“There’s an assumption about that shared American narrative that it was never shared. You know, it depends on who you ask. The opportunity is how we develop the skill set to look at that textured history and where and how we see ourselves.”
[00:00:00] Carolyn: I think the nuance begins depending on who you are. Like, it’s going to look different if you live in a certain skin and experience.
[00:00:10] Laurie: You’re listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders and independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion. Today’s guest is Carolyn Finney, a storyteller, author, cultural geographer, and a self-described accidental environmentalist, whose work explores the intersection of identity, privilege, and our natural surroundings.
She’s the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. And lately, she’s been workshopping a performance piece titled The N Word: Nature Revisited, in which she interrogates our collective relationship with the land, an interrogation that includes a spirited conversation with the ghost of John Muir.
Carolyn teaches undergraduates at Middlebury as an artist in residence in environmental affairs, and this summer is serving on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. Carolyn, welcome to the podcast.
I want to begin with a quote that, as I was thinking about this, that I think really resonates about your work. And so, if I could read it and just have you, maybe, talk a little bit about it, that would be great.
So, you say, “Each piece of my work is intentionally curated, be it an essay, a performance piece, a class, or an opportunity to engage in dialogue, as a way to practice relationship and building across differences that fosters creativity and possibility.” That feels like an essence statement, you know, about who you are and what you are. I’d love to know about how, how you got there, where you know that everything is about that. Was there a moment when you knew that was what Cheryl at “Echoing Green” calls a moment of obligation for you?
[00:01:58] Carolyn: Oh, I love that, too. Look at you saying some things. That’s a great question, a moment of obligation, a moment of obligation. So, there’s a lot of different things I can say. And I want to say that, as a child, I hate, you know, sometimes it’s like, well, I’m going to go back to the early days, right? But to think about what did I love as a child? Like, what do we care about as children?
And I don’t think people ask children that. That’s an aside, very often, to say like, “What do you care about?” But I was fairly obsessive about any number of things. I think the first time… the first public service announcement around the environment, remember, was the crying Indian in the ’70s. And the reason why I remember it, I mean, I teach about it, but I remember it so specifically because I became one of those obsessed children around when I see people literally, and I’d have to follow after them, pick up after them. I was probably really annoying.
I think about how much I loved the idea of different places out there in the world. And I say that because, when I was 9, 10, 11, for a year, my parents had this program. I don’t know what it was, but once a month, I got a box in the mail. It was some scholastic program that I would get a box in the mail, and it would be about a different country every month. So, there would be a booklet about the country, a stamp, a little craft from that country.
Because I remember exactly what I got from Japan. I remember from the Philippines. I still remember. And I couldn’t wait every month to get that. So, there was, like, a love of place that was there.
And by the time I hit around 14, I discovered theater. And like a lot of people and a lot of kids, the thing that I discovered not was simply that I felt like, “Oh, I’m pretty good at this.” But there was an emotional release and there was an emotional acceptance by other people of me, that, I remember the first time I auditioned for something when I was in ninth grade at high school. And it was on a fluke. I just said, “I’m going to go.” And it was some comedy of manners from a long time ago, and I went in to audition for the French maid. I still remember this.
[00:03:55] Laurie: Oh, God.
[00:03:56] Carolyn: Yeah, it’s because when you can remember these things… and the only reason I didn’t get the part, by the way, was because they told me, “You were great, but you’re a freshman,” and they had to give it to the senior, Nina. I still remember it, right? I still remember it. But I remember, when everybody responded and laughed and just accepted me, and there was something about that, that was happening at the same time, that made me initially, which is why I pursued acting in theater for so long, this sense of acceptance.
So, I want to say that all of those things, kind of, fed into the way, as an adult, I went forward. Though, initially, I first went to college, but, you know, my parents did not want to allow me to study theater. So, the second year, I dropped out. I loved school, but I was like, you know, at 19, I said, “I’m going to New York. This is what I’m going to do.”
And so, for the next 11 years, that’s what I did, right? I focused in a very particular way.
I want to say that, towards the end of that time, I started backpacking around the world. And I literally… I always talk about that, but it was really a pivotal moment for me in the ’80s when I said, you know, I was married young at the time and Pan Am was around and we got our around-the-world ticket for $2,500, which we saved for a year. We got Lonely Planets, we got backpacks. I’d never done anything like that. That blew my mind in changing my life entirely.
And there was something about the movement, my ability to see myself out in the world, being in this skin that I am as an African American, as someone who identifies as a woman at the time, as a young woman, as a girl. I could be out in the world and people didn’t know where I was from. And I realized there was a lot of freedom in that.
So, underneath all those things, there was something about having a sense of freedom and independence and a responsibility to that, and what did that mean in terms of obligation beyond myself? And I was only able to articulate that later on in life, not then, but I could see that there were pieces. For some people, they thought, “Oh, you don’t know. You’re not committed. You don’t stay with anything forever.” Or, “You, you are always on the move.” Other people understood that, said, “Oh, you are seeking, you’re out there, you’re looking.” Because I just wanted to be fully engaged and of the world.
[00:06:10] Laurie: So, one thing that really resonates about what you just shared, Carolyn, is, I know from other pieces that I’ve read about you or things that you have written about, the place that you grew up in where your parents were stewards, I believe that there’s this really interesting connection. I also grew up in a 1756 farmhouse that was deeply, profoundly in place. And I do think that there’s a way in which travelers, who are easy with moving in different spheres and traveling, both intellectually, culturally, as well as physically, oftentimes, we have a deep sense of grounding.
It’s either, you know, you don’t have a sense of grounding, or you have such a deep sense of grounding. It’s a particular geography. And my guess is, like me, I bet you can name the path that, kind of, created the thing that you thought about in fifth grade, the little garden, rock garden. You know, I can name you all the places in the place where I grew up that shaped my imagination. And it does help you stay grounded when you move about in the world.
That’s my instinctive response to what you just said, but I’d love to know, share if that resonates with you, because there’s so much richness in your tale of where you grew up in Westchester.
[00:07:32] Carolyn: Yes, and I’m conflicted, right? Because… So, for listeners who wouldn’t know this, and this is sort of, the story that I had no idea was going to be the center of the way I work and communicate with the rest of the world, was that my parents, who grew up poor and Black in the South, you know, were part of the Great Migration, came up to New York and got this opportunity by a very wealthy family, who owned a 12-acre estate in Westchester County—so, 30 minutes outside of New York City. And they needed caretakers for this absolutely stunning estate—12 acres, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, flower gardens, a small pond, swimming pool.
And my parents took that job. And my dad was the chauffeur, full-time, you know, landscape gardener, caretaker. And there were two houses on the property. My parents lived in the gardener’s cottage.
And my parents thought they couldn’t have kids. And, and this… so, that’s a longer story with my mother, and I think things that happened to women of all walks of life, but particularly those who are poor, that there were decisions made in which she had to go into the hospital for something without, you know, the doctor asking her permission, because they didn’t think she could emotionally handle the information.
And so, she thought she couldn’t have kids and got really depressed. And one of the owners of the property suggested adoption. And the thing is, I’d only found this in later years, like, not that long ago, that it was because of that family I was adopted. I was born in New York City, adopted through Spence-Chapin, which is still there as an adoption agency. And they adopted me. And then, I always say they had, they relaxed and had two boys. So, I have two brothers.
So, this property was in a very wealthy all-white neighborhood. And I always say it, you know, Schaefer, Schaefer Beer next door, Winged Foot Golf Club around the corner. I was told Harry Winston had property down the street. I mean, you can, kind of, picture the wealth. And we were the only family of color, the only Black family in that neighborhood, well into the ’90s.
And even then, when a Japanese American woman moved in—and I was long since gone, me and my brothers were grown up—you know, I heard she moved out. So, I don’t know. I don’t even know now if there are any families of color in that neighborhood.
The estate was… the owners were great. I mean, I have to say, looking back, we were allowed to go anywhere on the property. We could use the swimming pool, rowboat on the pond. We were allowed to do that. When they were in town—because they didn’t live on the property full time, they had a place in the city—my parents would say, “Don’t go on the back where the pond and the pool is when they’re in town.” But I will say, living on this property meant that we had to know how to swim very early on because there was these bodies of water, these small bodies of water, and we’re kids running around, not listening to the parents. So, in case we fell in, we had to be able to save ourselves.
So, my sense of, you know, when I think about now, I was just reading something else about Black people were in conversation saying how many Black people don’t know how to swim and how there’s this long history and association with water and how my own experience, while, if I talk about the ancestors, yes, that’s true, but my own experience personally was not.
[00:10:36] Laurie: Right.
[00:10:37] Carolyn: It was like I learned how to swim early on. It was, kind of, brutal, you know. I remember being thrown in and, like, swim, figure it out. That’s right. We’re going to figure it out.
I think about the property. You know, I can talk about when you just said the rock garden, like, there was this, really big oversized rock that had a natural seat cut out of the middle. And I used to, like, to get on that rock and pretend it was a horse, you know.
[00:11:02] Laurie: Yeah, totally, like, stuff you remember so clearly, yeah.
[00:11:05] Carolyn: Yes.
[00:11:06] Laurie: And yet, I think what’s so powerful about the story you tell about that experience and that property is kind of the nexus of your later work in life, which is, when it was conserved, and this, when I was reading about this and listening to you talk about this, it struck me so powerfully. When it was conserved, your family was erased from that process. The people who had stewarded it for so long, right? Stewardship is so much a part of the language of conservation. And yet, the owners were being heralded as the stewards when the stewards were erased as the stewards.
[00:11:43] Carolyn: Yes, and I want to say the new owners, right? Because that’s the thing to remember. The original owners who were responsible for my… bringing myself into my parents’ family who cared for me, they had, they had passed away. So, that property got sold. And it was suddenly this new owner, and he was a single person, the guy at the time who came in.
And at that point, when the conservation organization came in to put the easement on the property, that’s when we got erased. And that was right when I was back in school and working on my doctorate. So, there was a way… it came to my attention personally because I knew what was going on, right, my family would tell me this thing, but I was roaming around, moving around, traveling around, you know, doing what I was doing. I’d come back home to visit. And so, I, kind of, knew this stuff was going on. But being back in school and studying, as a geographer looking at all the questions of political ecology, landscape, place, ownership, privilege, representation, naming, suddenly it was personal.
And the thing is, I actually tell… if I’m talking to an audience, I’ll say it’s actually personal for everyone. But I think there’s a way within which, for some of us, it’s just not, it’s not part of the everyday, right. And, you know, as another con… but for me, it became so personal that I started to look at it through the lens of what I was learning about how to look at it.
[00:13:05] Laurie: Totally, totally. And, and I think what resonates with me so powerfully—there’s no reason why you would’ve known this—I write, written a novel I’ve never published about the land where this house was, the Native Americans who stewarded it. There’s a story, very powerful story, about the woman who probably helped grow crops in that area. And then, the story of the family who built the house, and then contemporary.
And the reason why I mention it is because the memory of landscape, particularly in New England, is only now, thanks to people like you, being truly textured by all the people who cared for it, who loved it. And it’s fairly clear that there were all sorts of really interesting relationships to the land by people who were indentured and/or enslaved through Gloucester and the slave trade in Gloucester. This was in Danvers, Massachusetts, the Salem Village area.
And what we know of the people who worked in that house is that they were, then, probably released from indenture and an indentured capacity and moved to a place in middle Massachusetts, Worcester, and Natick and all those areas where, in fact, lots of connection.
And I think, sometimes, in the conservation world, both that land, as well as some other family land that I’ve been part of, has been put into conservation easement.
And so, I know that easement process. And I know that people think of it as a single event that then the story is done. It’s almost like the conservation process ends with that story, and you’re like, “Wait. No, it’s just the beginning of the story.”
I’m wondering if that resonates with you at all, given that you’re an expert on these things.
[00:14:59] Carolyn: Yes. Well, I don’t know if I’m an expert, but I got some things to say about it. So, I think, you know, I try really hard to think about someone else’s position. I think that a lot of people I’ve met who are in the work of placing conservation easement are generally very thoughtful, caring folks who love the land and the landscape and have also been educated similarly to the way I’ve been educated in the world about how to think about it.
Right, now, I think the nuance begins depending on who you are. Like, it’s going to look different if you live in a certain skin and experience, right, and come to that.
Having said that, I think that there’s a lot of not knowing about our past. I also think, and this is just my opinion, and I just, you know, like to read and look at stories and what’s going on daily in this country. And there are, oftentimes, the resistance, and I say it very gently, but clearly, to wanting to understand the complexity.
I love the idea of the textured landscape and the textured history, and folks’ resistance to actually looking at that. I read something very recently, a professor from, I believe he was from University of Pennsylvania. And, like, the article was talking more broadly about our political differences, but he was saying what we’ve lost is the shared American narrative.
And actually, I would’ve… if I was in the room with that person, I would say, well, there’s an assumption about that shared American narrative that it was never shared, you know. It depends on who you ask. And for me, the opportunity is, how do we develop the skill set to actually look at that textured history and how we see ourselves in that, you know?
And I think that’s the part that people resist, if I’m more generous to say people don’t know how to do. But also, depending on where you stand on that, it means that, you know, the next question might be, “Well, what am I supposed to do about that? How do I respond?”
And I want to say, and we can come back to this, because, it actually, in the experience of being on that land of my family having to leave in 2003 after my parents cared for, for nearly 50 years, of new owners coming on, a new owner coming on, a conservation easement being placed, then it being sold again to another new set of owners, you know, now we come to 2020 and I’ve been talking about it for a long time, and suddenly in 2020, in this moment of, yes, we’re having a pandemic and we’re also having a larger and more expanded conversation about race matters and environmental justice, for a variety of reasons—George Floyd, Christian Cooper—there are a lot of things happening, right? You know, so, we’re paying attention in a slightly different way.
Suddenly, there’s this… and I say suddenly… I shouldn’t say suddenly. I want to say, in this moment, there’s an opportunity for those who haven’t had to consider before a way forward differently are now considering a way forward differently. So, now, I have this opportunity, folks like the New York Botanical Gardens that reached out to me and wanted to talk to me about supporting me and how I could come and do this work, and I started telling them this story again about the estate.
And also, I spoke very specifically about a cherry tree. So, my father, when they were living on the estate, had given my mother this cherry tree on their 40th wedding anniversary, a weeping cherry tree, and couldn’t take it with them. And it was just a little story.
And the New York Botanical Gardens were, like, you know, “We’re a big institution. I bet we could get access to that estate. You know, we could talk to the conservation easement folks. We could talk to the new owners, get on that estate, take a grafting of the tree, bring it back to the New York Botanical Gardens, and tell the story of your family.”
What moved me most—I mean, I was like, “Oh, my God, that would be amazing”—was they thought of the idea.
[00:18:49] Laurie: Right.
[00:18:50] Carolyn: I’m always thinking of the idea, because it has direct impact, but they thought of it and I loved it. So, I was like, “Okay, get to it, you know. Build that relationship with the conservation easement folks.”
Meanwhile, this wonderful filmmaker, she’s a white filmmaker named Irene Taylor, whose Vermilion Films has won Emmys for a lot of the work she’s done, had seen me speak in 2019 at Mountainfilm Festival in Colorado. And she reached out, and we got on Zoom. And she said, “I’ve been commissioned by HBO to do a documentary on trees. And I want to talk about different trees in relationship to different people. And I thought about your story.” And she, and she said, “I thought about,” in her words, “how uneducated I was about,” what you just said, Laurie, about the textured history is not that she, she just didn’t consider it. And then, suddenly, she’s like, “Could you help me think about, if I were going to include a story like this, what would it be?” And then, she was asking, “Could I include your story?”
So, I want to say to you, in 2021, we had the president at the time, who was a woman at the time, she’s since stepped down, of the conservation organization. And one of our associates who was the forester, we had a team of HBO, the cameramen, and Irene Taylor. I have two friends who are working with me, Dr. Omi Jones, and a young Zaire Love, who I’m hoping to bring to Middlebury… by the way, she’s an amazing young filmmaker… come onto the property in 2021 I hadn’t been on in 18 years.
And the new owners, who I had written to personally, it was a pair of a white couple who were doctors. And I’d written a personal letter to them to say, you know, where I actually never said race once. I mentioned we were African American. And I told this story, but I basically said, “You know, I want a way to honor my parents, my, you know, family, that there’s a moment of opportunity.” And so, you had 10 of us on the land that day being filmed, having this moment, oh, what—I left out a major thing—was the conservation easement folks, before we arrived, went looking for the tree. The tree had been cut down.
[00:20:51] Laurie: Yeah. And there was landscaped, is what your story says, “landscaped.”
[00:20:56] Carolyn: Yeah, it, it’d been landscaped. It was gone. And for a minute, before we all got on the… we thought the project was dead in the water. And I thought about it for a few days after being pretty upset and said, “You know, we have to tell this story because this is what always happens. And what if we planted a new tree? What if we planted a new weeping cherry tree that we were all responsible to?” Because the thing that I wanted to make, yes, it’s my family story, you know, at, kind of, the, at the essence somewhere, you know, we all have our family stories or our personal experiences, but actually it’s part of a larger story. The textural piece is all of ours. And so, we are all accountable and responsible to, differently, perhaps, but what happens if we all become responsible to it? It’s amazing. I can actually relax a little.
[00:21:43] Laurie: And I think a lot of folks in the conversation, particularly around race, but in many other spaces, too, they feel like, okay, the fact that it is only a partial story, that ends there. And to your point, people say, “Well, what do I do now?” And the really straightforward answer for me, always, is tell new stories. Create them. Live them. And tell them, right?
So, what I love about your cherry tree story is that it is about, you have created, not only lived that story, you’ve told that story, and you created a new chapter of the story where it’s a shared history, where you can say, “This time, it’s a shared history.” And it’s not just a shared history of celebration—although it’s also that—it’s a shared history of acknowledging and owning and then repairing, in a small way, what happened in that land, or to your point, what didn’t happen in that land. So, it feels that’s, sort of, one way that I’ve been thinking about this.
[00:22:43] Carolyn: There’s a muscle memory that gets built. I think part of, you know… because I work with a lot of different organizations and groups, often, predominantly white, not always, but often, who, who say what you say to me and say, “Well, what do I do now?”
And the thing that I can resonate with as a fellow human being is, you know, there’s what we don’t know. And we have to come to it for the first time and figure it out and make some mistakes, but find it…
But when we get it, when we get where we are in doing the thing we’re doing, we’re learning new, it becomes muscle memory. And part of telling new stories and making space for new stories is developing that muscle memory. I think we only get the muscle memory when we actually practice. You have to do it.
[00:23:30] Laurie: That’s right. Because also, what’s so great about your life work is that it’s in the doing of it that new stories are created. It’s not, you know, just can’t sit there and go, “Okay, that’s a bad old story. Now, I’m going to tell a new story.” Well, what have you lived?
One of the things, and I want to segue to your work, before I do, but it’s totally related. One of the ways I think about it is, you know, as a white person, I would say white people can only write what they know. But they can, and this is what I learned in the experience of writing this novel, is they can write their indebtedness to other races and other peoples who are part of American history differently, right?
That there is an indebtedness that is part of the power of the story, that I think is so important and changing for folk. People come to that best in relationship, which is why I loved your quote, you know, wanted to begin with that quote. Because part of what is so important about the work that you do is that it never ceases the relationship. I mean, sometimes I’m sure you feel like it, like, “Ugh, you know, I’ve had enough.”
But you stay in relationship, and that is incredibly powerful for people like, “Huh, this person that’s like really lived a damaging history, that I’m just beginning to understand, still has the capacity to be in relationship.” That’s an invitation. And I’m going to stop, because I know you want to say, say something. But go ahead, please.
[00:24:56] Carolyn: Yeah, I’m just, like… so many things. I want to say, oh, my gosh. I’m interpreting what you just said as just a section. The damaging piece is only one piece. I also had an incredibly privileged experience of, you know… now that I’ve been fortunate to get out there and I’ve seen a lot of the world and, and the challenges of all different kinds of people that they show up, and I was sitting here thinking about it last night. I was… about a month or two ago, I came across a story online that just, you know how you, kind of, accidentally, you’re not looking for it. It was just something, you go down a rabbit hole.
And it was this story, and it’s somewhere in, I think it was in the Midwest. This young white father went to pick up his son after school, who I believe was six. He met him at the school bus stop. So, the father was in his 30s. Child was six. Took the child by the hand across the street to go to the sidewalk. Got hit by lightning. The father was killed immediately. But because the son, he was holding his son’s hand, his son wasn’t killed, but it took weeks.
So, I was following this and the GoFundMe and everything, because I just… and I was thinking about, and what I mean, why I bring up that story because the randomness, sometimes, of things. And I’ve come to understand that, yes, I honestly think that we’ve all, we all live a damaging experience as human beings on this earth, because part of the legacy of the past is a lot of the hard and painful things that are there for all of us, that we all carry—whether or not we pay attention to it or not is our individual choice, perhaps, or, you know, our circumstance. But there is that, what I like to say, that brokenness that’s always there, along with intense joy, love, resilience.
The Great Dismal Swamp, which sits in North Carolina and Virginia, fish and wildlife are kind of responsible for caring for that piece of land. It’s slightly been coming up in my purview. There was a great article, I want to say, I think it was in the New Yorker about it. I was asked about a month ago—folks are making a documentary—to be one of the talking heads, because I worked on a project, maybe 10, 12 years ago. Dan Sayers is a wonderful archeologist. I’d known him since grad school, who discovered… he’s a white archaeologist who discovered the remains of enslaved Africans who’d been living for years in the swamp. They’d escaped the plantation, runaway slaves, and went and lived in the swamp.
And so, that story, talk about new story, talk about expanded story. First of all, if you’ve ever been to a swamp or the Great Dismal Swamp, it is not a pleasant place, just in terms of imagining yourself spending any time in it. It’s stunning. It’s mysterious. But really, it’s bugs and wildlife. And it’s not physically comfortable for a human being. And people chose… there was even, there’s this whole story about this couple getting married in there during that time. They lived a life that was better to live a life in freedom in the swamp than to be enslaved on a plantation as somebody’s property and making that choice.
So, finding, as a human being, I guess, joy and love and all those things in that, which doesn’t make the rest of it not painful and hard to hear, but also I think it’d be disrespectful for me to not consider that, throughout all that, they found a place for themselves.
[00:28:22] Laurie: We’d like to thank Carolyn Finney for joining us in part one of a two-part conversation today. Midd Moment is hosted by me, Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury. The podcast is executive produced by Matt Jennings, editor of Middlebury Magazine, and produced, engineered, and edited by Caitlin Whyte and the terrific folks at the podcast agency, University FM. Research on this episode was provided by Sara Thurber Marshall.
For more conversations like this, subscribe to Midd Moment on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.