On the left is a photo of a Black woman smiling at the camera. She has long braids and glasses and is standing in front of trees with green leaves. On the right is another Black woman also smiling at the camera. She is sitting on rocks by water, and is wearing a straw hat.
Left: Tiya Miles/Ilene Perlman, Right: Lauret Savoy/Kris Bergbom

Way Finders and Wild Women

A conversation with Tiya Miles & Lauret Savoy

In which authors and historians Tiya Miles and Lauret Savoy discuss America’s trailblazing women, race, landscape, memory, the importance of getting girls outdoors, and Tiya’s new book Wild Girls.

Lauret Savoy: Tiya, your remarkable new book Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation invites readers on a journey of insight and humanity to remind us how each life—whether enslaved or dispossessed, marginalized or privileged—takes place on this Earth. Could you tell us why you wrote Wild Girls? Also, who are the Wild Girls and how did you select the book’s title?

Tiya Miles: I wrote Wild Girls as a way of revisiting and continuing the work of an environmental education project for girls that I founded over a decade ago in southeastern Michigan. That projectcalled ECO Girls (Environmental & Cultural Opportunities for Girls) sought to connect middle schoolers in the urban areas of Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Ypsilanti with the outdoor environments of their home state. I set several goals for the project. Chief among them was strengthening girls’ sense of identity and confidence in and through place; furthering their local environmental knowledge and appreciation by going places, doing community service, and making art; and fostering their affinity with and stewardship of green spaces. A great hope for the project was that it would increase the girls’ likelihood of becoming environmental justice contributors and leaders in the future.

The “eco girls” of that community-based project (which I ran for approximately seven years with the critical contribution of co-organizers and volunteers) inspired the focus on “wild girls” in the new bookgirls of the nineteenth century, like Harriet Tubman, Laura Smith Haviland, and Anna Julia Cooper, who developed a thoughtful and active relationship with the world outdoors and thereby refined their sense of self, sharpened their mental tools for social analysis, and expanded their potential for making a difference in their place and time.

As I was drafting the book and looking again at the archival materials and narratives that I had collected, I noticed that the word “wild” kept popping up in the women’s own letters and notations, as well as in descriptions of them written by relatives and observers. “Wild” was a charged term in the period of study for this book. When applied to females and racialized and Indigenous peoples, it often carried negative connotations. So, when the women of my study, like Louisa May Alcott, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Zitkála-Šá, used the term to refer to themselves or members of their communities, they were making a bold claim. They were repurposing the language of “wildness” for their own ends. My editor, Alane Mason, noticed this pattern that I was surfacing and suggested the title Wild Girls. I liked the sound of the two words together (the tonal insistence of that double long-i), and I appreciated the edginess of the move to reclaim a phrase that has in our time been associated with a hyper sexualization of young women (images of spring break beaches and “girls gone wild” come to mind here). But I did want to be cautious so as not to reproduce racial and gender stereotypes. Because girls and women of color are most often associated with sexual looseness and a lack of so-called proper manners historically, I refused to have an image of girls of color or Indigenous girls on the cover below that title. This meant that I could not use my favorite photos from the research process — of Montana girls’ basketball teamson the cover. (Readers will find those inside the book!) The historical cover image that we ultimately chose for the collage artist, Jonathan Conda, to work with is of Euro-American girls lying side by side on their stomachs atop a grassy slope, with facial expressions full of personality and adventure.

I love this discussion of titles, words, and associated meanings. And as you know, I am an ardent fan of your book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Years ago, ECO Girls sponsored a group read of Trace for our Black feminist environmental retreat geared toward college and graduate students. I have since taught Trace in an environmental humanities course. How did you choose such an evocative title? And what did you want to convey with it?

The book covers for Wild Girls( left) and Trace (right)


LS: Thank you. I’m also very grateful for this chance to exchange ideas in conversation. Trace began with my need to answer, or at least come to terms with, questions that had haunted me since childhood about origins, about home, about what it means to live in this land and to be a citizen of this nation. This need—really a struggle—became a mosaic of journeys and geological-historical inquiry that crossed a continent and time. I needed to understand how the country’s ever-unfolding history marked this land, this “society,” and me.

The journeys took me from the San Andreas Fault zone to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. From a South Carolina plantation to an island in Lake Superior, as well as to “Indian Territory” and Black towns in Oklahoma. From the U.S.–Mexico Border to the U.S. capital, and the origins of both. From national parks to burial grounds—to the names this land wears and the origins of those names. And from an alien land to a land ethic. My hope was to counter some very old and very damaging public silences by considering often-unrecognized ties that touch us, whether we know it or not. For we all make our lives among relics and ruins of former times, former worlds.

So, the title Trace refers to the active search, the paths of journeys, the tracks or vestiges of what once was. It also means to outline, to make one’s way, to follow tracks, to pursue, to discern, to discover. Both noun and verb helped me re-member—that is, fit together fugitive pieces from what had been fragmented and eroded. To do this requires acknowledging omissions and silences, and uncovering their relations to what is told or not told as public history. For me, to re-member is an act of resistance to forgetting. So, I wanted Trace to speak to concerns and questions that many people in this nation might share: Who are “we the people”? What is my place as a citizen in this enterprise called the United States? What is my place in and on this land? 

I am very curious about your intended audience. Whom do you want to reach with Wild Girls?

TM: As I conceived this book, I had in mind the kids who had participated in ECO Girls and the college and graduate students who had helped run that program. I wanted to write the book for the adults they have become by now, as well as for other nature-minded and outdoorsy young people who may be feeling overwhelmed by anxiety about our present ecological challenges and might be seeking psychological reinforcement and inspiration for the work of pushing ahead into the future of uncertainty. I wanted to show them, through description and analysis of these historical figures who remade themselves outdoors and influenced their communities and greater society, that they can do the same. While researching the book, I hired (with funding from the Harvard-Radcliffe Institute) college students who were active hikers and outdoor enthusiasts as research assistants. I always had them in mind as I wrote, and I pictured creating a book that they could slip into a backpack pocket and pull out to peruse in short segments while taking a break or having a snack on the trail.

LS: How does Wild Girls fit with your other work?

TM: Like my previous books, Wild Girls is an intersectional study of life and culture in the 1800s as experienced mainly by women, with a focus on African American and Native American lives. This book addresses the history of slavery, a subject area that I have always probed, but it also moves forward into the late-19th and early 20th centuries as it follows girls born in the early and mid-1800s into their adulthoods. However, Wild Girls differs from most of my other work in the way that it ranges freely across different social identities, locations, and time periods. The end touches on 20th and 21st century women activists and writers, as well as on the COVID-19 pandemic.

A black and white photo of Fort Shaw women's basketball team members sitting on a field with spectators in the background during the St. Louis World’s Fair. Note the carefully sewn white letters and stripes that add detail to their uniforms.

Fort Shaw basketball team members sit on a field with spectators in the background during the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Note the carefully sewn white letters and stripes that add detail to their uniforms.
Front row: G. Butch, B. Johnson, E. Sansaver; Back row: N. Wirth, Mr. McCutcheon, K. Snell, M. Burton. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

LS: You write “I grew up in many different natures. I’ll tell you about just two.” Would you like to tell us about any others, and how (or if) they speak to your own “way finding”?

TM: The challenge of writing Wild Girls was the mandate to be brief, as the book is one of two inaugural titles for W. W. Norton’s “Norton Shorts” series. I overwrote this book by around fifty pages, which I’m sure gave my editor many a headache. One section that fell by the wayside was an elaboration of this biographical statement about “many different natures.” In the book, brief descriptions of my outdoor spaces at my grandparents’ home and my mother’s places of residence appear. I also spent formative time outdoors with my father and stepmother and siblings, as well as, once, with a church camp. The only time I ever went to a sleep-away camp as a child was when my mother enrolled me in a Catholic youth camp that paid my way to attend. I was around twelve years old (and now that I think of it, nearly the same age as the kids we recruited for the ECO girls program, which also included an overnight camp in northern Michigan that only charged what each family could afford to pay). My recollection of the trip is fuzzy, but the impact on me was great. I remember how nervous I was to be traveling away from my family in downtown Cincinnati and riding a school bus with strangers out to some remote place. On the first night of camp, when the priest asked the group if anyone knew what an ecologist was, I was the only one who could answer the question. I still remember the surprise and pleasure on his face (one of my proudest memories of my grade school years). One morning, our counselor (who described kind actions as “warm fuzzies”) took our little group out early to pick blueberries. It felt like an adventure made more thrilling by the trials of being roused at dawn and scratched on the legs by wild thickets. We brought our hard-won berries back to the kitchen, where the camp’s good-natured cook mixed them into our pancakes. That was one of the best breakfasts of my life.

And here is another story. Nearly every summer my father’s side of the family vacationed at a nearby nature areaa state park or resort in Ohio or Kentucky. We would stay in a lodge, walk in the woods, and do guided horseback rides. I remember that my first deep sense of what I experienced as the divinesomething larger than me and all humanity, and powerfully encompassingcame upon me suddenly and magnificently while my family was at the Natural Bridge State Park. I had stepped away from them on the high trail to take in the dramatic view of a misted ravine in silence. Looking back, it was probably a dangerous thing to do, but I would not trade that transitory rush of beauty, possibility, and connectedness for anything. It is as though in that moment I grasped some kind of assuredness incomprehensively tethered to mystery that has served as an anchor ever since.

I recently read your essay (in Emergence magazine) on the place you call the Chesapeake borderland, and you narrate a similarly transformative experience at Shenandoah National Park. Would you retell that story and any others that come to mind? And might you share some thoughts on how geology influences your sense of history and place?

This black and white drawing of Harriet Tubman wearing a satchel and holding a rifle pictures her standing outside at a Civil War encampment

This drawing of Harriet Tubman wearing a satchel and holding a rifle pictures her standing outside at a Civil War encampment, circa 1863-1868.
Frontispiece of Sarah H. Bradford’s Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman, 1869. Courtesy of Harvard University Fine Arts Library.

LS: Thank you for these memories of experience, Tiya. They’re so striking. In listening to you, three memories of my own experiences came to mind, including the one you note. Briefly, the earliest of them occurred when I was five years old, on a picnic with my parents at the Devil’s Punchbowl, which lies within the San Andreas Fault Zone in Southern California. That visit ignited my child-passion to inhabit stories the land held. I even believed the stream draining the bowl flowed from the beginning of the world.

The most crucial transformative experience occurred on our cross-country move to the East Coast when I was seven. My parents drove before dawn to a remote promontory on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim called Point Sublime. For hours we drove through aspen-edged meadows and stands of ponderosa pine. Up resistant limestone knolls, down around sinks and ravines. We had little forewarning of where the Kaibab Plateau ended, where limestone cliffs fell to inconceivable depths. As dawn arrived canyon walls that had descended into darkness soon glowed in great blocky detail. In time shadows receded enough to reveal a thin sliver in the far inner gorge catching the rising sun, glinting—it was the Colorado River. I can still feel the wonder—at the dance of light on rock, at ravens and white-throated swifts untethered from Earth, at serenity unbroken. I always tear up when I remember that dawn at Point Sublime because it helped shape how I perceive the world.

Then, as a child of eight or nine, I stood at an overlook in Shenandoah National Park for another dawn. There, from the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, I witnessed what at first appeared to be a vast, wind-silenced sea become land extending eastward toward the coastal plain, Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. But in those moments of undefined edges between dark and light, of mist-becoming-earth, it seemed that I could step into time and space merged together.

Geology and history are interwoven. The history of human experience owes much to the history of the land itself, to its structure, materials, and texture. The language of geology also offers metaphors for considering the deposition and erosion of human memory, the rupture and displacement of human experience. For me, it’s another path toward understanding how human lives are bound to deep time and Earth.

Every place, every landscape, is a site of memory and a site of erasure over different scales of time and space. Sand and stone are pieces of Earth’s memory; yet, you could also say that each of us is a terrain inscribed by memory and by loss. The “past” we emerge from is broken and pitted by gaps, not entirely unlike the fragmented annals of Earth history. In my case—with ancestral roots in Africa, Europe, Indigenous America, and beyond—gaps were formed by many things. By silences stretched across generations. By losses of language. By dispossession, diasporas, and forced servitude. By life-dimensions flattened under the weight of ignorance and stereotype. By public narratives that still dis-member who “we the people” are to each other and to this land. These are just a few.

I have admired your superb work over the years for many, many reasons. One of them is how well you connect senses of place to history. How does “place” influence what you write about, and your writing itself?

TM: Thank you for that, Lauret. All of it. I am still sitting with your childhood perception that a certain stream flowed from the beginnings of the world. How deep and lovely a thought. When I think back about my work, I can see that I am always fundamentally writing about place and how relationships unfold and how communities take shape in specific locations and regions at moments of large-scale cultural and societal change. I find, too, that my ideas for articles and books emerge from the place or places where I am living or where I have spent significant time. I feel a strong sense of connection to family’s southern roots, and many of my books explore southern history. I have written and spoken about the Ohio River, where my birth city is situated. While I was on the faculty at the University of Michigan for sixteen years, I wrote a book and developed a website on slavery in Detroit. I am currently working on climate fiction set in Detroit. My spouse is from Montana, where I have lived off and on for thirty years. I wrote Wild Girls in Montana during the pandemic, and Montana plays a large role in the book. Now that I live in Massachusetts, I find myself writing about Nantucket, Boston, and Cambridge. As for the how, I feel that I do my best writing outside when I can see mountains in the distance. Perhaps ironically, there’s something about a glimpse of peaks in the clouds that keeps me grounded and reminds me of perspective. We are small; the universe is large, and there is a comfort in that. As your own work illustrates so beautifully, every place has a living memory and a library of stories. We need only to listen.

Tiya Miles is a writer and the Michael Garvey Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at Harvard University. She is the author of several books, including All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake and The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts.

Lauret Savoy is a writer and the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies & Geology at Mount Holyoke College. She considers how human and geologic histories form landscapes of memory and loss. She is the author of Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.