America is full of wild spaces that have shaped, and been shaped by, the country’s history.
In the PBS series “America Outdoors,” host Baratunde Thurston explores our country’s relationship to its natural places.
In its second season premiere episode, Thurston visits a church service overlooking the Okefenokee Swamp on the Suwanee River. He said that experience helped change his understanding of what swamps are.
“It taught me that swamps can be beautiful, beautiful places. I think of a swamp as something that’s negative, you want to drain the swamp. There’s monsters lurking in the swamp,” Thurston said. “Okefenokee is a magical, beautiful place people are doing a lot of work to help preserve what remains. So there’s layers to that swamp into my visit there, especially with the Reverend and his congregation.”
Thurston said for the purposes of the show, the “outdoors” in the title is literal.
“What qualifies as outdoors … anything out outside your door? We did a whole episode on L.A. in our first season and we focus on backyard gardening, we looked at hiking within the city limits, within the county limits,” he said. “You can have something in your window sill and you’re growing herbs or flowers or feeding birds, and that’s your way of connecting with the outdoors. That is just as valid as the time I spent in Utah in Big Cottonwood Canyon rock climbing with the legendary rock climber, Nicky Smith, which is coming up on a soon-to-air episode for the Utah episode. Everything in between those two points is outdoors … The show is about you and your connection with that world outside.”
The people Thurston meets in his travels are as wildly different as the sites themselves, and he said the show does not shy away from difficult or complicated history.
“For some of us, the outside was a forced labor camp. For some, it’s a sign of torture and death and pain. For some, it is a site of injury and a physical brokenness. You know, people who have fallen off of things and injured themselves doing beautiful outdoor activities,” he said. “This is largely a celebration. There is much to celebrate about the human connection to nature within this country and honestly beyond. But the idea of some acknowledging the hurt that has happened in the outdoors, the separation that we’ve experienced through commerce and capitalism and also through politics through red lining, through all sorts of discriminatory practices, not just on the racial front … I’ve gone white water rafting with a paralyzed man, mountain biking with another paralyzed American. Folks are capable of a lot more when we open up those doors to the outside and make sure they’re accessible to all. So we can all appreciate that connection.”
The Brushwood Center in Lake County is presenting Thurston with the Distinguished Environmental Leadership Award at the 40th Anniversary of the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Dinner on Friday, Sept. 29. The Environmental Leadership Award recognizes outstanding environmental conservation, education, and advocacy contributions.