Late spring in the Lowcountry, before the mosquitoes and deerflies take over, is beautiful beyond the telling. Lots of us are being drawn outdoors into the natural areas like bees are drawn to clover, like monarchs to milkweed.
I walk on an old dike at Caw Caw Interpretive Center — not one of the broad causeways built with modern machinery in more modern times, but a narrow, worn-down, overgrown earthen bank from when this land was a rice plantation.
I’ve walked on this dike before with Jim, a retired herpetologist, and we saw a cottonmouth and salamanders in the black water below us. I’ve walked it with Arch and Steve, avid birders, who count 40 species in the trees and tall grasses. When I’ve walked it with Ron the photographer, morning’s soft light and surreal artistic patterns excite us. When I walk it alone, I am stilled by the quietness. Sometimes a haiku or an idea takes shape there, a whiﬀ of nature mysticism.
A nearby educational kiosk brings me up short. Fact: that dike was dug and constructed one spadeful at a time in the unwelcoming swamp by enslaved labor. Bodies sweated and bled here, bitten and bent, bearing trenchant memories of another continent and the tearing to pieces of family ties. When I walk on the old earthworks in our county parks, wildlife management areas, public gardens and national forest, I’m confronted with the traumatic history held by these places. For just that reason, others have spoken against walking for pleasure or having their wedding there. I get it. “Where does the land hold its fury, its contamination of cruelty and injustice?” asked Samantha Hunt.
I’m aware too that the narrative of slavery belongs to other souls, not to me. I need to remember, to not let the story be forgotten, but as a White man, it is not my story. Not mine to draw up from generational suﬀering and retell today. Others who walk this rice field dike must feel the story of slavery in visceral ways that go far beyond my experience of it.
One such person, one who owns the story, is renowned poet and writer, film producer and performer Manon Voice. I doubt if she has ever walked the Carolina rice fields, but she could have when she speaks of bearing the fury of “racialized trauma” going back 14 generations — and how she found a pathway toward healing. Voice calls that healing process “reclaiming the land.” This is how she reclaims the land, and it merits reading twice:
“As a black person whose ancestors were enslaved and brought to a land not their own, to till it and work it at the expense of their own demise, I have had to reckon with the trauma that came from being imprisoned and fettered to land. Land was used as another kind of weapon of oppression and so allowing my body to revel in open fields or be among the trees feels like a reclamation of my heritage as belonging to this sacred Earth and the Earth calling me home, as a part of it.”
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What a remarkable declaration. Land (think plantations) imprisoned her people, but by physically, sensually “reveling” in field and woods she is able to embrace the pain and trauma in her history and then discover a transformative relation to all those wounds. By “allowing my body to revel” in nature — giving herself permission to get beyond the complexities of memory, explanations, ideologies, and just be in spirit-cleansing harmony with the land — she is no longer a prisoner of her mind. Now she discovers the Earth itself calling her, not to a “demise” but to a homecoming — to a home in which both the land and her own body are sacred.
That view gives a whole new meaning to walking, hunting, fishing, birding in the former plantation lands of the Lowcountry! It points to a material/spiritual ground — the earth, or nature in full complexity — that lies beyond our use and tragic misuse of the land, beyond the blood-soaked history of the last 300 years, beyond any personal history. A sacred ground on which both land and body are changed. But she knows that such a leap of spirit gets real only by the visible, physical action of getting our bodies out there and encountering, tasting, belonging to, drinking in the place, marrying the land. Reveling!
Whether our forebears were enslaved or enslavers, Black or White, both or neither, we all need “re-regulating,” to use Voice’s word. That’s not likely to happen by just talking about it, like older adults favor, any more than by marching in the street — though both dialogue and demonstration count. Try this: Full-scale re-regulating is more likely to happen when your body marches your mind and heart out into nature; when all three of those organs of perception come on line and bind you to “this sacred Earth … calling me home, as part of it,” in Voice’s words.
“And for all this, nature is never spent,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Because re-regulating is fundamentally a matter of getting to a level of consciousness deeper than the hurt, anger, guilt, the persistent “us-them” polarity we’ve all inherited from our fraught history. Manon Voice finds that level of consciousness — beyond self — by walking in the woods or on the shore or beside the marsh. Bringing our bones and gristle into resonant harmony with the rest of nature. Touching the “dearest freshness deep down things.”
Elders, don’t shun our natural areas because they show the marks of past injustices and harsh suﬀering. We refuse to forget; but our love of the open air, trees, fields and marshes bears witness that they can take us by the hand and lead us into a consciousness of the sacred wholeness beyond all we have messed up. A walk in nature turns into something else.