A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars

Ed. Erin Sharkey 

A Darker Wilderness;
Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars
Ed. Erin Sharkey. Milkweed Editions, 2023.

Property: a thing or things that are owned by somebody; a possession or possessions.

Nature: all the plants, animals and things that exist in the universe that are not made by people.   Oxford English Dictionary online

In what Goodreads, of all entities, calls a “…vibrant collection of personal and lyric essays in conversation with archival objects of Black history and memory,” the forward essay in the book, “Memory Divine” by Carolyn Finney, serves as a moving introduction to the subject of African Americans and nature. Reading it,  I am reminded of French socialist, anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous statement, mistakenly attributed by some to Karl Marx: “property is theft.”  The statement meant taking possession of land/nature as property. It also meant that slavery—refashioning a human being as property—was a form of homicide.[1]

Renegade anthropologist, whose work includes citations from the book of Job, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Marx in The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America—renegade anthropologist Michael Taussig put the process of establishing ownership baldly, with an epigram prefacing Chapter Four of his book regarding the situation in Columbia:

          "We are the owners and our fences are our titles" 
          Ricardo Holguin—owner of hacienda Perico Negro. (70).

In order for land/living creatures to be defined as “property,” they must be regarding as something.  Then that something is further defined as a commodity, that which can be bought and sold—by the conventions of capitalism, for financial gain—and that which, clearly demarcated and recorded as such, is owned.  In several of his writings, Taussig has also pointed out that, in terms of indigenous understanding, one could not ‘own’ land; land was a resource, communal, not a commodity, and for communal use.  Fencing land for for private use was an anti-social act.  As land itself became even more of a monetized commodity, in the era of captive Africans cum peasants in South America some land was given them for raising food, etc., but that arrangement, too, was threatened and, in several cases, abandoned in view of more profitable uses for the wealthy landowners.            

I am also reminded of once governor of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams’, ground-breaking Capitalism and Slavery, wherein the author points out that the vast profits made by the transatlantic slave trade financed the Industrial Revolution and the system which supports it—capitalism.  

Both abominations, theft and murder, have been visited upon those Africans ripped from their homes in the mother continent, enslaved, and then categorized in the original slave-holding US Constitution as 3/5 of a person (for the purpose of determining representative numbers in Congress) as well as property, like cattle or mules. The Emancipation Act (13th Amendment) and specifically the 14th amendment officially repealed what is often referred to by historians as the “3/5 Compromise.”

Though her reminsicences of  growing up on the estate where her father was gardener, then returning many years later to see what was “home,” what Finney does, with no window-dressing whatsoever, is to set out the difficulties of African Americans with nature, with a sense of “home” in a land which still has not resolved the problems of its violence towards black people, not only in terms of the persistence of racist thinking but its continued reenactment.[2] ‘Home’ for Finney, was a place which neither she nor other members of her family could claim as such; and were it not for the permission of the ‘owners’ she would be even barred from visiting it.  Indeed, in terms of access to ‘property’ a reference from Taussig raises an interesting point:

In his novel Seven Red Sundays…Ramon Sender depicts a worker who was just released from jail hurrying to his old building construction site, a theatre, to glory in the finished building. “What-Oh! My good walls, noble lines, curving steel and glass! How the light sings in the round eye of a gable!” The manager refuses him entry. “But I worked on this job for more than six months.” “If you did work, they paid you for it—clear out.” The manager pointed to the door. The worker pointed to the inside staircase. “I’m going up. When I’ve seen everything, I’ll look in to say goodbye. Or I’ll stay here if I like. All this . . . is more mine than yours” (1961:2,0-2,1). (28)

In terms of access to Nature, one could easily use incarceration (and being barred/discouraged from access and enjoyment of it) as a metaphor for slavery, and the subsequent dismissing of a worker’s contribution to a public ‘property’ as a metaphor for discrediting the contributions of  labor—forced or otherwise—to all our lives.  The further notion of capital abrogating one’s access to certain resources, even as a substitute for that access, is one step away from the case of enslaved persons who, denied access to something they had a part in creating/caring for, etc., were not even paid.  The capitalist notion of something/someone owned, being a commodity, both denies the fact of something being a resource and someone being a human being.[3]  

What, then, if that ‘property’ is untouched by human hand as the above definition of nature supposes?  Fraught with contemporary notions of human separation from nature in, for lack of a better term, white thought, compounded by white racism, the more specific black relationship with nature in the US cannot help but be contaminated. So, too, Erin Sharkey, Darker Wilderness’ editor, reminds us in her introduction to the collection—so, too, is nature writing itself far from uncontaminated:

...nature writing grew out of an effort to describe and categorize the attributes of birds, animals, and insects—a list that grew as more of the world was “discovered.” This discovery was violent because it was a tool of colonization, with “explorers” conquering new land and, with it, nature that was unfamiliar to them….The hierarchy of colonization is reproduced within natural history, in the sorting of some humans as subjects rather than scientists….making its appearance in response to conditions of the state: industrialization, capitalism, urbanization, democracy. (16)

She goes on to point out that the genre is generally related in first person and overwhelmingly dominated by white male authors, “with access to resources.” (17) (With access, dare we say, to capitalist commodities?) All this, Sharkey goes on to say, does not mean “that Black people don’t have a relationship to nature.” Indeed, they have been “instrumental in the stewardship and care of the land”; and, despite the poor working conditions and lack of ownership, “skill and innovation has been evident in their relationship with it.” (18)

In Darker Wilderness, Sean Hill’s “This Land is My Land,” presumably a paraphrase from the folk song popularized by Woodie Guthrie (next line, “this land belongs to you and me, “) attempts to redefine what it means to engage with nature.  Nature and wilderness, he suggests, is now conventionally viewed as something apart from the manmade (see above definition from the OED):

…’it’s primitive, remote, pristine land; untouched land that those with the financial wherewithal, time, and ‘desire’ can access. Going camping. Backpacking. Disappearing into the woods for days on end. (73)

Hill argues for an encounter with nature even in the midst of the manmade. For example, his 5-year-old son, who has taken up his father’s passion for birdwatching, has spotted ring-billed gulls, black-billed magpies, and so on in the nearby park, in a neighbor’s tree. Right in the midst of human activity, “he sees nature constantly on the wing.” (74)

Nature, then, is a particular aspect/part of land, though overwhelmingly seen as owned, property still, and at times, with access given only to particular people, is not manmade. Sometimes under the rubric of “public property,” as among the US system of National Parks set aside for special public use, it still has rules, restrictions, made by those in charge, e.g., the state. But, as Hill suggests, creatures of nature, birds, wildflowers, squirrels, urban foxes—do stray onto property whose ‘ownership’ is more complicated:  my yard, your yard, the roadside, town parks, our neighborhood, dumpsters outside restaurants, etc.           

So there you have it.  How do the descendants of property—’thingified’ human beings—write about ‘nature,’ an entity which has been subsumed in our capitalist system under various categories of ‘land’ which, not terminally despoiled by humans, also contain creatures that live and grow ‘naturally’ upon it?  I would add, as well, that the notion of possession indeed enhances the absurd idea that we humans as ‘owners’ (some monotheistic religions say ‘caretakers’) of nature are apart from it. Indeed, What is man [sic] that thou art mindful of him?

5For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.  (Book of Genesis, KJV)

You can also see the dilemma:  bondage certainly existed in Biblical times, as did the notion of an ancestral home for a people, not, alas, for ALL people.  With different objectives, but the persistent notion of land as a commodity which demands ownership, who then determines to what use land is put, let alone who uses it or lets it flourish without human interference? 

Artifacts of that interference, for example, persist in place names, as Lauret Savoy points out in her “Confronting the Names on This Land.”  Savoy references the indigenous names underlying place names, esp. in the US West; the colonizers’ names like Washington, Lincoln, and the de-hispanisized place names of places once under Spanish colonization, natural features once called N—-r Head (so offensive, I cannot reprint it in full) that ‘monumentalize’ the casual racism of the European colonizers and their descendents in the US. Names have sprung up from their illusions of grandeur, reflecting the classical education of some colonizers, though not mentioned by Savoy, like Cincinnati after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, 5c. B.C.E. Roman hero who saved his city from crisis. (Interestingly, Cincinnatus subsequently retired to his farm, his property, rather than rule.) Like maps, naming functioned as

…semantic (re)defining fit a design that made sense to the ambitions of those men from Europe who made landfall after landfall. (88)

While renaming to familiarize the land thus ‘discovered’ colonizers were nonetheless dependant upon the indigenous peoples who already were far more familiar with the land as it was. Indeed, some of the Europeans twisted indigenous names to fit their own tongues, so that the Wampanoag Massachusett, “place of the foothills,” became Massachusetts, Kwinitekw became Connecticut; the French colonists’ Ouisiconsing, after the indigenous Mesconsing, became the anglicized Wisconsin—the lists which Savoy has compiled are fascinating and are a history lesson of the indigenous-European intersections that certainly did not show up in my secondary education textbooks, even before the excesses of today’s book banning.

Savoy then cites George Stewart’s comment from his WWII Names on the Land:

‘…the oppressed African left little mark upon the map. Pinder Town in South Carolina preserved the Kong mpinda, “peanut,” but white men probably did the naming after the word had become current in local speech. Doubtless many hundreds of small streams and swamps were named by Negroes, but their namings cannot be distinguished.’ (97)

Wait just a minute! Savoy goes on to point out, in company with others, that of course, languages and naming and names crossed the Atlantic from the mother continent:  Suwannee; Combahee in Mississippi; Nakina, NC, and more. She goes on to note the hybridization of a number of such words and their commentary on life there—”Buy. Hate. Home. Deep longing.” As “black towns” grew post Civil War along with the migrations north and as she also posits, some names persisted—Lincolnville, Independence Heights, Union City—some did not. Sadly, though officially erased, the N-word persisted in place names in “pockets of local speech and on some maps.”(98) Other derogatory names given other groups also persist; however,

Names outlive the bestowers for many reasons. I think of the vantage point, the ‘appearance’ of overwhelming difference in the eyes and ears of beholding namers for over five hundred years.  Even the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature (listing genus and species), so taken for granted as an international standard, began as part of colonial world trade that collected human beings as it collected exotic plants and animals. (100-101)

Once more, I am brought back to Cesaire’s “thingification.”           

Editor Erin Sharkey also includes her own essay, “An Urban Farmer’s Almanac” which reflects on Benjamin Banneker’s Almanacs “…and Other Astronomical Phenomenon”  and her experience living in Buffalo, New York, where she worked on an urban farm.  In the process, she absorbs the rhythms that urban nature took around her, and the essay reflects that as diary entries, rather than just exposition. Banneker, for those of you ignorant of his work, was an African American who published this work in the 1792-1797:  it included the scientific information one might expect in an almanac— weather forecasts, tide tables, lunar and solar eclipses, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and more. The 1793 edition included his correspondence with Andrew Jefferson, debating the idea of the inferiority of African peoples. Sharkey’s work includes her thoughts on religion (her family is Christian, and progressive) which she finds a bit more friendly than I towards all people having access to nature, astrology as a traditional precursor of astronomy, observation of the sky and its movements and the effect of its phenomenon upon people and other beings. It was what Banneker had in the 18th century; he was not, nor is Sharkey into, as one friend calls it, “woo-woo.”

There is much to be experienced in this essay, that entices the reader into where Sharkey lives, her ‘hood,’ her involvement in urban farming, the rhythms of urban nature:

Nature isn’t bad or good.  Nature is a relationship, a big map of interconnectedness, of needs met, bodies transformed. The hood is a natural place.  The hood was natural before the garden grew up in the middle of it. And above the garden, the moon is faithful, and it sits in the same sky Banneker looked to make predictions.

When I moved to Buffalo…I didn’t imagine I’d work on an urban farm or whether it would hurt or heal me….But after seven years on that urban farm…I was healed by the way its people and animals and plants persist—and the moon and its cycles up there above it, looking down. (124)

It is difficult to simply skim over these essays, leaving some for the reader to discover; for they are all compelling.  But then, might I risk spoiling it for you?  I will lightly touch upon but two more and remind you, if I have not already, buy the book!

At the end of her essay, Sharkey as editor notes a blank space to commemorate those who are incarcerated, and to urge pressure to end the “prison industrial complex.”  This then takes readers on to work by Ronald Greer, himself writing while in prison.  In “Magic Alley,” Greer revisits a childhood in an inner city neighborhood in Detroit: as a child, his play in an alley both cluttered with the detritus of humanity’s damages to itself and others—junkies’ paraphernalia, crack pipes, a drug dealer’s gun, various dogs from the much feared Pit Bulls to lesser challenges; a monkey who escaped from the zoo and was recaptured from a tree; a derelict house so far gone that nature had, indeed, invaded it, with knarled trees and rampant vegetation taking over the inside of the house itself. Another rumored escapee into the alley—a rattlesnake once owned by a neighbor….

I am reminded of the phrase, whose origin I had always mis-ascribed to that arch imperialist, Rudyard Kipling:  “Nature red in tooth and claw.”  It’s origin is with Alfred Lord Tennyson, who coined it in a poem, In Memoriam: A.H.H, for a friend who died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

What mediates this somewhat threatening depiction of the natural world looming alongside that of the not altogether friendly manmade, was a garden created by his grandfather, one of

reclaimed inner-city land, [where]using our own two hands, my grandfather and I tilled the dirt and planted vegetables. And when the small green shoots of produce cracked the earth and grew green and edible, we shared the food with the neighborhood.

What follows in the essay is a harrowing description of entering that house which had become so derelict and, then, invaded by nature; for something—we never find out what—tragic happened in that house.  Do not deceive yourself: if we humans abandon nature, in the sense of a suicidal lack of care for our natural home, when we die off, nature will simply go on without us.

To the reader’s relief, after leaving the derelict house the author returns to his grandfather’s garden:

Next to a crack house, my grandfather and I planted an urban garden that fed the neighborhood. We gave lima beans, green peas, tomatoes, and turnip greens to church ladies whose sons were dope dealers and whose aunts and uncles were drug addicts.  In his own way, my grandfather worked his magic on those people. They guarded me from the magic that should have consumed me. (145)

What strikes me about this essay is not so much what Sharkey might reference as the neutrality of nature,  but in Greer’s essay, one, its persistence in the face of human beings’ unthinking interference, and two, the healing power of a simple garden.  What is clear in “Magic Alley” is the relationship of humanity and nature—of which, like it or not, we are a part.  Forget that and we are lost.

Author of “Concentric Memory,” Naima Penniman had a more rural existence, a bucolic childhood in the Massachusetts woods. Mixed race family, with mother sometimes not around but having assigned the best babysitter around for Naima and her siblings:

Mama Nature herself.  We were lucky to have such a dynamic and ubiquitous caretaker, to be schooled by the marshes teeming with tadpoles, held by the cushions of moss, watched over by the shape-shifting sky. (149)

Skimming  over what I hope you, Dear Reader, will read carefully—time spent in Haiti, the land of her grandfather, the culture that it nurtured—I want to touch upon the significance of marronage[4], not only to the author, but as an archetype of community.  The dictionary definition below is a bit vague: maroons were escaped slaves, yes, but they formed outlier communities—quilombos, palenques, mocambos—with the notable Palmares near Recife, Brasil, populated at its height by c. 30,000 people and lasting nearly 100 years.  There ex-slaves not only maintained their armed resistance; they planted and raised crops for food and medicines, reestablished their connections with their traditional religions, their language and culture, etc. As brutal and inhumane as plantation slavery—all slavery—was, the enslavers also were terrified of these escapees.  

In her quest for her own relationship to nature and her origins, the author  joins Soul Fire Farm, which seeks to use Afro-indigenous techniques to farm “in relationship to the earth.” From there Penniman goes on to form her own intentional community, WILDSEED, in the Hudson River Valley. Echoing the archetype of the maroon community, she refers to the possibility of a “liberated zone for Black, Indigenous, and other people to practice interdependence and sovereignty together.” (167)

Since the formation of the two communities mentioned above, several others with similar goals have spun off in various parts of the country.

A salient point which the author returns to is that nature teaches us to be

..generous, loving, cooperative, multidimensional. That we are part of something so much bigger. We are no accident. We are never alone. (151)

We are never alone. The essays in A Darker Wilderness are not those of early travelers in lands not remotely their own, nor of wannabe ‘neutral’ observers of the ‘beauties of nature.’ We are never alone. We belong to/in nature. Indeed, key to these essays is that: we are not apart from nature.  Hence, rather than despair at the damage those who claim we are apart, those who are alienated from her, are doing to the planet—and though some might accuse Penniman of being a bit New-Agey-sounding—she considers a list of community-conscious ways of protecting the planet.  I will not repeat that list here, but, rather, make note of a worthy effort on the part of the author and her community to stand apart, not with their backs turned, but with arms wide open to the goal of discovering ways to respect and de-commodify that same planet and each other for a fruitful life for all of us.

Note: May is Asian American and Pacific Islander month. For such a perspective on nature writing, Milkweed Editions’ World of Wonders, by Aimee Nezhukumatahil is on offer and well worth the read.

— Bronwyn Mills

A Note on the Anglosphere

[1] “What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder!, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to remove a man’s mind, will, and personality, is the power of life and death, and that it makes a man a slave. It is murder. Why, then, to this other question: What is property? may I not likewise answer, It is theft!, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?”  From Proudon’s  What is Property. First published in 1840. The reader might also reference Edward Long’s 1774 History of Jamaica, which among the author’s defense of enslaving captive Africans are lists of “property” held by various persons profiting therein: mules, cattle,  slaves…

[2] As Homo sapiens, we primates are all originally African, some of us having wandered out of the continent at different times, some staying; but the transition into categories of “race,” is basically an unscientific use of phenotype to justify a racist lens and assert the power of one group over another. 

[3] Interestingly, Martiniquan writer, Aimé Cesaire, referred to the commodification of human beings (slavery) as “thingification.”

[4] Collins Dictionary defines this as “..the process of extricating oneself from slavery.” Slaves escaped from the plantations and formed communities away from the reach of the slave masters.  Historically they were often feared by the slave holding class.