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Redefining Terms, Reclaiming Place

Oliver de la Paz reviews The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison Hawthorn Deming and Lauret E. Savoy

The Colors of Nature, edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret E. SavoyThe Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World is an anthology that doesn’t operate merely as a collection of essays and poems by writers of color and their reflections about the natural world. Rather, the anthology is a sophisticated argument expertly structured around the following question: “Why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by people of color?” Deming and Savoy carefully interrogate possible reasons for such a disparity:

What if one’s primary experience of land and place is not a place apart but rather indigenous? What if it is urban or indentured or exiled or (im)migrant or toxic? To define “nature writing” as anything that excludes these experiences does not reveal a “lack” of writing, but reflects, instead, a societal structure of inclusion and exclusion based on othered difference—whether by “race,” culture, class, or gender.

The question about how to define “natural writing” has traditionally neglected narratives by people of color because, perhaps, their narratives did not involve the type of idyllic discourse founders of the “natural writing” movement had intended. Deming and Savoy describe such writing as:

. . . solitary explorations of wild places from a poetic, philosophical, or scientific perspective; seeing nature as a place apart, where wisdom and inspiration could be harvested for day-to-day life in the “real” world of cities.

And indeed, there are only a few titles in libraries or bookstores filed under the term “nature writing,” as it’s traditionally defined, by writers of color. Deming and Savoy’s selections for the anthology endeavor to remedy this issue by re-examining the parameters of just what is “nature writing.” By redefining or “widening the frame” of nature writing, The Colors of Nature adds the following subjects to the fold: writings about cultural legacy within a landscape; writings about geographical and ecological oppression, and writings about indigenous peoples’ experiences with the land.

And while the seed of the anthology may be spurned by the invisibility of nature writing by writers of color, the flashpoint of the anthology is the post-Katrina Hurricane flooding in New Orleans and the subsequent displacement of thousands from the New Orleans community—a clearly visible natural and human catastrophe. While only a few of the essays within the collection actually engage the Katrina aftermath, most of the essays steer their orbits around the relationship between peoples of color and their environment as complicated by narratives of dislocation, violence, migration, and loss.

The anthology consists of four sections: Return, Witness, Encounter, and Praise—with each section either beginning or ending with a poetic invocation. Ofelia Zepeda’s poem, “Birth Witness” opens the anthology’s Return section by contrasting a bureaucracy’s need for documentation versus the witnesses within the landscape:

Who knew then that I would need witnesses of my birth?
The stars were there in the sky.
The wind was there.
The sun was there.
The pollen of spring was floating and sensed me being born.
They are silent witnesses.
They do not know of affidavits, they simply know.

Astutely, the essay that follows this poetic selection is Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History,” where Kincaid challenges historical narratives through an interrogation of the Christopher Columbus story and the story of Carl Linneaus.

The second section, entitled Witness, opens with a stylistic shift. Robert D. Bullard’s essay, “Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century,” is a straightforward account of racist environmental policies with regard to waste dumping sites. Bullard invokes a bit of Orwell to open his essay, stating: “In the real world, all communities are not created equal. Some are more equal than others.” He then considers particular examples of just what environmental racism entails through a definition of the term and particular cases where that definition applies. Almost all of the essays and poems in the Witness section examine issues of environmental racism including essays by Yusef Komunyakaa, Ray Gonzalez, and Al Young. I found this section to be the most emotionally painful because of the force of the narratives and the weight of the opening essay’s central position.

In Komunyakaa’s piece entitled “Dark Waters,” he writes of the racial history of Bogalusa as it relates to its economic and environmental landscape. He writes:

Everything adds up to capital. Living from birth to death involves commerce. The poor, disenfranchised people I grew up with couldn’t afford fancy tombstones and divine-looking burial plots for their loved ones. Some seemed born diminished—cogwheels of flesh in a monumental system that stole and sold even the airspace overhead as if they were part of an experiment gone wrong.

In Ray Gonzalez’s piece, “Hazardous Cargo,” he writes of a solid waste disposal facility in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on the outskirts of El Paso. He recounts seeing all the “HC” signs throughout the landscape of El Paso:

They have been erected to make sure the risky fallout from thriving border commerce does not wander from the plotted path and into “safe” parts of neighborhoods. Their drivers must know the routes from memory by now but, as I recount the HC markers, I realize the only freeway in El Paso is a legal route and so is every major street in town!

Finally, in Al Young’s piece, Young connects his observations about a macaw locked in a supply closet with humankind’s growing inability to see its connection to nature. Young writes:

If in some way we were forced to visualize all people (workers and marketers), all the raw materials, and all the natural resources (including sunlight, rain, and wind)? When you add to this the decades it has taken to produce the raw materials, and the generations of human beings it has taken to produce all of the people whose brain, muscle, and blood have gone into manufacturing this product, then we’ve journeyed from a picture to the picture.

And indeed, the Witness section of the anthology moves the anthology from “a picture to the picture” through these skillful personal narratives about place and people.

The final two sections of The Colors of Nature, to my mind, seem the most spiritual and hopeful. The section entitled Encounter suggests both an encounter with those who are the oppressors, but also a chance meeting or a surprise return to the land. Like the anthology’s first section, this third section opens with a poetic invocation. Nikky Finney’s poem, “The Thinking Men,” is a remembrance of enslaved men who built Old Main at Wofford College. The poem ends:

Our hands were living blackboards. Math, mind,
and muscle, the long-drawn fingerprints
of thinking men, left behind for good. Here:
in every wall

All this can leave a clear mark upon a world.

Like the poem, the pieces in the final two sections of the anthology make their “clear mark” through a variety of essays and poems that are both remembrances and calls to action. In bell hooks’s essay, “Earthbound” she urges “black folks [to] . . . collectively renew our relationship to the earth, to our agrarian roots.” A similar call is provided in Louis Owens’s essay, “Burning the Shelter,” where the author recalls his work as a forester accompanying a pair of women to shelter built by Suiattle and Upper Skagit people in the Pacific Northwest.

Finally, in the last section of the anthology, Praise, the essays and poems synthesize the world and the individual. In Jennifer Oladipo’s essay, “Porphyrin Rings,” such synthesis begins as she writes, “Atomically, there is little difference between hemoglobin—blood—and chlorophyll”. From there, she continues to investigate the relationship between people and plants.

Ultimately, this final section of the anthology invokes the historical legacies with the land as each of the authors in this section recall the narratives of a people, or their own individual narratives. How fitting that David Mas Masumoto’s final essay entitled “Belonging to the Land” provides the elegant image of the author eating a bitter melon, the lasting taste in the reader’s mouth giving the impression of hope as Masumoto urges that “It’ll start tasting better….”

While The Colors of Nature is an anthology, it doesn’t read like an anthology—you can’t skim over its parts and fully partake the magnitude of the book’s central argument. Each piece clearly plays its intricate part in creating a dynamic argument for the reevaluation of traditional definitions of what was “nature writing” toward what “nature writing” should also be. Through the expanded definition of “nature writing,” more work by writers of color will be made visible.


Oliver de la Paz is the author of three books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, and Requiem for the Orchard. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems. A board member of Kundiman.org and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, his work has appeared in journals such as Tin House, The Southern Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. He has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Artists' Trust. He teaches at Western Washington University.
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The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World

Edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret E. Savoy

   Milkweed Editions
   2011 (Second Edition)
   368 pages
   ISBN 978-1571313195


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