Trails for everyone, forever
In her new book, Rue Mapp is telling the story of Black people that she has always known to be true — one of freedom and strength. By Jessi Loerch
“This book is really a love story. It is a love story of people and their connection to nature,” said Rue Mapp, the creator of Outdoor Afro and the author of the new book, “Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors.”
Rue started Outdoor Afro as a blog in 2009. She wanted to show the reality she knew of Black people and their connection to nature — a different story from what she saw in glossy outdoor magazines. Over years of work, that blog has become a national organization that is changing the narrative of what it means (and looks like) to be outdoorsy.
“Nature Swagger” is a continuation of that work. The book features photos and stories — in prose and in poetry — from dozens of people telling, in their own voices, how they connect to and find joy in nature. The stories include hikers and climbers, beekeepers and gardeners, even a mixologist who finds her inspiration in the nature right outside her own back door. Rue embraces all of the many ways people can explore outside, and the words and imagery of “Nature Swagger” let the many contributors share their joy.
“The thing I was really most excited about with this book is that it doesn’t start, or in any way remain rooted, in a story of Black America’s peril and pain. Instead, it’s a story that I felt was so important to share and to lift up — a representation of Black people in the outdoors and everywhere as strong, beautiful and free,” Rue said.
Rue says she sees the book as in dialogue with Outdoor Afro. It’s another way to connect people to Outdoor Afro’s work and to nature.
“For so many people who get their hands on this book, they’re going to be introduced to Outdoor Afro for the very first time,” Rue said. “Or maybe they know about Outdoor Afro but haven’t had access to a local opportunity to engage with the work. And the book can meet people with a level of depth, beyond a cursory view of what this work is, but really get into my personal story and the stories of so many people who are a part of the ongoing work of Outdoor Afro today.”
Excerpted from “Nature Swagger,” by Rue Mapp. Published by Chronicle Books and available now.
In the past 12 years since I sat down and wrote that first blog post, Outdoor Afro has grown into an organization that touches thousands through in-person adventure, and millions more through digital media to broaden what outdoor participation looks like and who leads experiences in nature all over the country. You’ll find Outdoor Afro leaders getting people out to camp in the Colorado Rockies, hike in view of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, bird-watch in the Florida Everglades, canoe in the Mississippi River, and more—all while learning about the long heritage of Black people connecting in nature. Some of our trained leaders have even gone on to do capstone events together, such as climb the Sierra heights of Mount Whitney in California, walk in Harriet Tubman’s footsteps along the Appalachian Trail, and pilgrimage to the far reaches of Africa in Tanzania to find new definitions of summit on Mount Kilimanjaro, surrounded by people who look like them.
This journey has taken me to many different places and introduced me to many incredible people who have become my newest wave of lifelong friends, all of which has taught me profound lessons about the personal and societal challenges that nature is adept at helping us solve. In the years of racial divide and civic unrest in which my work developed, we began Healing Hikes as a showcase of continued and expanded clarity of the power of nature to teach, transform, and heal. We have lifted up and rebranded historical figures such as Harriet Tubman as a true wilderness leader who had those same values and outcomes for our community. Most importantly, it’s become clearer to me over the years that nature is not some place over there — it is present within us. Always. Therefore, the concept of connecting people to nature is actually a journey inward and a homecoming with oneself.
As I joyously learned about nature and myself over the years, I eventually felt the quickening of a book that wanted to be born so I could share the gift of our empowered story with others. I felt transported to the innocent, yet powerful, moment when I wrote in a journal for the first time as a child, and understood there was so much more I needed to write about and share today — not only my own journey to become joyously transformed through nature, but also the stories of others who might never have had the specific and loving platform of this book. A diary all grown up.
While enthusiastically focused on Black American experiences, “Nature Swagger” is a universal roadmap to discover the delights, joys and possibilities of transformation for anyone through nature. You will discover the epiphanies of high adventure alongside meditations on love of a favorite place or person, and poetic revelations about our wild foodways — how it can all work together, and, by extension, how we can, too.
This book, as my father would describe it, is your standing invitation to reconnect with nature, and write your own story and transform within it.
By Faith E. Briggs
“No one is hot, not even me,
Under the shade of my calabash tree.
No one is hot, not even me,
Under the shade of my calabash tree.”
I made up this song when I was six. Perhaps it was inspired by the lyrical Anansi the Spider stories I read around that time—stories where I first heard of a calabash. Those tales spoke to me, and I was inspired to make up my own new songs and stories, as I ran around barefoot in wet grass as a kid. I’d find a big branch downed from an East Coast summer thunderstorm, and parade around singing to myself with the branch propped over my shoulder.
When I can find that little girl, that creative little child who spent a lot of time on her own, making up worlds, inspired by everything she saw around her, I am at my happiest. I think that is also when I am at my best. It fuels me, that feeling, and the desire to share it.
Now that I am grown, spending time outside is not so much about creating a relationship with the outdoors. It’s reconnecting with the mud and the sunshine and the creeks that I knew growing up.
And I know not everyone grew up that way, especially many people of color. At the same time, I also know that we’ve been fed lies about ourselves for so long, it’s sometimes hard to disprove the myths, even to ourselves.
There is a myth that says that Black people don’t have a relationship with the natural world. The image that has been popularized in the American imagination is of city-dwelling people who only know and love concrete and bricks. I think our ability to so fully adapt to any environment, to the point that we make it ours, is a testament to our resilience. We thrived culturally, even when given the most unwanted places and things.
That’s one of the things I love about being Black.
The truth is that we built this country. We worked its soil. We introduced our crops, from seeds braided into our hair when we were stolen across the seas. We made Sunday gardens and bought our bodies back by selling the additional vegetables that we could grow on our own, despite being enslaved. And when we were free, we remained the knowledge keepers of the earth. Our knowledge was so valuable that new insidious methods of tying us to the economy were created: sharecropping, debt peonage. We had to steal away in the night to go North, even as “free” people. In so many cases, we were forced to leave the land to try to get free. In so many cases, the land was taken from us, by force and violence and cheating.
We took with us so much knowing. It is in our grandmother’s hands, in our cooking, in our windowsill gardens. It is in us. It’s been there for generations, epigenetic. The feeling of a cool breeze on our necks, warm mud under our feet, the in-between moments of the taste of freedom on the wind, of singing together outside. That is in us.
— Excerpted from “Nature Swagger.”