It’s been months since most of us have booked a spontaneous girls trip, enjoyed a low-lit celebratory meal inside of a restaurant, or swayed to the beat at a concert; the types of moments that make us feel alive and allow us to escape the heaviness that can accompany the experience of traversing this world inside a Black body. Being forced to stay indoors and watch the world turn inside out has left many of us breathless and scrambling for an outlet — something that could hold our pain and trauma; something that could not only be a source of joy, but also one of healing.
In a world that constantly tells Black women that we aren’t worthy of joy or healing (see: life-altering pay disparities and potentially deadly medical biases), there are very few places that can offer much-needed solace. However, nature — the one thing that belongs to no one, and welcomes everyone — allows for the uninterrupted reflection necessary to foster equanimity. As the world around us continues to become less of a safe place for Black women, more of us are turning to the outdoors to catch our breath.
My appreciation for nature — whether the green spaces in my neighbourhood or the ocean — didn’t fully develop until adulthood. Growing up in the inner city, spending most of my waking hours indoors, being encased in brick and surrounded by fluorescent lights was my normal. I have a few memories about running outdoors barefoot and cannonballing into lakes during brief stints at overnight camp each summer, but they are fuzzy. I didn’t have a nature-centric childhood. As I entered adulthood, and the stresses of navigating the corporate world as a Black woman became crushing, I cobbled together various practices in an effort to maintain my wellbeing.
Running, biking, and walking in my neighbourhood gave me the reprieve I desperately needed — a time to unplug, take deep breaths, and just be. Over the last few years, and these last few months especially, the desire to disconnect and find peace outside of my apartment has become an incessant calling I have to feed daily. But instead of pounding New York City’s concrete pavement, I’m now on the other side of the country riding down the waves of the Pacific Ocean that hug California’s coast as often as possible.
When I learned a few years ago that surfing — which I first became enamoured with in high school — actually originated in Africa, I felt a newfound sense of ownership of and belonging to the sport, one that allowed me to push past the discomfort I felt being the sole Black body surfing in the water. I found comfort in knowing that the people of the Gold Coast surfed and canoed centuries before Europeans did, and that the euphoric joy and peace I feel standing on the ocean’s frothy edge in Los Angeles are the same ones my ancestors felt.
Evelynn Escobar-Thomas, founder of the Los Angeles-based non-profit Hiker’s Clerb, often thinks about her ancestors while in the outdoors. Like me and so many others, she’s adamant that Black women are entitled to experience this land and all the emotions that come with it. “It’s so rewarding because you get to prove to yourself that you’re even more capable of accomplishing things that you never imagined,” she says when recounting a recent hiking experience at a national park. For Esocbar-Thomas, nature is somewhat of a self-fulling prophecy. “It just provides that sense of challenge and then reassurance that you can really do anything you set your mind to,” and a special kind of unshakable confidence that spills over into other areas of life. Furthermore, connecting and being in the outdoors creates the perfect breeding ground for not our own healing, but collective healing as well.
“Nature is the number one source of my own joy and healing and self transformation and I wanted to foster this safe space where literally anyone who is aligned with our mission is welcome to come and will feel welcomed,” Escobar-Thomas shares. Being outdoors and taking a deep breath is the kind of gift that’s best shared alongside others who desperately need it, too. There’s no right way to explore or be in nature — sitting in the park can be just as edifying as a week-long camping trip — but stepping away from the constant drilling down that we experience as Black women is paramount if we’re not only to survive, but also to thrive.
So much of Black women’s trauma can be traced to white supremacy’s sneaky, pervasive ability to constantly make us feel othered; as if we don’t belong in the ocean or on hiking trails or have the right to be there. This feeling plays an evil trick on the brain and leaves its residue on the decisions we make — like not trying something we may love because we’ve never seen ourselves represented within that space. It has the ability to keep you trapped inside of a very small glass box that feels nearly impossible to break out of — the kind of box that can make even nature, something that belongs to all of us, feel exclusionary.
Andia Winslow, a lifelong adventurer, activist, and athlete, someone who has spent the majority of her life exploring the outdoors and understands what can happen when Black women intentionally take up space in nature. The Seattle native, who temporarily relocated to Arizona to spend time with family, is occupying her days by taking daily hikes, climbing mountains, sailing in lakes, and eating seasonally from her family’s garden. Long before those activities were popular hashtags on Instagram, they were foundational experiences woven into her formative years in Washington. “Seattle is called the Emerald City because it’s forever green, that city sparkles, there is a big respect for the lands and I couldn’t shake it if I tried,” Winslow says. Being so in-tune with nature as a child — so much so that she can know the difference between the plants that heal and those that are poisonous — is something Winslow is trying to recreate as an adult. “I need to be closer to what was in my spirit, and that is nature. I know it sounds strange to say but childhood was the part of my life, the prototype, for how I want to live,” she shares.
Her love and, more importantly, respect of nature’s ability to heal and be an outlet for Black women is what inspires her to get more of us out there. “If you’re out in nature you leave experiencing your senses more; basically you’re going to be stimulated and even deeper you’re going to experience you,” Winslow says. It provides the space, untethered from technology and free of judgement to ask big questions — like our purpose and how we fit into this world. Nature, even just a few uninterrupted moments, can provide a set of refined lenses through which the world can more accurately viewed and navigated. Winslow understands how imperative and life-changing this sense of wonder and awe can be for Black women, which is why she wants us to feel welcomed in parks, oceans, and on trails.
“First and foremost the outdoors belongs to you, and you belong to the outdoors. So this sense of not belonging or the perceived exclusion from the outdoors cultures that have been crafted for centuries needs to be addressed,” Winslow insists. It’s why all of her hikes, which she began organising 2012 under the name Straight Trippin’, come with a history lesson. “I like to point out things, like, ‘there used to be a railroad here,’ or, ‘this used to be a Black neighbourhood,’ while we’re hiking and walking because historical context can change everything,” she says. She knows that having an accurate understanding of our ancestral contributions can have life-altering ramifications.
It definitely has for me. Having that knowledge means confidently paddling out from the ocean’s shore to join mostly all-white surf line-ups. It means not only taking up space in nature, but also making space for other Black women alongside me, so they, too, can experience the peace and momentary solace from the heaviness of the world.