When Lauret Edith Savoy first heard the word “colored” at five years old, she saw herself as exactly that—full of veins as blue as the sky. Not long after, she learned another definition, steeped in racism. “Words full of spit showed that I could be hated for being ‘colored,’” she writes. “By the age of eight I wondered if I should hate in return.” Out of this painful history, Savoy has created something rich and productive—a body of work that examines the complex relationships between land, identity, and history.
Today, Savoy, who is of African American, Euro-American, and Native American descent, works as a geologist, a writer, and a professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her writing—described by New York Magazine’s “Vulture” as John McPhee meets James Baldwin—straddles science and the humanities.
Her most recent book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape explores the tendency of U.S. history to erase or rewrite—both literally and in memory—the stories of marginalized or dispossessed people and places that have been deemed unworthy, unsavory, or shameful. In eight densely researched, ruminative essays, Savoy uses her own family histories to trace moments in American history that have been largely forgotten: for example, the history of segregated Army nurses, like her mother, during World War II, or that of Charles Drew, the African-American physician who developed the first blood bank and was fired for trying to end the federally sanctioned policy of segregating blood. Savoy approaches the “environment” in the broadest sense: “Not just as surroundings; not just as the air, water, and land on which we depend, or that we pollute; not just as global warming — but as sets of circumstances, conditions, and contexts in which we live and die — in which each of us is intimately part.”
Nautilus recently spoke to Savoy over email about this relationship between landscape and identity, the meaning of biodiversity, and the power of the stories we tell.
What did landscape and nature mean to you as a child, and what do they mean now?
Coastal California was the frame in which my life took distinctive shape. Sky and an intensely physical landscape imprinted me deeply as a small child. Foremost was the quality of light, its depth and brilliance, such that by the time I turned five my self-theory was that sunlight and blue sky made me, “colored” me. Any drive to the coast, mountains, or beyond assumed a specialness that became embedded in memory, like the day my parents and I crossed the San Gabriel Mountains to visit the Devil’s Punchbowl at the edge of the Mojave Desert.
One defining lesson I later learned as a young girl was this: the land didn’t hate; people did. It was a time of riots and a war in Vietnam, a time of disturbing media images, troubling school lessons, and spit on my favorite dress. To say that the world didn’t make sense to me is an understatement. I grew to love being outdoors on earth that never judged or spat. My child-sense of the land’s antiquity also became as much a refuge as any place. I reached toward deep time, collecting drawers of rocks and fossils. Later, once traveling in the realm of geology, I saw how the land’s past could be entered, its pieces read in the language of science. Sand and stone are memory.
I guess I’ve always been drawn to stories we tell of the American land’s origins and to stories we tell of ourselves in this land. After first considering studio art and American history in college, I eventually I picked geology and earth science as my major because I thought having a scientific understanding of how the Earth works—what its history is, what its structure and materials are—would allow me to bring in all of the other pieces.
I define myself not as a geologist but as a writer who uses her experience and past work as an earth historian to inform her research and writing. I think of my book Trace as a form of doing geology—that is, trying to understand Earth and our place on it.
Does a relationship to land matter?
Oh, yes! The history of human experience on this continent owes much to the history of the land itself, to the land’s structure, materials, and texture. I believe we can gain a fuller sense of place by understanding all. Remember: the events of our lives take place.
From our beginnings, human beings have influenced and been influenced by the rocks, soil, and landscapes where we evolved. Anne Spirn wrote in her book The Language of Landscape that humans “touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, lived in, and shaped landscapes before the species had words to describe what it did. Landscapes were the first human texts, read before the invention of other signs and symbols.” The connections have always been reciprocal.
How does one find one’s traces and land relationships?
I believe that we consist of inherited and fragmented memories of blood, culture, custom, and circumstance—of distinct and interdependent histories. For some, possession of the land itself has been passed down generation to generation as honored tradition. For many others, conflict, dispossession of homeland, forced bondage, imposed poverty, and segregation are aspects of the country’s history that have limited or even cut access to the land as well as to stories of relationship over time. The gains for some came about in the losses of others.
So many lessons and stories that I was taught of history on this land did not address ambiguity and complexity but instead tried to box the past into a universal, sequential story from one point of view. The silence of other narratives and other points of view reinforced a status quo that continues to privilege what’s always been privileged in popular history.
How do you define biodiversity?
Many note that at least three kinds of biodiversity are essential to preserve ecological systems: genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecological diversity. From genetic level to numbers of species to the richness and complexity of ecosystems. I would also add cultural diversity as a form of biodiversity.
We, every aspect of our lives, have what my friend Kim Ruffin has called “ecological ancestors,” because we all have been in relation, whether admitted or not, in time and place. What I believe is key is the ability to recognize the biodiversity of self and of others, and resist any mono-identity or mono-culture of mind, self, and knowledge because Euro-American ecological ancestry, though quite important, isn’t the whole. Environmental thought and activism in the United States have old and diverse roots, a legacy far richer than the contributions typically heralded. For example, writings of those who escaped slavery, Frederick Douglass and Henry Bibb among them, considered how an oppressive agricultural (plantation) system distorted relations to land, degrading both the enslaved and the soil. And, more than a century ago, Zitkala-Sa (Lakota-Dakota) and Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute) noted the close links between Euro-American racism and environmental attitudes that led to the degradation of indigenous land—that is, once tribal peoples were removed from it.
How did Aldo Leopold’s writing affect your own work?
“The Land Ethic” is the climax essay of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which Wallace Stegner called “a famous, almost holy book in conservation circles.” The work remains so today. My first reading of Leopold’s 1949 book, as a ninth-grade assignment, forced new questions and suggested troubling possibility. I was fourteen years old and struggling to understand my place in America. His enlargement of the “community” to include “soil, water, plants, animals, or collectively: the land” and his call for an extension of ethics to land relations seemed to express a sense of responsibility and reciprocity not yet embraced by American society (whatever that was), but embedded in indigenous peoples’ traditions of experience—that land has immediate presence, that it is intimate and fully inhabited. If as Leopold wrote “obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land,” then I wondered what part of this nation lacked conscience broad enough to realize the internal change of mind and heart, to embrace this “evolutionary possibility” and “ecological necessity.” I couldn’t understand why it was that human relations could be so cruel in the United States I knew at age fourteen.
I had no answers then. The history taught to me in grade school had either praised or simply presented the material fruits of Euro-America’s manifest destiny as inevitable, slavery as requiring no justification. Yet, how was I, or were those who looked like me, a part of this history?
Only uncertainty and estrangement seemed to lie within my teenage reach, as if the book’s “we” and “us” excluded me and people with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, and Native America. Yet, I felt very deeply that Aldo Leopold was working toward a truth, toward an understanding that mattered to us all. What I wanted more than anything was to speak with him, but I was decades too late.
Aileen McGraw is a Seattle-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @AileenMcGraw.