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  • Writer's pictureBrooke Bowen

Black Nature, A Great Green Wall, and Tree Language

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

“Study has been for me the sovereign remedy against all the disappointments in life.”

Montesquieu, French Philosopher

“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”

Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House


1. Have you heard of The Great Green Wall?!

I just heard about the Great Green Wall on BBC’s earth podcast, in the episode titled This corridor of trees unites 20 countries.

The idea: Plant a coast-to-coast forest of trees at the southern edge of the Sahara spanning 4,800 miles long and 10 miles wide, from Senegal in the West to Eritrea in the East.

The issue: The Sahara is slowly growing, creeping over once-fertile land and threatening the lives of the humans and animals living in its path.

An Engaging Overview:

Looks like there may be a full-length film about the project coming out soon too:


2. Black Nature

Camille Dungy, a Guggenheim Fellow and Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, published a book called Black Nature in 2009. Black Nature is the first published collection of American nature writing that centers on the poetry of African Americans. Her book got me wondering if this same historical lack of marginalized voices occurs in the field of nature conservation as well, and what effects that might have.

The collection of poems and essays in Black Nature serve “to bring more voices into the conversation about human interactions with the natural world”. The collection includes four centuries of African American writings. Many of these pieces “address nature in ways that challenge accepted notions about what qualifies as environmental or ecological poetry”.

Boy with June Bug, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1963
Cover Art from Black Nature, Photo by Gordon Parks

Dungy introduces readers to the idea that our mainstream understanding of nature poetry as idyllic, made popular by Transcendentalists like Whitman,Emerson, and Thoreau, is a limiting one. She asks, “We find poems set in urban streets. Can these not be landscape poems?”

Here’s a small part from G. E. Patterson’s poem The Natural World:

You got fruit-bearing trees

made for climbing

good for something

I got trees too

My trees stainless steel poles

with no flags.

Image from, found via

Due to the race of the authors, the reader of African American poetry was inclined “to consider these texts as political poems, historical poems, protest poems, socioeconomic commentary, anything by nature poems”. Whether the poet is aligned with, or set against, the natural world, “a broader understanding of this country and its poetry is occluded when we overlook or refuse to look carefully at black poets’ varied use of landscape, animal life, and ecological poetics.”

The beginning of Melvin B. Tolson’s The Sea-Turtle and the Shark:

Strange but true is the story

of the sea-turtle and the shark--

the instinctive drive of the weak to survive

in the oceanic dark.



by hunger

from abyss to shoal,

sometimes the shark swallows

the sea-turtle whole.

Dungy explains that if nature writing reveals a community’s unique and varied experiences within and outside of the natural world, and if these perceptions assist in defining who and what that community is, then “the interactions and experiences of all people on this land are necessary stories, even if voices have been silent, silenced, or just not hear or recorded as nature writing.” If there are stories, insights, lessons, and truths that have been hidden from view, what consequences might this have on our relationship with the natural world?

Through the lens of environmental conservation, this omittance of black voices in nature writing has serious consequences. In The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and The Natural World, Laurent Savoy explains that American culture should not be thought of as the great “melting pot”; where cultures stew together to become one, but as an ecosystem, an entanglement of cultures that are interdependent yet struggle to keep their distinct and important identities. Since American nature writing has largely been the domain of the privileged Euro-American class, and has mainly been focused on celebrating unspoiled wilderness and pastoral landscapes or lamenting the loss of them and their inhabitants, Savoy asks, “But what if one’s primary experience of land and place is indigenous or urban or indentured or exiled or degraded or toxic? … What are the stories of relationship with place that might come out of these histories?”

From Black Nature, Natasha Trethewey’s poem titled Liturgy (for the Mississippi Gulf Coast) reveals that the way beach-lovers see a coastline differs greatly from those who’ve experienced the ocean’s demolishing powers. Here’s a line:

“To the women dreaming of returning to the Coast, thinking of water rising,

her daughter’s grave, my mother’s grave - underwater - on the coast…”

To understand our human effect on the natural world, to better understand our roles in degraded habitats, global warming, and mass extinctions, we need as much information as possible. Up until recently (The Colors of Nature was published in 2002 and Black Nature in 2009), the exclusion of African American voices in environmental conversations appears common. According to Savoy, this investigation of the nature/human relationship by African Americans is imperative to “our understanding of how social and environmental problems are linked”.

What communities have been excluded from the conversation about American environmental conservation? Who’s voices have not yet been heard?

*The various cultural perspectives through which to observe the natural world are numerous and important and I plan to further explore these in future posts. This is just a start.


3. Plants are like People: How Trees Talk to Each Other (!?!)


4. A Botanist’s Vocabulary

Allelopathy: phenomenon in which a plant secretes compounds that interfere with the growth, reproduction, or continued survival of other plants around it; walnut (Juglans nigra)


5. Split Rock Flowering

Closing today’s post with the opening of a Pleiospilos nelii flower in my backyard. (my first time-lapse video!)

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