On relationships with and within nature
This story was a collaboration between Samaa Abdurraqib and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.
Photographs by Micheli Oliver; Interview by Sikwani Dana
On an early spring afternoon, Sikwani Dana and Samaa Abdurraqib, PhD met at Wild Oats in Brunswick, then took a walk by the Androscoggin River. Samaa shared her experiences connecting with the outdoors with Sikwani, a member of the NBEC Stories for Change working group.
Connecting slowly and with all the senses
Samaa Abdurraqib speaks about different types of experiences of connecting to nature. Sometimes it’s communal: she’s the one with binoculars, gear, skills, and experience, ready to help out other Black and Brown folks when obstacles arise. Other times it’s more personal: sitting outside and reading, noticing the wind, the trees and the birds.
“I don't think spending time outdoors always needs to be filled with reverence and awe,” says Samaa. “You know, just an awareness, I think, that's all.”
As a quiet and introspective outdoors person, Samaa prefers to be in nature alone, noticing and appreciating with her senses. She sees nature with abundant gratitude. When experiencing the outdoors, Samaa says that she feels serene, alert and unbothered all at the same time, taking whatever comes her way.
“Anything that I observe can make my time meaningful,” she says.
Samaa wishes that everyone could experience this awareness when they go outdoors.
“I wish that people could slow down. I wish that people could be really fully engaging their senses in the outdoors, because I believe that it is transformative,” says Samaa.
Learning the birds and the trees
Samaa connects to the outdoors through activities like birding, kayaking, hiking, cross country skiing, and plant and tree identification. She enjoys taking time to learn the behaviors and life cycles of the natural beings around her.
“One of my favorite birds is the red-winged blackbird. For me, living here in this region, they signal the coming of spring because they're some of the first birds that return. You hear them when there’s still snow on the ground, and it’s just beautiful,” says Samaa.
“I know all birds kind of do a call and response, but there's something about the red-winged blackbird – their call and response over distance – that resonates deep inside as a Black person who has roots in call-and-response kind of behaviors and traditions. So I just love the red-winged blackbird. I have a tattoo of the red-winged blackbird right here on my forearm. They're one of my favorites.”
Samaa is an avid birder, and has been for 9 years, finding great peace and outdoor connectedness by spending time learning the calls and listening for them.
Samaa notes that her first time birding with Black people was at the 2018 Leadership convening for Outdoor Afro–a national organization that builds Black leadership and connection to nature– at NatureBridge in Sausalito, California. She was there with about 100 other Black people passionate about the outdoors. This was the first time she realized that there were all these other Black folks who love the outdoors. And birding!
Branching out from her experience as a birder, Samaa has been learning a lot about trees, too.
“I did not think I had a brain for trees. I have a brain for birds. Over the years people have told me probably 5,011 times the difference between a pine, a cedar, a spruce, and it doesn't stick,” she says.
“But now I'm doing hands-on learning in a Master Naturalist course and I'm really into it. So I've been trying to get to know the trees in my neighborhood. I feel very fortunate in that I have a couple magnolias right next to my house, which are beautiful. I really love birches. There are a lot of evergreen trees around me, but I really like birches, and I like their little catkins, they're so cute.”
Outdoor experiences across time and place
“I was outside all the time,” says Samaa of her childhood in the city of Columbus, Ohio. “When we were growing up, we just rode our bikes and we stayed out 'til the street lights came on. Or we played frisbee at the park. That's what we did."
Samaa says she experienced a moment of awe while visiting the Hoover Dam Reservoir Park with her father and brothers.
She says, “It was the first thing that was impactful for me because of the size of it all. We would run up the stairs of the reservoir and you could see the water and it was just so big. That amount of water–it supplied most of the water in Columbus, I think. To see this big man-made thing in the middle of this green space inspired something, a little bit of awe, maybe, that we could create something so big in this natural environment.”
Over time, Samaa’s experience of outdoor experiences has shifted.
“I think I started going hiking when I lived in Wisconsin. I didn't know what I was doing, but I would go with a friend, or go to the arboretum with a friend. Then, when I moved to Maine, if I was going on a hike, I would go with a friend.”
“But then I started doing more on my own. The first time I was living in Brunswick, I would go out to some of the trails in Harpswell. The Giants Steps used to be my favorite spot--I would just go out there and sit. So I began to connect with nature in a really personal kinda contemplative way. It helped me be present in the moment. It helped me just heal myself.”
“And then, I started to do more with encouraging others to go outdoors with me, like 'let's go camping! let's go hiking!' When I became an Outdoor Afro leader, I was required to lead a trip outdoors at least ten times a year, so I started to spend a lot of time outdoors with Black folks, just a lot, and it was fantastic. But then that meant that I wasn't outdoors on my own as much.”
When experiencing the outdoors with others, doing so with communities in alignment with her identity is important for Samaa. In her time as a volunteer leader with Outdoor Afro, Samaa reflected on barriers to getting people to impactful outdoor experiences, including the ways people think and talk about being outdoors.
“We get a lot of messages about what being in the outdoors should look like, and it does not look like casually riding your bike around your neighborhood. It does not look like playing frisbee in urban settings,” says Samaa, who talks about how goal-oriented conversations about outdoor experiences tend to be.
“I think that visual representation and including more narratives around Black and Brown people experiencing the outdoors in a variety of ways is good. I think changing what it looks like to be in the outdoors - like, it doesn't have to be white-water rafting,” says Samaa.
“It can really and truly be just nature journaling–which might be accessible to a lot more people–or just taking a walk in their local park or having an urban garden.”
Access and privilege
Samaa–who is Black, Muslim, and queer– spoke about access and privilege in the outdoors. Some of the main topics were relationships to the outdoors through the lens of racial justice, gender justice, and climate justice.
“I became really used to being the only Black person hiking, kayaking, birding,” says Samaa. “And I just thought that that was part of what it meant to be in Maine until I got connected with other folks through Outdoor Afro.”
“Outdoor spaces seem to be reserved for white folks - seem to be reserved for folks who have the means to buy all of the equipment to be able to experience the outdoors, skiing or fly fishing, or whatever,” says Samaa.
“Or, it's reserved for folks who have the means to buy a bunch of land and homestead or whatever. Things like foraging – they try to teach us that it's not accessible and available to us.”
Access to gear is one of the larger barriers to outdoor experiences that Samaa has noticed. She talks about a field trip she went on for her yearlong Master Naturalist course.
“Starting in January, there was this understanding that ‘we're going to do our field day,’ so make sure you bring your snowshoes.’ I don't have snowshoes!,” says Samaa. “I don't know that I want snowshoes, really. That's not what my priority is. And, I just always think about how there are lots of people who can't afford snowshoes.”
“There are a lot of gear share organizations that are cropping up, and I know that libraries in some rural places are also amassing skis so they can loan them out to people who live in the community who can't buy skis,” says Samaa. “I think all of those things work really well.”
“I think there's just so much that you're told you need to have,” adds Samaa. “It’s intimidating. And not always achievable.”
A gap in safety skills is also a barrier Samaa notices that can hold Black and Brown people back from connecting to nature.
“Sometimes there are skills that you need. I think offering Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder courses for free for folks, Black and Brown folks, Indigenous folks, if that's needed or wanted–giving people knowledge and skills is helpful,” says Samaa. ”I know it's helped me–not that people look at me and think that I have any knowledge or skills–but it helps me take care of people when I'm outside.”
Samaa notes that many Black and Brown folks don’t have a sense of physical safety in the outdoors or while traveling to more rural areas to have outdoor experiences.
“It doesn't feel safe,” says Samaa, “And then that means that there's just so much that they're unable to access and experience.”
Bodies and the places they go
Finding people who look like her, to experience the outdoors with, is a challenge.
“I find that I have to create and cultivate those kinds of spaces, and they don't just exist naturally,” says Samaa. “All the white folks who live here can just join an Appalachian Trail meetup, and they'll be with people who look like them, who maybe share some of the same backgrounds that they do.”
As a Black, queer, Muslim person Samaa says she “became really used to being the only Black person hiking, kayaking, birding” in a white state like Maine. Wearing her shirt emblazoned with the words 'My body took me here,” Samaa speaks about what it’s like to inhabit her body outdoors.
“I love hiking, but I am not a thin person. I am a chubby to fat person, and I'm slow, and I sweat a lot, and…whatever! I still get there, and I think that I'm just really used to people looking at me–my, my race, my gender, my body–and assuming that I cannot do the things,” says Samaa.
“Passing strangers on hikes see me making my way up and they're forever like, 'oh you're almost there you're doing a great job!'” Samaa says. “These are people that I do not know. It’s so annoying and patronizing. They know nothing about my capabilities.”
Relationships and healing outdoors
Through being a Black person experiencing the outdoors, conversations about the changing climate also emerged.
“We can see that our behaviors impact the natural world. Climate change is affecting our lives because these things are connected.”
An understanding that we are all interdependent grounds Samaa in justice work.
“We are part of this ecosystem. We can determine the kind of relationship that we want, and that matters, because it affects us too,” says Samaa.
As an Outdoor Afro leader, Samaa loved introducing other people to new experiences outdoors and new ways of looking at things outdoors, teaching and sharing the things that excite her.
“I remember the first time I showed a group of people a Baltimore Oriole, they had not really payed attention before. The second that you are like ‘pay attention to this thing,’ it shifts something for people. They become curious, they become interested, they get out of their head.”
“I see myself trying to rebuild that world, by hopefully continuing to teach people small bits of things things that can spark their interest and excitement.”
Samaa experiences the outdoors in a personal, contemplative way that can be healing for herself, and also finds meaning in encouraging others
Samaa tells a story of encouraging her partner to brave their first few wintry months in the state of Maine while Samaa was on a trip. She said “if you just stick around, April is coming, and I will show you all of the beautiful things.” Now, many seasons after that first winter, Samaa and her partner are able to share in experiences of the beauty of the natural world in Maine.
Reflecting and paying attention
Samaa shares a story she heard from a meditation teacher who spent time getting to know a hummingbird during her year-long solitary retreat. During her Dharma talk, the teacher talked about how we often see ourselves as separate from nature, but that hummingbirds, frogs, foxes, and plants know that humans are a part of the natural world, and part of its interdependent relationships.
“This ecosystem also depends on us, and I wish we thought about that more and stopped thinking about ourselves as oppositional to it.”
Samaa talks about the importance of understanding and grappling with the reality that humans are a part of nature, not separate or against it. She expresses the need to guide ourselves to determine the type of relationship that we want to the natural world.
When outdoors, Samaa is often in a contemplative space.
“I spend a lot of time feeling gratitude for just how the natural world holds us and tolerates us and continues on and gently shows us that it doesn't have to tolerate us. For all of those things I have gratitude,” she says.
Samaa encourages self education, constant continued learning, and the importance of really paying attention to our surroundings.
“I lived in an apartment in Portland, before I moved up here to Brunswick. And I would watch the tree outside my window change. Wherever I am, there’s probably a small thing that I could pay attention to and feel immense gratitude– engage my senses and slow down and stop and see this thing shift and change as with the seasons, or see a family of pigeons grow.”
She reminds herself and others that learning is always ongoing and is never complete.
“What I hope for myself, and I hope for all of us who are trying to learn more about the natural world, is to always remember that that understanding is layered.”
“Sometimes we think we have learned all there is to learn about birch trees–-the scientific name, the behaviors,” says Samaa.
“This region has been around for a very very very long time. Whatever we are learning is just one little bit. Theres so much more that we don't know, don't understand.”
This story was created and published in March-July 2023