Where once we were intimate
liberated herds
we now segregate
isolated and unequal
socialization is measured in distance
distance is critical to survival
yet we are grazers
masked crusaders

Ours is a nation whose land and air reeks of discarded body parts, spilled blood, toxic waste, grief, and mistrust. During a time of ongoing political upheaval, our stories map vast terrains in search of signs of racial and social equity, our moral responsibility to the planet and one another. We are failing miserably, whether in the miscalculated impact of a global health pandemic and more for how biological and racial virulence are inextricably connected. The saturation of these more recent social emergencies, raging assaults, and battery, has given rise to a tremendous emergence—fueled by anger and then clarity. As a 21st century “abolitionist,” this clarity brings with it a deeper visceral understanding of the scope of trauma(s) experienced by enslaved ancestors and the freed Blacks that followed. I also found myself considering what it means to “set resistance against the backdrop of nature, swamp, and forests, [and] the Confederacy.”[1] Like a Robert Johnson blues lament, these staggering days conjure images of a “Hellhound” grinding heels, gnashing teeth, into our shins and neck bones. In other words, in the way that historians and some of us have pondered what life in America would have been like had the Confederate South won the Civil War.

Well, now we know.

Yet we are not to be played with in this harsh climate. Inasmuch as we can change our personal relationships to greenhouse gasses, swamps, and race, the more persistent reality is that we may never change opposing points of view as to why they exist in this country. To my thinking, these times reveal what folks of color and particularly African Americans have known and named for generations. Unregulated supremacist behavior is harrowing, even as most of us are acquainted with its nasty dispositions. What unnerves me is how these current streams of racist behavior confirm that where we are right now is who we have been in this country for a very long time.

For artists, eco-activists, and abolitionists, accustomed to witnessing and documenting ourselves, learning to re-center our testimonials for this growing storm of “a future in peril”[2] is both the challenge and an invigorating site of reinvention. My approach to the question, Where’s Your Tree?—is part philosophy, part poetry, part stylized mediating tools and practices used to support at-risk BIPOC communities in the face of historic, environmental ruin of the planet and black and brown lives. Much of my work is to reclaim the sustainable applications that our ancestors practiced lifetimes before this country’s “founding,” and to remember they are accessible to us now. That we commit to honoring plant life with a particular focus on healing the land on which they flourish, is as fortifying to me as privileging art in a world that’s never been wholly convinced of my worth.

So, how do we recover, resist, sustain and then do it again?

I commune with dirt. “Sometimes, the only way to cool down is to dig until I find the hidden reasons for strife.”[3] My creative impulses are driven by what is buried in the soot and dirt of this country’s past and loosen clumps of socially-engaged sites, spur new, bio-diverse growth, ethical restoration, and healing. Digging in my boxes of soil, planting seeds, pruning herbs that garnish foods and medicinal aid, was already pulsing through my finger-tips, my palms, my nostrils, and limbs. While I know any number of esoteric facts and concepts about the humanities, I have little conventional training in gardening, none in farming, or permaculture. Somehow, I intuitively navigate these systems and with an informally studied grasp of the science that drives them. These aims also beg for generative and frequent inner life attunements. Meditations and Mediations. Prayer. Sitting at my tattered edges, I am reminded that the most productive agriculture and “permanent culture” based tenets and applications are reasoned around “whole living systems” formed of a healthy community, reliable friends, family, and dynamic energy.

Where’s Your Tree? began as an urgent question and title of a defunct online video that transfixed me more than a decade ago. For years, cross-sections of Chicanos, homeless folks, gangbangers and others, worked together relatively harmoniously in a downtown Los Angeles communal enclave. Their objective was a simple one—to build and grow an urban farm that generated fresh produce to feed a large segment of the community. They were a spiritual family, even as some lived desperate, rootless lives. Many were displaced persons, mentally ill, elders on fixed incomes, and young, single head of household families with undernourished babies. On the opposite side of a dark, marketplace takeover tale was a wealthy developer set on securing their relatively small lot. For what exactly—another coffee chain, parking, luxury housing? Who knows? At the end of this unfortunate narrative, the wealthy developer skillfully maneuvered his intentions through the legal entanglements of “eminent domain,” which gives “the state” the right to take away your property with little cause. At the close of the video, an exasperated activist-member of this community sighed through the dampened haze of outrage and fatigue, “I mean, when they take away everything from you, Where’s Your Tree?”

That activist’s closing remark lingered inside my head, my soul, since watching the initial screening. It would take years to generate something more than a nonsensical reply to the outcry. Until, in 2015, everything changed for me when I was in a catastrophic car accident. That fated collision snatched my father’s life and parts of mine with him. Months following, I was contacted by students at Goddard College, located in Vermont just outside Montpelier, and invited to be their commencement speaker. Like the virus’s exhausting intrusion into our lives, so was the ravenous grief that imprisoned me. I declined the invitation at least twice, maybe more. At some point, I finally replied “Yes” to their persistent calls and began shaping the concept Where’s Your Tree? into a commencement address. An excerpt reads:

Are you exhausted from loving the difficult, the different, from maintaining peace and cooperative spirit? Do you know the quality of your mercy and your neighbors?
If not, where’s your tree? What’s the quality of your seed?

Are you planting deeply sustaining roots, or are yours questionably elusive?

Are you cultivating divine soil that in toiling becomes
vibrant, rich, nutrient?

Where’s your tree?

How have you planted your conviction
your outrage
your activism
your fierceness
your anger
your genius?

Where’s your tree?

My appeal was presented as instructive inquiry. It was also intended as a practical apparatus for channeling the resurrected outrage that we all felt with the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. At the close of the ceremony, I gifted each student with a packet of seeds and the mandate to plant them while prioritizing “self-care” as their most radical and loving act.

Life, though, tends to grab your attention in unsuspecting ways. Somewhere in the turmoil of a global pandemic, like many of you, I moved beyond the point of accepting excuses for opportunistic viruses and gratuitous, violent racism. With Black lives and too many other beleaguered communities under increased attack, demands and lines are clearly drawn with unflinching resolve as we seek solutions that must be inclusive, equitable, honest. Well, I’m not sure how I got there, but during the windowless oasis of “sheltering in place” at the start of this health crisis, I re-listened to that commencement address. When it ended, I was sobbing. All at once, I was both Velma and the community of elders (from Toni Cade Bambara’s novel, The Salt Eaters) asking her something akin to—Honey, are you really ready to be healed? If so, in what ways are you planting your conviction, your outrage, your activism, your anger, your genius, your joy—beyond trendy messaging on social media or other cultivated expressions of artist-educator privilege? What delivered you to this deep reverence for life and the planet, to begin with, and more importantly, are you honoring those roots in the most needful way?


photo of Pamela Booker's grandfatherMy earliest memories of gardening are as a toddler in the company of my six-foot-tall grandfather, William McCoy, Sr, whom I called Pop-Pop. My eyes trailed his every move from my playpen, (at least in those blurred photographs) tending to his rose bushes, weeding his flowerbeds and grapevines, in his modest home lawn and backyard, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. In his younger years, he was known to both chase after and provide food to teenagers who stole his vegetables and grapes. His flowers were exquisite. A rambling assortment of rose species, hydrangeas, gladiolas, and others I could never name, Pop-Pop’s flora were the envy and pride of the neighborhood. From my worldview, he cultivated them with the same care, devotion, and safeguarding that he provided his family.

Descendants of teachers, preachers, sharecroppers, and the enslaved, my grandfather’s family line are North Carolina-rooted in Fayetteville-Raleigh-Durham, and my cherished grandmother, Mamie McQueen, (who passed when I was very young) was raised in Bennettsville, South Carolina. When my grandparents were a fledgling, married couple, they worked in a tobacco factory for Philip Morris to save enough money to eventually allow them to migrate “up North,” as he used to quip. Ironically, my grandfather’s youngest sister and longest surviving sibling, my Great-aunt Letha McCoy-McDougald, (who lived to be 103 years) resided within the backdrop of an expansive gated community in Lillington, North Carolina (near Raleigh), that was once a tobacco plantation. This sepia-tone sketch of my family’s history was vividly described by my cousin, Lea, during a visit to celebrate my Great-aunt’s 100th birthday in 2016.

As the car wended past what I thought were brilliant green crops of wild cord-grasses, turned out to be sprawling flue-cured, burley tobacco fields, that Lea noted were remnants of the county’s plantation history and cultivation of the crop that began in the 1600s. But if it’s true that life and artsy television “resembles the wildest imagination,”[4] these historical dots were connected while watching a Madmen episode. A popular cable-TV show triggered how the advertising industry’s persuasive arguments for smoking were bound-up in my grandparents’ labor as the factory “fieldworkers” who harvested tobacco crops for a multi-billion dollar cigarette industry.

I felt both affirmed and daunted by this “trace” of my family’s history, a term grappled with by African American environmental studies/geology scholar Lauret Savoy, who uses it as a noun meaning “a way or path” and verb, “to make one’s way.” Affirmed, because my grandparents escaped to a more sustainable life that formed a pathway for future generations and property ownership. Daunted, as much, by Savoy’s question, “What if the footprint measured, over time, on whom and what the nation’s foot has trod—that is, who has paid for prosperity?”[5]

To exploit the land is to eviscerate the people who are nurtured by and labor on it. To undermine the economic and cultural mechanisms for their healthy flourishing is equally disparaging. In her superb memoir, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, Savoy frames why black and brown communities and native tribes in this country have always been at risk for annihilation by aggressive, corporatized profiteers who directly benefitted from their cheap (or free) labor on stolen land, since this country’s beginning. Through close readings of early 19th century US government treatment of Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee tribes, Savoy discloses the originating memos that portrayed native peoples as “the problem” to early white settlers in furthering land occupation in the West.

What her reasoning affirms is that Standing Rock confrontations and subsequent murders of Indigenous peoples, therefore, should not have surprised us. And if they don’t then:

Charlotte, NC, ambush murders, therefore,
should not have surprised us.

The killings of Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, therefore,
should not have surprised us.

Others that will follow, therefore,
should not continue to surprise us.

I yearn to be part of a nation that allows me to be surprised by anyone’s murder.

Freedom-fighters, certainly those from my grandfather’s era and his antecedents, understood that to enslave or oppress any part of a “living system” ultimately betrays all of nature. Whether plantation captive or runaway or an exploited factory worker, they studied the complex offerings of forests that hid and protected them, the plants that nourished them, and supplied balms for wounds and fevers. Dandelion and Marshmallow roots, more familiar to us as common weeds in our backyards and the other, an ingredient for soft, sticky candy—provided antiviral/anti-inflammatory poultices. Boneset, a coarse, hairy perennial and common to the south’s wetlands, reduced life-threatening infections, and fever. Wooly Lamb’s Ear, an unusually effective palliative, was used to stop bleeding from gunshot injuries.

In his later years, Pop-Pop’s hands and knees grew gnarly from gout, a crippling form of arthritis. Those leafy greens may finally have caught up with him! More likely, his condition resulted from standing for up to ten or more hours a day at labor-intensive tasks since childhood. To relieve his pain, he, of course, applied those smelly, topical menthol rubs to his aching limbs and winter-green scented alcohol. The astringent smells flooded his house, sending my litter of cousins and me into boisterous acts of clutching our noses, fake coughing, and flailing our arms behind his back. During summers, we’d gladly haul back large Mason jars of salty ocean water from family visits to Atlantic City and Cape May beaches, for his restorative bath soaks.

Despite our plausible alarm, the truth is, our beloveds would not have deliberated on the impact of “climate change” with our modern scientific certainty. What they summoned was justice in the interdependent actions of benevolence and relief, such as I gleaned from my grandfather’s legendary bathing rituals. In past centuries, drinking water from fresh streams, taking deep breaths of unsullied air and chomping on freedom’s sweetness in a handful of mulberries or wild grapes propagated without pesticides, was to draw sustenance from comparatively unspoiled, “clean” foods that carried them to the next meal.

Centuries forward, we again find ourselves ruptured, gutted by this country’s propensity for state-sanctioned violence. Densely populated, urban communities of color are frequently denied access to the natural conservational richness essential to robust health. Clean water and air, whole foods, and safe, green spaces are necessary for replenishing bodies, minds, and spirit while strategizing and meditating on new routes of action. Ecosystems, habitats, and movements are only as healthy as the people who inhabit them.

Much of what we remember is deeply embodied—whether tragic or joyful. Memories that screech or gently shake us awake, do so from the spaces and “temples,” so to speak, that are already “familiar” to us. Pop-Pop was not an academic or an environmentalist. He was Nothing But a Man[6]—one among many industrious Black men who migrated north from small and rural southern towns, weary from racial indignities. In my grandfather’s example, he was forced to leave because he was a tall, smart, and handsome man with goofy, cascading laughter, who did not slow his gait or lower his eyes when passing white folks on the crosswalks. More than once he shared that as much as he treasured his precious “North Ca-lina,” (pronounced with a hard ‘K’ and long ‘I’) his destiny, if not his very life, was tethered to holding in-check the ire of “some ignorant white fool.” It should also not escape us that the state’s most iconic nickname is Tar Heels, first used as a source of utility and pride by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Makes me shudder, knowing the other cruel ways that tar’s been used in that state.

When he relocated the family to Philadelphia in the mid-1940s, Pop-Pop was hired for a rare position for Black male workers of his time, as a union longshoreman. To his dismay, he encountered a differently configured practice of “policing” his body and dreams. While on the job, these systemic practices found him still fighting to gain a fair wage or questioning why he and other Black workers were given less consideration than white co-workers.

He was still fighting.

Toiling the soil probably saved my grandfather’s life.

So he continued to do what he loved most—fill his hands with dirt. He also cooked succulent meals for gatherings with family and neighbors with foods from his garden. Collards and mustard greens, seasoned with hot peppers, fried cabbage, and flounder on Fridays, were regular events. And he served proudly as a deacon at his church and was a Grand man when he congregated with his brothers at Keystone Hall Mason Lodge, to debate mysterious African doctrines. Yet even these winsome pursuits did not protect him from stinging social offenses that caused him to sometimes drink more than he should of the crude wine made from the sour, green grapes harvested in his backyard.

In my infinite childhood recollections of Pop-Pop, what stands out to me among his many lessons in survival, thriving, and consuming life on your terms, is that to do green work—however you practice it—is to do sacred work, is to do healing work. I miss his common-sense counsel, spilling laughter, home-grown meals, and my grandmother, more than at any time since living on this planet. By uniting the constrictions of their faithful endurance with my relative self-determination and fickle optimism, I carry the ancestral knowledge needed to support mother earth’s troubled ecosystems, and by extension, my own “tree” for alternative, healthier ways to be in the world.

Yet, how does one engender healthy changes on behalf of planet earth and the self, when it’s simply too much? What is the necessary momentum to care for anything that appears out of reach? To be ready to heal, I’m also learning (much like Velma’s struggle in The Salt Eaters story) is to create room for the healing in spaces where there is resistance. Resistance is not necessarily a bad thing—except when it gets in the way of the healing. Human “emissions,” when released into the atmosphere, are as much driven by toxic particles, biases, viruses, metrics, emotional equations, and carbon footprints. Environmental data, as it reflects the treatment of the economically poor and racially harnessed, is painful to unpack. At the same time, the most sullied space is often where the truly radical self appears. Once the climate is changed, and deliberate actions are taken to regulate or eliminate emissions, to undo colonized practices, our roots commence burrowing wildly and deep. Liberation is always wild. Liberation is always restorative.

Where once we were a flowering species
we find ourselves mangled plant extracts
Cacti without succulence
Spiny, fraught, reduced airflow in the cavities of tubular chests
Respirators resuscitate or flatten curves and last wishes
Shallow root systems sustain engorged flesh and dispositions
The healthy must fight to retain juice

When I finally launched the journey to my own bountiful crop-making some years ago, spring had not entirely escaped April’s persistent chilly rains and plunging temperatures. By the end of my first day, I’d set up and filled the rustic, cedar-box frame with an organic soil mixture that smelled sweet enough to eat. After chats with more experienced farmer-gardener friends, I was soon spooning in seeds and earthworm castings with confidence. Over those early weeks of plentiful rainfall, I watched, astonished that this “system,” configured by my own devices in partnership with nature, had somehow produced an assortment of string beans, tomatoes, and culinary herbs. Before this exceptional feat, I could hardly be counted on for regular watering of my house plants. Pop-Pop would be tickled.

Where’s your tree? — born of an exhilarating concept, asks where you have planted your integrity, your intentions, your grace. This question gives rise to the artist, the victim, the perpetrator, the healer. Which is to also ask—are we as a society committed to the unifying preservation of fairness and justice to healthy environments that not only support our founding principles but act as sustaining tools for our humanity? Almost sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it? I’m just saying that we all have an obligation to “remedy a situation that is currently and patently unjust,”[7] whether in conversation about the Earth’s survival and for Black folks.

The question that continues to haunt us asks How?

~~~The End~~~

[1] Glave, Dianne D. Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.

[2] Moore, Kathleen Dean, and Michael P. Nelson, eds. Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. Trinity University Press, 2010.

[3] ChaniNicholas.com Quote. July 2020.

[4] Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Quote. The New Yorker Classics, June 2020.

[5] Savoy, Lauret. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Counterpoint Press. 2016.

[6] Roemer, Michael. (Director/Co-writer) Nothing But a Man. 1964. Feature film that stars Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, as a young married couple in Alabama, where racial and employment indignities impact their relationship.

[7] Moore, Kathleen Dean, and Michael P. Nelson, eds. Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. Trinity University Press, 2010.