Photo: Pam Riches via Unsplash. Lassen National Park.

One but Not the Same

THE SUN WAS SETTING as my backpacking group and I headed back to our campsite from Cinder Cone in Lassen Volcanic National Park. We walked in silence, falling into a rhythm. The march of our steps and crunching of dry earth beneath feet grounded me. I felt anchored between two worlds: the physical and the psychological. My feet moved forward while my mind wandered capriciously. One moment, my sight fixed on trees; the next, on ants moving along familiar terrain. The land was theirs as they wound to a location unknown to me.

Ants, I would come to learn, are cooperative insects, and this cooperation hinges on establishing a community of likeness. If an ant possesses the same pheromones as the colony it tries to join, it is freely admitted. Likeness and familiarity are the thread, a truth that exists for most of us. In my group, we were all women of color with a love for nature.  It promoted our collective agenda. I understood this as I lifted my head, seeing members zigzag along the dirt trail, wispy clouds of dust rising from our heels. We were one.

The distance between our steps did not reflect the distance existing between our minds —where thoughts whirled like wind between leaves. We were one but distinct. What was certain, however, was that we had made our mark. Something that would remain long after dust left our lungs. As I returned my gaze back to the ground, I lost sight of the ants, but within a matter of minutes, more of them surfaced along the trail.

Odds are that the ants I witnessed were Argentine ants, not native to California. Often described as invasive and epitomizing militarism, Argentines commonly ransack nests of native ants, displacing them. The invaders survive at the expense of the original inhabitants. To uninformed onlookers, this was their terrain; they were natives. Nativeness — or the appearance of nativeness— embeds itself into the fabric of our human existence and establishes itself as the norm. Whether for insects or ourselves, the idea of nativeness matters. At the time, however, I did not know to question this or even how.

When we were approximately an hour from our campsite, we encountered five or six people resting near a body of water. We appeared to be invisible to them, except to one, who looked at us with a mocking grin, slight but noticeable to those accustomed to subtextual aggressions in society. Women of color in nature were perhaps, to him, a double whammy of hilarious proportions. Maybe he expected folks like us to be bumpin’ rap or mariachi in the comfort of our congested urban landscapes. But we weren’t. We were in the woods— visible and distinct.

“Are you ladies lost?” he asked, laughing, proud of his ingenious wit. On some level, I understood it was likely harmless. But on another, I recognized that the microaggression was masked by ignorance and rooted in pseudo-native privileges, privileges few of my troop dreamed having access to.

So what did I do? I laughed. It was reflexive to minimize the self; to withstand the crushing of his seemingly harmless question; to submit to perceived nativeness.

Emboldened with a similar pseudo-native stance as the Argentine ants, the man made us feel we did not belong.

Our second in command, who resembles Russell from Disney’s Up, with long chestnut brown hair and bangs, wanted to speak; my fear silenced her. My abandonment of a potential discussion was like the native ants deserting their nests. It all boiled down to instinct.

When we returned to camp, nothing sat well with me. I walked to the edge of Juniper Lake, where I picked up a scorched piece of wood. It was flat, beautifully black, and sparkled. Portions of it fell to the earth as I rolled it in my hand; other particles were caught in the wind. As the flakes drifted off, I knew those remnants would someday become soil. Crushing that wood promoted eventual transformation, a rebirth. It would take about five hundred years to occur, but the soil genesis would bring forth change and new life.

My mind returned to the male hiker, then to Audre Lorde: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” His acknowledgment and seeming rejection of our difference promoted our own crushing that day, but our crushing was purposeful, I thought, for it was the very thing that will ignite the change to come.

Standing there alone, I absorbed the space around me. The stillness livened. In it, the universe presented itself, forcing recognition that something was beyond the individual, beyond the self.

I inhaled deeply.

There was a rise and fall to the land, a gentle breath, and a softening heart.

Wait.

I would have to wait for the day when oneness embodies distinction, the day when we humans finally get it right. O

 

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Leah Tyus is an emerging writer who explores the intersections of race, nature, and identity in her nonfiction and fiction writing. She is a University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate alumna and originally from Michigan.

Comments

  1. This is such an amazing read!! A great way to show that people of color can embrace the beauty of nature just as much as other races can! We are so much more than the stereotypes that the society places on us! Thank you Leah for show us this in your writing!!

  2. Leah, this is a powerful piece. Thank you for sharing your experience and illuminating the complex intersections of race, gender, access to nature, pseudo-native privileges, microaggressions, and displacement. As a cooking and gardening teacher in a diverse public middle school in Berkeley, I grapple with these issues every day. Your anecdote about Lassen brought to mind the 120 (mostly black and brown) 8th graders I accompanied to Yosemite in May, and the cruel and ignorant ways in which many other park visitors (including other kids) reacted to a large group of urban adolescents of color in a predominantly white space. Do you still live in the Bay Area? Would you ever be interested in visiting our school and talking to our students about these issues? I think they would gain a lot by hearing your perspective, especially before we return to Yosemite again next spring.

  3. So gently, compassionately expressed, leaving me — and any reader? — the space to reflect more deeply on distinction, needless “otherness”, interdependence, oneness, beauty, uniqueness, acceptance. Thank you!

  4. Hi Leah,

    Thank you for this. I am a woman, and a long time hiker in our national parks, simply witnessing and holding empathy with you in this experience you’ve thoughtfully recorded today.

  5. Ms Tyus,
    Beautifully written. It reminded me of my own wilderness wanderings during the late 1970’s and 1980’s when I sometimes got the same question from similarly smug men unused to seeing a lone (in my case, white) female in the woods. Instinct is what kept me safe; a passion for following my unique path in life is what has kept my soul alive. I love the optimism in your closing. It has worked for me and it is what has kept me moving forward, becoming who I want to be and not what others think I should be.

  6. I love to see people of color in the wilderness, on a trail, even just at a site off the roadside turnout for a trailhead. “This Land Is Your Land; This Land Is My Land” comes to mind. I want to say, “I am so glad to see you here!” But I don’t know
    if or when or how it is appropriate. I certainly do not want to coopt their day and make it about and my feelings. While it is tempting to assume and celebrate that they feel safe enough to venture out, that is A) a mere pay on the (white) back and B) possibly incorrect– they may feel unsafe and value contact with nature enough to go anyway. The recent FistUp Documentary Shorts series featured a film in which people of color and white folks all spoke about the importance of nature in their lives. The people who were here before white people, the people who white people enslaved to build this country, and people who have newly arrived or who are visiting this Land should all be able to enjoy it equally, and as easily as white folks take it for granted to do.

  7. ALAN RACE on June 14, 2020

    What a strong, beautiful, inspiring and challenging piece. Connecting the invasive activity of the ants with human invasiveness. I don’t know if the ant-world has a conscience but we know that the human-world does. Let’s hope that the human world might learn to act on it.

  8. As an African-American/Asian/White mixed person, who has been seriously climbing mountains, traveling by bicycle, and intimately observing nature for 50 years, and have experienced my fair share of racism around the world (meaning not only from white people), some of it violent, I was very uncomfortable with this article. I felt that the writer carried her paranoia with her, and automatically assumed someone’s bigotry just because they were white and male. It was the same with the ants: without actually identifying the ants that she saw, and making sure they were Argentine ants, she just presumed they were, though it could have been highly likely they were native species. In both cases, she didn’t bother to find out for certain, just decided the worst.

    If, as she herself admitted, the man might merely have been trying to be funny, and didn’t have any ulterior feelings towards her non-white group, what right does she have to paint him as a racist? A person smirking might have no ill thoughts whatsoever. There just wasn’t enough to go on for her to have made the jump to his being racist in just that short moment. I’d feel differently about her conclusion if more had occurred, and her fear made justified.

    All my life I’ve had to deal with all kinds of racial aggression, both tiny and big. I’ve had to learn to listen to the nuance of a statement, to watch for potential harm. It could be in the way a cashier quickly withdrew their hand when handing me my change (Japanese often do this to non-Japanese here in Japan where I now live), or in the way a woman on the train drew up her shoulders when I sat down next to her, or in a prospective employer taking one look at me when entering his office for an interview, and shouting, “Get the &@#% out of my office, you &@#% wetback!” I don’t know how many times I’ve been accosted by a police officer, sometimes very roughly, and asked to produce some ID. So I’m very familiar with what the writer is afraid of.

    But accusing someone of some nasty beliefs without actually knowing it? I’ve always had to weigh my fears with a healthy dose of skepticism before I jumped to that conclusion, because, in spite of my bad experiences, and >because< I carry that fear around with me wherever I go, I’ve often made a mistake. If I am honest, I, too, carry prejudice inside me, sometimes seeing ghosts where there are none.

    In 50 years of hiking and spending great amounts of time doing outdoor activities, I’ve hardly ever encountered, in wild places, racism in the same way I do in the cities and towns. Maybe it’s the common need to beware of danger and the potential to get hurt, or even die, that bring out the best in people; hikers and climbers tend to watch out for one another, and in every single case where I got hurt or was in trouble, every person around me in the mountains has always come through, my ethnic background not withstanding. One of the reasons I love the mountains and mountain culture is because so much of the crap from civilization sloughs away. I won’t go so far as to claim it does not exist, but it certainly rears its ugly head far less often.

    So we don’t know whether the writer encountered a racist or not. It’s just conjecture. Perhaps much more significant, though, is the sadness of the writer and the members of her group having to carry that fear all the time, and having to jump at any shadow that might pass in front of them. To me, that is what affected me in the story. No one should have encountered so many racial slurs or outright racial aggression or race-incurred violence, that they live in fear everywhere they go, to the point that they might interpret that someone is being racist, even if they might not be. That is the poison of racism.

  9. (A needed addendum: I was so caught up in my assessing racism, that I overlooked sexism, I would say that is quite a different matter. I think women probably experience sexism no matter where they are, and when you consider the writer’s reaction to that statement, then she has a very good point. I’m sorry for missing that in my first comment

  10. Outdoor enthusiasts have their own set of biases that, from my experience, overlook physical difference and gender differences, however, gear differences are noticed. Novel, old school accoutrements are admired and revered, but generic knockoffs are scoffed at; the possessor of the ‘real deal’ succumbing to the trappings of our status conscious society. (I was once married to a gear-head.) So, perhaps the attitude encountered was more about gear and attire and not about anything else. It brings to mind a friend who was invited to go on a hike to some hot springs with some friends. She did not own hiking boots or a day pack and so she packed a small suitcase and donned her mules with a 2” heel. When she returned, she was able to laugh about her choices along with the rest of us. I am a brown woman who has explored the wilderness my whole life and truly gear was the biggest factor when differences arose. I have experienced unbelievable racism in other situations, but never on the trail. My advice is to check the lens you are looking through, check your own biases, and reach out and make a friend out of a perceived foe when the opportunity arises.

  11. I would love if Dr. Safina could clarify his comment above regarding privilege. To deny that white privilege exists is harmful and counter to the spirit of this piece. I think it is pretty clear that the phrasing “pseudo-native privilege” here refers to who is assumed to belong in outdoor spaces, not an intentional decoupling of that privilege from race. Why is this concept more palatable when race is taken out of the equation? Race is so clearly a part of what the author is writing about here.

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