Diary: Sean Hill, (2) This Land Is My Land
Helena National Forest from the east side of MacDonald Pass, Montana. Photograph by the author
Read Part One of this post here
There’s a current and now-shifting understanding of nature and wilderness that views nature as something at a remove from the man-made—it’s primitive, remote, pristine land; untouched land that those with the financial wherewithal, time, and “desire” can access. Going camping. Backpacking. Disappearing into the woods for days on end. I want to posit that I grew up with nature and the idea that the human imposition on the landscape, our built environment, our habitation, is just that: an idea, a perspective, as witnessed by the growth of “weeds,” vegetation that needs to be controlled or cultivated. I think about tall grasses trampled down for bedding or a termite mound or anthill eruption or the way a beaver dam interrupts the flow of a stream, about all the various excavations by animals endeavoring to make a place for themselves, and I wonder if they think of themselves as outside of nature.
I’m not saying that our homes, hamlets, villages, towns, cities, metropolises, and conurbations are “natural,” but that the thing that separates them from nature is a cultural perspective. The sprawl of us across the planet in the Anthropocene means we look for the pristine—the not “us”— to find what we declare nature. This seems to me to be about power and ownership—access to the “right” kind of places to hike, camp, and get away. (Not to mention hunt and fish.) My son, who is five years old, has adopted my interest in birds and birding, an activity that’s not often thought of as something people of color engage in. He recently identified the gulls in the park near his preschool as ring-billed gulls, and he identified the black-billed magpies in our neighbor’s tree by their raucous calls. His world is entirely prescribed by human activity—by this school, that house—and yet he sees nature constantly on the wing.
Now I live in a different landscape, where the sublime looks very different. The town I live in, call home, in Montana began as a gold claim in the hills. The continental divide is to our west and on the east is the Missouri River. There are eighty miles of connected trails into the hills, all part of the city parks. The closest trailhead (and hours of hiking) is a ten-minute walk from our back door. Getting up on a trail in the South Hills and looking north across the valley opens me to the sublimity afforded by vistas. When I look out over the town to the far hills, I can see weather coming into and across the valley. That’s one advantage of an expansive landscape. In Milledgeville, even with the slight roll of the Georgia Piedmont, you hardly ever saw the rain-bearing clouds beyond the plentiful trees before they delivered the soak. As one of my grandmothers used to say, “It’s done come up a cloud mighty quick.”
I started this essay while a global pandemic sent this nation into a lockdown, and even though the country eased into a tentative reopening over time, I didn’t leave Montana for thirteen months. So I wasn’t able to visit central Georgia as I wrote—the land where Austin Dabney walked, where I headed into the woods with a gun, where my uncle still hunts, where my father and I checked box traps, where I grew up squatting down in the yard to get cheek by jowl with flora and fauna. That’s how I first encountered the splendor and beauty of the nonhuman world, up close and sometimes in the palm of my hand. Growing up in central Georgia, I didn’t understand the sublimity—that awe-inspiring element of being attentive to, being aware of, existing in the world—I experienced around me. The sublime is feeling my body, my self, in the fullest context I can, from my immediate surroundings outward to as much of the extent of everything—the entirety of existence—that I can imagine. It is a pushing beyond the notion of boundaried space and time into all that inspires the awe; that’s the sublime. Books, animals, what you can measure in just a few steps: these were the places where separations fell away for me.
Recently, one nice spring day, my family and I were enjoying some time on the walking mall downtown. There are usually kids for our son to play with and people my wife or I know. It’s a great place to be social and outside. Our son and some of his friends were testing how close they could get to the strolling pigeons before the birds clapped themselves into the air, while my wife and I people-watched. In the steady trickle of folks walking by, I noticed the confident stride of one guy in particular, a white guy; the majority of guys you see here in Montana are white, but what set him apart and left an impression was his T-shirt. Emblazoned on his chest were the words “Public Land Owner.” I wasn’t certain what statement he was trying to make, but it reminded me that since July 9, 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified, granting citizenship to my ancestors and ensuring my citizenship as an African American, I’m a public land owner too. Austin Dabney was granted land and rights “so far as allowed” to a free Negro; he never saw the time in which his claim to this land, this nation, which he fought for and they of him could go unquestioned. But I think I have. This land is my land. This land is his land. This land is our land.
Sean Hill is the author of two books of poems, Dangerous Goods and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, named one of the ten books all Georgians should read by the Georgia Center for the Book. He is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Montana. This post is adapted from his essay, “This Land Is My Land,” from the forthcoming volume, A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil To Stars, edited by Erin Sharkey.
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