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Signature Lecture speaker explores personal connections to greenspace

How you experience the outdoors goes beyond the present tense.

Whether you’re swatting mosquitos in your backyard or hiking through a national park, our relationship with nature is rooted in access, lived experience, personal connections and history. It relates to race, policies, power and identity. And so much more.

Author and scholar Carolyn Finney sees these events as part of one continuum. We all occupy spaces on this continuum, but where we fall on it is relative to any number of other events and influences. “Just because you’re talking about the environment, or outdoor spaces, it doesn’t change the conversation. You just have to get more specific about what’s implicit in that conversation about the environment in America,” said Finney, who recently spoke as part of the UGA Signature Lecture Series. Her talk, “What’s Race Got to do With It? Christian Cooper, John Muir, and the Nature of Green Space,” was sponsored by the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

This means going beyond current issues, instead exploring who has historically had access to outdoor spaces. Consider the first inhabitants of what later became the United States—no, not European settlers, but Native Americans. Even in later decades, as a young country made promises of 40 acres and a mule to western settlers, African Americans were largely left out of that transaction.

But before stepping into the larger context, Finney began her Zoom talk with insights into her own family. Her experiences growing up on a sprawling estate in Westchester County, New York, instilled a natural affinity with the outdoors. For 50 years, her parents looked after the property. But when the estate owner died and her parents moved on, it took just three years for their history with the land to be forgotten. The new owners put it into a conservation easement, and by celebrating that decision, it erased the decades Finney’s parents spent there.

It was one example of how policies, history, wealth and more decide who has access to land. When we say “public lands,” which public are we talking about?

Now is a time of convergence, she added, noting “2020 vision.” “What do some of us see that some of us haven’t before?” she asked. “What is it we’re trying to sustain when we talk about sustainability? Sustainability, to me, is about relationships to non-human nature … but it’s also about our relationship to people. And that is a very complex relationship.”

For viewers of the HBO show “Lovecraft Country,” Finney drew a parallel: The protagonists must navigate a surreal world inhabited by monsters lurking in the woods. But, being black in 1950s America, they also must navigate the very real monsters of racism in their daily lives.

These monsters, though, exist in our own lives. We have to know our past to understand it—and continue to move forward, slaying the monsters.

“The past is prologue, and the prologue is present,” she said, recalling the story of a 15-year-old black Florida girl told by a neighbor that she shouldn’t be in her neighborhood. “Brianna, like the characters in ‘Lovecraft,’ have to slay monsters every day. That, in a broad brushstroke way, is what systemic racism is. It’s in everything. And so often, we have to duck and weave. And I think we all lose in the end.”

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