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