“If I walk under a tree, what are the other memories that I have, either through my epigenetic code or a direct family memory or just stories… Trees were sites of lynching, the open spaces were sites of danger, of hunts where the prey, the quarry were human beings.” Camille Dungy, interviewed on Generation Anthropocene.
We tend to consider our impact on the environment in two ways: either a blitzed, polluted landscape, scarred by industry, or the opposite, an untouched wilderness that needs to be protected and defended. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but there are times that we need to see beyond the physical to see the other scars we leave on our environment – psychological, historical, spiritual.
The quotation from Camille Dungy above points to this; the human impact on the environment isn’t just seen in oil-choked lakes or soil turned to dust, but in the memories of lynching trees, in the buried bones of genocides. These also threaten our land, our communities, our futures.
We need to see these scars, listen to those who sing songs of lament and rage and protest over those sites and their history, pilgrimage to these places with a sense of acknowledgement and repentance. There needs to be healing and restitution for the land and those who live on it. Denials just exacerbate the damage, intensify the scars, hasten the collapse. These aren’t just peculiarities of history, these are wounds inflicted systematically, imperially, and the pain isn’t momentary, it’s embedded.
Yet deny we do, and seek to erase. Emmett Till’s historical marker on the Mississippi Freedom Trail is regularly riddled with bullet holes, churches and crosses still burn, nooses still hang, pipelines still appear across sacred sites, drinking water is still tainted. We don’t just deny how our actions change the physical climate, but the spiritual climate as well. Some of us suffer from these actions every day; some of us benefit from them, even if we’d rather repudiate that.
This too calls for prophetic lament, for communal repentance, for indignant protest. It calls for our eyes to be opened every time we walk past a plaque, for our ears to hear the blood and the history that cries from beneath our feet, for our hearts to be open to the pain and anger that surrounds us. Maybe the land can heal with repentance.