Notes From the Field

Notes From the Field: Race and the Outdoors, Through the Lens of Birding

Jul. 10, 2020
New England Forestry Foundation

This is the sixth post in NEFF’s Notes From the Field blog series, which is designed to bring nature to you at a time when many people are sheltering at home. When it is safe to do so, staff members will offer a behind-the-scenes look at their current work and document interesting natural phenomena from forestlands protected by NEFF. We will also share retrospective stories.

Writing by NEFF Stewardship Associate Beth Gula.

For today’s “Notes From the Field” post, I’d like to redirect your attention to the 2016 essay “Birding While Black” by wildlife biologist, ecology professor, and writer J. Drew Lanham. He writes about his experience as a Black man doing conservation field work, including unavoidable calculations about whether his passion and choice of livelihood are worth the risk. Read his words. Listening to, amplifying, and centering voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color working in conservation is just a start.

Note: The Scarlet Tanager, pictured at the top of this post, is one of the species Dr. Lanham encountered on the day chronicled in “Birding While Black.”

I’m writing this on Friday, June 19, or Juneteenth; it is also officially the last day of spring, and summer is coming in hot. The forecast indicates 90 degrees and sunny on repeat for the foreseeable future, so I am sitting here in my “home office,” trying not to think about how uncomfortable I’ll get before I inevitably cave and turn on the air conditioning unit. On sweltering summer days, the only place I want to be is in the woods. Compared to the concrete landscape of the cities and suburbia, shady coolness under the forest canopy is a refuge.

This is a blog where I get to reflect on and share about the time I spend walking among the trees. The idea for this series emerged after coronavirus caused an abrupt upheaval of our day-to-day lives, when everyone was told to STAY AT HOME. As the description above reads: “When it is safe to do so, staff members will offer a behind-the-scenes look at their current work…”

When it is safe to do so. The forest is a refuge for me, but recent events make it impossible to ignore the long-standing fact that the natural, open spaces I love are not safe and accessible for all to enjoy.

Over the past month, anger, grief, and sadness boiled over in protests against police violence, the ingrained and ongoing devaluation of Black lives, and racism that pervades every aspect of the way we live. During recent annual monitoring visits to NEFF-held conservation easements, I walked alone on trails, woods roads, and along stone walls. I thought about how there’s no way I would choose this job if I were Black. Could I swallow the fear?

As a general rule, I feel safe in the woods, especially if I’m the only human in earshot. As a woman navigating my way through the world, I’m acutely aware of my vulnerabilities. My brain constantly monitors for potential danger and how to avoid it. But heading off to work, walking along private property boundary lines, meandering past hunting camps, or hiking on local trails, my whiteness is a subconscious shield. When I encounter someone in the backwoods here in New England, they will probably look like me. They often ask, “What are you doing here?” If I were Black, the question might be, “What are you doing here?”

This hints at the roots of the overwhelming lack of racial diversity among my peers in land stewardship and the depth of work needed to overcome barriers to diversity and equity in the mainstream environmental movement. I will continue to read, learn, and write about these questions in future blogs. Today, I’ll leave you with these words from climate scientist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who illuminates the ways that systemic injustice is inherent in the conservation and stewardship work I share about at NEFF. Go read her full essay, “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.”

“Look, I would love to ignore racism and focus all my attention on climate. But I can’t. Because I am human. And I’m black. And ignoring racism won’t make it go away. So, to white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist. Our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither. I need you to step up. Please. Because I am exhausted.”

All Black Lives Matter.

Scarlet Tanager photo credit: Kelly Colgan Azar/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Read More

Notes From The Field: Rocky Pond Community Forest | April 17, 2020

Notes From The Field: Early Signs Of Spring | April 28, 2020

Notes From the Field: What’s Making Me Happy | May 8, 2020

Notes From the Field: Resources for Wildlife on the Go | May 26, 2020

Notes From the Field: Problem Plants’ Spring Awakening | June 5, 2020