Cab Ride I: “The Birds,” Said an African American Man in Atlanta

“There’s something very wrong?” he said looking up at the overcast sky standing between my house and his cab. As I locked my door, I turned my head  to look at him knowing more was coming.

A young African American man in his early twenties sat in the driver’s seat. He turned over the engine and rap poured out a single speaker wedged between the two seats pointed at me. Jay-Z was spitting rhymes. Sounds of 21st century angst and protest filled the cab.

He said again, “Something is wrong.” He added, “There are no birds in the sky. I’m stuck in this cab all day so I only hear bits and pieces of the news.”

I almost said turn on NPR but that would have destroyed the mood edging on protest, real fear in the cab.

I told him a winter storm was coming, which might explain a bird-less sky.

He protested saying, “No, no. There have been birds dropping dead from the sky all over the world.”

I’d said I’d heard one story in the news. It was beginning to feel like an M. Night Shaymalan movie.

We went back and forth sharing two theories as Weezy rapped in the background. I had to speak up because he’d cranked up the music, I think, reflecting a strumming anxiety. Theory 1: fireworks. Theory 2: a storm swept the birds up.

He said, “You know animals are the first to respond to environmental problems.”

I agreed adding that for decades creatures like frogs with delicate skin have long been a barometer of toxic environments. When they disappear, die, because of pollution, it indicates a damaging climate and environmental havoc.

More than fifteen years ago when I began my work in environmentalism this conversation with a young African American man about the modern environment would have been a piece of fiction. Now it is non-fiction and I’m living it. And the people of color expressing concern is ever-increasing exponentially.

Photo by Dianne Glave

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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