Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

My Ecological Story

sarahj's picture

For our third Web Event I chose to expand the activity we did in class and answer some of the questions Carolyn Merchant poses. I think that the personal experience is the most valuable experience from which to draw on in an ecological class.  The personal experience may not be shared by everyone, but it does highlight how each of our personal narratives is affected by someone else's thereby stressing the importance of interconnection.

Self in Society

“Consider your own family’s history and place in society going back at least to you grandparents’ generation.  Were your ancestors native to this country? Are you or your parents first-, second-, or perhaps eighth-generation immigrants?  What large events-wars, depressions, revolutions, social movements- shaped their lives? How did your families use the land and relate to nature? Which of their values have you absorbed? Which have you rejected?  Think about the people you know and their family connections to the land” (Merchant, 1-2).

I grew up in a moderate-sized suburb of Massachusetts in the “yellow house on top of the hill” as I affectionately called it when I was young.  With my younger brother, I had many adventures in my large yard.  We were Ghostbusters, chasing and capturing ghosts.  We time-traveled by jumping through our tire swing to prehistoric lands and we survived the hunger-stricken winters in our snow-huts when it snowed, feeding ourselves with the scarce amounts of sustenance we could find (piles of snow).  We even dug for fossils under a large tree in our backyard, finding some with imprints of leaves.  Essentially our yard, for my brother and I, was a blank canvas on which we could draw anything we could imagine.  As we grew older, we had less time to be outside as we began to become more involved with indoor activities such as Nintendo products, homework, dancing, art classes.  Even the outdoor activities we participated in were organized, such as track and field.  The outdoors and I became estranged.  My allergies intensified and so did my fear.  My imagination, though still strong, is not as exercised as it previously had been.

Born in 1953, my mother grew up in a suburb of New Jersey, a town that has a history of being fairly integrated.  My mother’s brother said once that he didn’t even know he was black until late in his secondary schooling years, that is how integrated the town was.  Of course, my mother’s family is a very light-skinned African American family, so that could possibly have something to do with it.  She eventually moved to Boston to attain her master’s degree in education, becoming a teacher in the city just after Boston became the last city to desegregate their schools.  My mother is a very assured woman.  She is level-headed and knows what she wants and does everything to the best of her ability.  Speaking of ability, my mother has one leg that is shorter than the other, by several inches.  This is the result of a hip fusion when she was young and she wears shoes with lifts on her shorter leg.  This hasn’t stopped her from doing much.

Born in 1952, my father grew up in the Boston Metro Area, mostly residing in Cambridge, but moving several times in his life.  He is the eldest of five children. My father is a talented artist, at one point selling oil paintings on bridges in Cambridge and having won a few competitions.  My father is imaginative, sentimental and loath to change.  We have hot dogs and beans every Saturday evening, like he had when he was young.  My father’s family is also African American, but again, on the lighter side skin-wise.  He was a freelance realtor until the economy began its rapid decline.  He remembers marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he came to Boston.  He loves his family without end and quietly keeps a passionate soul under wraps.  He is not so subtle though.

My father’s parents have both passed away.  My grandfather, who I never met, grew up in Illinois, meeting my grandmother while in the army in the late 40s/early 50s.  He is a dark-skinned African American man and he dies in his late 50s/early 60s the month before I was born.  My grandmother grew up in Cambridge.  She was a light-skinned African American woman with a big heart (both literally and figuratively) who passed away last year after a stroke at the age of 78.  She was a very creative woman.  She owned her owned beauty salon for several years and sold her handmade crafts at powwows and craft fairs.  I have countless creations made by her.  She loved animals having owned chickens, turtles and dogs when my dad was young.  She was talented with plants.   At the time of her death, there was a plant in her apartment that she had had since the 1960s.  My grandmother told me how she met my grandfather. There was going to be a dance with the army men and females were being solicited to go to the dance, so my grandmother signed up with a friend.  Of course, my grandfather was one of the attending army men.  He asked my grandmother to dance.  Their first song was Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”.  At the end of the night, my grandmother went to board the bus and my grandfather asked for her number.  She said it to him and told him that if he could remember it, he could call her.  He remembered.

My mother’s parents are in their late 80s and still live in the same suburb, in the same house that my mother grew up in.  Both of my grandparents’ families came from Virginia.  My grandfather’s parents moved to New Jersey when he was very young I believe, but he spent the summers of his youth traveling back down to Virginia to visit his grandparents (my great-great grandparents) on their farm.  He has told me that he particularly enjoyed riding the horses.  We drove down to Virginia once for a family reunion and drove by his grandparent’s house.  It still stands, by the side of a long rode with nothing but fields behind it.  My grandmother left her family’s farm in her late teens and moved to New Jersey where she cleaned houses for white families.  I do not believe that she went back to Virginia often.  Both of my grandparents could pass if they wanted to, but even though they appear white to many people, their experience of the world was that of the African American.  Though I do not know if this was their experience, I do know that being a light-skinned African American person in the south was often worse than being dark-skinned because a light-skinned black person represented a forbidden union.  Virginia, was a breeding state when slavery was condoned.  Slave breeding was a practice in which slave women were impregnated by force either by a male slave or the white master.  Race corresponded to the race of the mother, so any child produced by a female slave was also a slave thereby increasing the labor supply after slave imports were stopped.


Society in Self

“How have you yourself been socialized? What effect has the society in which you grew up had on you as a female or male? Have you experienced sexism or racism in your daily life? What historical forces – immigration movements, urbanization, social mobility, educational opportunities – have helped to create your own economic position?  Think about the values you have derived from your school, your church, and your workplace.  How have the politics and economics of your community affected you? What environmental values have you formed as a result” (Merchant, 4)?

My immediate family and I are members of the lower middle class.  I think we were somewhat higher before the market crash and selling real estate became a less lucrative profession.  I surprise myself each time I reflect on the fact that I am only the second generation on either side of my family to attend college since going to college and attaining a lucrative career have always been certainties for me.  For my parents’ generation and back, that was not so, and the reasons for that are primarily race-based.

As I mentioned in Self and Society, I come from a light-skinned African American family.  Light-skinned African Americans are associated with particularly unsavory memories of slavery and can often feel like they do not belong to a race in modern times.  However, I do recognize the ways in which being light-skinned has allowed my family more social mobility then compared to many dark-skinned African American families.  Perhaps this began with being house slaves, but that is speculation.  The first definite advantage I can think of begins with housing.  On my mother’s side, both my grandparents and my grandfather’s parents were able to own houses.  This is significant because many housing laws contributed to systematic racism by only allowing certain races to live in certain areas and allowing the housing companies to refuse to sell to people of particular races.  Being able to own property allows families to accumulate wealth, which they can then pass on to their descendants.  Many black families were the ones excluded by these housing laws and subsequently they were forced to rent, which does not allow for the accumulation of wealth.  I am sure we also received many more benefits on account of our skin color including access to higher education.

More than other factor, race has driven my family’s actions and outlook on life and this has translated to me.  How does this relate to the land though?

Evelyn C. White writes the following of her experience with nature as an African-American woman:

              I believe the fear I experience in the outdoors is shared by many African-American women and that  it  limits the way we move through the world and colors the decisions we make about our lives […] My genetic memory of ancestors hunted down and preyed upon in rural settings counters my fervent hopes of finding peace in the wilderness.  Instead of the solace and comfort I seek, I imagine myself in the country as my forbears were – exposed, vulnerable, and unprotected – a target of cruelty and hate. (White, 284)


White is not describing an event or a movement, which are both things Merchant asks her readers to think about.  White is describing a lifelong influence with no definitive beginning or end times.  The racialized experience is not a single moment in time.   Carolyn Merchant forgets that there are not always definitive moments that define a person or families.  I cannot think of single relative that immigrated or moments of sexism or racism.  Race has just always been there.

What I take issue with in White's tale, the notion that African-American women fear the land because of genetic memory.  I think that African-Americans and the land have experienced similar oppressions and that the land was also our ally and our ticket to freedom. 

The land has been oppressed.  It valuable only in how many desirable resources it contains.  It has had any sense of likeness to the human experience stripped away from it.  It is nothing, but a commodity.  I should be more specific when I say “the human experience” because this oppression has been spread primarily by white men.  Non-white societies and people have had to take up these beliefs in order to have any sort of stake in the world.  Land is valuable only in the profits that can be accrued from it, no matter the ecological effects the reaping of that profit may take.  Similarly, African-Americans have been oppressed first through slavery and then through systemic racism.  During slavery, African-Americans were only considered valuable and worth preserving because they could help their owners turn a profit.  Like the land, they were given an economic value.  Like the land, they were beaten and raped.  Even within our social systems, advances given to people of color and other marginalized groups always seem to come with some sort of argument that, with this change, will come economic benefits to the dominating group.

Evelyn White, writes that, when she goes out into nature, “Instead of the solace and comfort I seek, I imagine myself in the country as my forbears were – exposed, vulnerable, and unprotected – a target of cruelty and hate” (White, 284).  Yes, her and my African-American ancestors were forced to work the land and the land may have been the site of many violent events, but this has occurred in many other areas as well, namely science.  I have heard many of my family members mention that African-American people distrust doctors because we have been abused by medical personnel in the past.  Why does White not have the same amount of fear in this area?  The land its self has never betrayed us or hurt us.  It was the only thing that African-Americans really had to guide them toward the north.

White directs her fears of what whites have done to blacks toward her self and toward the land. She blames herself for not being allowed to canoe with the other white women from the conference, asking, “Had we been denied the boat because our group included a black” (White,)?  Why not rephrase the question as, “Had we been denied the boat because the white boathouse man was a racist?”  This second version of the question places the blame on the boathouse man and not on Evelyn White.  She blames the land, by fearing it and regarding it as the source of the violence that occurred against African-Americans, when it was people who committed that crime.  Her reconciliation with the land is a false reconciliation since it is not with the land that her problems lie. 

My family may not have become fearful of the land.  In fact my maternal grandparents were very close to the land and my paternal grandmother loved animals and plants alike. However, we have assimilated to the dominant white class by either getting lucky or using things to our advantage. This assimilation includes viewing the land in the same way that white people do, which also happens to be the same way that white people thought about African-American slaves.  Both were ways to make a profit.  Once again, we face the power structures of patriarchy.  Perhaps, Carolyn Merchant was right, to emphasize self-reflection, but perhaps this is most beneficial to people who have the most power and the most to learn. 


Self Versus Society

“What conflicts do you experience between your own values and goals and the institutions and environment you anticipate in the future? What expectations do you have for yourselves and your children?  How might your children’s values differ from your own?  How can you help to bring about a world that will provide them with a high quality of life” (Merchant, 6)?

My self-identity is complicated and I think that the world tries to simplify our stories, often tricking us into placing blame for our problems in the wrong place.  We cannot revert back to what once was. African-Americans cannot return to Africa and live as we once may have.  Neither can American Indians or any other group of people.  We have all been changed too much.  Perhaps, it is even too late for the land.  We must find new ways of connecting to nature.  Dreaming of our ancestors is not enough as some of us, especially African-Americans, have no tangible connection to that experience. 

 I expect that my children will face the same problems as I did, but I hope that we my generation can educate more people and encourage more self-reflection to raise consciousness to the world's problems.  Perhaps then, my grandchildren may be able to take action.



Anne Dalke's picture

"The world tries to simplify our stories"

I expect you'll be interested to see that smacholdt also built on Merchant's notion that personal experience is a valuable source for ecological thinking; see her private post, The World of Stories, for another take on the idea you are pursuing.

Your story is a full, rich one, which weaves together the experiences of your grandparents and parents, and your own, with the analysis of both Carolyn Merchant and Evelyn White. Some moments of particular interest and poignancy to me are these:

* The outdoors and I became estranged.  My allergies intensified and so did my fear.  My imagination…is not as exercised…
* race …is a lifelong influence with no definitive beginning or end times….not an event or movement
* African-Americans and the land have experienced similar oppressions…the land was also our ally and our ticket to freedom.
* The land its self has never betrayed us or hurt us.  It was the only thing that African-Americans really had to guide them toward the north.
* assimilation includes viewing the land in the same way that white people do…the same way that white people thought about African-American slaves…ways to make a profit. 
* perhaps self-reflection is most beneficial to people who have the most power and the most to learn.
* the world tries to simplify our stories, often tricking us into placing blame for our problems in the wrong place.  
* We cannot revert back to what once was. We have all been changed too much...
* I hope that my generation can ...encourage more self-reflection...Perhaps then, my grandchildren may be able to take action.

I'd be particularly interested to hear some more from you about these last several points: about the oppressed becoming oppressors, about the notion that self-reflection is more beneficial to the latter group, about the notion of stories becoming simplified ("by the world"? by whom?), and especially about your deferring action til your grandchildren's generation. Want to pursue any of these avenues for your final project for this course?

(Also re: the abuse of African-Americans by medical personnel ….do you know The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?)