BELOWGROUND ACTIVITY

WORDS & IMAGE: SUZANNE PIERRE of BELOWGROUND ACTIVITY

IMAGE: N. MUSINGUZI

Soil has always been among my favorite things. Its sweet and full smell has always been intoxicating. The colors within it span a spectrum from creamy taupe to vibrant ochre and the bright black of a dying ember. When held, its cold weight in your hand is a reminder of how much water, and life, it contains. I came to love soil because of intuition, disposition, and luck. My hands met soil because my parents bought a house in the suburbs after years of living in an East Coast city. They moved to a place with groves of trees and occasional farms because they wanted a good life for their children. The good life, it seemed, was nearer to soil. So through happenstance and proximity, I become acquainted with the earth’s skin. As my parents dug deep into the ground to plant gardens in our new suburban space, I found myself increasingly familiar with the dead and dying material under my often-bare feet.

In college, I found myself thinking more about how to turn my familiarity with nature and love of asking questions into a career. I was fortunate to find people who encouraged that interest, and I found my way to graduate school to study forest ecosystems. But as I went from being a lover of nature to an expert, I began to see that my aspiration to be an ecologist was not just anomalous, but a disturbance to a much larger structure. It wasn’t just unique that a young girl with brown skin and thick, curly hair fell in love with soil, or that she even that she transmuted that love into a job. It struck me that the rarity of women of color becoming environmental experts was no accident, but by design.

 

It wasn’t just unique that a young girl with brown skin and thick, curly hair fell in love with soil, or that she even that she transmuted that love into a job. It struck me that the rarity of women of color becoming environmental experts was no accident, but by design.

 


My personal and professional experiences in nature have shown me how social and economic inequality maintain boundaries between marginalized communities and their environments. I was lucky to grow up with a large amount of space where I could dig, gather, sort and name my environment, but most black and brown children don’t have that type of access to land. The confidence and agency in natural spaces that I developed are normally reserved for people from white and wealthy backgrounds. Economic inequality due to all manner of discrimination slims the odds that people of color can access nature for leisure, or have expensive, nature-based education. When I look around scientific conferences and biology departments around the world, it’s sadly clear that this unequal access to nature ends up structuring who studies nature for a living, and what an “expert” looks like. 

Now, as a young scientist, I think about what the scarcity of women of color in ecological sciences means in the context of climate change, and moreover, under an administration that denies that it is happening. Beyond the intellectual marginalization of black, brown, and indigenous researchers, our scarcity in the natural sciences will impact the communities we come from. The unique experiences and circumstances of working poor people of color are actively ignored as the majority white, wealthy, and male scientists set the agendas for climate change and sustainability research. The most “important” climate research involves questions scaled to the continent or the globe, and data are then abstracted into national policy recommendations. Meanwhile, cutting edge approaches to ecological analysis in within specific social and historical contexts are rare and looked at as “low-impact”. Environmental data are collected in urban, agricultural and ‘natural’ spaces at frequencies from seconds to years, but these vast amounts of information are analyzed without the context of socioeconomic patterns which may influence, or result from, what happens in the environment. The way results are shared and used all depends on the interests, career motivations, and personal opinions of the scientists doing research. As natural investigators, we are trusted to be objective and answer important questions, but the more time I spend in science, the more I understand that who is conducting the research is directly related to who benefits from it.

I’ve come to understand that, despite existing in the margins, living my scientific identity is its own, small revolution. 

When my love for soil, plants and water took shape as a young child, I wouldn’t have understood that my interests would have implications for the fate of the world. I wouldn’t have understood that I, in my body, with my history, could do something critical for the planet and its people that most other “nature lovers”  and “scientific experts” would find tangential. Like suddenly finding a very accurate map and locating one’s place on it, 2017 was a revelation and a rally for my scientific identity. I’ve come to understand that, despite existing in the margins, living my scientific identity is its own, small revolution.