Nature as a Healer: Excerpt from Rue Mapp’s ‘Nature Swagger’

'Nature Swagger,' a new book from Outdoor Afro founder and CEO Rue Mapp, is a celebration of Black joy in nature. The collection of stories and photos from Mapp, Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders and Black outdoor enthusiasts invites Black communities to reconnect with nature. In the essay, 'Nature as a Healer,' Mapp explores the transformational power of time outside to unite and heal.

The first time I consciously connected with the power of the natural world I was a young child. It was a warm autumn afternoon on our Lake County, [California,] ranch at the end of a full weekend of visiting family and friends, so typical at our summer home. I had spent the entire day in the pool until the skin on the tips of my fingers and toes pruned. I was walking around the entire length of the pool, passing the forbidden deep end, when a form at my feet caught my eye: glistening brown leaves moistened by water lay pressed flat into the wet concrete. Peach tree leaves that had already come loose in the fall warmth. 

I stopped and asked out loud to those leaves, “What do you know?”

I don’t recall their answer, but that was my first memory of consciously connecting with, and asking something from, the natural world, guided by an intuition there might be an answer. A problem that could be solved. In my work leading Outdoor Afro, I’ve discovered that I can unlock that same intuition to connect with nature to find answers and solve problems. 

In 2014, America’s cities erupted in response to yet another police-involved death of a Black person, this time in Ferguson, Missouri. At that time, the Outdoor Afro office operated from a stylish, community-centered co-working space in uptown Oakland, near the epicenter of our city. As I left the office, I felt a thick tension in the air on that warm autumn weekday afternoon. I walked through the concrete parking lot to my car, and I could hear the distinct rumble of helicopters, along with a distant sighing screech, as electric saws cut plywood to be hammered over street-facing store windows. Growing up in Oakland, I had seen this before. Felt this before. An urgent civic brace to prepare for unrest. 

I was feeling angry and hurt, too, as a mother of two Black sons. As I’d taken in the news, I felt an incredible weight, combined with feelings of empathy for the lives senselessly lost, for all the connected kin, and a generational ache, remembering the souls of Emmett Till and countless others similarly sentenced to death.

Walking across that uptown Oakland concrete to my car, I asked myself, as a Black woman leading a Black-focused organization, “What should I do? What do I know?” 

This time the answer came. Clearly. 

“You do nature, Rue—that’s your lane.”

So I spent the next few days calling my friends and Outdoor Afro partners to talk through all our complex emotions at that moment, then I asked each one to join me in solidarity for that weekend in my favorite biome—the redwoods—for what would become the first Outdoor Afro Healing Hike.

I did not think through what a Healing Hike was supposed to be about, but I knew instinctively, like I did when I was a little girl looking at those wet leaves on the ground, that the redwoods in my hometown Oakland’s hills—where I had played as a child, found love, and experienced my own adult healing—might hold an answer. 

The following Saturday, about thirty strangers assembled around those redwoods. Although we were an almost all-Black participant group, we did not share the same viewpoints, and we were of different generations; yet I felt we all instinctively recognized we needed to find a safe way to find healing.

Among those redwood trees, there were no helicopters overhead. No sounds of plywood hammering into place. And no police in riot gear. All we had was one another and those trees. Those third-generation redwoods that sprang from a clear-cut past had witnessed much in their 150 years, and they were surely able to absorb our moment.

“As we walked, I could feel the tension sliding off our shoulders, giving way to easy laughter, deep sighs of relief and backslapping encouragement. In that moment, under the gaze of the trees, we were united in our humanity. We were the same.”

We convened in a meadow to set our intentions as a group, and my dear friend Nikki Thomas, a community yoga instructor, led us in breathing and stretching to anchor our group with intention for who we wanted to be in that moment. Then we filed out with soft, purposeful steps to begin our hike. As we walked, I could feel the tension sliding off our shoulders, giving way to easy laughter, deep sighs of relief and backslapping encouragement. In that moment, under the gaze of the trees, we were united in our humanity. We were the same.

Our trail eventually led us to a creek in a valley of redwoods, where we took a moment to share reflections and commitments for what we might do and be for our communities once we emerged from those redwoods.

I will get the youth together in our community and educate them on our history.

I will come back here when I am feeling overwhelmed.

I will pass on the baton and wisdom of what activism means.

In that moment I realized that our group was doing what Black people have always known we could do: lay our burdens—in the lyrics of our ancestors—down by the riverside. Like them, we found hope and a way to break through to our freedom. 

That was the day I clearly understood the value of nature as a healer, and recognized my responsibility to continue to lift up this value. And ever since, my organization has been turning to nature to heal and teach with intention. It has now become a part of the way we train our organization’s volunteer leaders, and has reinforced my own practice to turn to nature in times of need. 

Hiker on a trail with mountains in the background
Jason Swann, social entrepreneur and policy advisor, hikes along the Mount Flora Trail on Berthoud Pass in Colorado. (Photo Credit: Misha Charles)

Writer Paulo Coelho says it best in his book By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept: “Joy is sometimes a blessing, but it is often a conquest.” This passage has been an inspiration for me, as it reminds me that nature is a source of peace and healing, and therefore a bridge to lasting joy. 

In the contributions that follow, you will witness journeys of pain that metamorphosize beautifully into healing and joy, as Akiima Price’s portrait “Nature’s Healing Frequency” describes how nature can help stressed communities access liberation; alongside revelations of connectivity and triumph that root us in our passion and personal purpose, as Jason Swann describes in “Colorado: A True Love Story”; and as you will read in Alora Jone’s kaleidoscope vision, “Raindrops and Fireflies,” where she finds love. 

This is exactly what I have always hoped my work could demonstrate: a possibility for both transformational healing and joy for everyone.

Excerpt from ‘Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors.’ 

Nature Swagger book cover
‘Nature Swagger’ is available at REI and wherever books are sold.

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