Just as nature’s creations present in a range of colors, from birds' vibrant plumage and flowers' alluring array to the infinite variations of human skin tone, nature is agnostic about the color of skin of humans who enjoy outdoor pursuits. Flora and fauna have no preference or bias about whether the humans they encounter are white, pink, brown, or black, or any other shade.
Yet, for too long people of color have felt, and have been, excluded from outdoor pursuits, like backpacking, hiking, climbing and swimming. For People of Color living in urban areas, outdoor resources often are more challenging to access. To reach a hiking trail may require a car, and the most well-tended and spacious urban parks are often not conveniently located. The challenges of accessing nature results in reduced participation, which in turn reinforces perceptions that PoC do not belong in nature.
It is in this context that the encounter between dog owner Amy Cooper and birder Christian Cooper in Central Park’s Ramble is troubling beyond the alarming potential for Amy Cooper’s call to the police complaining of harassment by “an African American man in the Ramble” to result in a gentle birder, who happens to be black, falling victim to policy brutality. Chris Cooper is a familiar, friendly face to many who frequent the park's wooded areas. Yet, Amy Cooper’s reaction highlights the all-too-frequent perception that people of color do not belong in the outdoors, or if they are there, it is for menacing reasons. The encounter drew appropriate outrage, and coupled with recent horrific murders of black people by police no doubt contributed to the strong, continuing protests for racial equity.
Until only recently, organizations aimed at connecting people with the outdoors conveyed a sense that outdoor pursuits were the domain of white people. While this likely was inadvertent, benign oversight can have insidious results, reinforcing perspectives about black people in the out of doors. Fortunately, this is changing. The incident in Central Park gave rise to Black Birders Week, an initiative to celebrate black nature enthusiasts, and called out the challenges for black people pursuing outdoor activities (witness the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging). Organizations like REI, the Sierra Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club increasingly are diversifying the people pictured in their marketing materials and have featured programs and discussions aimed at equity and inclusion. Organizations like Outdoor Afro, Black Urban Growers, are emerging to facilitate greater participation by black people in nature-focused activities, and right here in New York City, Vivian Kurnitz’s Harlem Wellness Center has launched a number of initiatives to engage black people with nature-based experiences.
Since its founding in 2017, a core part of Urban Edge’s mission has been Community Outreach and enabling a nature connection, and its benefits, for those for whom access to nature has been challenging. While we are on pause now during the COVID-19 crisis, when we can resume gathering people together it will be with added vigor in enhancing equities in access to nature.
These are important steps, but there is more to be done.
The events of the past several weeks—the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor by police officers--exposes the extreme systemic racism and violence directed at certain human beings because of the color of their skin.
These deaths follow the horrific murders of Black people by law enforcement over the past several years--Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, and sadly many more.
And these deaths overlay the wretched circumstances of the last few decades: mass incarceration, persistent discrimination, and lack of access to decent housing and environmental conditions, banking, education, and health care.
Which follow the shame of the past three centuries: slavery and all of its brutality and Jim Crow.
Racism is a human invention. It does not exist in nature. Yes, to quote Tennyson, there is the image of nature “red in tooth and claw”, a world of Darwinian competition. But that is different.
Nature does not discriminate, and there is much we can learn from our interactions with nature. How we admire the beauty of nature’s kaleidoscope of variation! The rainbow of colors of birds and flowers; the alluring shades of green among plants; the stripes, spots, blotches, of mammals fill us with awe and wonder. Would we ever suggest that one hue of flower is to be singled out, castigated, and destroyed? Would we dare say that a blue flower is somehow less worthy than a pink flower, or that a yellow bird is less of a bird because of its tint?
And yet, all too often people of color find themselves viewed and treated as lesser humans simply because of their skin color. All too often the color of one’s skin can lead to a destiny that is diminishing, with opportunities denied, and futures destroyed.
This is a human invention, and we have the capability to remedy the widespread racism that has become impossible to “white wash”. Let us learn from our encounters with nature to think no less of fellow human beings because of the color of their skin.
We sat at the edge of brokenness, with a view of what wasn't right with the world: the tempo accelerating, how we worship speed - faster, faster, instantaneous communication, purchasing, travel (to Paris in just a few hours!); the constant thirst for information, driven by its constant production, from 24/7 news, to daytime talk shows, late night talk shows, Tweets, and Facebook feeds, the newest, the latest, the greatest, the Fear of Missing Out; how we pillaged and mined the earth for its resources, gluttonously feeding our ever-growing appetites, and to our own peril careless about the needs of other creatures and the planet's finely tuned equilibrium.
And then it happened, a pandemic of Biblical proportions as if out of an Old Testament story, something about a king, greedy, shrouded in gold, and dismissive of the needs of his people. Like the voice of a divinity, it announces to the people, who had lost their way, "There is something bigger than you!" A force, like the plagues of ancient Egypt, crossing boundaries of state and country and political divides, necessitating that we slow down and take stock. It awakens us from the whirling giddy miasma of modernity, and shakes us into remembering the timeless things that matter most -- our loved ones and communities, to breathe, and the beauty of nature and the world around us.
At the same time that we grieve for the loss of lives and economic hardship brought on by the pandemic, perhaps too there is a way this moment offers medicine for our times, medicine that supports the sentiments of Earth Day on its 50th anniversary.
Things Fall Apart
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
On the eve of the Jewish holiday Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day--we commemorate the millions of people murdered by the actions of Nazis and their collaborators. Many of us are familiar with stories about families hiding out during that time. Some survived. Many perished.
As we find ourselves in a time of hunkering down, avoiding gatherings, isolating in close quarters with a limited number of people, I have been thinking about the far more extreme experience of those hiding from Nazis during World War II. This is with full awareness that the comparisons here are not to be overstated--on the one hand a deadly political force intent on the annihilation of a people; on the other hand a virus, its impact influenced by political and socioeconomic factors, but the virus itself devoid of willful intent to harm.
I delve into thoughts about how people in hiding during that horrific time endured the hardships of sequestering for months on end in basements, in attics, hidden away behind concealed doors, with no ability to go outside, eating only what meager food was provided and being thankful for that. What a luxury it is, even amid this challenging time of COVID-19 pandemic, that we can walk freely within our homes, can select our food and cook, that we can reach out to friends and family by phone, Zoom, texting, and email, and , if we're lucky, can maintain our schooling and employment.
And, I am reminded of the words of Anne Frank and her recognition of the power of nature to bring solace:
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”
How fortunate we are that we can still go outside, can admire the changes in nature that come with the arrival of spring and can look upon nature as a constant.
The COVID-19 crisis highlights many things about our ways of being: our woeful lack of preparedness for a pandemic; the broader need for health care; the power of a force of nature so much greater than ourselves and our political structures and leanings; and the impact of job, housing and wage disparities among populations, among them. It also, and perhaps most strikingly, underscores our interconnectedness.
Indeed, central to the coronavirus' spread are the complex webs of links among beings. The virus jumped species, moving from non-human creatures to people, and once rooted within people, each point of human contact becomes its own node of countless connections, and on and on. It's our nature to be social creatures. We engage with family, friends, work colleagues, and fellow travelers on boats, airplanes, buses, and trains. We engage with fellow shoppers, theater-goers, congregations, book club and sports and exercise pals. We hug, we embrace, we walk hand-in-hand.
With the virus persisting on surfaces and in droplets of moisture in the air, our awareness of even traces of human connection become amplified. If I touch a door knob that was touched by someone with the virus who coughed into their hand, and I then rub my eyes, what then? If I handle groceries touched by someone with the illness and then scratch my nose, will I become infected and infect my family? If I walk along a path where an infected person recently sneezed and I inhale that same air, will I succumb to the virus? We become attuned to the invisible strands of countless connections as if we are wearing special lenses or possess a superhero-like powers akin to a UV light that discerns not just actual human encounters but residues of encounters, including those that are intermediated by the surfaces we touch and the air we breathe.
So much of what it means to be human--so much of how we define ourselves--is in relation to others and the roles we play as members of multiple communities. Part of what makes combating the virus' spread is the need to isolate. This runs against our nature, how we identify ourselves, and our deep need to connect with others.
Most glaring in the midst of this crisis are the daily tragedies: countless heart-wrenching experiences of illness and death, loss of jobs, disrupted schooling, and unprotected health care workers. Another, albeit minor, awareness is how interconnected -- and interdependent -- we all are. We are witnessing how a virus originating in central China has, by virtue of the extent to which humans travel and connect with one another, reached people all over the world. Yet, what is alarming in the context of a virus that causes illness and death and other hardship, is also an indicator of our human interconnectedness.
May we one day be able to appreciate that interconnectedness in a context separate from the horrors of a pandemic.
It is a strange feeling to experience emptiness in the city. Streets, subways, and stores only recently packed with people are abandoned. The city's propulsive energy, its alchemy of people, traffic, and commerce, and with these, perpetual noise and motion, has dissipated amid the coronavirus lockdown. It wouldn't be surprising to see tumbleweed rolling across Broadway, as if in a deserted western town.
Absent the hustle and bustle stand the stark horizontal grid of streets and verticality of architecture, like an empty set design awaiting its players, mirroring the empty sets of closed-down Broadway. The street grid, a rigid, fixed geometry that holds, harnesses, and thus enables the city's usual percussive beat and allows endless creative spark and serendipitous encounter rests now like an idling factory without purpose.
The great emptiness resulting from coronavirus-mandated retreat indoors makes it evident that it is people who give the city its sense of vitality, who collectively transform it into a fantastic gigantic organism. As alienating and dehumanizing as a metropolis can sometimes be, we see in this time of crisis the capacity of closely packed people to create an environment that pulsates with energy.
How we look forward to the time when that energy resumes.
A viral pandemic is spreading across the globe. We are advised to wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, maintain social distancing, cough and sneeze into our elbows, and self-quarantine if not feeling well. An invisible force of nature has led to illness and death, schools closing, social gatherings cancelled, and a plunge in the stock market. And, it highlights how interconnected we are.
What began in Wuhan, China has arrived in every continent except Antarctica, and is spreading within countries. Just thinking about the vectors of contact, multiplied across people infected, is mind boggling. An individual in a Westchester suburb of New York City with no recent history of travel to a hot spot is diagnosed with the virus and its illness COVID-19. His communities go on high alert; his house of worship shuts down, his office shuts down, his family and various contacts are found to be diagnosed. The virus pops up in Nassau County, Long Island; in Queens, in New Jersey, in Connecticut, far away from the initial U.S. hot spots of Seattle and California.
And so many of us move into a state of hyper-awareness. Is that occasional cough a Coronavirus cough? Do I dare take the subway? Is that person coughing over there going to make me and my family ill? Do I even need to worry since I am not among the more vulnerable sub-populations (although loved ones are)?
All if this vigilance, on top of contributing to workplace awareness and response planning in my day job, is making me a little nutty. I find myself experiencing tightness in my chest, and wondering if it is a sign of the COVID-19 - or more likely my tendency to feel that way when I am experiencing stress (and a day hunched over a computer to track the latest developments for my organization doesn't help).
So I went for a walk.
And I am reminded that there is a beautiful world out there.
In case you haven't noticed, with the clocks springing forward over the weekend, darkness arrives at close to 7:30. And we can all probably agree that 70 degree weather in New York City before mid-March is alarming and a likely indicator of an existential crisis far greater than Coronavirus. .... But it did feel nice to walk in Central Park amid the soothing, warm air, to feel the sunlight and to notice the earliest of blooms, the beginning flowerings of dogwoods, cherry trees, azaleas and forsythias.
None of this takes away from concern about a highly contagious virus that is potential deadly, particularly for vulnerable populations. But a walk outside noticing the beauty of evening light and early spring blooms sure helped to relieve that tightness in my chest.
From Having it Out With Melancholy
by Jane Kenyon
What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
A coyote was recently sighted in Central Park, a reminder of how as cities and suburbs expand into wildlife habitats, wildlife increasingly ends up in our backyards, including urban parks. Somewhat surprisingly, urban environments--though posing unique threats to wildlife--can also be beneficial for wildlife, offering abundant food sources and even predictable ambient patters, such as morning and evening rush hour.
Coyotes are not strangers to contemporary New York City. The Gotham Coyote Project, a group of researchers, educators, and students is working together to study the ecology of the northeastern coyote in New York City and the region. The project estimates that, as of 2018, 30-40 coyotes live in the New York City area, including in Queens near La Guardia Airport, the Bronx, Central Park, and Battery Park.
Increasingly, as humans encroach on wildlife habitats, wildlife encroaches on human habitats. Books like Feral Cities and Zooburbia, describe ways that human and animal life overlap. Notes an article in The Guardian,
"all around the world, city life seems to be increasingly conducive to wildlife. Urban nature is no longer unglamorous feral pigeons or urban foxes. Wolves have taken up residence in parts of suburban Germany as densely populated as Cambridge or Newcastle. The highest density of peregrine falcons anywhere in the world is New York; the second highest is London, and these spectacular birds of prey now breed in almost every major British city. And all kinds of wild deer are rampaging through London, while also taking up residence everywhere from Nara in Japan to the Twin Cities of the US."
Coyotes in NYC remind us that the wild heart of life collides and coexists with us in our urban homes.
Denuded of their leaves, the verdant raiments of Spring and Summer rendered brilliantly hued in Autumn, trees in Winter allow us to hone in on the subtle and not so subtle differences of their outermost layer, overlaying the wood and vascular cambium -- their bark.
As you make your way about in Winter, take note of tree bark - its color, texture, and form. What colors do you see? Greenish gray? Silver or brown? Red undertones? Is it smooth--as is typically the case with young trees, much like smooth skin of young people--or deeply grooved and weathered, showing its years? Do its grooves appear as elongated parallel ridges or striations? Diamonds? Braided twists? Is the bark rigid? Flaky? Layered? Deep or relatively flat? How does it feel to the touch? Hard or soft?
Every species of trees has its signature bark, and people knowledgeable about trees can identify them by their bark alone. Take advantage of the starker Winter landscape to appreciate the varied beauty of tree bark.
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn't show. -- Andrew Wyeth
Martin Luther King Day offers a time to reflect on the impact of the great civil rights leader and his legacy of respect. A corollary to respecting other human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, or skin color is respect for nature -- respect for other leaving creatures and the ecosystems that support them.
Respect for nature, like Civil Rights, is rooted in the notion of "inherent worth." In the context of environmental ethics, Paul W. Taylor, in his groundbreaking book Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, describes "inherent worth" in this way:
Our duties toward the Earth's non-human forms of life are grounded on their status as entities possessing inherent worth. They have a kind of value that belongs to them by their very nature, and it is this value that makes it wrong to treat them as if they existed as mere means to human ends. It is for their sake that their good should be promoted or protected. Just as humans should be treated with respect, so should they. (p. 13)
There are a range of ways to regard nature, many of which ultimately are about what nature can do for people. Nature can be regarded as a resource to be exploited (e.g., "natural resources"), focused on energy, agriculture, timber, and extraction-oriented activities. It can be experienced as a playground for outdoor activities. Perhaps more nobly, nature can be considered a refuge, an escape from hectic modern life. It can be engaged with aesthetic appreciation and with scientific curiosity. Yet, all of these, notes Taylor, differ from the attitude of respect for nature grounded in a moral sense of nature's inherent worth.
A sense of nature's inherent worth is central to a biocentric outlook on nature and the attitude of respect for nature. From the perspective of a biocentric outlook, writes Taylor,
[O]ne sees one's membership in the Earth's Community of Life as providing a common bond with all the different species of animals and plants that have evolved over the ages. One becomes aware that, like all other living things on our planet, one's very existence depends on the fundamental soundness and integrity of the biological system of nature. When one looks at this domain of life in its totality, one sees it to be a complex and unified web of interdependent parts." (p. 44)
Environmental ethics is not an obvious legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Civil Rights work. Yet, there are interrelated threads, rooted in the notion of inherent worth and an awareness of the inter-dependencies of living creatures. As King himself said,
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.
On MLK Day, we can reflect on the wisdom and courage of the great Civil Rights leader, and the broad impact and application of his vision.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.