A Reflection on Harriet Tubman’s Relationship with Nature
by Outdoor Afro Leader Zoë Polk“Looking musingly toward a nearby orchard, Ms. Harriet asked suddenly “Do you like apples?” On being assured that I did, she said “Did you ever plant any apple trees?” With shame, I confessed I had not. “No,” she said “but somebody else planted them. I liked apples when I was young, and I said ‘Someday I’ll plant apples for myself and for other young folks to eat,’ and I guess I done it.”
In 1990, the United States Congress passed a resolution naming March 10 “Harriet Tubman Day.” The date marked the 77th anniversary of Ms. Tubman’s death. On March 10, 2014, Outdoor Afro joined our sisters at GirlTrek to honor Harriet Tubman’s life.
Leading up to the hike, each of us spent time reflecting on Harriet Tubman’s relationship with nature. For me, this assignment re-connected me with cherished memories of my youth. I remembered that as a child I would write stories about Harriet Tubman’s journeys south, imagining her moving through forests, not with fear but with confidence and knowledge of her environment. I’d conjure up images of her pausing to listen to the trees, watching the movements of the birds, and crossing purposely through rivers. I remembered when my mother took me to see the Jacob Lawrence Series of Narrative Paintings on Harriet Tubman at Hampton University and bought me a print to hang in my bedroom. I would fall asleep staring at this painting of my hero sawing wood, and imagine that she was fashioning a strong walking stick for her next mission. Years later, my mother would send me that painting to hang in my office, as a reminder to dream.
So when GirlTrek and Outdoor Afro came together in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, we set our intention to honor Harriet through reflecting on our own associations of Harriet Tubman in nature. GirlTrek, a movement of Black women across the country inspired by Harriet Tubman to make a bold change one step at a time, radiated in their super hero blue. We walked side by side as we made our way past California Bay Laurels, Madrones and Eucalyptus trees. When we crested the Round Top Peak and gazed out at a 360 view which included Mount Diablo, Mount Tamalpais, and the rolling green hills of the East bay, a feeling of joy rippled through all of us. It reminded us of the happiness that Harriet Tubman’s passengers derived when gazing at the magnificent Niagara Falls, a beautiful natural, symbol that their long journey had come to an end.
Before we began our return trip, we spent time describing Harriet Tubman in one word. The words “brave,” “courageous,” “spiritual,” “strong,” “hero,” and “legend” rang out. In addition, we called her “astronomer,” “forager,” “hiker,” “botanist,” and “birder.” We thought about Harriet in all of those roles as she guided her people through nature. She navigated her way from North to South, taking routes that are still unknown today. Abolitionists, freed Blacks and slaves referred to these paths as the Underground Railroad, and they used railway metaphors as code to discuss escape plans. Slave catchers stated that when Black people were on those trails they seemed to just “disappear underground.”
In fact Black people on the Underground Railroad weren’t traveling via loud machines on trails made of concrete, iron and steel. They quietly hiked on grass, dirt, moss, and through rivers. They relied on the illumination of the moon to light their paths. They foraged for herbal remedies and food. Their leaders, Harriet Tubman and other “conductors,” weren’t steering massive machines and shoveling coal into fires. Instead they were following memorized paths, gazing up at the vast night sky to identify the Big Dipper and the North Star. They studied bird calls and mimicked them to communicate danger and safety. They used their relationship with nature to get them to freedom.
At Outdoor Afro, we often deliberate on the connections our ancestors had to nature, especially when we remember the importance of maintaining our own connections with the outdoors. We take particular pride in the community we build around that intention and we’re so honored to carry our history as we make our way on the trail. We held all of that as the sun set on March 10, and we made our way back to our start. And like Sister Harriet, we left no one behind.