“And sometimes you meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”
I sat alone at a picnic table sipping a hot can of beer in Sequoia National Park under the stingy shade of a nearby tree. I was surrounded by families. White families. Sequoia was the first of four national parks I had planned to visit on my summer road trip from Southern California to a writer’s retreat in Lake Tahoe, and from Lake Tahoe to my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I needed to get out and away. I’d just completed two years as a POC in an MFA program. Two years in classrooms at long tables surrounded by faces as white as the paper we printed our work on. I felt like the black text on that paper, forcefully marching across the landscape of my peers’ white lives.
I’d decided to spend four weeks as a woman of color in wide-open spaces detoxing from whiteness. But when I pitched my tent, I hadn’t known that about 80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white. Essentially, I’d leapt from the Ivory Tower into a snowbank. I should have known that Black folks weren’t the target audience for all those memes about the cleansing, revitalizing effects of the Great Outdoors. I should have known from the people in the images. Always white people in zip-up North Face fleeces, stretchy yoga pants, and hiking boots. But I didn’t know, and I gassed up my car and went.
It was July, the busiest time of year for the National Park Services. A narrow road ran past my campsite and the gravel grumbled in protest at the occasional passing car. No one bothered me. No one acknowledged me. I was just a lone Black woman day-drinking at a picnic table. I’d drained three cans with no buzz before realizing it was only 3% alcohol. It would do nothing to calm my anxiety about spending my first night in a tent alone.
The only other Black person I’d seen at the park was with his white wife and their children. As they ushered their brood onto the path that led to the giant sequoias, I heard him speak and suspected he was African. I’m not sure if he saw me, if he was tallying Black bodies like I was. Read more…
After the September 11 attacks, Interior tried to build its own database to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. (The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture.) The result, the Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System, is a $50 million Database to Nowhere—last year, only 14 percent of the several hundred reportable incidents were entered into it. The system is so flawed that Fish and Wildlife has said no thanks and refuses to use it.
That leaves the only estimates to civilians and conspiracy theorists. Aficionados of the vanished believe that at least 1,600 people, and perhaps many times that number, remain missing on public lands under circumstances that defy easy explanation.
People regularly disappear on America’s 640 million acres of national forests, national parks, and Bureau of Land Management property. The disappearance of an 18-year old runner in Colorado sent Outsidejournalist Jon Billman to investigate the sheriffs, trackers, amateur detectives, and mourning families who search for the people who go missing in the wild.
The following is an excerpt from Summer Brennan’s excellent The Oyster War: the True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, appearing courtesy of Counterpoint Press. Buy the book here.
The road to the oyster farm is paved with the moon-white grit of pulverized oyster shells. There is a gleam to it, and to drive it in the dusk of the dry summer months is to see the dust-coated leaves of the ditch plants take on the powdery luminosity of white moths.
Hugging the edge of the estuary’s northernmost inlet, the narrow lane rises a little above a lush wetland dotted with egrets and blue herons, and then winds down again to the edge of a vast and shining body of water. This is Drakes Estero, what’s been called “the heart of the park.” The air feels different here. In winter or summer, heat or cold, there is an enlivening bite of freshness.
I was at the farm one evening in the late summer of 2013 to look for Oscar, one of the farm’s workers. He had given me an unauthorized tour of the planting sites the month before, and I was worried that allowing him to do so had accidentally gotten him fired. Word on the street was that it had. I was initially shocked to hear this, but considering how contentious things had gotten, what with the legal battle and all the national media attention, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. For owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny, who by some estimates had already sunk more than a million dollars into their efforts to restore the farm and keep it open, the stakes could not have been higher.
Like many of the oyster workers, Oscar lived in one of the rundown buildings that made up the farm’s small land-based component—a smattering of sheds, cottages, trailers and pre-fab homes. At least, that is what he told me, though I didn’t know if he still lived there. The buildings were scattered over just about an acre and a half, so I figured it wouldn’t take too long to look.
I pulled up and parked my borrowed, mud-splattered 1991 Toyota station wagon in front of a weatherworn white building. A brightly painted sign exclaimed it to be the “Oyster Shack.” No more than 600 square feet in total, it housed the retail portion of the business in front and the tiny hatchery in back, where the oysters were grown from spat (or “seed”) the size of sand grains. On the wall of an adjacent shed was pinned a large American flag.
The pop radio station I’d been listening to on the drive out had turned to white noise. I switched it off and got out of the car. Read more…