09 Oct There’s No Place Like Home ~ An Essay by Dr. Carolyn Finney
I am African-American. Feels important that I say that up front. Born in New York city and raised by black parents on land belonging to a wealthy, Jewish family, I was “homeschooled” emotionally and spiritually on a diet of black power, black striving and black possibility. I often joke with people that I lived with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali whose presence my father invoked on a regular basis. My parents, Henry and Rose, grew up in Floyd, Virginia – poor and black with a high school education. Their stories have all the fixin’s of living a black life in a segregated America – grandmothers working as maids for white privilege, grandfathers working to hold on to their sense of self-worth in a place that denied them on a continual basis, and a bloodline that reflected an African, European and American Indian heritage that was often denied, sometimes embraced, and always present.
It is something to live in a place that continuously tells you that you don’t belong
For the first 18 years of my life, I was all about the outdoors. The estate my parents cared for nestled in the Mamaroneck River watershed was filled with Northern red oak, black birch, poplar and beech trees. There was a large pond that was home to fish, turtles and waterfowl, including mallards and great blue herons. There were deer, wild turkey and cottontails roaming the property. And the flower gardens were filled with tulips, zinnias, daffodils, snapdragons, and roses that my father tended on a regular basis. As if that wasn’t enough, there were apple, plum, pear and peach trees that we could eat, when we could wrestle the fruit away from the squirrels. I rowed my first boat and fished for the first time on that pond. I learned how to swim in the pool that belonged to the owners. I created whole worlds on that property – one of my favorite games entailed me turning the driveway into a piranha river that my brothers and I had to cross to rescue a stuffed animal that was hidden on a secret ship made of rocks. Speaking of rocks, there was a fairly large rock on the property, hidden behind some trees that to my child’s eyes, was as large as a small house. I would climb onto that rock to sit on top in a perfectly carved out seat and I would imagine that rock as my horse taking me beyond the earthly limits of my day-to-day life.
I loved that place
I loved that land
The property was part of a very wealthy, all-white neighborhood that was home to more trees than I could count. In my first job delivering newspapers on my bike, I got a close up look at many driveways, homes and yards that also boasted significant flora and fauna. I’m not sure that I consciously understood the gift I had been given – the opportunity to have all of that green around me on a regular basis; to wake up every day to the sounds of cicadas and geese and my father’s lawn mower. To breathe air that was always fresh; to play in the snow unfettered by fear of any sort; where parents telling you to “go play outside!” was hardly a scolding; where my body became strong and I believed my legs could carry me anywhere. I’m not sure that I was conscious of these things. But when I was nine years old, I was walking home from school one day. I was right around the corner from my house when I was stopped by a policeman in a squad car. I don’t think I was surprised to see the policeman as there were always policeman patrolling this neighborhood. It was what happened after that that confused me. He asked me where I was going and I gave him my home address and pointed in front of me. He looked at me and said, “do you work there?”. I remember feeling strange and saying, “no, I live there”. He let me go. I went home and told my parents, and my father in his fury, called the police station to set them straight and the police never bothered me or my brothers again. But for the first time I became aware that perhaps, me and my family, because of the color of our skin, don’t belong in this beautiful place filled with trees, flowers, ducks and possibility.
It is something to live in a place that challenges your right to be there
In 2003 my family had to leave the estate permanently. While my brothers and I had grown up and moved on, my parents had stayed on the land, caring for it until a new family took their place. In the 1990’s the original owner fell ill and conversations ensued about what to do with my parents. While the original owner’s family considered trying to keep my parents on this land, in the end, they had a lovely house built for my parents in Leesburg, Virginia. A new owner came on soon after the death of the original owner. My parents packed up their furniture, their memories and their dreams and moved to their new home in Virginia. That was also the last time I was able to stand among the trees in the place I called home.
Soon after my parents moved to Leesburg, VA, they got a letter from one of their old neighbors back in New York. It was a copy of a letter that had been sent to all the homes in their old neighborhood from the Westchester Conservation Land Trust. A conservation easement had been placed on the property that I had grown up on and that my family had cared for, for nearly half a century. This meant that in perpetuity, nothing could be changed on this land. The letter touted all the reasons why this land needed to be protected: the abundance of wildlife, the importance of where the property was in the watershed, and the diverse tree species. At the end of the letter, the writer thanked the new owner for his conservation mindedness (he had been on the land for about three years). But there was nothing in the letter thanking my parents who had worked on and cared for that land for nearly fifty years. And just like that, my family was erased from the history of that land.
I don’t remember the first time I set foot in a National Forest. In truth, for the longest time I did not understand the concept of public lands in general – that there were forests, grasslands, and diverse landscapes that “belonged” to all of us. My experience of growing up on land that never belonged to my family (and the subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of that fact) and moving through the world in my brown skin influenced how I thought about any space, including National Forests. Would I be welcome? Would I be safe? Would I be seen? I couldn’t see the forest for the trees (pun intended). I had to go away in order to come back home again, in order to “see” differently. I spent the better part of five years backpacking in different parts of the world including Kenya, Nepal, Madagascar, Israel, Turkey – visiting their forests and wide-open spaces under the guise of challenging myself physically and opening myself to a world beyond my borders. At a deeper level, I wanted to be free – free of the fear of a history that negated my presence, that challenged my worthiness and limited my possibilities.
For the past sixteen years, I have spent my time traveling this country speaking about land, race and belonging amidst questions of sustainability and whose story counts. What started off as a personal quest to reinstate my parents – nay, my families experience – as part of a local environmental history that perhaps unintentionally excluded us in the larger telling of environmental stewardship, became something more. Whether we define home as our local community, the roof over our heads, or a piece of land, we don’t exist in isolation from the larger processes that define this country and our world. And many us carry that history with us. I became interested in the legacy of contradictions – how the Homestead Act of 1862 provided the opportunity for European immigrants to own land and build a home while at the same time, black people were being held as slaves and Native people were being pushed off the land; How John Muir started publically speaking about preservation while Jim Crow segregation did not allow for African Americans to partake in sublime Nature; and how Gifford Pinchot was creating forestry as a profession and conservation as a way of life, but African Americans (and others) could not participate to the same degree. These contradictions inform the work that many of us are doing today concerning the restorative power of the landscape and any kind of environmental engagement for ALL people. And I believe that entails something else, beyond a universal prescription. This place was home to Native people and non-human species before others came to make it their home. If we are to tend to the restorative power of a landscape, we have to tend to the legacy and the complexity of what that actually means.
In 2015 the National Forest Foundation launched a new campaign entitled, “It’s All Yours”. At its core, the message reminds of us of our relationship with the forests and landscapes that provide for us and tell us who we are. I have to admit that I find the name of the new campaign “It’s All Yours” somewhat troubling. It implies a kind of ownership – “this is mine, not yours” – that is fueled by a capitalist system and a sense of entitlement that continues to impede our ability to stand in the tension of our differences and build meaningful relationships with the land and each other. Here’s the thing: all this land was stolen. The land I grew up was stolen. The public lands many of us enjoy was stolen. No amount of time passing will change that fact. How do we hold that? I believe the intention behind the “It’s All Yours” campaign hints at something deeper than simply playing in and caring about our forest and our grasslands. Yes – go on a hike! But also think about how power, privilege and our collective past informs our individual experiences. Consider who might have access and who does not (and why). Look for and read about those stories of people different from yourself whose experience of nature and the woods in particular may challenge your own. Be willing to listen. Be willing to change. I see the “It’s All Yours” campaign as an invitation, offering us an opportunity to embrace our complex history and reconcile that history in our present. It invites us to be in better relationship with our forests and our grasslands. It reminds us that we are responsible for our actions and we have agency – at any moment, we can always make a different decision. And it affirms what I have always felt – that home is not so much about ownership, but about responsibility, accountability, and love.