The joys of nature are for everyone

In a time of pandemic, getting out into the natural world can be therapeutic. But Black people face extra hurdles to enjoying those benefits. 

AP
Keith Russell, program manager of urban conservation at Audubon Pennsylvania, conducts a breeding bird census at Wissahickon Valley Park June 5, 2020, in Philadelphia.

As the July Fourth holiday fades into memory, summer starts in earnest. Americans hear the call of the natural world: Leave those four walls behind; seek new vistas. 

“We need the tonic of wildness. ... We can never have enough of nature,” advised perhaps its most famous advocate, Henry David Thoreau. “I am losing precious days,” added John Muir, known as the “Father of the National Parks.” “I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” 

In recent times movements such Japan’s shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, have touted the therapeutic effects of immersion into the great outdoors. Journeys into the wild are used to help restore the mental and physical health of Iraq War veterans. 

It doesn’t take studies (though they exist) to know that absorbing grand natural vistas or merely sitting in solitude in a quiet green place can be relaxing and restorative. It just feels good.

But not everyone has equal access to nature, or feels equally comfortable going into it – problems reinforced in many cases by poverty and prejudice. In a 2014 report, the National Park Service estimated that 95% of visitors to its parks were white. And a 2011 NPS survey concluded that three times as many Black people as white felt unsafe in these parks.

For Black Americans, even enjoying nature much closer to home can turn into an ordeal. This spring a Black man bird-watching in New York’s Central Park politely asked a white woman to obey the park’s rules and leash her dog. Instead, she called the police, saying an “African American man” was threatening her. (She later apologized for her actions, and faces a misdemeanor charge of falsely reporting an incident in the third degree.)

In the 21st century, the United States is moving toward becoming a “majority minority” nation – nonwhites outnumbering whites. The love and protection of the natural world will be in the hands of an ever-wider spectrum of Americans. Can people be expected to love and guard something they don’t visit?

In 2018, there were 1,177 people who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, an arduous 2,200-mile trek between Georgia and Maine. That was a record number. So far this year, reports Outside Magazine, only two people have completed it. Both were young white males. With much of the trail closed due to the pandemic, they had to evade local law enforcement and park officials along the way, sometimes talking their way out of confrontations, and then illegally sneaking back onto the trail. One can only wonder if a Black hiker could have done the same.

The national discussion about racial inequality has brought into focus that the trail’s hiking community is overwhelming the domain of educated white men, says Sandi Marra, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit group. She told Outside that she hopes the dialogue will result in new ideas on how to make the outdoor world more inclusive and diverse.

Experiencing nature expresses a kind of freedom. “Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us,” said Thoreau’s old friend, philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Helping a wider spectrum of Americans know nature’s wonders benefits everyone.

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