I walked across a browning field and was greeted with a welcoming smile, minus one front tooth. A man with a “you’re on native land” baseball cap was putting together some brush to start a fire. This plot of land was not what I was expecting. Sporadic headstones, tree stumps, broken concrete slabs, and piles of wood surrounded me. There was one other person there when I arrived and she invited me to gather black walnuts that had fallen from the trees. As I perused the land looking for slimy rotten fruit, the man, who I learned was named Simon, apologised for not having extra gloves as the walnuts tend to stain fingers. He told me at least I will have a good story if someone asks why my fingertips were colored greenish brown. That’s when a thought came to mind about the situation. Who do I have to impress with clean hands that won’t be more impressed by the story that stained them? Any professor, coach, or potential employer that might see my hands and think less of me because of how they got that way should not be someone I am around anyway.
More people showed up and soon there was a squad of about 10 black walnut gatherers. While collecting the heavy green spheres from ground I listened to others tell stories of how they process the walnuts, the ways they can be eaten, and the memories they have with their families, not to mention the weeks of stained hands. Even though we were a group of mainly white people, it was hard to ignore the thoughts about how native Lenape probably did the same thing every fall hundreds of years ago. Chief Dennis Coker told us about “old grandfather walnut” and how he has been processing the fruit his entire life. The people here, native or not, are intimate with the land. They know when the walnuts fall, when to gather them, and how to turn them into something usable for humans. I was told instead of looking on the ground for the walnuts to look for the walnut trees and then go beneath them. That moment was when I realized this intimacy with nature. We were not just finding random walnuts on the ground, we were using knowledge of the surroundings to make the process simpler.
I think that is what Robin Wall Kimmer means when she tells us to be more connected to nature. Seeing a tree as a tree is a lot different than seeing it as a walnut to collect fruit, or an oak to find chicken of the woods, or an invasive ailanthus that lantern flies love. Seeing things in nature as independent subjects is an incredible step towards preservation and conservation because they are no longer just things outside. They are living breathing creatures that deserve the same respect that we owe each other. This reminds me of when Wall Kimmer writes about a time she weaved black ash baskets with the Pigeon family. She writes that John Pigeon said “Slow down- it’s thirty years of a tree’s life you’ve got in your hands there. Don’t you owe it a few minutes to think about what you’ll do with it?”(155). These walnut trees were absolutely massive, decades old in many cases. As I tramped around picking up their fruit, it never occurred to me how some of them have been producing food for people since before my grandparents were even born. They saw the land when it was pristine, as it turned into an illegal dumping ground, as the school building was heinously burned down, and now as we try to restore this plot of land to some of its former glory. Realizing that these trees are creatures like us is something that will help humans realize how much we need to protect the environment.
I feel as though this is the realization that needs to happen in order for change to begin. The problem is that we don’t even give all human beings respect as equals, so how are we going to get people to respect non-humans? The atrocities committed throughout history against natives, african slaves, and even just poor people in this country have been numerous. But even worse is the assault on the American ecosystems and environment that has been decimated by extractive capitalism. Dunbar-Ortiz wrote about this and talked about it in her interview last week as well. If we can’t even treat other humans decently, how are we going to protect the environment and the other living creatures on this planet? If we exploit and devalue members of our own species, how does that translate to environmental degradation and exploitation?
Large scale public outreach programs are going to be crucial to getting people to understand this idea of being one with nature in order to protect it. Teaching about something in a classroom or watching Blue Planet on TV are so disconnected from actually being out in nature. I am surrounded by nature when I am home and it has felt weird being at school and not having the same outlet to destress and unwind. Having this single day out in the woods of Dover Delaware has shown me a lot about my own reliance on my environment but also how others view theirs. I hope to return to the Fork Branch property some time in the near future to see the progression and transformation of the land. But even if I continue to go back until I am 90, I still could never match what “old grandfather walnut” has seen.