I was “…on the road again” this week. On Thursday morning I saddled up Ruby –my new, less ravenous Honda Element motor mule for the trek. Yes, Beulah May, my beloved GMC pick-up & draught horse, is resting in the driveway pasture now, having given me almost 300,000 miles of dutiful service, I thought it was time to give her some down time—limit her travel to local places. She’s still my hunting and hauling beast of burden but she has a stable mate now. On her first foray north and into the rolling hills and mountains of Southwestern Virginia, Lil' Ruby proved quite the capable climber and even held her own in the left lane when speed was the need. I think I’ll keep her.
This past week many of us celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Designated as a “day on -- not a day off” --to serve others, most have come to see the third Monday in January as simply another day away from work. As such, the reason for remembering the life and work of a man who fundamentally changed American society-and the world-- for the better, has become concentrated into an eight hour work cycle and forgotten when the long weekend ends. I think the work to bring the dream of equality to all people--a vision still not yet fully realized almost 50 years after King’s martyrdom –deserves more than just a day and cliches. To me the fullest effect of any vision lies in making it mean something to peoples’ lives. Virginia Tech, the land of Hokie stone and the brave and resilient community of folks who’ve overcome much to excel in so many ways, have innovated the inspirational and maybe are doing just that. Their idea is to make Dr. King’s work relevant to the lives of the college community by spreading the celebration out over a week and targeting speakers to departments and schools where their messages will hopefully resonate more deeply.
I was honored when Dr. Anne McNabb and Dr. Bryan Brown, faculty (and new kindred spirits) in the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Sciences, invited me up to the New River Valley to be the King Week Celebration speaker. The event was sponsored by several units including the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Science, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and College of Natural Resources and Environment; and the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. Within these units, diversity committees came together to bring me north to "Hokie Land". I’ve been honored to speak in many places for all kinds of occasions, but this was the first time I’ve ever been asked to talk about environmental issues with the larger than life work of Dr. King looming as the inspiration for the effort. As the day for the seminar approached, I began to think about how I would tie a talk about nature, land ethic and the like into the struggle for social justice and civil rights. A search of MLK’s speeches, letters and conversations reveal little if anything about his attitude towards the environment. For a split second, I thought that maybe it would be a stretch to tie conservation to King. And then, like a blast of cold winter wind through a narrow mountain pass, it hit me. The conservation of nature and the sustainable stewardship of air, water, soil, timber, wildlife and other natural resources is simply an extension of Dr. King’s philosophies. He once said that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Those “broader concerns” to me include environmental ones. They have to because we cannot live without air or water. They are inalienable rights I think. Air and water by nature do not only make themselves available to a select groups of people. That is to say they are requisites for life and cannot of themselves discriminate based upon skin color. However, justice (or injustice) can be wrought even upon something as elemental as oxygen or H2O. Are those who build the industries that poison the air and water doing the same dirty work of discrimination by disproportionately placing polluters upwind (or upstream) of communities of color and poor folks who then suffer higher rates of asthma or find themselves in places where cancer concentrates to maim and kill as the poisons find them downstream? Where black folks still farm or own rural land, they usually find little help from state and federal agencies tasked with helping landowners to find ways to manage sustainably to make their land more productive for themselves and other creatures. Often times, the help –and the money--goes to the “good ol’ boys” that look like the administrators. Think color isn’t an issue in matters of the environment? Think again.
The birds and the beasts that so many of us in the conservation “industry” came into the profession to protect often find their greatest refuge near areas where people of color live. Look across the Southeast and you will often find black folks living in or near the areas where all manner of wild and wonderful things live. In South Carolina, Congaree National Park, a tree-shrouded haven for migrant songbirds like the secretive Swainson’s warbler, sits in the midst of some of the highest concentrations of black land ownership anywhere. Beidler Forest—its old growth cypress swamp nourished by black water and richly flecked with the gold of prothonotary warblers, is abutted by private landowners, many of whom are black. Travel down I-95, where large numbers of African-American reside and you will pass through expanses of long-leaf pine forests and thickety swamps that harbor endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and wood storks. In all of these communities you’ll find immense ecological wealth undercut by poverty, mismanaged lands and people who often feel left in the wake of conservation as afterthoughts to wildlife.
And so with these thoughts in mind I talked as I often do about the search for land ethic among my people. Folks loaded into the seminar room and listened intently. I talked about the history of black folks on the land and the ramifications that the institutions of slavery, discrimination and a conservation movement that has largely forgotten about people of color have wrought. The message seemed well-received and I think in the end, many could imagine Aldo and George Washington Carver maybe having a conversation that somehow bridged the chasm of color and concentrated on their love for the land. I’m imagining that conversation as I write this blog and thinking that perhaps there’s more there for me to write!
I ended the long day at Anne McNabb’s home where I got to dine with a diverse group of all-star students whose array of ideas matched the kaleidoscope of skin tones. It was thrilling listening to the dreams of young people who had been simply given a chance to show what they could do. They were judged for the "content of their character" but also for the richness their differing racial, ethnic, gender and socio-economic experiences bring to bear. Technically termed as being in “transition” to their doctoral degrees, they spoke with a confidence that inspired me. There was an easiness among all of them that proved Dr. King’s dream was still alive and in fact moving forward in a generation of folks almost a half-century removed from his last year on earth. Anne beamed as the students talked about their academic goals as well as things beyond the books. I got to reconnect with old friends like Carola Haas, who has been an ardent agent in the move to diversify the field. I felt proud to be in the midst of such open minds and look forward to communing again with my new friends soon.
My fears that my ramblings about conservation and land ethic would fall on deaf ears intent on hearing MLK’s message of deliverance were short-lived. I applaud Anne, Bryan and the folks at Virgina Tech for not settling for clichés and token observances to celebrate "The Dream" and to make sure that it lives beyond the day. Think about this; the greatest period of civil rights advancement in our history led in the 1960’s by Dr. King marched parallel to the path blazed by an eco-revolutionary named Rachael Carson. In that amazing decade there were protests to gain civil rights; protests to attain peace; and protests to save our natural world. Justice is justice, I think. Neo-eco-activists like Majora Carter are helping to carry the fight for environmental justice forward in a new way.
Rights to self -determination, to live in peace and to breathe clean air are not separate issues. The lines want desperately to intersect because they are inseparable requisites that all improve the human condition. I would like to believe that in their own ways, Aldo, Martin and Rachael would've concurred.
My most sincere thanks to all at Virginia Tech who made it possible for me to speak on a such a very special occasion. To Deans Eric Hallerman and Paul Winistorfer, thanks for your aggressive moves to diversify. I am most grateful to all who came to listen and offered such positive feedback. You encourage and embolden me to keep going with issues that are sometimes painful to address. There is indeed something special about Virginia Tech. I think it goes way deeper than the stone.
Until Next Time,