Bernice Wright by Jackson Davis, in Jackson Davis, Papers, 1906–1947, Accession #3072, #3072-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA 22903

An Archive of Black Memory

Six excerpts from 'A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars'

JOIN US IN CELEBRATING THE IMPORTANT new essay collection, A Darker Wilderness edited by Erin Sharkey, and all its imaginative, vexing, joyful, and heartbreaking reflections about the explorations of Black Americans in nature. We’ve gathered a series of short excerpts from several featured essays to present readers with a sampling from this ranging anthology.


“Maybe searching in such an archive is about looking for oneself. An archive can serve as collective memory, though it is important to remember that the archive is not a full or neutral record. Each archive tells a story about the archivist as well as what is archived. The racist structures in place in the institutions of memory can be discerned in the archive, as can the absence of Black archivists within those institutions. One feature of an archive of Black memory is that it must, by necessity, include many items connected to unknown or unidentified makers and subjects. This project claims and reacquaints the unknown by connecting those makers and subjects to contemporary Black thinkers across time and, in turn, rewrites the record.

The essays in this anthology reflect a range of experiences with nature, some green and budding, some rusting and tired. Some pieces are positive, some negative, as varied as our various relationships with nature. The authors have reflected on the experience of living through the last half of the twentieth century and the dawning of the twenty-first while weaving those narratives with objects, some from family photo albums and some which date back many generations, to the earliest days of this nation. From a statue erected in a town square to ephemera like travel pamphlets, the items you’ll find range from public and civic to private and personal. ”

—from the introduction “More to Be Shaped” by Erin Sharkey


“Here’s what I know: we are undeniable because we are part of a larger story of place and time; because the ‘before’ and ‘after’ always has us in between; because we are dust to dust; because to know a thing is to love a thing, and we love deeply; and because all of our stories are in relationship—I am because you are. Upright and resolute. And the land remembers, even if we do not. For as the earth breathes, so do we. Because this is our home.”

—from Carolyn Finney’s foreword “Memory Divine”


Ama Codjoe Ronald L. Greer II Naima Penniman
Michael Kleber-Diggs Alexis Pauline Gumbs katie robinson



WATER IS THE PORTRAIT I most resemble. When I am in water, stroked by its smallest particulates or immersed in its immensity, I am aware of the weather beyond my psyche, dragged into a bodily presence I often live estranged from. I can’t wade into the stars, or float on fire, or press myself, boundless, into a tulip tree’s inner rings. Water lets me get close. When, under an open sky, I let water join me, I feel permeable and animal. Twice I swam in the ocean at night, in the warm gulf waters off the coast of Florida, with a group of misfit artists. After wading into the sea, I closed my eyes and fell back onto the water, letting my legs drift to the surface. On my back, I faced the full moon and the stuttering stars. I marveled at how large and buoyant I felt, how insignificant. Reluctant to leave the water, I listened to my breath’s percussion lap against my eardrums. The sounds of my body, its breath and heartbeat, wet the spiraling shells of my ears. Every inch of fat on my body pinned my skeleton to the water’s rim. And for those moments, I was an astronaut. The moon, which hours earlier we had watched rise, grew smaller and further from reach. Eventually, my feet righted beneath my hips in an awkward search to find the ground again. Joining the others on the shore, I wrapped myself in a borrowed towel and gazed at the black water and the black sky.

Revisit Ama Codjoe’s piece about the soil that bears witness to America here.

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A FEW HOUSES DOWN FROM ONE of many small gardens my grandfather and I planted, the Pit Bulls lived. They were behind an old wooden fence with red paint that peeled, sharpened, and formed into skin-piercing little daggers. We’d tread lightly as we trekked past the Pit Bulls’ fence. There were three of them that we knew of, and the slightest noise would drive them to violent scatters of madness. Our every motion around them would be in fright, except for the times when we wanted to witness the power they possessed. From the alley, we could climb on top of a garage across from the Pit Bulls’ yard, and with accurate tossing ability we would launch rocks over the fence from the garage’s roof. We couldn’t see the dogs, but we could hear them slowly rumble about, sniffing for the source of their disturbance. I had witnessed them feed on each other and knew that if they ever caught me, my flesh was no match for them. We were smart to stay on the roof; they were evil and hungry, diabolical and insatiable. We tempted only enough to make them erratic, never more, for if they ever broke loose, that surely would have meant the end of our reign.


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BEING RAISED IN THE WOODS wasn’t easy. An anomaly of Blackness, we were told at our school that we did not belong. Kids sneered at our handmade and hand-me-down clothes, scorned our untamable hair, cursed our skin made of clay not porcelain. But we saw our complexion reflected all around us in the tones of tree bark and fallen oak leaves. We didn’t have an abundance of toys, but we had jungle gyms of trees and front-row seats to ponds and tributaries.

Sometimes it was piercing cold, and one time our wood-burning stove sparked a ravenous fire that expelled us into a wintery night before devouring every last splinter of our shelter. We lost everything we owned that night, but our home extended far beyond those walls, into the forest that did not burn. There were forces that separated us in the time we needed each other most, but nature ensured our connection across those impossible miles.

Mom taught us about being independent, making things from scratch, speaking up, defending what we love, being proud of who we are, about not giving up. Dad taught us to revere all life, how to work hard, how to listen to nature, how to make up our own songs, how to be resourceful, that there are many paths to God.

And Mama Nature taught us to be generous, loving, cooperative, multidimensional. That we are part of something so much bigger. We are no accident. We are never alone.

Follow Carolyn Finney deep into the Orion archive to explore the relationship between race and our national parks.

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Purchase a copy of A Darker Wilderness here.
All excerpts from A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars edited by Erin Sharkey (Milkweed Editions, 2023). Copyright © 2023.
Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

THERE WERE NO CLOUDS AROUND, and there was no shade to seek. It was summer in southern Kansas, and the sun worked on us real hard. When I think back on that day two things stand out, and the first was the almost unbearable heat.

It seemed not to affect Granddaddy at all. This wasn’t fishing, really. Our cast-to-catch ratio was comical. Almost no technical skill was required. The things it’s helpful to have when you’re fishing—smart equipment, sensitive hands, knowledge of the water, a feeling for where the fish are biting (connected to time, season, temperature, weather, and knowledge or experience), patience, a solid hook game, and a sense for how to bring the catch in—these things were not needed at this catfish farm. I’m sure our excitement was purchased by Granddaddy’s boredom.

Catfish stay low in the water, down near the muddy bottom, where it’s cool. They don’t move around a lot. When you catch on one, it feels more like a stop than a fight. I used to think I’d hooked a log or a boot or got tangled in a mess of weeds.

And so it was that day, catching on my first catfish. I’d been reeling my line in slowly, then everything stopped. I thought I was snagged, and in the effort to get unstuck, I realized I’d landed a fish.


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9. Breathe.
(A flat brown stone like a coin, or a cookie)

WHEN I STAND NEXT to the ocean, I can feel the moon breathing. The planet’s saltwater gravitationally pulled across space. When I’m quiet, I can hear Audre Lorde breathing. Laughing at me. Sometimes sending her voice high to sing her poems like a prophet ringing the bell of her own life. I take these stones as instructions for how to continue this journey that did not begin with my life and does not end.

Read Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ thoughts on salt and time.

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I PRACTICE FEAR WITH BUGS. Specifically, stinging bugs. I sit on my cracked concrete stoop on humid Minneapolis summer days and notice the behavior patterns of bees and wasps at different times of day. In their dewy waking hours, they stretch their wings and clean their delicate legs. As the sun rises higher into the sky, they take flight, investigating the daylilies and dandelions, yellows and oranges punching out of velvety greens. Later in the day, when the dew has burned off and you can smell the heat coming off the sidewalk, they turn their attention to me—my brightest clothes, the bubbly water I may be drinking, the sandwich or Popsicle I may be eating. And when they come in close, I try to do what my therapist has told me to do and “just notice” what happens in my body. The fear like magma rises up through my core, my arms and legs tense, my heart beats faster, and my breathing changes. There is a memory reel of every time I’ve been stung (age three, on the cheek; eleven, on the thigh; twenty, on the hand), and I notice that I can feel how it felt. Sometimes, this noticing is enough to make me go back inside. Sometimes, I take off down the block, furiously waving and swatting my hands, cursing. But other times, I am able to section off enough space in my body for the fear to see that there are other places containing other things, and I shift my attention to these other places: a place for curiosity, a place for relationality, a place for meeting.


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Milkweed Editions is one of the nation’s leading independent publishers of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry bringing new voices and perspectives to essential conversations of nature, culture, and identity that transform the way readers see and act in the world. This partnership enriches an already long and tightly woven strand of mutual inspiration and shared community between Milkweed and Orion.

Erin Sharkey is a writer, arts and abolition organizer, cultural worker, and film producer based in Minneapolis. She is the cofounder, with Junauda Petrus, of an experimental arts collective called Free Black Dirt and is the producer of film projects including Sweetness of Wild, an episodic web film project, and Small Business Revolution (Hulu), which explored challenges and opportunities for Black-owned businesses in the Twin Cities in the summer of 2021. In 2021, Sharkey was awarded the Black Seed Fellowship from Black Visions and the Headwaters Foundation. She has an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University and teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.