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New book centers Black experiences with nature

A Darker Wilderness’ editor Erin Sharkey is a writer, artist and abolitionist. Sharkey says though she spent a lot of time in nature growing up, she didn’t always feel comfortable.

“I'm a mixed race person; I was raised by white folks - my mom and my stepdad, and so I did get to experience nature,” she explained. “I'm also a big person - I've always been a big person - and so I've always felt really conscious of my physicality in nature. So I have had to really reclaim nature, to think about nature not just as a place “away there,” but as a place that is close - it's in my house here in the city, it's in my yard, it's in the park that's down the street from my house.”

Sharkey says she was inspired in part to compile and edit the stories of A Darker Wilderness after exploring historical archives of African American literature. She says she discovered a perspective she had never before witnessed in the lived experiences of enslaved people.

“In one of those narratives, it talked about the garden that the enslaved folks were getting their food from, and how much pride they had in the things that they were growing there,” she said. “And I guess it never occurred to me that within the experience of enslavement that folks might have a place where they felt autonomous or like felt like they could find pride or hope or something to be proud of in that experience because it was so dehumanizing and oppressive.”

Sharkey has an MFA in creative writing, and she teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

“I was able to teach a Federal Correctional nature writing class with a group of a dozen or so guys there,” she recalled. “And it was really eye opening to me, the ways that they were reflecting on the role of nature in their lives, because they're also in this oppressive situation and didn't have access to the sort of liberatory pieces of nature that we often think about. They were able to find nature out their windows or watching the trees grow or the birds fly by their window.”

Sharkey stayed for many years on an urban farm in Buffalo, New York. She’s now one of the stewards of “The Fields at Root Springs,” a retreat center in central Minnesota.

“I've met a lot of folks who discuss how threatening that drive out there feels, or the way that they don't know what is safe out there,” she said. They don't have confidence in being away from the things that we perceive as safety in the cities.”

Sharkey approached writers she admires and asked them to write pieces that reflected on the role that history and nature have played in their lives. She says many of the essays she received share a sense of incomplete liberation.

“Folks reflected on the way that nature isn't a neutral space, as some folks get to experience nature as a place that you go to, to explore yourself or to explore an uncharted territory or feel like you're going somewhere no one else has gone before,” said Sharkey. “But a lot of the writers in the collection are really thinking about nature in more small and intimate ways. The way that nature is a complex thing. It's not surprising when you think about the history of this country in the ways that things like redlining or experiences with sundowner towns, the anxiety that we feel in our body in rural spaces is actually tied to the way that this country was designed and systemically to alienate certain people from certain spaces.”

Hamline University in St. Paul is hosting a conversation with Erin Sharkey about A Darker Wilderness at 5 p.m. on Friday, February 24.

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