Late Blooming Environmentalist

Amanda Machado on Reclaiming Nature Narratives through Travel

Faith Adiele

(USA/Nigeria)

In this interview, Faith asks Amanda about how travel paved the way for her becoming a late-blooming environmentalist, teaching Reclaiming Nature Writing online, and embracing how writers of colour are revolutionising nature writing.

Faith Adiele (she/her):  So, for three years you’ve been teaching an online workshop you created, called Reclaiming Nature Writing. According to the description, it expands “how we write about nature in a way that considers issues like ancestry, colonisation, migration trauma and more.” What was your journey to this course? 

Amanda Machado (she/they):  I would say that my entry into outdoor writing was through travel. It was within travel experiences that I started to do what white people define as “outdoorsy things”. I went backpacking for the first time; I did a 15-day trek in the Himalayas, a 13-day trek in Patagonia and Torres del Paine. I’d never done anything like that before, but I realised it was a thing you could do when visiting a country, and I loved it. Then, like many people spending time outdoors, I started to get curious about conservation and protection and climate change.

I call myself a late-blooming environmentalist. When I was younger, I felt distant from the environmental movement. It seemed very white, not about me. Environmental issues were low priority for me, because it seemed that environmentalists were only trying to save whales, not people of colour. But through being in nature, starting to care about it, and trying to figure out my entrance into the outdoors world, I found [BIPOC] environmentalists and nature writing by people of colour. It made me realise that our people cared about and cared for the environment long before anyone else, in fact. Colonisation changed all that. 

I became passionate about finding stories that could explain my literal and figurative journey from being alienated from the movement—and from nature generally—to understanding my ancestral connection. Like, my dad is literally from the Andes; he grew up in the mountains. México City was a city of canals before colonisation, when they drained the entire lake; now it is running out of water and looks like a desert. After hearing this history, I wanted to create a course that would make community around these experiences and amplify voices that weren’t being centred in nature discussions, and to be honest, still aren’t being centred in climate change discussions. People of colour, indigenous people in particular, have been saying the things the environmental movement is just now saying, but they aren’t seen as leaders and aren’t taken seriously the way Big Green is. 

So, I created a reading list of everything I could find written by a person of colour, by queer people, by anyone marginalised within nature writing. What I found was amazing. I recently wrote about it for Sierra Magazine (How Writers of Color Are Changing What Nature Writing Looks Like). It wasn’t that I found representation or writers who want a seat at the table—I found writers who are flipping the table, who are saying, This is the table we’re sitting at. And it’s an entirely different table from the one at which the environmental movement has been sitting. These writers are looking through a different lens, speaking a different language, centring different things, listening to different people. And this is what we need. Climate change isn’t going to stop if we continue to tell the same stories the movement’s been telling for decades. I think it’s about returning to the stories our ancestors were telling thousands of years ago. 

Adiele:  I’m intrigued by what you said about author bell hooks deciding to move back to her hometown in Appalachia after realising that cities like New York and San Francisco are not where liberation is. That’s deep. I was in Morocco over the summer and in Ghana and the British Virgin Islands this fall, so I’ve been thinking about Black migration and the current trend of Black Americans relocating to countries where the dollar is strong and buying land. I think we need to start talking about how “Blaxit” impacts local ecosystems and changes culture. Accra and Marrakesh feel like Pan-African and Neo-Orientalist fantasies.

Machado:  It’s like México City. Since the pandemic, when everyone decided to go live there for cheap, it’s changed a lot. It feels like Gringo Disneyland. For Americans, but also for Chicanos. We too gentrify Latin America.

Adiele:  As a travel writer, I dread ecological questions like, how do you justify flying and what about the environmental impact of over-tourism?, because I don’t have good answers. This past summer I got to wrestle with this, because I was sharing space with environmental campaigner and musician Nono Gigsta, who’s part of a movement of “slow gig” DJs who only travel by road and boat. Has your environmental identity complicated your travel identity?

Machado:  That’s such an intense question. I definitely view travel differently now. The pandemic was the first time I wasn’t able to fly and the longest I ever went without flying. It really made me come to terms with the role travel was playing in my life. And, as you said earlier, all of us, people of colour included, are contributing to the settler colonial foundation of the travel industry, right? I didn’t see how deep it went in me until then, and a big part of it was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, she has that line about colonisers: “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.” And that hit me hard because I’ve been living my whole life like that.

During the pandemic, it finally occurred to me that my life and my lifestyle, my attraction to being nomadic and always wanting novelty, my wanting to see new things, my thinking that I can find something better or more interesting somewhere else—these are all colonial impulses. I had excused myself and didn’t see that the way I’d been living was the antithesis of indigeneity. I wasn’t contributing to an indigenous worldview of getting to know a place deeply and going to places to build relationships—be it with local people or travel companions—rather than just to extract things. Even if what I was extracting was joy, or pleasure, or exploring a new culture to see if it’s any better than life in the United States, there was still an extractive element to seeking better things elsewhere—not much relationship building nor reciprocity. 

For better or worse, the lockdown forced me to reconnect with the Bay Area, where I’d been living for 5 years. For example, I started to unearth memories of being little and climbing the magnolia trees on the corner whenever I was sad or scared. During the pandemic I noticed for the first time that there were magnolia trees a block from my house in Oakland, and I just burst into tears. 

I hadn’t noticed the seasons in Oakland. I hadn’t validated, legitimised, or given any energy towards where I was. But because I didn’t have the option of going elsewhere or getting distracted by some new and exciting piece of land, I realised my deep relationship with a tree. A tree. I truly believe the earth was telling us to slow down and reflect on how much movement is necessary. She’s asking, is it worth what you’re doing to me? These are the things I think about now.

Faith Adiele

is a

Senior Editor for Panorama.

Faith Adiele founded the USA’s first writing workshop for travelers of color through VONA and is the first columnist for DETOUR: Best Stories in Black Travel and a senior editor at PANORAMA: THE JOURNAL OF TRAVEL, PLACE, AND NATURE. Her award-winning memoir MEETING FAITH routinely makes travel listicles, and her travel media credits include A WORLD OF CALM (HBO-Max), Sleep Stories (CALM app), and MY JOURNEY HOME (PBS). A member of the Black Travel Alliance and Airheart Explorer Series, she teaches travel writing around the world, including TRAVELCON. A media expert in mindful, decolonial and BIPOC travel, she publishes in UNDOMESTICATED, HERE MAGAZINE, OFF ASSIGNMENT, BEST WOMEN’S TRAVEL WRITING, MIAMI HERALD, OPRAH MAGAZINE, ESSENCE, and others.

Amanda Machado

Amanda E. Machado (she/they) is a writer, public speaker, and facilitator with ancestry from México and Ecuador. Their work has been published in The Atlantic, Guernica, Harper’s Bazaar, The Washington Post, Adroit Journal, Slate, The Guardian, Sierra Magazine, and others. Amanda also is a public speaker and workshop facilitator on issues of justice and anti-oppression for organisations including Patagonia, The North Face, Seattle Public Library, The Aspen Institute, and HipCamp. She is the founder of Reclaiming Nature Writing, a multi-week online workshop that centres the experiences of people of colour in how we tell stories about the outdoors. Visit her website or follow her on social media @amandaemachado0.

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