From Soil to Stars: A Conversation with Erin Sharkey

I wanted to stretch the boundaries of what nature writing was.
Photo Sarah Whiting

Every time I get the chance to chat with writer and cultural worker Erin Sharkey, I find more ways that our interests and perspectives intersect, including those related to land stewardship, ancestry and collective memory, and the value of archives.

Sharkey edited the forthcoming collection of essays A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars, which offers intimate and varied reflections on nature by contemporary Black writers and poets.

Every piece in the collection uses an object from the writers’ personal archives or the larger historical archive — a grandfather’s fishing box, a property deed, a newspaper photograph — to reflect on how nature has influenced the lives of Black folks throughout time.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

What led you to include archival material in this collection?

I wanted to generate new writing around folks’ relationship to nature, and the archive was an interesting place to start because it requires that you imagine those objects into narratives. They exist, sure, and the record says what they are, but that record just recalls the limitedness of that archivist, that collector, that part of the collection. I was first

drawn to the idea while I was working in residence at the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota’s Anderson Library. I was fascinated by the excitement the librarians and archivists had [about visitors] making meaning out of these things that are hidden in a tiny dark place. That is where the potential lies with the archive — we can look at it through our particular lens and flesh it out in ways that are fruitful. The assembly of all the objects [featured in A Darker Wilderness] says something about the long-standing stewardship between Black folks and nature.

You write about archives and collective memory in your introduction. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the role that memory plays in our relationship with nature.

I feel like some moments in nature are about remembering — bringing back together pieces of ourselves, getting in connection with something from our experience or before our experience. I think we are looking for moments of connection to the universe. I love going to natural places with my wife because she just cannot handle how beautiful things are; she is like the best outward expression of some of the ways I feel inside. Nature is a great place for connection to ourselves and our history because it holds the [linear historical] timeline and transcends it.

In the introduction, you also mention nature’s capacity to teach. Can you share something that nature has taught you about nature, or about yourself?

Nature has taught me both how insignificant and how important I am. I have learned about conquering my fears and my boundaries around [my] ability. [I also learned that I] have an impact on the natural world around me. Stewarding at Rootsprings [a rural retreat in Annandale for Black, Indigenous, and people of color creatives] has really been about that — getting to witness tiny changes in a place, to see the teeming life around me shift over the seasons.

I have experienced chronic illness my whole life. A lot of nature stories are about pushing past your boundaries and conquering the environment, and I don’t think nature needs to be appreciated that way. [Nature writing] could be about understanding our human limits, or feeling the edges of ourselves, or understanding our reciprocal relationship [with nature] as one that feeds us as well as depletes us.

The essays in this collection talk a lot about privilege in access to land. What advice would you give to Black folks feeling out of touch with nature?

Someone once asked me about fear that they have while in nature. I think that [moving beyond fear can be] acknowledging that it is rooted in the racist history of our country. People can also remember that nature is everywhere; sometimes there is this false sense that you have to go to nature — seek it out somewhere else — as opposed to just noticing the ways your yard shifts, or the way the walk to the bus shifts every day. I went on a short walk with a friend, and all of the edible things they found on just a few blocks along Lake Street were fascinating to me.

[I taught] nature writing inside of a prison system and saw all the ways these incarcerated men who don’t have access to the liberatory practices of nature were able to notice how the oak tree was shifting from day to day, or how precipitation shifted, or how the bees started throwing themselves against the window at a certain point in the year. My suggestion to folks who feel separated from nature is to see if there are ways they can notice it in their own world.

Can you talk more about your contributors? What do you think this particular group brings to the work?

I wanted to have a mixture of people who represent different identities, [with] relationships to different regions across the country. I love that many of the contributors in the collection are poets. There is something about poets writing longform that I am addicted to — there is a real beautiful lyrical quality to [those essays]. I also wanted to stretch the boundaries of what nature writing was. I didn’t want to pick folks who are classic nature writers because I think that the collection is trying to make those borders fall. There are certainly some classic pieces in there, but there are others that feel more supernatural or extraterrestrial.

What have you learned from this project?

Each of the contributions made me think more expansively about my relationship to myself, nature, history, and the archive. I hope readers feel inspired to do their own natural exploration, to think about their own lives in relation to natural rhythms and systems. I wonder if it will inspire people to think about their own archive: how and what they are collecting, who will hold it for them, where it will live, what story they want it to tell about their life, and what a gift it might be to a future thinker. I hope people find inspiration around their own legacies.

The following is excerpted from the essay “Here’s How I Let Them Come Close” by katie robinson from the collection A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars, edited by Erin Sharkey; forthcoming February 2023 from Milkweed Editions.

I practice fear with bugs. Specifically, stinging bugs. I sit on my cracked concrete stoop on humid Minneapolis summer days and notice the behavior patterns of bees and wasps at different times of day. In their dewy waking hours, they stretch their wings and clean their delicate legs. As the sun rises higher into the sky, they take flight, investigating the daylilies and dandelions, yellows and oranges punching out of velvety greens. Later in the day, when the dew has burned off and you can smell the heat coming off the sidewalk, they turn their attention to me — my brightest clothes, the bubbly water I may be drinking, the sandwich or Popsicle I may be eating. And when they come in close, I try to do what my therapist has told me to do and “just notice” what happens in my body. The fear like magma rises up through my core, my arms and legs tense, my heart beats faster, and my breathing changes. There is a memory reel of every time I’ve been stung (age three, on the cheek; eleven, on the thigh; twenty, on the hand), and I notice that I can feel how it felt. Sometimes, this noticing is enough to make me go back inside. Sometimes, I take off down the block, furiously waving and swatting my hands, cursing. But other times, I am able to section off enough space in my body for the fear to see that there are other places containing other things, and I shift my attention to these other places: a place curiosity, a place for relationality, a place for meeting.

I wonder what it must be like to encounter a giant being. I wonder what they sense on my breath and in my energetic field. I wonder if they like the heat coming off my head. I wonder what drew them in, and I can’t help but think, They are coming close because they want to. I can assign to them the same decision-making power I have, or I can think about their movements as pure reflex, but neither actually explains why the interaction is happening. All I know is that it is happening, an interspecies encounter where risk is present. And in my most solid parts, I sense that there is a structure outside the spectrum between United States–style, individualized, bootstraps “choice” and “our fate is written in stone”— neither free-market free will nor an all-powerful God playing with dolls — a structure that governs what happens, that governs encounters. I sense a structure that is rhizomatic: a locus of power that has no center, that may burst forth anywhere, and that is not solid or still. It is neither inside nor outside any body, not the wasp’s or my own. I wonder if (which is to say I sense this too) our shared agency arises in our relationship to each other, in the dance of fear and relation that dwells in interstices and edges, a dance perhaps known by all evolving, adapting creatures, perhaps even older than Earth. There is something not fully wasp, as I know wasps to be, and not fully me, as I know me to be, that governs us. We are entangled and in the midst of a vast network of resonances, a cosmically curated chaos, in which sting or no sting, death or no death, everything is unfolding just as it should.