Rewilding Our Natural and Cultural Pathways

An interview with a natural revolutionary — Rue Mapp, Founder of Outdoor Afro.

Kerry James Marshall, “Vignette” (2003) © Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall, “Vignette” (2003) © Kerry James Marshall

Rewilding.

It is a wonderfully romantic word. A term that conjures thoughts of a return to the verdant: of plucky, wispy things peeking out of polluted spaces; of habitat coming back to nest and plod in asphalt jungles. Nature returning to our emptied-out cities infiltrated the news — foxes on the streets of London, coyotes in Los Angeles, and translucent jellyfish drifting through the canals of Venice. Even though such habitat was already quite urban, the restorative narrative had psychological and environmental virtues: a much-needed morale boost in a time of isolation and uncertainty; a catalytic moment for us to rethink our relationship with nature.

While the earth was enjoying a much-needed human sabbatical, I obsessed over this idea of rewilding mostly because patterns of human behavior seemed to be changing. From the intensity with which I found myself drinking in each nature encounter to the swells of socially distanced bodies populating unused paths discovering that they needn’t go to exotic locales to experience its benefits. Families spending time together outdoors as never before; car-filled streets now taken over by walkers, joggers, and packs of people on bicycles with their wobbly legs rediscovering, with childlike wonder, what it means to be outdoors. All of us trying to find our balance.  

We are part of nature and yet not all have equitable access or are perceived to “matter” enough to be able to take pleasure in it. When Ahmed Arbery went out for his jog and birder Christian Cooper peered into the trees of Central Park — both popular nature activities during quarantine — they were met with a history of bigotry and racial violence carried into the present. Their most basic right of being, and of being in nature, was witnessed globally through our pandemic-rewilded eyes. Just as we were heading out on our pathways and trails, inhaling less-polluted air and pondering the greatness of trees, we heard and felt each word of George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe.”

Courtesy of Outdoor Afro

Were we the ones being rewilded?

I turned to Rue Mapp, a friend and colleague who formed Outdoor Afro, a leading national nonprofit working to inspire and celebrate Black connections in nature, 10 years ago. Equal parts naturalist, art historian, and entrepreneur, Mapp is doing much more than promoting healthy lifestyles through outdoor activities. She is a joyful revolutionary. Mapp used her passions to build a nature meets culture infrastructure that empowers individuals and communities to feel secure in the outdoors, to find healing and kinship in nature, remind them of their connections with Black history in natural areas, and awaken environmental stewardship.

“Rewilding is precisely the work of Outdoor Afro,” says Mapp. “There was a compartmentalization of nature that existed before the quarantine. It is what I have always helped people to see. I’ve often wondered what it would take to make people realize that nature is ever present, that it is who we are.” Mapp believes that “what so many of us have found in this experience of ‘sheltering in place’ is that nature never closes, that it is always at the ready, and that it is ready to heal and to teach. Nature allows us to better understand the health of all species and what humans need to thrive. This is something no institution can replicate.”

Although raised in the city, she spent her long weekends and summers on a farm where her father taught the family to grow their own food, fish, and hunt. A self-described techie, Mapp recognized the potential in using digital media to rethink how people, particularly Black people, were connecting with the natural world through outdoor recreation. “I was tired of seeing how Blacks were viewed and were viewing themselves in nature. I was ready to change the visual narrative.” This work led to the formation of Outdoor Afro in 2009. Today, her network reaches 40,000 annually through planned nature activities — camping, hiking, biking, environmental education, and conservation — with a network of 90 trained volunteer leaders in over 30 states.

Courtesy of Outdoor Afro

If pandemic time has made nature palpable to us, seeding new perspectives as our lives were becoming un-siloed, has it led us to a cultural rewilding?

“There has always been a sense that bad things happen in the woods to Black people and there are still so many that work to remind us of that every day. If we weren’t sheltering in place, this moment wouldn’t have affixed in this way,” Mapp reflects. “From a nature viewpoint, the fact that Black bodies are being endangered is a signal that the planet is in danger. If you go to a wildlife sanctuary and don’t see any birds, then you should know that this is not a good sign. It is the Silent Spring idea.”

Mapp continues, “ Similarly, if you go to a city and notice the state of Black lives being disproportionately unhealthy to those of others within that community — lacking equitable access to nature, affordable housing options, living in poverty, and that there are high levels of incarceration and drug abuse — then it signals to us an unhealthy society. The quality of our lives is directly reflected in our policies and resources and how we prioritize life. We must choose either to lift up or press down.”

Rewilding.

A wonderfully romantic word that conjures thoughts of a regeneration to create wilder, more biodiverse habitats. It is a term with a complex understory. One that requires respite, a bereft or degraded landscape, and a push for transformational change to re-seed our ecological and our cultural worlds. This rewilding is playing out in our lives from the new Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House and in the many other B.L.M. crosswalks of cities big and small; in the reimagined Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond with its protest-filled graffiti and light installations; to the tearing down of confederate flags and in the toppling of statues and symbols of suppression throughout the United States and Europe.

“It is a watershed moment and there’s no going back. We have a moment to do and be better. This is an invitation and it is the most urgent I’ve experienced in my entire life,” Mapp reflects. “The work of Outdoor Afro is working toward the ordinary. We know we have won when we see Black people outside and in nature, in proportion to their population and their opportunities, and it is NO big deal.”

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