Saturday, August 31, 2002

Book review: ‘The Colors of Nature’

Book: "Colors of Nature"
A diverse group of authors explore the intimate connection between the environment and the many races of people who inhabit the earth in The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity and the Natural World, (Milkweed Editions, September, 2002).

The book was compiled to address a “lack” of published nature writing by people of color — which its editors, Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy, feel reflects the limited perspective of the publishing community and its target audience, rather than an absence of interest on the part of the writers.

According to Deming and Savoy, these essays include “themes of historical legacy, of dispossession, displacement and return, of relational identity and relationship to place. The book speaks across the lines of cultural identity — those defined from within and those imposed from without — to consider our place on earth and connections with each other.” That’s a pretty tall order, and the book’s contributors pull it off admirably and eloquently.

Nature writing as a distinct literary tradition originated in the late 18th Century, but don’t expect these writers to limit themselves to Romanticism, with its idealization of “nature” as something separate from man. The men and women in this anthology draw upon their own cultural traditions, as well as personal experience, in exploring their connections with the world around them.

Sandra Jackson-Opoku (“Writing the Diaspora: One Black Writer’s Journey from Cultural Isolation to Multicultural Inclusion”) can still recall the moment that she first realized there was a world of black experience beyond her limited vision. It was 35 years ago, in fourth grade, during an assembly that featured a performance by Haitian dancers.

“The Haitian dancers didn’t just dance and sing,” she recounts. “They burst onstage in a syncopated fury of drums and limbs and voices. Athletic brown limbs bent and swayed. Gaily colored prints unfurled like tropical flags. Even their slip-ups seemed stylish.”

Melissa Nelson (“Becoming Métis”), has had to reconcile the land management practices of her Native American ancestors with the environmental views of her European ones. “Many deep ecologists adhere to a myth of pristine wilderness and consider Indians anti-environmental because they want to ‘use’ the ‘untouched’ wildlands,” she writes. “Yet more and more people are finally realizing that the precontact North American landscape was well cared for and highly managed by its original inhabitants.”

Several writers, Robert D. Bullard among them (“Confronting Environmental Racism in the 21st Century”), tackle the controversial subject of environmental racism: “In 1996, the 54-mile stretch along U.S. Highway 80 was designated the ‘Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail,’” he states. “The trail is also designated an ‘All-American Road’ under the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program.”

He continues, “Despite these federal government designations, and strong sentiment among black people, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in 1998 approved a 200-acre landfill permit on the trail that many consider ‘sacred ground.’ This action makes real the extent to which environmental racism is allowed to operate. It is highly unlikely that a garbage dump would be proposed next to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

Not everyone will have an easy time with this book. It brings up a lot of painful history — people bought and sold as property, indigenous populations exterminated in the name of progress — that some people might prefer not to face.

Likewise, for a writer to suggest that, despite our best efforts, racism is still entrenched in our society, may not be palatable to someone who doesn’t see a problem with the way things are.

If, however, you’re strong enough to face another point of view — that European-Americans committed atrocities in the name of progress, and that real, living, breathing people suffered for it; and that our actions have a direct impact on the lives that share our Earth — then go ahead and read this book. Nature writing as a genre is richer for these authors’ inclusion in it.

Published Aug. 31, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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