NATURE OF COLOR
This essay perhaps offers more critiques than solutions, but I still want to argue against the status quo that is overwhelmingly publishing white writing in nature and environmental writing. That this fact can be easily discernible through a cursory glance through the tables of contents in many journals and anthologies calls me to argue against it. What I want to argue against is editorial helplessness when it comes to selecting and publishing poetry. What I want to argue against is the impossibility of intersectionality when focusing on specific subject matter or accountabilities. What I want to argue against is the erasure of the human toll of environmental racism when addressing human made ecological harm. What I want to argue against is the subsuming of BIPOC worldviews into the animalistic or primitivistic realm under the implicit hierarchy of human vs. nature. What I want to argue against is the use of nature as set dressing when privilege permits poets to describe land and animals as opportunities for figurative meaning-making rather than interactive agents, thus reinforcing the binary that indirectly poses marginalized peoples as passive, conquerable characters. What I want to argue against is a notion of belonging that is determined by what has always been, rather than what has been carefully constructed, wielding the force of systems that must be deliberately dismantled before a more inclusive approach can be tended in its place.
I will start by arguing against the figure of my father being noticeable for his intrusive difference rather than the specificities of his complex history leading him to roam through natural spaces, trying to experience as much of the world’s landscapes as he can in his lifetime. My father has always loved nature and retreats into the natural world whenever he can.
His life can be charted by a birth and beginning in the tumultuous heave of Hong Kong, a transplantation to the motley density of San Francisco, and, finally, a gradual and deliberate retreat to the outer reaches of Los Angeles’s suburban sprawl. In his retirement, he bought a parcel of land in the Californian desert that has no visible or audible neighbors. He likes to be surrounded by uninterrupted landscape, and sometimes I wonder what ended up being the motivating factor in my father’s interests—whether it was a reaction against the urban land use that shaped his youth with its sights, sounds, and air, or whether it was a reclamation of his parents’ young lives; my paternal grandparents grew up in the northern extent of China, a region that is scaled differently in its ruralness. With wildly jutting mountains dancing in the expanses of vivid plains that, in turn, house the meanders of powerful rivers, it is a place in which people can feel very small, or quite alone, or uninterruptedly peaceful. It is, of course, also a place that can be quite poor, underserved, and considered backwards if modernity is the measure of quality of life.
When he vacations, my father prefers national parks, another type of location that can allow visitors to envision a landscape that decenters the modern, Western form of anthropocentrism, that differentiates the physical and ontological scope of size, awareness, and interaction. Before my father decided on and settled into his retirement home, my step-mother had once mentioned to me that my dad’s retirement dream was to buy an RV and travel around the country. My reaction to this was worry; I instantly conjured a vision of my parents, a Chinese-American couple, traveling among the other RVers of this country. My visualization was not one of blending in, but of sticking out. RVers, national park visitors, campers, hikers, hunters and fishers—those who stereotypically engage with the natural world by entering into the bounds of ostensibly protected spaces—tend to be white. And whenever I accompanied my father on a camping trip as a kid, I was distinctly aware of this visual difference. Whenever I went for a walk with him through a large park, or whenever we stopped at a roadside restaurant along the interstates and highways that transect the uninhabited spaces of this country, I couldn’t help but be naturally and inescapably aware that we were different from the others who tended to explore and enjoy the outdoors.
I don’t think anyone can deny that the outdoors tends to be a white space. You can see it for yourself if you follow the dictates of what is considered outdoor leisure. Avoidance of nationalized outdoorsy spaces by BIPOC folks has been a documented phenomenon, historically rooted in outright segregation and economic class barriers (while nature may be “free,” tickets to entry, the cost of equipment, travel ability, and vacation time are all access barriers). And while cultural and ethnic differences can lead to self-selection toward spaces that feel welcoming, there is also the blood in the ground. It wasn’t until I was older that I could discern the violence that attended my presence in a land that was once peopled by Indigenous populations that were forcibly relocated, land that was stolen outright by a settler population that claimed the environment with a conquering entitlement. Still later, when I learned to view the agricultural landscape of much of the Sun Belt that was visibly shaped by the exploitative labor of an enslaved people—and that, to this day, still relies on the exploited labor of an unprotected and itinerant underclass of BIPOC workers of the land—did I understand the multiple glosses on the differentiation of “public” vs. “private” (or corporate) land. To be the child of an immigrant to this land, though not of the initial settlers, nor the people brought here forcibly, entails an acculturation that carries with it an element of complicity. If I assimilate to a mainstream culture that enjoys the natural world as a site of peaceful retreat and restful communion with the growing, living, and evolving landscape, then I am also participating in the purposeful ignoring of bloodletting that has provided me access to these spaces.
I’ve mostly refrained from thinking of myself as coming from outdoorsy people, though my grandparents’ origins are decidedly rural and informed by agriculture, livestock, and other outdoors work. This is because an outdoorsy lifestyle is now so tied to the attendant privileges of access to outdoors leisure activities. I don’t see myself as coming from an outdoorsy culture because my family’s daily contact with the natural world was tied to survival. It’s simply what was. It’s simply what is. Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces, puts it this way:
Conceptualizations of the environment, the legitimization of certain definitions, and the shaping of debates are created and constructed by people who, in turn, are informed by their own identity, their life experience, and the context in which they live. In addition, there is power and privilege at work, mediating the process of naming and claiming experiences in the world, setting the tone and the norm by which others are expected to measure themselves.
Nature is not inherently democratic because we do not ontologically understand it that way (though we like to think we do). Perhaps there is a tradition of admiration for those who earn a living through outside labor, and perhaps there is a tradition of respect for cultural traditions that establish an inextricable relationship between person and environment, but these traditions are qualified by the hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Perhaps rural horse farmers, like my grandfather’s people, are accorded a certain rural dignity, but it is still the philosophers and writers with inherited wealth whose work serves as the foundation for this country’s understanding of a person’s relationship with nature. In a piece called “Opening the Door to Wilderness” by Ebba Safverblad-Nelson, she wonders why the “outdoor industry” looks the way it does:
Why do films about climbing so often center a man or a group of men who are supposedly pushing boundaries? Why are the terms “explore,” “conquer,” and “discover” so prevalent when we talk about the outdoors? These terms are callbacks to colonialism and the so-called Age of Discovery…It is common knowledge that Indigenous peoples have lived in the lands that the outdoor industry claims to discover and explore. Why is the narrative of a solitary man so often retold, when my experience is that the outdoors are deeply rooted in community? (Safverblad-Nelson)
I, like my father, also deeply love nature, and I recognize that a personal communion with natural elements can be fostered in all its rural, urban, and suburban iterations. I don’t believe that one must retreat to the wilderness in order to converse with the sacred elements that are contained within natural materials, but I also believe that anyone should have access to spaces that provide a further-reaching road to union with themselves, others, and the non-human. These are ideals that can be actively strived for and incorporated seamlessly into the larger intersectional project of providing better conditions for marginalized people, endangered animals, and vulnerable land.
In Dorceta E. Taylor’s fantastic book on the historical and structural qualities of the United States’ conservation movement, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection, she outlines the rise of conservation efforts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries creating a binary between forests and wilderness and the growing cityscape which stood as a symbol for the corrupted and aesthetically unappealing qualities of urban growth. This stood in contrast to wilderness perceived, up until the mid-nineteenth century, as the wasteland outside of the village gates, a “savage, barren, desolate” place to where sinful people were banished. Taylor identifies several rhetorical and propagandistic threads that converged “to construct potent and persistent images of wildlands.” These bodies of thought were “cultural nationalism, romanticism, Transcendentalism, and frontierism.” A running thread through all of these bodies of thought, of course, are social biases that still enact structural violence on people and land to this day: sexism, heteronormativity, and white supremacy. Taylor provides an exhaustive history of legislative and cultural strategies that focused on conserving wilderness as a repository for American idealism, and in doing so “ascribed to or promoted discriminatory policies or remained blind to them.” These strategies included segregating access to wildlands, excluding Black community concerns from legislative ones, stealing tribal lands and barring Indigenous access to cultural sites, and forcible relocation. The strategies also pervaded the abstract, building a mind’s image in white-dominated mainstream culture of untainted, unsettled land as leisure sites for white enjoyment. Perhaps a contemporary parallel are modern conservation efforts focusing on human-made pollution and human-led land-use as an act of corruption of an innocent environment, without noting that those who suffer the most from environmental racism are members of the global south, women, and people of color, and that what is commonly considered unsullied natural spaces have long been inhabited by or traveled through by Indigenous peoples. Just as caring about the environment does not preclude caring about other issues, caring about the environment must necessarily require an intersectional outlook that incorporates marginalized peoples into environmental politics. It is not enough to focus on political subjects separately (for example, pollution vs. poverty), but to consider them in tandem and relatedly (for example, that pollution tends to most greatly affect impoverished communities). A key difference that I find between approach and outcome when it comes to environmental interest and protection can be applied, similarly, to the publishing approach and outcome of environmental and nature writing.
I consider myself a “nature poet” and embrace all of the Emersonian and Whitmanesque connotations of the term so that I can overturn and rework those connotations. If I were to ask a non-poet about their ideas about nature poetry, they might rely on their exposure to a poem by Mary Oliver or Robert Frost, poems that are admittedly beautiful but also acknowledged in many literary circles as entrenched in a depoliticized and very white perspective. An ecstatic and profound relationship with nature can remain pure, an embodied abstract, when it is unsullied by the historical and present-day realities of power inequities. Some of the best nature poets of color are cognizant of the historical and structural power inequities that inflect BIPOC relationship with the natural world. Along with this recognition comes a palpable difference in form and subject, as can be seen in the poetry of Claude McKay and Jean Toomer, and in the work of more recent nature poets like Camille T. Dungy, Tommy Pico, and Heid Erdrich. If BIPOC writers have demonstrated that they have a lot to say—and that they do so innovatively, inspiringly—about the natural world, then why does the literary community tend to refrain from turning explicitly to Black, Indigenous, and POC nature writers for descriptions, questions, and answers about the natural world? Why is the tradition of the depoliticized, deracialized (aka white) perspective one that still tends to dominate our notions of nature writing?
To return to Frost, Thylias Moss writes a brilliant poetic parallel to Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with her own poem, “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost.” What I appreciate about this poem is that Moss does not call her poem a “response” or a poem written “after” (in both the discursive chronology or the poetic sense)—it is an interpretation of a perspective and subject that was there all along, though they were not acknowledged, perhaps not even noticed, by the speaker of Frost’s canonical poem on an individual’s relationship with his neighbor and his surroundings. Here is who was there, also, the poem shows us, in which a young Black girl who must also grapple with a Jim Crow master traverses the terrain of her people’s forcible relocation to our country of so-called immigrants.
Would you consider Moss’s poem an environmental or nature poem? Because the poem bears more than nature as its abstraction or description, but also serves as the site of a young Black girl’s exploitation and self-reclamation, readers may be tempted to view the poem in which historical or racialized narrative takes prominence. Nature poetry, written from an anthropocentric perspective, has traditionally tended to center an individual’s depoliticized relationship to the symbolism and beauty of nature. It is why we have so many poems that muse on the natural world as a contemplative space for unpacking personal memories, relationships with kin and loved ones, our relationship to higher powers, or personal moments of epiphany. But Moss makes it apparent that even if “Interpretation of a Frost Poem” was not written in parallel to a Frost poem—one that is canonically categorized as a nature poem—the natural world is inherent to Moss’s subject and her view of the world. Moss’s subject is situated such that the speaker’s race is not only an obvious and apparent part of her identity, but a part of how she experiences the snow falling into the woods.
Perhaps many of you will point out the many brilliant and beautiful anthologies, journal and magazine issues, and publishing agendas of presses that have worked to center BIPOC voices. And I celebrate the work of those editors, publishers, poets, and writers. My examination, however, extends beyond the “special” or “themed” or “focused” or “spotlight” editions or series. How can inclusivity be incorporated into the standing editorial philosophy? How can inclusivity be infused, at the cellular level, into every single editorial decision? The answer to these questions may require that journals and presses make structural changes that challenge the traditional standards that many literary venues have come to rely on as standard. The staff at Apogee Journal and Elisa Gabbert writing for Electric Literature both clearly outline the need to rethink “blind reading,” offering very useful starting points for editorial and publishing staff to think about their reading practices. But while Apogee staff and Elisa Gabbert bring up important intersections in literature as a whole, I do not feel that journals and presses with a genre or thematic bent are exempt from the structural overhaul needed in editing and publishing. With the particular interest of nature or environmental writing, I posit that the binary tradition of “racialized” writing as dealing explicitly with race, contrasted with the “deracialized” stand-in of a universal speaker (that is actually a straight, white, cis man speaker), serves nature and environmental writing quite poorly. This is to say that writers and poets of color must not always be expected to make explicit their racialized perspective of the world in everything they write, though the ontological construction of our modern world depends on unbiased, equally prominent racial diversity, and thus a biographical identification or an overtly BIPOC perspective is often what differentiates BIPOC writing from that of white writers, who can lean into the canonical tradition of writing about identity, relationships, and the natural world without explicitly dealing with race.
Doing away with “blind reading,” researching writers of color for solicitations, building relationships with regional and national writing communities of color, and rethinking editorial reading tastes can serve as a lot of proactive work, rather than waiting for writers and poets of color to find welcoming venues. As most small-press venues are staffed by unpaid or underpaid staff, this kind of work adds to the already demanding tasks of editing and publishing. But if you are a press that has a Black Lives Matter statement on your website, I challenge you to think beyond surface-level optics or bandaids on a problematic architecture built upon racist assumptions. I challenge judges of contests and guest editors to demand protection for themselves—if they are BIPOC guest-judging or guest-editing for an all-white masthead—and for their BIPOC community by requiring against “blind reading” and going back to the drawing board when all finalists are ostensibly white. I also challenge journals and presses to recognize that your publishing history is a living history, one that is capable of changing course, and one that can be rebuilt with a new architecture.
I’ll leave you with another image of my father, who still pores over haphazardly-accordioned paper maps and big atlas books. My father is a soft-spoken and shy man, but he is unexpectedly adventurous with his travels. I still worry about the racism and xenophobia he may encounter in homogenous areas. I worry about the physical markers that have been traditionally stereotyped for fear, revulsion, and contempt. He has stopped traveling as much in recent years, but is still a person of potential. He starts his journeys by reading his maps, tracing roadways, highways, and interstates, figuring out their connective possibilities and ambitiously dreaming of future destinations.
Ginger Ko is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing. She is the author of Motherlover (Bloof Books) and Inherit (Sidebrow), as well as several chapbooks. Her next project, a book as interactive app, is forthcoming from The Operating System. Her poetry and essays can be found in The Atlantic, American Poetry Review, The Offing, Nat Brut, and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.gingerko.com