Storyteller and cultural geographer Carolyn Finney imagines a present where diverse forces come together to create a more sustainable world. This is her call to action.
I initially wrote this piece when I was asked to give the opening remarks at George Washington University for the inaugural meeting (March 16, 2016) of The Centennial Initiative / The Next 100 Coalition, a first-of-its-kind coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, conservation, and community leaders from around the country. We proceeded to put together a vision statement and policy document on diversity and public lands with the intention of having President Barack Obama issue a presidential memorandum, which he did.
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In 2008, 4,247,694 babies were born in the United States. I want us to think about that. 4,247,694 babies. The pop song topping the Billboard 100 that year was “Low” by Flo Rida. The Dark Knight (no, I’m not talking about the president), the continuing saga of the Caped Crusader in Gotham, was considered the most popular movie.
NASA landed our first robot probe in the polar region of Mars. The top 10 environmental issues of the year included climate change, water, food, and land management. Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president.
In 2008, 4,247,694 babies were born in the United States. The internet was hopping, the iPhone was ubiquitous, and men and women could say “I do” to whomever they wanted in the state of Connecticut. Two historic sites (World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument and Minidoka National Historic Site) were added to our evolving list of national parks.
In 2008, 4,247,694 babies were born in the United States. I want to talk about how many of those 4,247,694 babies were born with hands that look like mine. Brown and black chubby hands grasping grass, dirt, and dreams out of thin air. Brown and black hands reaching for the stars while being nourished by the soil from which they sprang. Brown and black hands holding the memories of all our ancestors in this place on this land. Brown and black hands feeling their way through a telling of our past that is unrelenting in revealing itself in our day-to-day practices of relating and living amid not-yet-reconciled truths of pain and limited possibility.
We talk a lot about the future. But I want to talk about the right now.
I want to talk about the moment in Antarctica when 7.2 million cubic miles of ice started to rapidly melt. I want to talk about the millions of acres managed by our government agencies. I want to talk about how many of those 4,247,694 babies will never walk on those public lands and why is that? I want to talk about American Indians. Apache, Cherokee, Iroquois, Miccosukee, Arapaho, Ute, Pomo, Delaware, Shoshone, Sioux. I want to talk about how many of those 4,247,694 babies are American Indians. I want to talk about the moment that Christopher Columbus misread his compass, misread the stars, and began to draw the contours of who we are by standing on this land as who he was. I want to talk about water. I want to talk about sea-level rise. I want to talk about the moment one of those brown chubby hands grasped a glass of water in Flint, Michigan. I want to talk about the moment when 905 species vanished forever. I want to talk about how many of those 4,247,694 babies will never see a bigmouth rocksnail, a short-tailed hopping mouse, or a Jamaican monkey. I want to talk about Japanese farmers interned with soil on their hands. Nisei, Issei. I want to talk about how many of those 4,247,694 babies are of Japanese ancestry. I want to talk about the Irish and Germans and British and French who lived the Homestead Act, planting new dreams while loving old land already steeped in memory and the blood of those who came before.
I want to talk about the moment in 1903 when John Muir stood with President Roosevelt on Overhanging Rock at Glacier Point in Yosemite. I want to talk about the things unwritten but not necessarily unsaid between the two men—about agreements made that day that were informed by the commonly held beliefs of the time about others; the certainty and ease of camaraderie that often comes with power, privilege, recognition, and opportunity; and how the nature of this conversation might look and sound different if it took place today. Because in 2008, 4,247,694 babies were born in the United States. And a lot of their hands look like mine.
I want to talk about the beginning. Yeah, I want to talk about the Big Bang and Adam and Eve. But I want to talk about our beginning. How we each come to understand who we are on the land where we stand. How we know about this land. How the memory of this land is the memory of us. And loving the land is loving ourselves and when was the moment we came to know that? That everyone understands that and there was a moment somewhere—in your birth, in your life, in your reaching and dreaming—that you gave in. That you gave in to the possibility of a future moment and decided to fight.
In 2008, 4,247,694 babies were born in the United States. I want to talk about the not-yet-borns: the chubby hands and dreams that will realize our future moments and ask us who they are on this land. The moment when they will ask about the 4,000 buffalo in Yellowstone and the slaying of millions of others before their time; the moment when they will ask about the trees in Chattahoochee National Forest and lynching; the moment when they ask about the mighty Mississippi and the body of Emmett Till. I want to talk about the moment they will ask us about that road, that bridge, that housing complex, that golf course, that parking lot that paved over our memories of land and inherent wildness that is their birthright.
When I was born in 1959, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series against the Chicago White Sox, Frank Sinatra won his first Grammy, Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states, and the last vestiges of Jim Crow were about to be obliterated. Naturalist and conservationist George Schaller wrote a book about mountain gorillas in the Congo. And during the next four years, the US Congress passed the first Clean Water Act. Wallace Stegner wrote the “Wilderness Letter” advocating federal protection of wilderness. Thirty-seven-year-old Medgar Evers, field secretary for Mississippi’s NAACP, was murdered outside his home in Jackson. And a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young African American girls with hands like mine who were attending Sunday school, reaching and dreaming.
The Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed in 1964.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents lately. Now in their eighties, they sometimes seem like shadows of their former selves. I think about some of the challenges I had with them when I was younger—their rigidity, their tradition, their old way of doing things, their only way of doing things that was always the truth of what was right. Even if I didn’t think so (and I “didn’t think so” often). I remember the time I had to sleep with no lightbulbs in my room for a week because I came home late after a party and fell asleep with the lights on, or could only take hot showers for five minutes or my father would turn off the hot water, or couldn’t learn to play the guitar because that’s something only boys do. I remember my father not speaking to me for a year because I dropped out of college and though I tried to explain to him about my dreams of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, he could not hear me, or so I thought. The rules of engagement, in terms of how I lived my life, were already spelled out and I needed to play by those rules. What I saw was rigidity, limitation, and fear, and I did my best to distance myself as much as possible. But now, as I see them prepare to move beyond this life as they know it to the unknown, I suddenly see all those moments differently. I want to remember what was painful as much as what was wonderful. That their story and my story of Who I Am is deeply rooted in all those experiences—that my fight comes from a well of “you better” and “you can’t” and “we said so” that challenged my edges and allowed me the chance to think differently about what was possible for me and the life that I live in.
When I think about our collective past, of wilderness, of land, of sky, of brown, of black, of white, I often feel resistance from others to engaging those moments of past/present remembered—slavery, American Indian removal, Japanese internment, the treatment of Mexican immigrants. Those larger moments of “you better,” “you can’t,” and “we said so” that continue to have ramifications for millions of lives that started as brown chubby hands reaching and dreaming. But these moments are also who we are. And the land knows this. Our forests, our parks, our vistas, our beaches, our mountains. When we fight for the land, we fight for ourselves remembered. We fight for those selves not yet born, we fight for those 4,247,694 babies who may not know, who may not ask, who may not listen, and who may not understand the value of fighting for and loving the land as they see fit. It’s not about our rules and our ways and our means—these things will change as they should. Dreams need room to fly.
Have you had that conversation where someone tells you that diversity is not as important as climate change? I’ve been reflecting on that a bit. Maybe they’re right. Diversity is not going to matter if we can’t grow food in the soil, or if species continue to die, or if glaciers continue to melt. What does diversity have to do with that? But then I remember that it takes all kinds of people working, dreaming, and fighting to make the possibilities real. I remember that in a few years half of this country is going to be people who are brown and they will be reaching and dreaming and fighting, remembering the echoes of past “you better,” “you can’t,” and “we said so” and dreaming new ways of dreaming and reaching and fighting. This is about climate change. This is about land. This is about trees. This is about water. This is about fighting for who gets to set the terms and decide the “how” we get things done. It’s about those who give away all their wealth to environmental causes; those who walk across the country to raise environmental awareness; those who work for a little in order to get a lot. Those who create nonprofits and those who organize community meetings and those who turn whole streets into art. It’s about those who climb mountains and those who tell stories where Muir and Roosevelt once stood. It’s about those who continue to put their hands in the dirt so that we may eat. It’s about mothers and fathers and trips to the parks in the city and the country. It’s about 4,247,694 babies with chubby hands of all shades and shapes grasping grass and dirt and this moment.
This moment is about fighting for the land and loving the land and dreaming the land into the future without the chains of limitations embedded in our systems that keep those different voices constrained, invisible, or silent. Because half of this country is going to be brown and they have an opportunity to work with the other half to fight for this land that feeds us, holds us, and tells us who we are. We talk about America the beautiful—the beautiful is the moment, again and again and again.
What we can do in this moment is work to change the nature of the next moment. What we can do in this moment is to remember, learn, fight, stand, and expand who we are and who we might become.
In 2008—say it with me—4,247,694 babies were born. And no matter the color of their hands, they will be reaching for grass, dirt, and dreams and we will need all their love and fight and possibility. On a flight from Chicago to Washington, DC, I stood in front of a woman carrying a seven-week-old baby with skin the color of the desert soil of the Southwest. I was uncertain of their ethnicity. But what is certain is that that baby was born in 2016 along with a few million other babies and they will inherit all the moments that have come before while reaching for the moments yet to come.
President Obama did a series of interviews with the New Yorker magazine, and I’d like to end with his words:
I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges, rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past. But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and the goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have. But I think our decisions matter. At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.
This is our paragraph, our moment. Let’s get it right.