This story is a preview of the Salt, Soil, & Supper Almanac, a forthcoming collection of stories examining climate justice and Southern environments—emphasizing the traditions, practices, festivities, and lenses of critique that have allowed Southerners to persevere in the face of hostile physical, political and cultural environments.
By the time I was 13, I'd lived through hurricanes, tornados, and Earthquakes. I'll never forget the quiet that preceded the eye of the storm as it made landfall and the ways my grandfather spoke of it.
Aloof in his old age, my grandfather preferred to spend his time communing with nature rather than concerning himself with the gossip of others. "I'd rather die at de woodpile, my ax in my hand, than a hospital, I reckon," he proclaimed on his 90th birthday. In most of my memories, he's sitting on the porch with a towel around his neck, a silhouette in the distance striking a hoe to the dark Earth, or an ax to brittle logs. I remember the way he spoke of birds as messengers of nature's will. "If it's gone be weather, watch de birds."
In the country, "weather" had a specific meaning. While there is always weather, in the country weather was foreboding. Weather, in the country, portended the might and grandeur and sometimes terror of the elements beyond the quotidian shifting winds, drifting clouds, and rising or falling temperatures. Weather was something to take heed of.
My grandfather spoke of the weather as if it were a deity, something to be revered at its best and worst. The calm before the storm, an entity separate from yet entwined with the quiet following its carnage. He taught me to notice the way someone could hear a single needle drop in the aftermath of destruction. He sat out on the porch as the hurricane rode in and ran outside to get a better look at the tornado funneling by.
He was a witness to nature. He spoke of this phenomenon, weather, with seriousness, but never with any fear. Even if the Earth was about to split open or the clouds were about to tear through what lay beneath them, even in the spectacle of its most destructive potential, the weather was never something to disparage, but rather something to behold.
As a child, I didn't understand the way my grandfather came from a lineage of people who listened to the weather, honored it, and took it seriously but never maligned it. I didn't realize I, too, was part of this lineage.
My grandfather was born in the ashes of slavery into a family of Black people who decided to work the land of their own free will and farmed for sustenance without the intervention of any white person's property or management. They knew the land, and because of this, they were attuned to its changeable attitudes. He belonged to a generation that nurtured an intimate, centuries-long relationship with nature, forged through the legacy of bondage.
Prior to the enslavement of our ancestors, we came from people who lived with and among nature, who saw it and its might and grandeur and power as preeminent blessings, who prayed to and for the ecosystems they called home, who gave to the Earth as it gave to them.
It was a lineage as much defined by a persistent alienation from the land as it was marked by an enduring connection to it. This alienation had followed our people from the chains of enslavement to their abduction from their homelands to their confinement to foreign lands. But between the lines of estrangement, this system had somewhere in the margins spelled out for our people, we clung to our inherited ways. Somewhere lingering on the tip of our breath, in the bowels of our soul, we never forgot the grandeur and power of nature and weather as the preeminent blessing, as a means of healing, and a source of resistance.
Catastrophic flooding brings long-term harm to the psychology of residents and the spirit of a community. In Princeville, a community built upon the self-organization and determination of Black people, it seemed the damage might never be repaired.
In the overgrowth of Cypress trees older than humankind, a vast expanse of marshy waters became a mirror. In the morass of swing limbs and undisturbed brush, there was a refuge to be found. The people who found it, the ancestors—familial or collective—who willed their freedom across untamed horizons, were called maroons. While there is no official record or documentation of these free people, history estimates thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of formerly enslaved Black folks made homes in the Great Dismal Swamp throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The swamp's potency is encapsulated in its name. Great. Dismal. It was regarded by the white colonists of the region as hostile, and untamed. According to lore, the swamp was home to species as hostile and untamed as its landscape. There were panthers, poisonous snakes, and bears. Among the cover of brambling vines and sticky mud paths, these maroon ancestors found an untamable freedom. In the hinterlands between the borders of the place known as Virginia and the place known as North Carolina, among untamed and vicious frontiers in the refuge of nature's labyrinth, Black people found ample space for resistance.
While surveying the area in 1732, William Byrd II, described the swamp as "[a] vast body of mire and nastiness… very unwholesome for inhabitants." The swamp was inhospitable and dangerous. Rumors of disease and wild beasts characterized its mysterious expanse. Beyond the legends of beasts and burdens beleaguering the swamp and its foggy wilds, a greater threat to the power structure of this fledgling country loomed beyond the shadows of its borders: the concept of free Black people as "untamed" and "hostile" as the lands that held their autonomous and self-sufficient communities.
There were legends of Black people born unto the sprawl of marshlands who had never seen a white person before. There were tales of integrated communities where Black people who successfully fled slavery, Native Americans who escaped the grasp of colonization, and white people who had been brought to the colonies as prisoners and indentured servants lived side by side. It was as if the quagmire of untamable and indomitable lands unlocked the possibility of not only imagining impossible freedoms but existing in them.
If our antecedents could find ground for their freedom to take root in wetlands so intimidating they were named "dismal," seedlings of solidarity to grow their own communities, and blossoms of hope to cultivate new visions of the world beyond the chains of their pasts, then maybe somewhere in the overgrowth—in the mire and morass of our own intimidating climate and the potentials of its catastrophe—we will find space to carve out our freedom.
If those who came before us could inhabit uninhabitable territory, making homes in a no man's land, then we, by way and by will, can survive anything. Maybe somewhere in the overgrowth, in the mire and morass of our own intimidating climate, there is space for us to emerge.
I feared the weather. The presence of this god, its unyielding and unpredictable character, intimidated me so much that I grew up with intense anxieties about the weather. Since no one else in my family seemed to be taking up the mantle of planning emergency strategies in the event of another worse and more destructive disaster, I took it upon myself at 10 years old.
I tried to calculate how many of us could fit into the small bathtub of our creaking, hand-built home. We didn't have a basement, and I wondered where we could retreat to in the event of a tornado that took the roof off our house. I devoured new coverage of disasters to better prepare for the emergencies that could befall upon us. I watched the nonstop coverage of Hurricane Katrina on CNN instead of cartoons during my first week of fifth grade and in high school, I watched the Haitian Earthquake.
I was always captivated by the disasters that affected Black communities. I thought, if I could see into the suffering of others who looked like me, I might have a better idea of how to survive should a similar suffering come knocking on my door one day. I couldn't buy anything, but I was constantly checking our supplies of batteries, flashlights, and bottled water. I was constantly thinking up evacuation plans that I never told anyone else about.
We lived in the country, in a shoddy house with infrastructure issues on a relatively isolated stretch of our neighborhood. We were poor and didn't have a car. How would we have gotten away if we needed to? In the fates of the people in the Lower Ninth Ward, whom the media derided for "choosing" to stay and ride out the floods, I saw reflections of my mother and sister, my grandfather and grandmother, my niece, and myself. I practiced stop, drop, and roll. I grasped at any meaningless sense of security amid a weather table I could intuitively feel shifting beneath my feet.
Before Hurricane Isabel hit our small rural community in the days leading up to my 10th birthday, I reminded my mother to buy charcoal so we could cook outside once the power inevitably went out and pick up extra batteries for the miniature battery-operated analog television we had in case of disaster, and get more oil for the lamps.
I prayed on my bedroom floor as my 80-something-year-old great aunt Mabel fearlessly drove back home during the hurricane, her white 1985 Volvo shaking as winds throttled the thick forest around us. I hid from the thunder in my bedroom as my elders greeted its raucous vigor on the porch with offerings of sweet tea and pork rinds. I racked my brain, worrying about the flood as my grandfather patiently awaited its cool witness.
The news cycle after Hurricane Katrina was constant, a 24-hour-loop of rising flood waters, record high temperatures, "looting," unsubstantiated claims of rape, murder, and lawlessness in the Superdome, where a city and country had abandoned its citizens. New Orleans, a city forged by Blackness, Black people, and Black culture became the epitome of a mythic recklessness. The recklessness born from the wrath of nature, the recklessness cradled by untamable waters, the recklessness bred by Blackness. Blackness, in this biased retelling, was an invasive plant watered by the floods, a plant left overflowing and uncontrollable.
But what the news coverage never showed was the ways Black people, at the nexus of nature's calamity and systemic disinvestment, came together to care for one another, to look out for their neighbors who were also stranded, to plead for help together, and then, when they realized help wasn't coming, to become that help themselves. Those of us on the outside trying to look in through the distorted glass of convex mirrors, heard stories of bloated corpses floating through streets. But we were never shown the people who kept one another alive or the ways catastrophe brought people closer together in their shared humanity.
Somewhere at the boundary of nature's will, in the aftermath of weather in its most foreboding form, Black people had the power to not only survive but embrace bold, fearless practices of communal care and mutual aid. As the climate crisis continues to unravel toward its most apocalyptic promises, Black communities find themselves in the crosshairs of new threats of destruction. Black communities, and other communities of color, are at greater risk of extreme temperatures and the carnage of floods, hurricanes, and wildfires.
I want to talk about what the storm left in its wake. I want to talk about what it means to try to repair the irreparable, about how sometimes a place is never the same and how pretending it is creates an act of incessant denial, an erasure of what was lost and what could…
The issues are twofold: the convergence of pre-existing racial disparities and infrastructural issues in predominantly Black communities and the increasing and far-reaching global effects of human disruptions to the climate. In the example of Hurricane Katrina, the most vulnerable Black communities existed four feet beneath the city's sea levels. In the example of the Flint water crisis, Black communities became the sacrificial lambs of municipal politicians looking for budget cuts. But our response to the calamities of the natural world and the disastrous effects of human-fueled destruction has always been a testament to our resilience, an untamable hope.
In the midst of a climate crisis in which Black communities find themselves on the frontlines of uncertainty and destruction and most vulnerable to environmental catastrophe and extreme weather, maybe somewhere in the chaos and calamity of the natural world, lies a reflecting pool for our immense humanity. Maybe somewhere in the destruction and disorder of foreboding weather, our ancestors are preparing to show us new ways forward. Maybe somewhere in the ending prophesied by the weather's deity, there lies the possibility of new beginnings and rebirth. Maybe in the quiet following the storm's rancor, we can find space to write out untapped freedoms for ourselves once again. Perhaps somewhere in the inevitability of disaster, in the ruins of nature's wrath, we'll find or make our promised land.
My grandfather lived most of his life as the men before him did: outdoors. As an octogenarian, he still gardened every summer, growing greens, tomatoes, and marijuana among other things. His winters were spent chopping and sorting wood to tend the fire. In the spring, he planned. In the fall, he harvested. He could predict a crop's yield by the direction of wind. My grandmother and mother inherited the same ability. They could tell there was going to be weather from the rhythm and force of their aching bunions.
I remember how odd I found it when the three of them would rush to the porch at the first sign of lightning. Eventually, my great aunt Mabel would drive down the path from her house to ours to join them as they sat on our crooked porch enjoying the storm. I would hide inside, scurrying about, unplugging all the electrical devices in case it flooded. Aunt Mabel said she came over because by herself, the storms intimidated her, but in the company of her elder brother and sister-in-law, she enjoyed the noise.
My grandmother said she preferred sitting outside during the storm. She considered it cleansing of the air. To her, there was nothing as sweet as the smell of rain. My grandfather said it was because nothing could scare him. He said the greatest devil he'd ever known was this country and the malice of the white men who controlled it. He'd ask, "What's a lil storm gone do to me that I ain't already seen before?"
In these kinship circles, my family showed me the miracle of being nature's witness. They taught me that part of respecting this Earth was also honoring its need to be heard. In the face of roaring thunder, tempestuous rain, and furious wind, my elders showed me something more akin to holy reverence than fear.
As I cowarded from the hail behind the screen door, my grandfather used to tell me, "The storm don't come to hurt us. The storm comes to show us." In his proverbs, my grandfather echoed the wisdom of centuries.
In diasporic traditions emerging from the cosmology of the Yoruba people, Oya is the Orisha of weather. When Oya imparts her will on the Earthly realm, death and rebirth kiss. She teaches us that before any great transformation or euphoric rebirth, calamity must first clear the path and make a way. Oya was a warrior goddess who could spin tornados with the force to level whole continents. She could cry rains fierce enough to submerge full civilizations and tear tectonic plates apart with her fingertips, opening cavernous trenches that could swallow the largest beasts whole. But despite her fearful capabilities, Oya never acted out of malice. She never brought harm merely for the sake of creating chaos. Chaos was a means to a greater goal. Chaos was an opportunity for transformation and rebirth. Chaos opened a portal of potential and made a path towards reemergence.
Climate change and carceral geography work in tandem to restrict movement and safety. When prisons' fluctuations of instability and alienation only heighten the vulnerabilities wrought by natural disasters, 'where is home in a place that no one wants to be in?'
It wasn't the will of Katrina that damned the Black folks of New Orleans to catastrophe, but rather, the catastrophic designs of a system founded on their ancestors' undoings. It wasn't the will of the river to poison the Black folks in Flint, but rather ,the poisonous mindset of a political system structured from their ancestors' intergenerational burdens.
We been through the chains we heard the winds holler, in those stifling ships
on those grueling fields, we lived in spite of systems conscripting us to death we've lived, all of us, still here we are the sum of our ancestor's unrelenting will, their untameable spirits
we've lived through the unspeakable.
Let any storm be a reminder of all our ancestors have endured. Let the flood waters be a libation from nature leveling the vestiges of systems that have sought to destroy her and us too. Let the fire be a light, elevating the rightful wisdom of those Indigenous to its peaks. Let our eyes be witness to god and in our gleaming pupils, let our brilliance radiate, reflecting the depth of our own divinity. Let the calamity of the weather—the deity who sees us most—open the space for us to rebuild what is necessary, for us to impart our wisdom across the landscapes that nourished us and that our lives have nourished. Let the weather that comes for us be a shepherd, offering a rebirth of freedom, offering us and our sacredness the opportunity to reemerge.
we are people born of calamity forged through the force of wind and hail breaking ceilings,
and been reborn in the bowels of ships sailing tumultuous seas, we've never known anything but surviving cut footpaths through woody boggs, shapeshifting miracles in plundered fields and tall grasses,
grandmothers' glass vessels left out on the porch steps collecting drops of thunderous
rain to mop floors and ring clothes,
grandfathers' will sharpened by lightning's arrows.
In the face of violence so cruel only humans could create it, our ancestors found refuge, salvation in the feral wilds and wastelands haunting colonizers, because they could not be controlled they could not be contained they could not be tamed. We found glimmers of freedom, a space, as unrelenting and uncontrollable as our souls, a place where we could exist unto ourselves. And in this wilderness, these untamed, unrelenting ancestors created new worlds.
My Afrofuturist vision is one where we breathe in rhythm with the trees, where we move in step with the wind, where the storm comes to witness our relentless resolve. What futures might be possible in the light of our lineages and shadows of untamed wilderness, the wake of the brewing storm, and the legacy of ancestral wisdom passed on?
Maybe our lives will not end in watershed, by flood, nor by fire. Maybe somewhere in the divine order and intelligence of this deity called the weather, there is the discernment to keep us alive, an acknowledgment of the ways we have been exploited and abused just as this planet has. Perhaps the climate crisis is not merely a breakdown, but a breakthrough, a sacred opportunity for us to find shelter among the carnage of splintering vines, to create new worlds from the ashes of this one, to reconcile with this Earth and our divine and sacred connection to it as reflections of its power and resilience. We might be mere casualties of the consequences of regimes with insatiable, unrelenting appetites founded from our bloodshed… or perhaps in every wind roaring, every storm raging, our ancestors are not only watching over us but watching out for us.
Maybe the deities of our past, present, and future are converging at this moment of climate crisis. Maybe the susceptibility our communities find to the shifting tides of nature is a sacred opening, a yet-to-be-discovered possibility, a pathway forward from a system that refuses to break on its own. And maybe, this Earth and its divine intelligence recognizes the threat this system poses to it, and chooses to break it for us. Maybe we'll be the maroons of the future, finding our freedom in the untamed wilderness. And if it is so, I'll call it something else, rather than an ending, I'll call it a beginning, an emergence.
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