ESSAY: MARGINALIZED & VISIBLE IN THE CLIMATE FIGHT
PHOTO BY AUSTIN DRAWHORN
ESSAY BY SUE PIERRE
As a missive, Loam Love feels like the place to dispatch observations and findings picked up as I move through the world. Loam asked me to be a core contributor a few months ago, which felt like an honor and an opportunity I couldn’t waste. What would I say to the readers of Loam Love that couldn’t be read somewhere else?
To share my perspectives, both personal and scientific, and have them received in a way that nourishes the conversation that Loam facilitates, I have to be willing to be vulnerable. This means admitting fallibility, fears, and uncertainty to folks who take the time to read my ideas. It means overcoming the assumptions that accompany words (job titles, degrees, number of followers, etc.) and summoning the right words to share complicated ideas. As I offer my thoughts to Loam readers, I hope to also work out some of the contradictions and uncertainties that exist in me and at the heart of the anthropocene.
A carpet of redwood needles and dead oak leaves slick and hazardous from recent rain sits beneath my feet. Air, redolent with oils produced by rows of eucalyptus, mixes with the scent of clay and decaying wood. My shaking heart is stilled and my senses are rinsed over among the trees. A vivid green, made showy and brilliant by the pigments in chlorophyll and the sun itself, splashes into view as I lift my face skyward. Beyond the needles and broad leaves above is blue sky that’s dusky from a mist waiting for its turn to settle down as liquid water.
These sensations, though spiritual and transcendent, are also corporeal and vital. The smells freed by the decomposition of plant material are transient chemicals released as roots, leaves, and wood are returned to elemental form. Our bodies, themselves packages of elements and nerve endings, are physically changed in the presence of these sensory potions, such that blood pressure, cortisol levels (the stuff that enters the bloodstream under stress), and overall moods and behaviors can be altered by the chemistry of the living and dead environment. Like medicines and drugs, the natural environment is comprised of the chemicals that, at a cellular level, change how we feel physically and psychologically (1).
The evidence, both scientific (2) and personal, suggests that contact with nature can help us stay well, and that people in general need more of it. Perhaps people who face anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and other physical and mental health problems especially need sensory contact with nature. But these people may be least likely to have the energy and opportunity to access it. My own experience is that when anxiety and depression enter your life, a casual conversation at work can feel draining, making yourself a meal feels insurmountable, and going out of your way to see trees is laughably unlikely (even if, like me, you study trees for a living).
Imagine that on top of doing the things that are required of you even as you are adrift in depression and anxiety, that you are also highly likely to die in childbirth no matter how good your doctors are, simply because you are a black woman in the United States. Or that in addition to life and mental health struggles, your life expectancy is the shortest in American society just because you are transgender. These and other marginalized populations face the baseline challenges that we all experience while also carrying the weight of low, socially engineered survival rates. The health benefits of breathing forest air and looking at the green color produced by plants (called “forest bathing” in Japanese culture!) are even more remarkable if we start to see nature as a potential antidote to the health pressures specifically experienced by marginalized groups. The connections between the blood in our veins and the chemicals in the natural environment suggest that people are entitled to the medicine of nature. Unequal access to this medicine is part of a larger health and human rights crisis, one that systematically oppresses the bodies of people who don’t fit the white, cis-, heteronormative, and able contours of society.
Climate change and environmental degradation show us that nature is irreverent to our whims and wants. What we haven’t quite synthesized is that in all the ways that we interact with the natural environment (I crush pine resin to release its scent; I burn fossil fuels to release energy), there are cascading effects that operate outside of human control. The subversiveness of this idea is not to be missed. Nature, at a basic level, cannot be controlled (3), and holds the promise of making the most vulnerable bodies in society better, and that truth can’t be taken away—unless there are limits to our movements and access to time outdoors. Our ability to heal and become resilient to the often fatal effects of social oppression and inequality may come through dismantling barriers to accessing nature.
Having felt the relief that washes over me when I walk into the redwoods that surround my home, I am reminded of the immense privilege I hold in being able to take that hike. I can access public land because I have enough time and financial means to go out and find it, but the same is not true for many others whose health may depend on it. The relationships between ecology, wellness, public goods and social justice have been highlighted through numerous initiatives (4/5), research studies, podcasts (6), and conversations that I’ve encountered in the last few months. Subtly, they have hinted at the various facets of this issue, but haven’t knit the story together, from molecules to social equity. I hope that this missive, like those to come, will be a sort of casting on for those who haven’t considered our human right to take nature into our bodies and heal, helping to spark conversation around nature and liberation.
PHOTO BY N. MUSINGUZI
Dr. Suzanne Pierre loves tide pools, crunchy foods, and complicated stories. She is an ecologist and biogeochemist who researches how climate change affects plants, soil microorganisms, and nutrient cycles in ecosystems. She thinks and writes about the ways that human interactions with nature are related to freedom. Suzanne lives in the Bay Area.