Estephanie Martinez Alfonzo on Reciprocal Relationships Outdoors
This story was a collaboration between Estephanie Martinez Alfonzo and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.
Estephanie Martinez Alfonzo’s earrings dance while Estephanie tells a story, translating images and memories and ideas into words. Estephanie speaks like a teacher who is also a student. Like a person who is in a state of deep wonder, all the time, and who also wants to share their joyful learnings with everyone else. Their gestures start with their eyes and flow through their body, releasing in their hands. Sitting in Estephanie’s presence, even across a screen, can make you feel like a child again—open to the magic of the world, open to changing and being changed. Open to the aliveness of it all.
In mid-October 2021, when the trees in Maine were lighting up with color and dropping their leaves, Red Fong of the NBEC Stories for Change working group spoke with Estephanie on a video call to learn about their experiences outdoors.
Canoeing on Freedom Pond where Estephanie tends 24 acres of swamp and forest. Freedom, ME.
“Those first years shape our being”
Estephanie is an activist through education, a gardener, and a bee-keeper. They have a business, Mycorrising, which examines patterns, structures, formal and informal cultures through a decolonial lens. They help illuminate new pathways for leadership, education, and organizational modalities that are rooted in more supportive and equitable paradigms.
Estephanie was born in Boston but spent their first years with family in a village in Venezuela. Their grandparents lived in a small colonial-style house with clay shingles.
One day, after getting dirty from playing outside, Estephanie’s grandfather brought a young Estephanie through the house to the small backyard to get cleaned off. They opened the back door to immediately encounter a huge snake in a tree.
"I thought that it was the largest snake in the world. I gasped, and my grandfather saw the snake at the same time and he gasped,” Estephanie said.
“It was the first memory I have of being outdoors and experiencing something. That visceral feeling of that gasp—it stuck with me. My perception of the world got bigger somehow in that moment, or it changed somehow. I'm not quite sure how to put it, but it stuck enough in my body. It's amazing how informative our first couple of years are—how those first couple of years shape our being,” said Estephanie.
"What are our lineages?"
Estephanie lived most of their life in Boston amongst Latine family and the wider circle of a Black and brown community.
“The whole city was my community that held me in childhood and adolescence,” said Estephanie.
Estephanie’s connection to community also ties to their explorations of and reflections on relationship to the outdoors. Estephanie is engaged in an ongoing process of exploring an internalized fear of the outdoors and moving toward healing.
“It's been really life-changing to look back at my own history with the outdoors, my family's history with the outdoors, and within Latine culture—what are our lineages? What's the pain attached to that? What's the joy that's attached to that?”
“That fear, I feel, is very common with the outdoors and it has to do with a lot of historical context. It has to do with—within my family, and I know many other cultures can relate to this—the forced separation of place, and displacement from place, it has to do with the forced assimilation away from what have traditionally, down lineages, been our ways. It comes from being from an immigrant family, and my family's sacrifices and hardship making it in this country, being in this marginalized and disenfranchised group of people, and those experiences of being outdoors, my time spent in and out of projects being targeted in dangerous spaces.”
Exploring and revering a native tree on the Cayman Islands.
“That internalized fear also has to do with societal teachings within the white dominant culture. It comes from this very socially constructed fear of darkness, which also is linked to the unknown, which is also linked to death: we don't like facing the unknown. We don't know what's going to happen, we don't know what's out there, we don't know what's in the future that way—we don't want to think about that.
For Estephanie, also, the fear comes from PTSD from witnessing gun violence and death.
“That’s in my body—it’s trauma. And part of my outdoor healing desires are to engage in being in more reciprocal relationships with animals, and doing my own hunting. I'm really interested in that and I'm drawn toward that, and have made many prayers about that, and have intentionally with my partner's support and help, gone and bought firearms, and have thought about that question of what does that mean to own a firearm that way? And that's part of my healing experience with the outdoors and nature and my connection with it.”
Ultimately, Estephanie sees this exploration of their personal, familial, and cultural past as a source of healing.
“Where does any of this fear come from? Being able to track it back helps me be able to see where I want to be moving forward from, and really helps with the healing of all of those fears,” said Estephanie.
"I identify as being Nature"
Singing to the ocean on Birch Point. Owls Head, ME.
For Estephanie, there’s no line where the natural world ends and their self begins. It’s all connected; it’s all one.
The Maine outdoor education school The Wildwood Path—with which Estephanie has been in relationship as a student and as a staff member—has been an important container for their understanding of their connection with the natural world.
When Estephanie spoke about their tether to the natural world, Red asked the question: “Where does this belief or connection to something larger derive from? Can you pinpoint a moment?” In response, Estephanie shared the following story.
One day, within the Penobscot territory in the Wabanaki Dawnland, Estephanie was among a group of Wildwood students that were learning how to make cordage from plants, and was invited to gather milkweed at a field.
“I knew what milkweed was—I know they're a very stable plant for monarchs, and how that's tied to much bigger and nested systems within that. I had that knowledge in my head intellectually,” said Estephanie.
After the group dispersed to gather, Estephanie knelt in front of the field with the intention to listen and genuinely approach the milkweed.
When Estephanie first began speaking to the milkweed, it felt awkward. They spoke aloud, about their hopes of being in relationship with the plant and about their reverence toward it. Estephanie asked, “Will you come with me?” and sat, waiting.
“All of the sudden a large gust of wind comes through, and I find myself in this overwhelming gust of wind just pulls up so many of the seeds from the pods of the milkweed, and they're all blowing toward me,” said Estephanie. “They're this beautiful brown seed with this white silk coming out. It's like a magical moment. They were getting stuck in my hair, and I'm taking them out of my face, and I had this feeling in my body like 'Oh. It's time for me to get up now. I can get up now and walk through this field of milkweed and approach her,’” said Estephanie.
And Estephanie did approach, with a knife in their hand and a forager’s backpack, humming a milkweed song. They cut a few stalks, hesitantly, then asked aloud “Is this how you do it?” They received the answer, “No, that’s not how you do it.”
So Estephanie put the knife away, and began to simply walk through the field.
“As I'm walking through I'm running my fingers over the milkweed, touching and feeling. And as I do that, there are stalks that just pull up. I'm touching very gently, but there were these stalks that would just pull up out of the ground. And I found myself all of the sudden with a bundle of milkweed. That felt really good in my body.”
Estephanie was hearing the milkweed was saying yes to them, wanting to go along with them. And, contented, they turned to leave, when they were met at eye level by a very tall milkweed stalk.
“The milkweed pod was halfway open, and the seeds were exploding out of her. What I saw in that moment felt like something so holy staring me back in the face. I could see myself as an elder in that pod of milkweed, because the seeds were popping out and it looked like she had this wild white curly hair, and my hair was out—my hair is very curly and big—and I saw myself in her.”
“Just very naturally, my body walked over, and I literally dropped to my knees. There was something that felt like a tether—it felt like I was being called into something that I had no idea what it was, but my body was remembering or recognizing. And I cried a little bit and finally got up, with my bundle, it seemed like she wanted to come with me. So I took her pod. And I bundled the pod with all the seeds coming out as neatly as I could into this little scarf that I had,” Estephanie said, gesturing to show how she nestled the pod in the scarf next to their neck.
In time, Estephanie walked out of the field to meet up with the rest of the group. Everyone put their bundles of milkweed together in a large silk scarf, and sang the milkweed song as they walked out.
“From that moment on—it's not so intelligent anymore, what that connection can feel like in me, and how that ties me with the rest of the world. So, I don't see the world the same way,” said Estephanie.
“I identify as being Nature. And I really deeply feel that in my body.”
"Every single one of those mundane things"
Merlin, Estephanie, and Morrigan romping at Fort Point on the Penobscot River. Stockton Springs, ME.
Estephanie engages in the outdoors in many ways in their life—canoeing, camping on beaches, backpacking, tracking animals in the woods, sitting in front of their outdoor altars and praying, oiling wood for projects at home, and walking in public parks while sharing plant knowledge when visiting friends in Boston.
Items like rain gear, layers for the cold, and hand lotion make Estephanie feel prepared for experiences outdoors and open to experiencing the beauty of it all. Sharing and strengthening connections with loved ones while being outdoors feels important too—and just the act of connecting.
“Whether it's walking to your car or taking out the trash, or taking the dogs for a walk or whatever it is, I remind myself that my connection with nature is in every single one of those mundane things. It's trying to ground in myself, which is a part of the natural world and something that's much more grand and holy. I try to keep that tether of feeling, of knowledge, that that is true, because it can just easily slip from my mind with the uncertainties of the world,” said Estephanie.
"Blurring the lines between what is outdoors and what is indoors"
Estephanie—with kindness, solemnity, and awe—invites others to recognize their existing relationships with nature.
“We are already in relationship with nature. You live in your own ecosystem in your house, whether that's like microbes on your counter or the spiders that live in the corner of your plants, whether that's the food that you eat and the process of compost,” said Estephanie. “It's recognizing that if you burn wood or even oil that is your connection with nature. That comes from a place. A lot of it is tainted with harm, with trauma, with violations. But that's a part of the give and take, that's a part of the history, and the learning, and the unlearning, and the relearning.”
“It's a combination of ‘what are your histories?’ and also, recognizing in your present day, ‘how are you already blurring the lines between what is outdoors and what is indoors?’” said Estephanie.
“And the more that you explore what those stories are, of those places, of those beings, of that spider and that oil, where it comes from, the more connected you can feel to place and to story, and better know how that brings us into the future.”
This story was created and published in November 2021