Trace ~ Where is your place on America’s Natural Landscape?

Trace ~ Where is your place on America’s Natural Landscape?


At the core of her 2015 book Trace, author Lauret Savoy aspires to reconcile a profound contradiction. Though settled under the belief that all people are created equal, the American landscape is fraught with cultural restrictions that deprive both individuals and communities of the right to live and travel freely throughout the natural environment. As a writer and educator Savoy explores her own family’s experience and history to better understand the disparities between the various expressions of humanity and their ability to form an enduring and substantive relationship with the land where they make their homes.

Trace is at the top of our summer reading list for students in my class called Outdoors For All at the University of Wisconsin Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. I’d like to encourage anyone interested in learning more about the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion to join the discussion. Despite having dedicated many years of research into this topic I am constantly amazed and inspired by the work of scholars who help us come to a better understanding of our role in the long-term preservation of the world outside.

An African-American woman who grew up through the second half of the last century, Savoy shares her personal story in a struggle to find a place for herself on the land. Bearing witness to the end of legal segregation and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, she came of age in an era of broken promises. Though amendments to the Constitution assured her the privilege of unfettered access to the earth, water, air and sky of her nation, Savoy still felt the constraints of systems that deprived her pursuits of life, liberty, etc… A person of color in a country still deeply divided by race and ethnicity, she discovered there still remained barriers that stalled her access to nature. But through her studies Savoy found the insidious nature of what separates us is often a snare of our own making.

“As a young adult I felt little integrity or wholeness of living because so much of my acquired knowledge came from inculcated divisions,” she writes in Trace. “Only slowly did I come to see that I would remain complicit in my own diminishment unless I stepped out of the separate trap: me from you, us from them, brown skin from depigmented skin, relations with the land.”

Everyone searches to find their place in the world. But this sense of separation by race and ethnicity confounds our understanding of natural order as we try to simply find comfort and stability in our very existence. Who we are in life is so often defined by how we feel. Are we safe? Secure? Welcomed? Threatened? Through her journey in Trace, Savoy challenges her readers to follow her example and perhaps examine their own lives to find either a connection with or separation from the natural world. But either way she offers a choice. You can allow this “separate trap” to define, and therefore limit, your relationship with nature, or you can defy the conventional belief in where the boundaries lie and create a sense of place that is your very own.

This summer I will encourage my students imagine themselves as part of the natural landscape. How do you define your sense of place? Post your comments below.