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The cut, the cut, cut, cut, cut, the cut. The cut. I was so delighted it was such a refreshing thing in the midst of all this anxiety to imagine that someone was having fun. When the world was shutting down and everyone was suffering from existential vertigo amidst the photos of overcrowded hospitals and graphs with steep curves, there was this ray of sunlight streaming into our Twitter feeds and group chats. I'm talking about those pictures of the dolphins and the Venice canals.
Those images of coyotes sauntering through the empty streets of Chicago. My friends know that I would love that shit and started sending some of these tweets. Zoe Schlanger is an environmental reporter.
Yeah, it's very like Pixar is very attractive to me or something that like when they're not looking, all the animals are like having, you know, massive social conflicts and debates among themselves and falling in love and stuff. And then we turn on the lights in the morning and they all kind of go back to playing dumb.
And Zoe had a favorite nature meme. Maybe you saw it. It's this beautiful aerial shot of two elephants fast asleep in a field.
It was incredibly fairy tale like this image. And the text that went with it was something like the elephants broke into a rice farm and drank 30 kilograms of rice wine and then fell asleep in two fields.
These images shown as the great silver lining of our new reality. And thus it emerged as a meme, but also as a mantra. The pithy hope posted over and over like a breathless whisper nature is healing. We are the virus.
It was also kind of like this immense guilt that I feel like we all walk around with that, you know, finally we'd stepped aside and our environmental sins, so to speak, were being absolved, at least for the time that we were all in lockdown. But come on. Nothing pure can last on the Internet when Zoe took a closer look at the drunk sleeping elephants. It's just too beautiful. It was also like how who brought a drone out to this tea field in the middle of a pandemic and took this like high resolution, gorgeous shot that turned out to be debunked by Chinese media?
The Venice Dolphins turned out to be filmed in Sardinia, where dolphins are absolutely not rare. People were really upset.
It wasn't Venice. And soon the jokes arose like a picture of some abandoned boots in a subway platform with the caption Temes are roaming free in New York City. Nature's healing. And all these, Meems, and the debunked memes and the jokes about the debunked memes also revealed an attitude about nature that is deeply embedded in the United States psyche. This idea that real nature is a place without humans, it's all our greatest fantasy. We obliterate ourselves and it'll all just go back to the way it was just kind of fantasy.
That was a pristine nature sort of before us.
But before us, before the United States, there wasn't some sort of pristine, untouched nature, so this idea of glorifying pristine nature actually has really deeply racist roots, especially in North America.
The great American plot twist. Everything is racist. For many early environmentalists, maintaining the purity of nature was connected to maintaining the purity of Europeans. It was about whiteness in every sense of the word, as in a blankness, an emptiness.
The national park system in the US was born out of this idea that there were these pristine landscapes that should be preserved as people free for all people to enjoy.
But that, of course, did not include indigenous people who absolutely lived there. So it was this sort of erasure that actually turned into genocide in many cases because there was massive Indian removal programs and that's how we got our national parks. Of course, no national parks are important to protect vast swaths of land from mining or drilling or fires, all of that.
But this is just to say there is something in between annihilating nature for extraction and preserving it as something pristine and untouched.
The idea that humans are inherently bad for the environment is a really flawed perspective. There are alternatives and other ways to organize society in which humans can not be so destructive.
After all, Native Americans have been cultivating land here for thousands of years. There are ways of living where humans are not a virus. There are ways and indigenous technologies that allow humans to prune and irrigate and fertilize and weed to help plants and animals thrive.
In other words, it's not it's not the human animal that's destructive. It's just, ah, the choice we've made and what systems we've chosen to live under. But this ethic of pure consumption, raw conquest, shaped everything about the way we see land and the people in it, and you can see the mechanisms of the system snapping into gear and early maps of the American colonies.
So mapmaking is not an innocent project, but it's a project of conquest.
Tiffany King is an associate professor at Georgia State University and the author of the book The Black Sholes Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies.
She was researching indigo cultivation in the Americas when she came across this map from 1753. It's called a map of South Carolina and part of Georgia. The map is mostly big white space, but the inlets along the Carolinas and Georgia coast are settled with clusters of information about topography and roads and plantations. But the part that really caught Dr. Tiffany King's I was the illustration in the cartouche.
A cartouche is a separate portion of a map. It's an area that gives more detail. So it will illustrate and depict some of the primary themes of the map. And so this particular map has an agenda.
The map was created to show the British Empire how well the colonies were doing, how productive this business venture had been, and could the Crown please send over more money.
The cartouche is meant to show off all the natural resources of this new land that was like, wow, there's actually a rendering of enslaved people cultivating Indigo.
It's an illustration of three brown men kind of softly smiling to themselves while they prepare a vat of indigo dye behind them, our palm trees. It almost looks like a postcard or something. Greetings from the bountiful new world. Wish you were here.
But nothing about this image actually has anything to do with the natural resources of South Carolina or Georgia, those palm trees are coconut trees, which would have been imported from places like India, but they weren't growing in South Carolina at that time.
Also, the Indigo itself was an imported crop. And the workers, the enslaved men making the Indigo had been kidnapped from Africa, and so there's a big element missing from the scene.
They don't have these white proprietors whipping them, torturing them. They're made to appear as if they voluntarily just decided to take part in this process of production like it's natural, right? This is what black people do. This is the insidious thing.
The map implies that just as bees made honey and birds made nests, black people made indigo and rice and cotton. It shows that all of these elements, the trees, the crops, the people were commodities that could be shuffled around the blank slate of nature. There is a move, particularly during the Enlightenment era, to associate indigenous people and black people with nature right there sensuous their full body, their irrational, they're not mind.
And in the West, well into the 18th century, nature was shorthand for terror and bewilderment and danger. I mean, read any fairy tale. People didn't want to go into the woods unless they weren't given a choice.
You know, that's the first place that black people would escape to like off the plantation. They'd have to navigate forests or rivers or creeks and use astronomy. And the stars still have like an intimate relationship with nature and were forced to be in relationship to it in ways that white planters were not.
And then at the end of the 19th century came the age of Thoreau of John Muir, who said things like break clear away once in a while and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, wash your spirit clean.
And suddenly the wilderness was for recreation for those who could afford it.
As whiteness shifts, it has to do something with blackness to make it the other way. As soon as whiteness wants to assert itself as rugged as the hiker, as the extreme like marathoner or triathlon that's connected to the land it needs and other to secure that image of itself.
And then by 1996, you get people like Stephen Kellert, a Yale professor of social ecology, who identified African-Americans as the only group that does not value, quote unquote, living diversity. He wrote that members of this group, quote, reveal less appreciation, less recreational interest and less willingness to support the protection of nature and wildlife in academia, in public health and commerce. This idea became crystallized who nature is for and who wants to visit it. You have a route that you take.
Yeah, yeah, I do, and I will lead us on it.
I took a socially distant walk around Oakland, California, with the how highly we're both wearing masks. So there's some heavy breathing. RaHoWa is a writer who's working on a book for HarperCollins about the Appalachian Trail and about who has access to trails and parks and outdoor spaces.
So where did this idea come from? But like, oh, black people don't hire or black people don't have a relationship to the land. A lot of the black people don't. X is a matter of, well, why, you know, why don't quote unquote, black people know how to how to swim. For example, swimming is one of my favorite examples because people don't realize that, like after the Civil Rights Act and all of these white people fled to the suburbs and there was all this white flight, cities just drained their pool.
There was no opportunity to learn how to swim anywhere. Oh, my God. And you have people who weren't allowed on beaches and who whose parents weren't allowed on beaches, so was going to teach them how to swim.
And this actually has deadly consequences. According to the CDC, black children ages five to 14 are three times more likely to die from drowning than white kids.
Unfortunately, we have several hundred years of white people saying that only they belong in the auto companies, only using white models. Or showing people dangling from cliffs to reinforce the belief that. The outdoors aren't a space for everyone. You know, I think the other thing that we're also tiptoeing toward is like what counts is nature. What activities count as outdoorsy, you know, as this outdoorsy what we're doing now? I believe so. I believe I believe if you're outdoors, then you're doing something outdoorsy.
Does it have to be extreme? No. Caring about the place you actually live, your environment around you without having to hike out to find it is of course a form of having a relationship with land.
This isn't just yeah, I grew up with my family camping. It's all the people who grew up fishing. Well, grew up. On the bayous who grew up doing family cookouts at a park, you know, I think that we are of the land and we are in relationship with the land and I don't think we always have access to. Be active in that relationship. I think when we are, it's a reminder of how powerless we've been made to feel.
When we think about the environment being in trouble, we think about the Amazon being on fire or ice caps melting, but if we actually consider people as part of nature, then we can start to see what other forms of environmental protection need to happen, see who has toxins dumped in their neighborhoods, who is at greater risk of flooding and extreme heat waves, who doesn't have access to clean air or water.
And so despite the fact that you might have more songbirds in your backyard, in the suburbs, because there's less cars on the road, the people who are living closest to heaviest forms of industry that are responsible for the vast majority of climate change associated emissions tend to be black and brown people.
Environmental reporter Zoe Schlanger again.
So it's a good moment to remember that racial and economic disparities that exists in pollution and climate change and those nature, Meems, were a peppy, fun way of recognizing the need for radical change.
The momentary beauty of the nature tweets initially when they were earnest was that we saw what could happen if we did radically readjust our lifestyles for a second. I think it opened up some conceptual space to think about what radical change might look like.
It's just that at least with regard to the nature memes, that hopeful energy did not last.
Emissions are basically right back up where they were in some cases, so. Environmentally, we are right back to ruining everything all over again, and my friends in California are packing go bags, getting ready to flee their homes at any moment while ancient redwoods are burning. We are painfully aware that we can't just make ourselves disappear. But I think we're also learning that we wouldn't want to. Because nature is healing, I often ask people why they hate the Appalachian Trail when I was on it and the number one answer I got was to heal.
And part of the reason nature is healing is that it has humans in it after the break.
It's Sân here, all fans of the cut are going to love sexology, my new show on Quarmby that helps you navigate dating, modern relationships and all things sex. In each episode, we open up the dialogue and discuss topics like quarantine, romance tips, VR porn and how to find the best nighttime accessory. Yes, I'm talking about vibrators. Every day we release a new episode and every episode we cover a new subject. I'll see you there.
Wow. In Japan, there's this practice called Skinnerian Yoku, or forest bathing, which is just what it sounds like, means going to the forest to just sit or wander. Just be not to jog or do push ups or talk to friends, just soak in the earth like one would soak in a sauna.
It's a very beautiful and really healthy practice, but it's not like some magical panacea.
Nothing is not even if you take six months to hike the whole Appalachian Trail like how I did. I don't know that a few high heels want indefinitely, definitely, I don't think anything heals one indefinitely, but I will say it gave me the time to process a lot of my grief about my life as a black woman in this country. How is it particularly healing for your experience as a black woman in this country, in the literally isolated in that way?
I don't know that I would think about the Appalachian Trail as being isolated. People think of the Appalachian Trail, super remote, super backwoods whiffing. But the trail crosses a road on average every 10 miles. There are maybe 5000 people who attempted to hike every year. I think there was a lot of camaraderie. And for somebody who spent a fair amount of time feeling alone, it was incredibly nourishing to be in that environment. A nourishing environment filled with people.
Even if the environment is not pristine and people are all flawed and going through it in the ways we always are and in finding nature within our normal daily environment, we can make that kind of nourishment more sustainable in our lives.
The way where people think about wilderness is really odd to me.
Wilderness, this sort of wild, untameable place that is also kind of important if you live in the rat race because you need to get out to unplug and then gather up the wherewithal to go back into the rat race. And so it can be used to sort of fuel this hyper productive, hyper capitalist, greedy sort of trajectory that we're all on.
I need to get a job as soon as then. Am I can I get the back arguing that don't negotiate negotiation you make whether the and it Masaka in addition. My name is Leighanne Potassium Isaak's Simpson. I'm a writer and an academic and musician. And I'm coming to you today from the Gershuny or Peterborough, Ontario in Canada.
Lee-Anne lives on the same land as our ancestors. It's just that there's a city on top of it now. And that doesn't make her any less connected with it. The watching the sunrise, watching the sets, watching the faces of the moon, there's lots of ways of connecting to the land and urban settings, and it's not sort of a romantic, pristine sort of way because these urban centers are often areas that have experienced the most violence and the most damage and the most contamination.
But if you think of the Earth as a as a relation, you don't abandon you don't abandon your auntie or a parent when they're sick. You need to sort of extend the relationship of care to the land wherever whenever you're living. And I think that's more difficult sometimes in the city, but I think it's just as important.
I think especially now in lockdown, we're learning that there are magical encounters to be had right here where we live, wherever you live.
So we see dolphins, we see whales here, like in New York City, like people don't believe you.
Quest Solomon is a surfer and he's been involved with the black surfers of America who the cut profiled in June Quest lives out in Rockaway Beach, a neighborhood in the southernmost part of Queens.
It was beautiful. We are surfing here one day and it was snowing and it was super misty for some reason, like like misty snow. And then we saw a whale, like, jump out the water. And it was crazy, like like to jump out the water. And it was like the most magical experience. And it wasn't even that many of us was probably like like 10 of us in the water. And we were all like, oh, it was crazy.
Among the creatures, the ocean and his fellow surfers. Quest is a part of the ecosystem of New York City.
This really saved me like I'm not going to lot. So it's like, oh, we got like there's nothing to do that. I can't go to any restaurants. Oh, there's ways. And in Brunswick, Georgia, scientist and birder Karina Newsome is out of the marsh where she's been studying seaside sparrows, the cut profiled Karina in June and I caught up with her again while she was in the field.
So what I'm doing is I also am out of breath. Sorry, because I like walking through the marsh is like walking up stairs nonstop. So what I'm doing is I'm finding as many as I possibly can and I essentially am recording every time Mass-producing happens. Every time Korina drives to her research site, she has to pass the satellite Shor's neighborhood. This is where Ahmad Aubury was jogging when he was shot.
All that I can feel is just rage. Your had been raised and just like disgust and nausea and like anger. And then I pull up to the marsh and I see a roseate spoonbill fly over. And I am full of joy. And I mean like I like there's a laughing girl flying over me doing basically acrobatics in the air. Right now there's another brown pelican flying over me, flying with a huge bill. I'm in awe. But the moment I can't see that roseate spoonbill anymore, the moment it flies out of view, I'm thinking about Amar again.
There's like a massive swing of emotions that happen and it feels very disorienting. I think that black people need to be doing things like Birdwing and being engaged in outdoor activities because this is a space that we belong in as well. Even. Oh, a brown pelican. Yes, fishing as a baby. It was a brown pelican that I'm like right on the edge of the water and the brown pelicans like Dobbyn to catch a fish, so. Bob Parker is our show's lead producer, production and editorial support from Allison Barrenger, special thanks.
This story to Professors Stephen Haimes and Jesse Keyssar and journalist Taylor Husking. Thank you so much.
This episode was engineered and scored by Rick Klein, original music by Brandon McFarland special thanks to Carrenza Cárdenas and Sangeeta Singh. Kurts, Stella Buckbee and Nishat Kawa are the show's executive producers. The cut is made possible by the team at New York Magazine. Subscribe today to support their work at the cut dot com slash subscribe. I'm Avery Friedman. Thanks for listening. OK, guys, Ishant, again, check out new episodes of my show, sexology playing now only on Kibbee, that is spelled Cucu Ibai.
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