Book Review: We Are Still Part of This World

Leah Penniman, ed., Black Earth Wisdom (Harper Collins, 2023)

“We were alerted to Sandy’s arrival on our farm … when we heard a deafening and perplexing roar from the forest,” writes Leah Penniman, a Black Kreyol farmer from Soul Fire Farm in New York. “The powerful sound was coming from a newly formed ‘river’ cascading from the forest and headed right toward our crop fields.”

Penniman, who laid asleep alongside her husband that October night in 2012, hurried to hand her children shovels, then ran downstairs to dig a trench with her family to save the farm from the impending floods of Hurricane Sandy. After the storm, she would learn that not only had other farms nearby lost a majority of their topsoil, but that “elders and people of color [were] disproportionately adversely impacted.”

In her interview-style book Black Earth Wisdom: Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists, Penniman, the author of the acclaimed Farming While Black, details the past and current state of environmental issues in the United States through the lens of prominent Black eco-leaders and environmentalists. These include: Dr. Dorceta Taylor; the environmental justice professor at the Yale School of the Environment; Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist who co-edited All We Can Save, a best-selling series of essays from women in the climate movement, and Steve Curwood, the creator of the long-running NPR podcast “Living on Earth,” among other unwavering voices. Penniman herself co-founded Soul Fire Farm “in 2010 with the mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to land.” In 2019, she was awarded the James Beard Foundation Award for her work through Soul Fire Farm.

Home in New York destroyed by Hurricane Sandy

Through the use of informational essays, such as one about the complicity of the US Department of Agriculture in Black land loss through heirs’ property, or personal ones like the wake-up call Hurricane Sandy reinstated in the calm after devastating storms such as Hurricane Katrina, Penniman underscores that these events have inordinately affected and in some cases destroyed homes and infrastructure in communities of color. In the case of hurricanes, for example, it is industrial corporations — through their release of immense levels of greenhouse gases — which have helped produce a warmer climate and perfect conditions for stronger hurricanes. And, as a result of systemic racism and redlining, Penniman notes that it is the Black and Brown communities in low-lying areas and floodplains that suffer the consequences.

But Penniman goes beyond natural disasters such as hurricanes, or insightful conversations with Black environmentalists. She also includes biographies and stories about Black environmental pioneers through revelations by her interview subjects. One interview mentions, for example, the powerful message offered by Octavia Butler with her 1993 environmental apocalyptic novel “Parable of the Sower.” Another details how musician Toshi Reagon and her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, turned Butler’s novel into an opera to translate protagonist Lauren Olamina’s journey in the face of a climate change-induced apocalypse into an interactive experience through the power of music.

“As Black people, we use music as part of our sacred survival journey and our relationship to spirit,” Toshi Reagon says in a conversation with Penniman, who describes the opera as heartbreaking. “Even when we can’t tangibly envision the things we seek, and perhaps not even grasp the notion of freedom, we still have that song in our hearts: ‘O Freedom over me. Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave.’”

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana. Chr. Barthelmess, photographer, Fort Keogh, Montana.

Penniman also honors elders and ancestors who have paved the way for the present environmental movement, modern agriculture, and resistance to capitalism. In an interview discussing these elders, Dorcetta Taylor recalls the night she had an “epiphany that [Harriet] Tubman was an environmentalist” due to her understanding of “the natural ecology and interconnectedness of things, to successfully move through the wilderness at night.” A similar story is that of the Buffalo Soldiers, the Black U.S. soldiers who had been born into slavery, served in the West, and later became the first National Park Service rangers. “Sharing these stories is vital to getting the African American community to claim more of the narrative between people and land,” says Teresa Baker, the founder of the In Solidarity Project, while recognizing the removal of Native Americans from their land and the segregation that followed in the parks.

Beyond weaving together the tales of environmental justice movements or injustice, as well as perseverance, Penniman also leads conversations with her interviewees who share fascinating wisdom, expanding the reader’s understanding of the natural processes of ecosystems. These conversations aid the reader in recognizing what they must do to become more sustainable, to immerse themselves in symbiosis with the earth, and to understand that all sorts of diversity in the animal world offer lessons from nature for us humans.

In the essay that begins the chapter “Queer Earth Biomimicry,” for instance, Penniman discusses her own knowledge of the queerness of nature, as viewed in black swans, penguins, gorillas and American bison, among over 450 species of reported queer animals. She stresses the importance of acknowledging the mimicry for understanding how much more cooperative the earth is than the public believes.

Later, in an interview with Alice Walker, the noted author of The Color Purple and Meridian, Walker discusses the environmental themes and lessons in her novels, as well as in stories from other celebrated authors.

“Even though Earth is fed up with humanity—and who can blame her—we are still part of this world,” Walker says. “We can create beauty in her honor. We can create beauty while she rages. Her wind is magical even as it blows us away. The storm brings fear, but it is also beautiful. We are no different than the vegetation, composting ourselves endlessly. In our short time here, we must make beauty in honor of this magical planet and universe.”

Just as Alice Walker urges us to return to our roots as part of beautiful nature, Leah Penniman has done so by bringing all of diverse stories together as one beautifully written wake-up call. If we do not change the way we live, all of the natural beauty in this world will one day cease to exist.

RCC Stanback Coastal Resilience Fellow – Ana Young

Ana Young is a rising junior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy Studies, minoring in Cinematic Arts, and pursuing a Policy Journalism & Media Studies certificate. A Chicago native, Ana has been engaged in the climate crisis conversation since she first understood its extent during the 2011 Groundhog Day blizzard.