was The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (2002) edited by Alison H. Deming & Lauret E. Savoy. The second edition of the collection arrives online and in bookstores in February 2011. They edited the book from two perspectives: Deming who is white and Savoy who is of African descent. Both women were clear about their perspectives based on diversity in the preface which defined the collection.

Al Young, the author of one of the essays titled “Silent Parrot Blues,” introduces his piece on environmental racism with a story:

Even I, who knew next to nothing about parrots, understood that this parrot was exceptional . . . His coat of many color was listless and raggedy. Not only did he look as though he’d been plucked and picked on, he looked as though he had been ‘buked and scorned,’ as the faithful Negro spiritual would have it.” (p. 113)

The parrot, a metaphor for environmental racism, could not speak much like people who cannot speak up for and defend themselves when say a company opens up a garbage dump in an impoverished neighborhood skirting environmental laws.

To expand on this idea of inequity, Savoy says, “What is the American Earth to people of color? Of course there is no single or simple answer.” (p. 9) The following blogs come from many perspectives including ethnic-and bio-diversity:

FICTION

“Yard Yarns (Limerick and Haiku Prompt),” Mad Kane’s Humor Blog.

“Time and Tide Pools,” The Daily Neurotic: A Webblog About Life’s Peculiarities Otherwise Known as the Dailies.

“Fiction: A New Heaven and and a New Earth,” The Great Auk — The Greatest Auk: Not Bad for Being Extinct.

“Flying Alone,” Memorizing Nature: Fantastical Yet Critical Writings by Elaine Medline.

“Stone,” Frogs and Ravens: Some Days We Are Ravens; Other Days, Frogs

The Marshlanders Sample Chapter: Beaver Night.

“Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage: An Excerpt,” From the Blog by the Same Name.

REVIEWS

“A Review of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy,” The Schleicher Spin.

“A Damn Good Flood,” The Schleicher Spin.

Darryl A. Perkins the author of Into the Night and Understanding Goshawks offers shares some advice for writers of nature and the environment:

“The challenge of environmental fiction is to take something imaginary and not factual, and wrap it around something that is not only real, but necessary for our survival.  A further challenge, particularly of people of color, is to share our experiences and or imagination on the subject, with an audience that is unaware of our history and involvement with the environment.  However, there are heroes out there fighting the good fight like Rue Mapp, and Frank and Audrey Peterman.”

I am moved by the words of the authors who have shared their blogs in the Shades of Nature: Environmental Fiction Blog Carnival. Please take the time to comment on the blogs to encourage these environmental writers as they continue their creative pursuits.

As an African American, Am I Afraid of Nature?: Guest Blog by La La

Dianne with La La

La La and I were at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit for a weekend retreat.  We came to spend contemplative moments with the monks, our fellow retreatants, and most importantly God. Walking through the paths of the monastery grounds we were also treated to nature.   

Read more about the retreat and La La’s feelings about nature from an African American woman’s perspective. She grew up in an urban predominantly black urban neighborhood and I think her background is reflected in some of her words and thoughts:   

All around me at the monastery was nature with the geese near the pond, the trees in the garden, and the bugs just about everywhere (I thinks something bit me!).  I was on a journey, a short one for the weekend taking the time to embrace, feel, and hear God, and take in creation.  I sought a connection between being spiritual and living in nature. Being there made me think of all the ways I have been trying to connect with nature in the past. It has not been easy.   

  

I arrived and realized that the place was going to be GREEN when I drove down a long strip with magnolias on both sides. I saw ducks and geese; snails and spiders; just beautiful green life. It was lovely to look at and experience.   

La La at the Gazebo Near the Entrance

Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t all perfection. I love the flowers and trees but I’m not all the way there with the creatures. Some are pretty and cute. Yet I prefer the swans, ducks, and geese kept their distance. When they got close, I panicked because of the fear of them biting me.

I didn’t get bitten but somebody else did.  A couple, a woman and a man, came down the hill to feed the ducks and geese. She had a bag of food and she fed the birds by hand while her partner took pictures.  When she ran out of food a swan flapped its great wings, arched its neck, and attacked her. I was shocked as it grasped her ankle in its yellow beak gnawing away.  She backed away and started shaking her leg. It had such a hold, a grip on her ankle. Well, the moral of story is the monks and the rest of the staff told us NOT to feed the birds. I would not have fed them anyway because just the thought of them coming close to me terrifies me. I know this much: geese and ducks are still wild animals at the end of the day and should not be messed with at all.   

So where did it all begin, this tension between an appreciation and fear of nature? When I was a young girl at age 13, I went to visit my aunt in Atlanta. I was not afraid of bugs prior to that visit. I was sitting on the side of the house on the porch and a big wasp stung me. The pain hurt so bad I jumped off the side of the house. It wasn’t a small leap because you had to take several steps to get up to the porch. I don’t remember if it hurt when I landed because the pain of the sting was so intense, more intense than the fall. After that, I stayed in the house because I was so afraid of getting stung again. So much for nature.   

Since then I can be around animals more than bugs. The insects that fly and crawl really bother me. Of course, I won’t run if I see an ant. It can’t catch me. The worst are spiders and bees, any stinging insect or creature.  If I hear zzzzzz, the buzzing, I’m running. Keep in mind that the wasp makes a buzzing sound so it all goes back to when I was 13 and stung. I know a fly won’t do me any harm but I can’t stand the noise.   

Ok so long after the wasp sting incident, I met my husband who LOVES the outdoors including the beach and mountains. So we are outside regularly. Since I met him, I have been going outside a little more. Again, baby steps. I have come a long way because of my husband. When I first met him, he was always outside working as a mechanic. He would not see me until he came inside. Now I can go outside to be with him. He makes me feel safe. My husband says, “I got you. I got you. Nothing will happen to you.” He teaches me about different insects. They are not all in one category. Each has its purpose. Though it is contradictory, I would prefer bugs to keep their distance but these days I’m not so quick to kill them as I did in the past. Thanks baby—that would be my husband.   

On the Grounds of the Monastery

I think the next important experience was when I went camping overnight with black Boy Scouts from my church. The deacons who came on the trip were like wow our wives wouldn’t come because there was no electricity to curl their hair. At the time, I was paralyzed from the waist down in a wheelchair from a terrible car accident so the trip was even more complicated (I’m healed and walking now!). My husband was a Boy Scout leader. On the trip, I slept outside in nature. There was a spider in the tent. My husband freed it. He was with me and I felt safe. I was THERE in nature. That’s one of many pluses marrying a good ole country boy from the South.   

The Pond

I also went to Pine Mountain in Georgia to the Wild Animal Safari. I do love animals but I don’t want to be that close. We were in a Chevy Tahoe, a BIG truck. The animals were bigger than the truck. A zebra and buffalo came up to the truck. I thought the buffalo was a bull it was so humongous. My husband said different. Mind you, I had never seen wild animals like these—only in the zoo closed in. I saw a big black pig and learned later it was a wild boar. They had tusks and were dirty. I like baby pigs that are pink not dirty boars. I also saw a camel, a llama, foxes, and ostriches. I wondered why the smaller animals were in separate sections. I learned later that foxes would prey on other small animals if let loose. And of course you can’t leave the smaller animals with the lions and tigers. The giraffe was beautiful. They were all beautiful except the buffalo and the boar. There were so many different animals I’d never seen before. It was like the Lion King come to life, except they weren’t talking. Maybe because of my height—4’11”—everything was bigger than me. Even the ostrich was taller than me.   

We also do stuff as a family. I remember a trip to Callaway Gardens. We went to the Butterfly Haven. I love butterflies. They are so pretty. All these big butterflies landed on us. The butterflies were from all around the world which was nice but they still freaked me out. My son said, “Don’t panic. They are just butterflies.” I said, “I know.” It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds except I was surrounded by butterflies. Can you imagine pecking butterflies? Thanks Alfred! Beyond the fear and sarcasm, I stayed and did not run. I felt uncomfortable. I did not want to hurt them. I didn’t want them close either.   

Burial Site of the Monks: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Now at home I have a garden. Well ok, I went to Home Depot to buy the seeds and seedlings; my husband planted everything and tends the garden. Hey I paid and he tends: we both had a part.  I anticipate the beauty of the garden.  I planted the flower seeds, while my husband has planted the fruits and vegetables, bell and hot peppers, tomatoes, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and grapes, cabbage, romaine lettuce, green beans, corn, watermelon, watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumbers. We planted a peach tree three years ago. We just planted an apple tree. I am proud of myself because I went to Home Depot to buy the plants and seedling, however I must say that my husband has but a lot of hard work into the digging, planting and creating a beautiful garden. I’m taking baby steps to get closer to nature.   

I love animals and nature. I would prefer some distance. I know I said this already but it’s important enough to be repeated.  The closer I draw to God the more I am able to see the beauty of all of God’s creation.  This was just the beginning of many beautiful and learning encounters with God and nature, my experience as an African American woman outdoors.   

La La Typing the Blog

   

   

    

Guest Blog By La La  

Photos by Dianne Glave

Inaugural Blog Carnival: Challenges of Doing Diversity and Environment

Welcome to my Inaugural Blog Carnival focusing on the joys and tribulations of doing diversity and the environment.

As an African American woman, it has been a long lonely difficult journey sharing the stories of African Americans and the environment. It has also been one of my greatest joys. My goal in my inaugural May 2010 blog carnival is for diversity/environmental bloggers to share their successes along with their trials and tribulations. We have been doing the good but difficult work of getting the word out about diversity and the environment. I invite and challenge you to come join with me to connect with people and find support in one another. Some are connected and others are not. For those who are connected, continue with me creating community. For those who are not, please do join in.

Please submit your blog at my Inaugural Blog Carnival: Diversity and Environment Challenges. The submission deadline is Friday, May, 21, 2010. The blog carnival will be posted on Monday, May 24, 2010.

Dianne Glave