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“A Darker Wilderness” Carves a Space for Blackness in Nature

A Darker Wilderness, a new anthology edited by Erin Sharkey, promises to deliver a lot in less than 300 pages — ten uniquely situated essays about Blackness and nature plus Sharkey’s introduction and a forward from the prolific scholar, educator, and environmentalist, Carolyn Finney.

When my advance copy of the book arrived last month, my phone pinged me through our building’s package delivery app — not to be confused with the resident app, door entry app, or guest entry app. These days, I am inundated with technology and digital life that demands my engagement at every turn. Amid the demands of adulting in Ohio’s winter, I find myself longing for stillness and sunshine. So when I got to the package delivery room, I climbed and combed over my neighbors’ bougie packages to get to a book I hoped would give me some of what I’d been missing since I relocated from the mountains to a midwestern college city.

I carried the book around with me before I cracked it open. All 287 pages fit into my backpack, my small Cotapaxi, and even my hoodie’s front pocket. This anthology travels well, and shouldn’t it?  It is, of course, a book about nature, stretching wide “from soil to stars.” The essays found within the pages are as Black and boundless as the night sky. They traverse oceans, roads, mountains, stretches of forested and farmed land, alleys, and even break through prison walls. On these pages, the anthology’s writers invite readers to accompany them on journeys in the past, present, future, and beyond. Betwixt most essays is an artifact offered by the author whose words follow. The addition of pictures, historical documents, art, and items gives the book a scrapbook-like feel that makes it feel more personal than other nature collections I’ve read.

A Darker Wilderness opens with a picture of Dr. Carolyn Finney’s mama. This photo, along with Finney’s story on the photo’s origin, her family’s complex history with the land they worked but never owned, and her own journey, set the tone for the anthology. It is one of reckoning, remembering, reconciliation, and love of land, water, sky, self, lineage, and community (both animal and plant). In closing, Finney writes that despite efforts to erase and minimize our relationships to nature and land, “our (Black folks) presence — is everywhere.” The essays that follow provide glimpses of this everywhere in a book you wish would never end.

From jump, it’s clear this ain’t no Walden Pond-type sh*t. Erin Sharkey’s introduction situates us in an all too familiar reality for many Black Americans — in the throes of the criminal justice system, specifically in the context of a prison nature writing workshop. Beginning here, at the seemingly antithetical intersection of carcerality and the vastness of nature, reflections the questions Sharkey (and the other brilliant voices included in this anthology) grapple with time and time again — What does it mean to be free? To commune in/with nature that has been stolen, renamed, and parsed for profit? To stretch one’s imagination and definitions of what is possible in ourselves and also in our world? To trace our histories and dreams through the formations of rocks, the roots of trees, and the currents of water? What they create in their answers is a beautiful collection where lyrical narratives meet history, memory meets imagination, and the archive is complicated, corrected, and burst wide open to include folks like us.

The answers to these questions and more come in the stunning prose on the pages that follow. Ama Codjoe’s “An Aspect of Freedom” bridges past and present, real and what-could-have-been in a lyrical essay exploring violence against Black bodies across time, protest, and the liberatory properties of water. Water — dropping from sky, eye, and bottle — binds her braided stories to that which nourishes us: earth, family, memory, and the hope for change. katie robinson’s “Here’s How I Let Them Come Close” is a meditation on fear, bugs, and how the natural and supernatural connects to the stories, people, and places that made us. It is for the curious, the therapized, and those of us who are scared as hell.

Other essays in the anthology like Michael Kleber-Diggs’ “There Was a Tremendous Softness” and Glynn Pogue’s “A Family Vacation” beautifully accompany Codjoe and robinson’s attention to the complexities of Black familial bonds and our relationship to the land on which we grow up, work, own, and learn to love. Both Kleber-Diggs and Pogue’s ability to weave narratives of grief and healing with history (both general and familial) echo Finney’s assertion that our people are (and have been) everywhere. Sometimes everywhere is an old Woolworth’s mansion converted to a bed & breakfast for Black folks. Other times, that everywhere happens while fishing at a catfish farm in southern Kansas. More often than not, that “everywhere” is land that has been stolen and repurposed with a name unfit for the wonder that is earth. Sean Hill’s “This Land is My Land” troubles ideas of land ownership and environmental relationship through a historical recollection of the land acquisition and freedom of a Black revolutionary war veteran. “This land was stolen,” Hill writes, “as were my ancestors. And like the land my ancestors, considered property, were used to create generational wealth for those who owned them.” What do we do when this everywhere feels like nowhere we belong?

Lauret Savoy’s “Confronting the Names on this Land” expertly explores naming, theft, and our relationship to land while braiding personal narrative and history lessons on toponym traditions in the United States. “Naming is not innocent, passive, or neutral,” Savoy writes, surveying the damage done by colonization, land theft, and the use of both Indigenous language and racial slurs to mark places on maps.

I held Savoy’s words close as I walked through my neighborhood in a town named after perhaps the most famous colonizer in the Americas. As I passed new construction and land waiting to be “developed,” I couldn’t help but consider the violence that undergirds so much of what we think to be true about this land. Passing brick, train tracks, and traffic, I thought back to perhaps the two most dynamic essays of the collection: Erin Sharkey’s “An Urban Farmer’s Almanac” and Ronald L. Greer II’s “Magic Alley.”

An ode to Benjamin Banneker’s almanacs of the 18th century, Sharkey’s urban farmer almanac is presently situated in Buffalo, New York (shout out to the Queen City). “Almanacs,” Sharkey writes, “feature a best days calendar, chronicling in relation to the moon’s phase which days provide the ideal conditions for different activities.” Following both Banneker’s attention to natural and scientific observation and the trend of “best days,” Sharkey’s essay employs a structure that is innately attuned to context, people, and nature. And Sharkey reminds us that the natural (and we) are everywhere.

“The hood has best days, too,” she writes. For example, October 1st is the “best day to harvest, to play basketball on the broken hoop that clangs and rings out across the park” and April 17th is the “best day to braid hair on the front porch, to stand in line at the free clinic for a ham for Easter.” Perhaps this isn’t what Banneker had in mind when crafting his first almanac in 1792 but Sharkey’s essay (along with all the others in this collection) is a reflection of the evolution of Black folks’ relationship with nature. I don’t always think of the hood as natural but Sharkey tells a truth that’s always been true — “the hood was natural before the [urban] garden grew up in the middle of it.”

Ronald L. Greer II’s essay is a miracle in its inclusion itself. A note from Sharkey precedes the essay detailing how Greer’s incarceration, COVID-19, and bureaucracy made communication incredibly difficult while drafting the manuscript for inclusion. In many ways, Greer’s “The Magic Alley” (which I argue might be the best of all the best(s) in this collection) is a community effort in both drafting and living. Set in inner-city Detroit, Greer paints a vivid portrait of growing from child to young man in an 80s neighborhood marked by addiction, everyday violence, and economic insecurity. Amid the abandoned houses, “little white pebbles that gave people super strength and speed,” needles, and “watering holes,” Greer invites us into the ritual he shares with his grandfather: tending a robust vegetable garden in the alley.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ “Water and Stone” and Naima Penniman’s “Concentric Memory” remind us of the power of intentional communion with the land, our people, and our lineage (both blood and forged). Gumbs’ lyrical essay about Audre Lorde’s archive in Audre’s office is a Black lesbian dream come true; it is a reminder of our forever connection to memory in both body and soul. In “Concentric Memory,” Penniman offers ten lessons from her childhood “devoted babysitter Mama Nature.” I read these lessons and have returned to them each day since, writing them in my journal to guide me through a season of heavy grief and work. Like all of the anthology, Penniman’s words feel especially relevant for Black folks right now. As we in the United States enter into the second half of winter already marred by police violence and injustice, I am holding tightly onto Penniman’s fifth lesson on the creation possible within darkness and letting her question guide me to spring — “How do you value darkness? What does it make possible?”

Perhaps it is not just anything that is possible, but everywhere as well. A Darker Wilderness is the everywhere I needed, and its arrival in winter makes it the perfect companion for icy midwest nights (and hot beach/hike days too).

A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars, edited by Erin Sharkey, is out now.

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shea wesley martin

shea martin (they/them/theirs) is a brilliant, queer, gender-expansive writer raised at the intersection of gospel and go-go (shout out to the DMV). With southern roots and Black queer magic, shea writes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry that smells like your grandmama’s kitchen and sounds like a deep blues moan. Find them dreaming on Twitter.

shea has written 30 articles for us.


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