The Space between the Words

Carolyn Finney

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45: Into the Woods


When I think about the woods and picture myself breathing with the trees and catching sunlight between the leaves, I am always a brown-skinned woman, carrying the weight of my ancestors while dreaming about a future possible. I am translated through that filter of “race in America” to all who might see me and consider my experience of the woods.

My story is at the mercy of the seer. If you cannot fully see me, can you really tell my story? Do I fully exist? Our role as interpreters, designers, and storytellers demands a kind of going “into the woods” of our own assumptions, biases, beliefs, and disciplinary truths if we want to see beyond our own experiences and engage difference. Whether we are talking about the forest, a single tree, or our human presence, how that story comes alive relies on our ability to engage and embrace those expressions of lived difference that do not always fit into our accepted frameworks and ideologies about all things green. A vision of who we might be in the woods and beyond is by default simply a version of life imagined, reflected through our individual experiences, privileges, fears, and desires. What is missed, overlooked, or forgotten?

surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar,
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
and . . .” why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?

— Lucille Clifton, “surely i am able to write poems” (2004)

I’ve got five ideas running through my mind and body these days: Risk-taking as a form of rigor. Informed improvisation. Embodied practice. Reflexive innovation. The space between the words.

A few years ago, I met Bernice Johnson Reagon at a conference where she was the keynote. Beyond her many achievements as a scholar and an activist, she is perhaps best known as the founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, a black a-cappella group that captures complex configurations of political, economic, and social forces in song. Reagon admonished us to “go below the intellectual paper record to get those black stories” in our environmental work and research.

In Corvallis, Oregon, I met Susana Almanza, a Latina activist from East Austin, Texas, who has been honored for her work spearheading an effort that resulted in the removal of noxious oil tanks from her community. We sat on a panel together, speaking about issues relating to the communities we lived in and worked with. When someone asked her about collaborating with those who work in academia, she suggested that academics need to “take off their shoes” and remember what it’s like to get dirty. Words and theories can separate us from what’s real, even though we need words and theories to help us make sense of what weíre trying to understand.

What is our intention in engaging difference in the first place?

So, I go below the intellectual paper record, prepared to “get dirty,” and find myself in the Great Dismal Swamp, a vast expanse of mud, water, trees, bones, and history in the southeastern United States. More than 13,000 years ago, humans began living, working, and playing in the area. Over time, inhabitants included American Indians, European Americans, and enslaved Africans and their descendants. What has emerged to the human eye is the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, approximately 112,000 acres of forested wetlands with the largest natural lake in Virginia, Lake Drummond, at its center. But what lies beneath the physical particularities of this geographic region is the resilience and desperation of runaway slaves, the avarice and persistence of European colonists, the spirit of American Indians, and the agency of the swamp itself, to consume, transform, and generate new life and new stories. As part of a collaborative team, I am tasked with discovering/recovering race on the landscape, past and present, through the experience of others, past and present.

I meet Ms. Elizabeth—an African American mother, grandmother, teacher, and griot of lived difference—on the landscape. Her face reveals a past, present, and future where she has been all up “in it,” so to speak. Comfortable in her old age, she stood ramrod straight and looked at me with piercing eyes. I know that I have to take off my metaphorical shoes to get down in the dirt with her.

Sam Durant, Roots and Branches, 2002.

But I don’t go alone. Terry Jenoure, an African American scholar and musician, writes about how improvisation makes space for experiences that haven’t yet been codified and that are then elevated. Improvisation makes room for creativity. Creativity becomes part of the masterplan to inculcate linear thinking with “symbolic disclosure and expression” that reveals the multidimensionality of difference lived on an intellectually manicured landscape.

I think about reflexive innovation as I begin to write down the words Ms. Elizabeth shares. I call up Jenoure’s words once again and substitute a few of my own: “the profundity of its message is not necessarily located in the [paragraphs] themselves but in the intricacy of the process.”

What is my intention in engaging difference in the first place?

My feet are really dirty now.

I ask Ms. Elizabeth a question about her identity and she looks at me with clear eyes and says, “I am a pure black child.” I looked to Kathryn, a graduate student in cahoots with me, to decipher the space between the words. Ms. Elizabeth’s response reveals layered histories not always captured in linear accounts that highlight seminal moments in our collective history. I go back to basics: Foucault, Fanon, Haraway, and even a little Marx; feminist thought, black feminist thought, cultural geography, political ecology, critical race theory. When I consider the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries as a way to go below the intellectual paper record, I have to look elsewhere and invite other forms of knowing to the table.

So I think of Nina Simone flying high, she knows how she feels; I think of Spike Lee, a black director situated in the experience of Black America situated in the experience of White America situated in the experience of Native America; I think of Gordon Parks and his American Gothic, a black-and-white photograph of a black maid with a mop and broom in front of the American flag, God Bless America; I think of the paintings of George Washington Carver, another form of expression from a mind that grappled with soil and peanuts and possibility; I think of the poetry of Tupac Shakur, whose rose grew from concrete even when no one else cared, and who embodies a kind of gangsta that I saw flash in Ms. Elizabeth’s eyes: “I am a pure black child.”

I am up to my knees in dirt.

What is our intention in engaging difference in the first place?

What is a useful theoretical concept when trying to understand the space between the words? How do I capture the alternate narrative of Ms. Elizabeth and her family, community, and the swamp that she claims they belong to? While we may privilege a story about the swamp that is framed by the dominant cultural perspective, Ms. Elizabeth’s view of the world in her black skin reveals a reconfiguring of priorities, possibilities, and certainties about herself and the place she lives that can go unappreciated by the disciplined eye. Yes, she has lived through segregation and stories of black bodies disappearing in the swamp. But it would be a mistake to simply focus on the narrative of black struggle in defining her experience. Like the knotted branches of Lucille Clifton’s poem, the greater revelation may be what we can’t see or capture with familiar tools.

Is there a form of writing that can accommodate the alternate narratives and critically informed improvisations of empirical and theoretical attempts to engage difference differently? Tapping into that “sophisticated frequency” of understanding that African Americans have collectively developed over time means inviting in the presence of those experiences on their own terms, according to Michaela Angela Davis. When Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple in 1982, she raised more than eyebrows by beginning it with the words of an uneducated black girl, written in the character’s own cadence, with all its imperfections. The choice to privilege the “truth” of her character’s experience not only illuminated who this young girl was in relation to the world she lived in, but allowed her point of view, her feelings, and her presence to be elevated. She became multidimensional—a person of mystery and possibility, defined on her own terms.

As the story/experience of Ms. Elizabeth makes its way through the academic machinery of knowledge production, how is difference projected and protected? The way we engage difference empirically and theoretically not only reinscribes certain ways of thinking about difference, but reaffirms certain processes of valuation that measure “good” knowledge. Engaging difference demands something different. How do we create a space for that differ-ence on its own terms, in order to generate something new?

What are we willing to risk?

Carolyn Finney is a writer, performer, and cultural geographer at the University of Kentucky. She is author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans and the Great Outdoors (2014) and is deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience. She served on the US National Park System Advisory Board and is part of the Next 100 Coalition, a first-of-its-kind coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, conservation, and community leaders from around the country. She is currently working on a new book that explores identity, race, lived experience, and the construction of a black environmental imaginary, as well as a performance piece about John Muir (The N Word: Nature Revisited).