“Black Earth Wisdom” and The Four Winglets of the Butterfly


In Grafton, New York, early April means high mud season, but that didn’t stop volunteers from Mt. Holyoke College, Brooklyn, NY and beyond from putting on their muck boots to show up at Soul Fire Farm. For there was plenty to do (laying out tarps for weed protection, setting up irrigation, petting Abedul, the winsome cat) and plenty to learn, as the farm is a center for Afro-Indigenous farming practices and envisioning a racially-just food system. It was a special visit for me since this 80-acre community farm and education center is a mere 25 minutes from my home in southwestern Vermont. How many times have I driven down Route 22 thinking how this sparsely-populated land had such potential? With its commitment to providing for underserved communities, its abundant programming, and farmer/author Leah Penniman’s strong voice, Soul Fire Farm has put this quiet corner of Renssalaer County on the map.

Penniman’s first book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, came out in 2018. This February she brought out Black Earth Wisdom: Soulful Conversations With Black Environmentalists. At once erudite and intimate, the book gathers the insights, experiences, and aspirations of Black environmental leaders. Here’s my exchange with Penniman about her timely and inspiring new book. 

Image Credit: @Black.Earth.Wisdom

Judith D. Schwartz (JS): “Black Earth Wisdom” is an invitation to relate to the Earth in a more intimate, heart-centered way. How does this summons relate to the liberation of oppressed people?

Leah Penniman (LP): Non-kin thinking is what leads to both racialized oppression and earth ravaging. The severing of family and the relegating of others to “non person” makes possible the enactment of violence and oppression upon the other. Embedded in the theory of white people’s supremacy over other races is the theory of human supremacy over nature. This non-kin thinking is a uniquely Western invention, as described in 1846 by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who asserted: “It would seem that the white race alone received the divine command, to subjue and replenish the earth; for it is the only race that has obeyed it—the only race that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish…”

Image Credit: Soul Fire Farm

JS: Many who care deeply about the Earth feel they’re not “qualified” for environmental work, that their career path limits their ability to do more than, say, buy organic or engage in the occasional protest. Yet your book draws on stories from lawyers, scientists, activists, spiritual leaders, farmers, and artists in multiple genres. What does this say about the varied routes to ecological action?

LP: My framework on social and environmental change is based on this beautiful visual that my daughter created for the four wings of transformative social justice. Imagine a butterfly with four winglets. One of them is “Resist”, which reflects the boycotts and protests and strikes and walkouts resisting oppression. Another winglet is for “Reform”, which has to do with policy change and working within the system: schools, legislatures, the halls of Congress. Third is “Build”, which is about creating alternative institutions: co-ops, land trusts, farms, freedom schools. And the final wing is “Heal”. This refers to healing from the centuries of land-based trauma and oppression through ritual, ceremony, transformative justice, conflict resolution, art. A butterfly cannot fly without all four of its winglets. So is there a place to start in kindergarten, to teach children about gardening, about cooking, about the fellowship and camaraderie that comes with sitting around the table together and slowing down and appreciating aroma and culture, yes. And I also stand with the actions of the movement for Black lives. I stand with the actions of the farmers themselves, driving their tractors on to the mall in D.C. With the therapists so we’re helping people deal with their trauma so they don’t act it out on one another, right? With the legislators pushing for the Justice for Black Farmers Act, the Green New Deal. We need a multiplicity of strategies to make comprehensive social change.

Image Credit: Soul Fire Farm

JS: I like how everyone you interview shares childhood experiences that sparked a love of the natural world. Do you find that most people have some connection to nature in their past, and that it is grounding and healing to revive that? How can society create space for people to explore their connection to the Earth?

LP: Yes. We defend what we love. And we love what we know intimately. According to research by David Sobel, one of the greatest predictors of pro-environmental behavior is having intimate experiences in nature as children.

We know that green spaces heal. Studies show that hospitalized patients heal when they can see nature, and that people solve problems better after time in the forest. A nationwide study of over 900,000 people revealed that children who grew up with the lowest access to green space had a 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. Seventy-four percent of communities of color in the contiguous United States live in nature-deprived areas, compared with just 23% of white communities. While Black households once owned 16 million acres of land—14% of the nation’s farms—a combination of USDA discrimination, lynching and land grabbing led to nearly complete land loss. Today, 98% of agricultural land is white-owned. The work of organizations like Outdoor Afro, GirlTrek, Latino Outdoors etc., is crucial to ensuring equitable access to wild spaces.

Image Credit: Soul Fire Farm

JS: Soul Fire Farm has become a beacon for people who may not have access to farmland yet want to learn about farming. Of course, one farm can only do so much. What kinds of opportunities would you like to see you there?

LP: We need a complete overhaul of the food system, which was built on stolen land and exploited labor. Here are the action steps that we have put together based on input from 100s of Black and Brown farmers.

JS: In 2018 you published Farming While Black, which brought to light the widespread disenfranchisement of Black farmers. I heard you give the annual E.F. Schumacher Lecture, which opened my eyes to this and to the appropriation of formerly enslaved people’s agricultural knowledge. Having helped break open the conversation, are you noticing changes?

LP: Yes, anecdotally, I see folks in mainstream spaces uplifting Black and Brown agricultural genius more often. For example, Booker T Whatley is getting wider credit for contributing to the concept of the CSA (community supported agriculture) and Dr. George Washington Carver for contributions to the modern organic movement.

Image Credit: Soul Fire Farm

JS: What does being an ally look like in the regenerative movement today?

LP: We can deepen our own practice of earth-listening by learning how to read the earth once again, starting with the names of our beyond-human kin. Moving on to tree rings, weather patterns, soil structure and birdsong. We can also give resources and power to Black- and Indigenous-led ecological projects. Organizations like GirlTrek, Outdoor Afro, Taproot Earth, Urban Ocean Lab, Rise St. James, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, etc. On the systems front, we can support #LandBack, take a stand for Reparations and advocate for Rights of Nature Policy (e.g Justice for Black Farmers Act).

Get started on your regenerative journey using Soil Centric’s App

In addition to the groups Leah mentions, you'll find a plethora of opportunities, organizations and resources on Soil Centric’s App using search terms including BIPOC and Social Justice.



Judith D. Schwartz is the author of three books on regeneration —The Reindeer Chronicles, Cows Save the Planet, and Water in Plain Sight — each of which has advanced the regenerative movement. She is a founding member of Soil Centric’s Advisory Board.
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