A Place of Freedom and Belonging in the Great Outdoors

From Jamaica to New Hampshire, a Black activist discusses her wilderness legacy and efforts to create new cultural memories and rituals out on the trail.

Left: Clarendon, Jamaica, in 1991. Right: Waterfall climbing in St. Ann parish, Jamaica, in 1991

Credit: Courtesy of Mardi Fuller

The first time I went to Jamaica, I was seven years old. It was a father-daughter trip. My dad was 47 and seemed to need to prove to me, and to himself, that he could still climb a coconut tree. He grew up there, in a rural parish called Hanover, during the 1940s and ’50s. When he was young, he would camp out for hours in a mango tree in season, making himself sick by eating too much of the ripe, abundant fruit. He’d hunt birds with slingshots (and eat them!), catch and release lizards, and roam the land with his cousins and friends. When he sized up the coconut tree on that trip, my dad explained to me the technique needed to ascend the tree without scraping up your legs, and how quickly you’d need to descend before red ants would follow you down and attack.

I think my dad did successfully climb the tree that day, but that’s not what is most clear in my memory. What I remember most vividly, 34 years later, is the excitement and joy I saw in his eyes and heard in his voice, as well as the love he expressed for his beautiful nation and the connection he felt to the land. My mother speaks of waking early to beat her siblings to collecting the mangoes that had fallen to the ground, and of climbing the trees in the family orange grove and eating oranges for lunch. The island also nurtured her love of birding and gardening. This is my immediate outdoor legacy. I’m also a descendant of at least one Maroon ancestor, a society of Africans who, after escaping slavery, lived freely in Jamaica’s mountains for centuries. And though, through colonialism and the trading of enslaved people, my West African heritage is a mystery, a DNA test told me I am 54 percent Nigerian, and so as I traverse the earth and water, I commune with Yemaya, the Yoruban goddess symbolized by oceans and rivers. She is powerful, deep, and unfathomable but also maternal, and a nurturer.

Backpacking to the base of the Grand Canyon with my father, in fall 2006


Courtesy of Mardi Fuller

Growing up in suburban New York, I loved to explore and to play “survival” with my two next-door-neighbor best friends—picking inedible red berries from shrubs, pretending they would be our food. When I first began to roam more widely into the U.S. backcountry, I didn’t at first make the connection to my parents’ relationship to nature, but I felt at home there. What I knew is that I loved an adventure—to see a view, to be away, to place myself on a map, a tiny blip in the middle of a wood. As an adult, I became an avid outdoorswoman and made a mountain home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Far too few Americans enjoy the physical and mental benefits of spending time outside, and thus, are less likely to be inspired to help conserve the country’s wild spaces. According to the 2019 Outdoor Participation Report by the Outdoor Industry Association, only about half of the U.S. population engaged in some sort of outdoor activity at least once in 2018 and just 18 percent recreated outside at least once per week. Black Americans had the lowest participation rate among racial groups, at under 40 percent.

While we Black folks are raising our visibility in the outdoors—plenty of us walk, bird, garden, farm, paddle, hike, and bike—our relationship with parks and wilderness is complex. We were enslaved mainly on farm plantations and then forced into a sharecropping system intended to exploit. Over the 20th century, federal and municipal governments systematically designed segregated Black urban neighborhoods, blocking Black households and businesses from economic mobility at every turn. So, for Black people and others who have been historically excluded from parks, pools, and other outdoor spaces, and for those for whom a deep wood conjures past (and recent) memories of lynching and other forms of white, racialized terrorism, what does it take to build a sense of belonging in natural settings?

Mount Jefferson summit with Mount Washington in the background, in winter 2020
Credit: Kimberly Scholle

For starters, I see an opportunity to connect to our deeper, precolonial memory, the memory that was stolen from us, as well as a chance to celebrate the achievements of the Black community and to grieve and address the suffering we have experienced in this land. And, in the process of remembering, we can develop a unique ritual and a new memory, on our own terms. We experience the joy of letting go, and embracing our freedom as we are nurtured by earth and its creatures, by the air and the water. For years, I’ve been helping people of all races experience the backcountry, and it’s especially rewarding when I can show Black and Brown folks they can do an outdoor activity that they previously didn’t realize they already had the ability and the resources to accomplish.

Like my ancestors before me, my deeply felt sense of comfort and belonging within nature is rarely interrupted, but when it is, it is by white folks’ assumptions and behaviors, stemming from their social location. In a highly trafficked social media forum associated with my beloved White Mountains, a thread recently devolved into racist ugliness on the topic of Black Lives Matter and outdoor inclusion. I won’t get into the gloomiest details here, but a simple comment struck me. Someone said something along the lines of “If you care about this issue so much, don’t protest; take ‘them’ on a hike instead.” The statement may have been well intended, but it reveals a certain level of power, control, and condescension. Friend, I don’t want to be taken on a hike. I appreciate the welcoming gesture, but I don't want to be paternalistically ”included,” and I’m not here in the mountains to solve a diversity problem. I’m here to lead. I am a co-steward of the land and a cocreator of a wilderness culture that we shape and direct together.

Paddling through Rhode Island waterways two weeks ago, a white man in a mini-yacht asked if my friends and I were the “Black Lives Matter parade” and then proceeded to declare, but with no command of brevity, that “all lives matter.” In keeping with an age-old American dynamic of suspicion, when I’m traveling with white friends, I seem to not be singled out by other white people we encounter. Perhaps, to these strangers, my white friends normalize or validate my Black presence. I’ve assimilated into their context. But if I’m with other Black people, in these mountain towns or on the trail, I’m perceived as a curiosity or a threat.

Backpacking in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, in fall 2019.
Credit: Left: Devon Cone. Right: Liz Stanley

More generally speaking, I have many experiences of traveling through the backcountry with white companions, really nice people, but people who had largely not examined their white identity and their buried, internalized sense of cultural superiority. They’d often speak and act as if their ways of being and knowing came from some sort of cosmic truth. It’s the tendency of whiteness to see itself as the baseline or standard, instead of one of many ways of being human. It’s a lack of recognition that being a member of the socio-politically dominant group might carry with it some blindness. Due to this seemingly benign and yet insidious white supremacy, in the form of the norm, I limit my outdoor time with white friends. It’s too draining. Like when white folks ask me, “Why don’t more Black folks hike?”—fully unaware of the societal and cultural reasons why they themselves do hike and attributing their hobby to their upbringing or their personal inclinations alone.

White supremacy does not overpower the call of Yemaya nor any of nature’s divine manifestations. Nature’s power can awaken latent belonging, and I’ve felt most enlivened when I’m sharing the restoration and healing of the outdoors with Black people—friends or strangers—with whom I am linked in identity and experience. I belong to the land—we all do, as we have for generations. The land gives me life and freedom, like it did quite literally for my Maroon ancestors. So when I set off into the backcountry, I am assured in my legacy and in my present, and I’m ready to share my learnings and my joy.

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