Rob Nixon is the Barron Family Professor in Humanities and the Environment at Princeton University, where he teaches creative nonfiction and environmental studies. Nixon started out as an activist and socially engaged writer working for the overthrow of apartheid. In recent years, much of his work has focused on struggles for environmental justice in the global South.
He has written a numerous books, most including a transnational memoir, Dreambirds: The Natural History of a Fantasy; and Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He has been awarded an NEH, a Fulbright, a MacArthur Foundation International Peace and Security Fellowship, and a Guggenheim.
“I experience Blue Mountain Center as a sanctuary for presence,” he says. “BMC simplifies our forms of attention, encouraging us to be alive to the natural splendor of the Adirondacks, to the flows of conversation among the artists seated beside us, and to the deepest currents of our imaginings. The colony offers a reprieve from the decentering cornucopia of choices that is both the seductive promise and the curse of our digital age. At Blue Mountain, the thrumming of a pileated woodpecker and the sound of water lapping against the dock replace the white noise of information overload. Here artists and activists can slip the digital leash and wander into places of spiritual and imaginative recovery. This wandering—through the woods, across the lake, and down the byways of our thoughts—is pivotal to Blue Mountain’s restorative culture of immersion.”
By Rob Nixon
Touch is our most primal, our most amniotic sense. It offers us our first knowledge of what the poet, Joy Harjo, calls “the weather in the womb.” At six weeks—when we’re one-inch embryos—we’re already developing a sense of touch. Long before our ears, our eyes, and our noses have begun to absorb information from the world, we have started leading sensuous lives through our porous, excreting, breathing skins. Touch endures: it guides us from fetal vulnerability to the frailties of old age. Touch persists even when sight and hearing have fallen into ruin and our powers of taste and smell are shadows of themselves.
We can shut our eyes and mouths, hold our noses, block our ears. But our skin is always on the qui vive, surrounding us in constant readiness—informing, warning, pleasing. Our skin is twenty square feet of pure receptivity: the largest and (after the brain) the most versatile of our organs. The skin serves as the self’s sheath, sealing and concealing us, holding us together, keeping us apart.
Touch begins for me in memory not with an outstretched hand but inside childhood’s tidal pools. My brother and I are immersed—peering, poking, hesitantly handling the creatures the sea delivers then withdraws from the water that some days rises above our waists, other days lies ankle shallow. The pools are alive with revelations that we cannot name but try, with four small hands, to grasp.
A few yards up the sand, a blue beach umbrella shelters my parents, grandmother, and three sisters. Behind them in turn, where the dune grass begins, a tall, one-legged wooden sign declares in English and Afrikaans: “Whites Only. Blankes Alleen.” “Only” was a decisive environmental word along the sixty-mile bay that the Indian Ocean has scythed out of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. If your body was deemed to be the wrong colour it wasn’t safe to bathe here, only over there; access to the water was policed into the sand. A phenomenology of touch must necessarily include the following signs that between them divided up the shore: “Whites Only,” “Blacks Only,” “Coloureds Only,” “Indians Only,” “Malays Only.”
I experienced environmental change before I understood the tides of history. Environment, history, tides are adult words that, back then, were unavailable to me: the change that touched me first was salt water’s movement back and forth across the skin as I stood immersed beside my brother, toes curled for balance into the sand, my whole being awash with curiosity. The Indian Ocean was warm, but didn’t yet have a name. For all childhoods are provincial: they start from me, from us, from here. In the absence of a social analysis, where we are becomes the centre of everything. When you’re a child you live life close up, so close that life’s shaping fundamentals, for a time, stay hidden.
To the segregationist phenomenology of that scene I should add this: we went to the beach because it was “free.” We were somewhat inter-tidal ourselves: lower middle class with middle class aspirations. My father was earning, in today’s money, about $40,000, the sole breadwinner for our sprawling four-generation outfit— five children, two parents, one grandmother, one great-grandfather—ranging in age from three years old to ninety-nine, all crammed under one roof in an atmosphere of frugal scarcity. From the perspective of the Xhosa township across the veld, we were rich beyond belief. But nobody on either side of the family had ever made it to university; my father alone had finished high school. So my parents shaped their lives around an unwavering goal: to get their children the college education they had been denied. That I’m writing this essay as a middle-class professional owes everything to their fiscal severity in tandem with apartheid’s atrociously inequitable, racist school system.
We never once, during my childhood and adolescence, ate in a restaurant or stayed in a hotel or motel; the cinema was off limits as too pricey. All those things would belong in the future, to my middle class American life. But our family could partake of apartheid Nature—for beach trips, bush walks, mountain climbs—without paying, without jeopardizing my parents’ educational hopes for us. We were a family that only went places where there was no entrance fee.
Nadine Gordimer has written of “falling, falling through the South African way of life.” After my fall into politics the landscape seemed illusory, warped by an unethical geography. By the time I got to college, Nature itself had become a toxic discourse. For a decade-and-a-half into adulthood—long into my exile to America—if I thought at all about my Nature-saturated childhood I would extract the politics from the view and leave the living body behind, an uninhabited exhibit of injustice to be opposed. I was certainly not inclined to reach for anything as complex as a segregationist phenomenology of those tidal pools on that skin-entitled beach.
What I know is that that contrapuntal scene—oceanic and societal, a body immersed, a body apart—shaped the reader I became, of books and landscapes alike. I can trace to that pooled water and divided sand my passion for environmental justice, above all for all issues of access—whether under apartheid or the Washington Consensus, as in the name of freeing markets the rich carve up the commons, and the gated mindset and private security detail spread like kudzu across the globe. That tidal scene—and others like it—turned me into a reader who parses literature and landscapes for who is present, who is missing, for the forced removals, physical and imaginative, from the permitted view; a reader alive to who precisely (in the cropped photo, the selective story, the seemingly seamless landscape) has been driven off the beach.
African-Americans are three times as likely as their white compatriots to declare U.S. national parks “uncomfortable places.” A 2009 survey found that less than one percent of Yosemite visitors were black. Mountains? A nineteen-year old Denver woman knows why she stays away: “My granddaddy told me the K.K.K. hangs out up in the mountains. Why would I want to go?” Trees? The poet Ed Roberson puts the matter bluntly: “American trees had ropes in them.”
For the parks to become a viable commons—the “nation’s playground” they purport to be—America’s dominant culture of nature must undergo a radical overhaul. Decades after official segregation was outlawed, many African-Americans feel shadowed by a history of rural ambush, violence, and terror that retains a visceral, bodily tenacity. Historically, the great outdoors were not so great. Shelton Johnson is working to turn that race memory around. Johnson is an anomaly: one of the few African-American park rangers anywhere, he worked for seven years in Yellowstone before moving to Yosemite where, since 1994, he has been active as an interpretive specialist. One of his specialties, it turns out, is reinterpreting history.
In 2001, Johnson stumbled across an archival photograph—dated 1899—of five U.S. Army cavalry troopers patrolling Yosemite’s backcountry on horseback. The troopers were black: buffalo soldiers from the 9th cavalry who, it emerged, had been assigned to safeguard the park from poaching, illicit grazing, logging, and forest fires shortly after Yosemite’s creation. After Johnson unearthed a trove of letters by buffalo soldiers who had served in Yosemite and Sequoia National Park, he felt emboldened by precedent: his discovery eased his sense of being a pioneering oddity and intensified his determination to make the parks more culturally available to African-Americans by publicizing their foundational role as environmental stewards.
For now, Johnson quips, black visitors to Yosemite remain real “sightings.” He is more likely to encounter a tourist from Finland or Israel than an African-American. To tackle this imbalance, Johnson has added to his daily interpretive work a three-pronged strategy: archive, celebrity, and fiction. An imploring letter persuaded Oprah to devote two shows—and a personal road trip—to race and the national park system. And Johnson, who holds a creative writing MFA from the University of Michigan, in 2009 published a novel, Gloryland, which takes the form of a buffalo soldier’s fictional memoir. “Race is the core of this history,” he observes. “It shows that the national parks are as much a cultural as a natural resource.”
Like many heroic counter-narratives, Johnson’s racial salvage story is not without its contradictions. The buffalo soldiers stationed at Yosemite had just returned from fighting an imperial war in the Philippines. And Johnson—whose mother was half Cherokee and father part Seminole—would be alive to the violence against Native peoples behind Yosemite’s invention as exemplary, untouched American sublime. The Ahwahneechee were evicted from their historic lands in order to create the park that the buffalo soldiers patrolled. But Johnson also knows, from the inside, the role the military has long played as a channel of racial uplift—his own father, James O. Johnson Jr., had enlisted in flight from the Jim Crow South.
Johnson’s story is not reducible to a patriotic, Ken Burns-style national frame. His commitment to challenging America’s dominant culture of nature arose, in large part, from his ability to see that culture from the outside looking in. Two international experiences—one an unsettling revelation, the other a childhood epiphany—fired his resolve to make America’s park system more fully representative, something closer to a national commons. After graduating from college, Johnson spent two years in Liberia with the Peace Corps, where he was astonished by the casual fluency with which everyone, even children, could name the birds, animals, flowers, and trees surrounding them. This brought home to him the environmental alienation inflicted by the Middle Passage and by the long, layered violence against African-Americans that ensued. It became his goal to help turn that culture of alienation around.
Yet his historical insight in Liberia would have been insufficient without the animating force of an early childhood encounter. In 1961, Johnson’s mother and his staff sergeant father, stationed with the U.S. military in Germany, had taken him to the Berchtesgaden National Park in the Bavarian Alps. Berchtesgaden mayn’t have been as remote as the Swiss hamlet that James Baldwin portrayed as a “white wilderness” in his classic 1953 essay, “Stranger in the Village,” a village where children felt at liberty to trail their fingers through his unprecedented hair and where in Baldwin’s words, he remained “a sight,” “a living wonder.” Still, it must have taken some initiative, some fortitude for Johnson’s parents to venture into that Bavarian redoubt. As it happens, the mountains moved the five-year old Shelton indelibly—the sensation of being so high, so intimate with big sky that he could touch it—lived on in him. Growing up thereafter in inner city Detroit, his encounter with the Alpine sublime remained lodged in his urban body’s tissue memory. That brief, boyhood thrill shook up a life, quickening his adult commitment to opening up the outdoors early to African-American children: “I can’t not think of the other kids, just like me—in Detroit, Oakland, Watts, Anacostia—today. How do I get them here? How do I let them know about the buffalo soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here?”
The early passions that shape our neural pathways—on an Alpine trail or in an Indian Ocean tidal pool—are inseparable from history’s undertow. My history travels with me: when a Cape Cod marine ecologist utters the phrase “barrier beach” it passes through my body with a jolt. I cannot hear those words as merely topographical.
Ever since Nelson Mandela’s release, I have started to return each year—usually around Christmas—to childhood’s provincial city to visit my ailing mother and my brother who tends to her. Most days I drive the ten minutes to the beaches that ring what’s now called Mandela Bay. The “only” signs have long since disappeared, sinking into what W.G. Sebald once called “the lagoon of oblivion.” But the desegregated path down through the dune grass still crosses for me a shadow beach, where childhood’s vast emotions first gathered around my feet, a place where history’s tides and the tuggings of the moon remain conjoined. Here, there, where memory began to pool before memory was known to me.
I’m reading on this beach Camille Dungy’s powerful anthology of African-American poetry, Black Nature. In an introductory essay, she revisits her immersed early years in Southern California: “When I was a child on Bluff View, the dogs we call bloodhounds, the slave trackers’ tool, were nothing I knew to remember. I was a girl-child in that kingdom of open space, and all the land I could see and name and touch was mine to love.” Her adult, writer self wrestles with the gap between that intense, tactile innocence and the plummet into collective trauma: “How do I write a poem about the land and my place in it without these memories: the runaway with the hounds at her heels; the complaint of the poplar at the man-cry of its load; land a thing to work but not to own?”
For a time, after Mandela’s release, it was if black South Africans had to work at owning the beaches in my hometown. In the first year or two, people trickled back to the prime seaside spots, but in groups not crowds, as if still hesitant in their reclamation, as if still mentally looking over their shoulders for hostile signposts and police. But today, by noon, the shoreline is filled to bursting. It’s Boxing Day, which, alongside Tweede Nuwe Jaar (January 2nd) is the biggest beach day of the year: hundreds of High-Ace minivan taxis disgorge their pleasure seekers, until the beaches throng with 300,000 people. Corpulent middle-aged ladies step out with umbrellas to fend off the blatant heat; young women twirl gold-lame high-heels from ruby fingernails; ghetto blaster rivalries are staked out, kwaito over here while, a few towels away, Irene Mawela gives it her all with gospel jive. Music markers in place, the young men jog off for a close-range football game of flamboyant ball control. Down by the water’s edge a wedding party gathers in a ring while a white-robed man whisks his knife across a bleating throat. Soon, the aroma of whole goat on the braai, the barbecue, mingles with the sea’s low-tide mineral smell.
In this place of casual plenitude, class divisions still register, though in a minor key. Fully half the bathers are in their underwear, while the better off flaunt their sheeny bathing suits, the men in those taut speedos that Australians call “budgie smugglers.” Older women venture in gingerly, skirts hoist to the knee, as they bend to fill bottles with sea water to send as a curative to relatives inland.
Leisure may seem a surface thing, in a country beset by difficulties: a mismanaged AIDS crisis, rural destitution, car jacking, thwarted land claims, unserviced unmanaged sprawl, tenacious unemployment, and xenophobia. Just this morning, I was talking to a boardwalk vendor who, bent beneath sacks of carved giraffes, told me that in Malawi he’d dreamed “Johannesburg, every day,” but when he got there he’d soon fled south, here to Mandela Bay. For him, South Africa’s city of gold was paved with nothing but problems.
In the broad journey from dispossession to self-possession, this beach may be a modest thing. But it still seems—this roiling place, this commonage restored—in every sense phenomenal, this place where the ecosystem’s systemic segregations once appeared as unchanging, as resilient as the rocks. It’s the children in the water who most interest me. The tiny body surfer, who times his push just right, as he trusts the break and feels the ocean fold over him, angling into the slide, the full forward flow of him perfectly balanced between submission and control. And there, just below the sandpipers that scissor through the tidal wrack in pale, skittish flocks, the rock pool children, crouching, wet-bottomed, eyes down, hands alive. The children rise in concert each time a small wave floods their world, stirring the sand, fogging the water which will slowly clarify again, revealing whatever will be revealed: turbaned whelks perhaps, sea squirts, crimson and yellow anemones that close their fronds around a finger, translucent pipe fish, keyhole limpets, spiny crabs, bulb-eyed fish that press their mouths indiscriminately against seaweed strands and toes, seahorses that jerk like marionettes as they fly through the fronded canopy that sways in the underwater breeze. Here the children make their stand, in clustered curiosity, inside the salt warmth that recalibrates the body’s electro-magnetic fields.
I swim out beyond the breaker line and dangle, rising and falling with the swells. Out here I feel what I’ve always felt: that in water I’m more secure, more upheld than on dry land. Out here being at sea means the opposite of loss, means being alive to the life of the skin, trading anxiety for some deep flow of necessary breath. I peer back, like the visitor I am, at the shoreline of this town. A young Xhosa woman, further out than me, glides by on easy limbs, flexing her freedom of movement (crawl, breaststroke, backstroke) in history’s desegregated sea.