Home Outdoor education The PBS series “America Outdoors” explores the diverse ways we connect with the outdoors

The PBS series “America Outdoors” explores the diverse ways we connect with the outdoors

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“How does our relationship with the outdoors define us as individuals and as a nation? As a storyteller and environmentalist, I have been chasing this question for almost 20 years. As an African American, I have explored this relationship all my life. So I was thrilled to hear it posed by black writer and activist Baratunde Thurston at the start of the new six-part series he hosts on PBS titled America away. (The first episode airs tonight, Tuesday, July 5, at 9 p.m. EST.) As Thurston told me in a phone interview, his goal with this show is to create “a more holistic of the story of being American”. He does this by traveling to various landscapes across the United States, from West Virginia to Los Angeles, and talking to the people he meets there. The show allows viewers to become armchair travelers who can see and experience the history and complexity of our outdoor spaces without ever having to pack a bag. “I feel small and I feel lucky to be a part of all of this,” Thurston says at the end of the first episode, looking out over the vast wasteland of Death Valley from a lawn chair in front of his RV. “Definitely,” I said looking on, nodding vigorously in agreement.

America away is one of a growing number of travel shows trying to change how we talk about nature and our relationship with it, and who we trust to tell us these stories. Refreshingly, it allows Thurston to color (pun intended) the conversation with comments about race, gender, ableism and other forms of difference, to remind us that there is no singular experience of nature which takes precedence. In the first episode, during a visit to Death Valley, he meets Mosi Smith, an African-American ultrarunner. “The outdoors is meant to be a place where we all belong, says Thurston. “But that’s not always the case for many of us.” Thurston and Smith discuss Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who was shot in 2020 while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. “I can’t go out without thinking about it,” says Smith, who has run the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon multiple times. But, he says, “I refuse to let external things dictate my joy.” In a short scene between two black men, the show highlights our country’s legacy of racism and how it is experienced today, including in the outdoors.

You’ll have to put on your metaphorical hiking boots because Mr. Thurston covers a lot of ground, geographically and thematically, in this series. He traverses the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia with archaeologist Dan Sayers and kayaks in New River Gorge State Park with Eric Thompson, a paraplegic rafting guide who speaks passionately about accessibility and d outdoor adaptation. While visiting Appalachia, Thurston meets Jennifer Pharr Davis, who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail three times. They talk about how she was looked down upon and underestimated because of her gender. Initially, she hoped to set the record for the fastest woman to ever ride the AT, not even thinking it was possible for her to break the men’s record. “I figured what I’m doing won’t be as good as what the guys have been doing,” she says. His biggest challenge, it turned out, was his own limited thinking. In 2011, on her third AT ride, she broke the track’s overall supported speed record, becoming the fastest person of any gender to complete it. (His record has since been broken.)

Thanks to Thurston, the show does an exemplary job of elevating other people’s stories on their own terms, not simply as an exercise in extraction or an attempt to signal virtue. It’s no easy task, but Thurston, who is an accomplished writer, pundit, and comedian, is no stranger to engaging diverse audiences. He approaches his role as transmitter and translator with confidence and joy, bringing a degree of seriousness and respect to each encounter. This is exposed when he meets a Timbisha Shoshone elder and activist in Death Valley and an Anishinaabe couple in northern Minnesota. At a time when some have questioned the authenticity of land acknowledgments on social media and elsewhere, their stories felt genuinely presented. The show emphasizes the importance of engaging with each other, listening and being curious.

Thurston’s visit to Los Angeles is perhaps my favorite episode. In LA, Thurston acknowledges the challenge of seeing urban spaces as part of nature, while also addressing how the city’s racial and economic disparities are reflected in its greenery. He speaks with black surfers from Color the Water, an organization that offers free surf lessons to people of color, then visits a community garden where he interviews Florence Nishita, a Japanese-American woman who talks about her love for gardening and share the scars. his family wears it due to their experience in Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Thurston runs with ultrarunner Mosi Smith in Death Valley (Photo: Courtesy of Twin Cities PBS/Part2 Pictures)

His journey continues when he meets incarcerated men and women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds who have become firefighters. Thurston talks about the practice of using incarcerated people to fight the wildfires that ravage California every year, but this story is not about the prison industrial complex. It’s about the passion these men and women feel for firefighting and their willingness to risk their lives. It’s hard to ignore, however, that these firefighters face a system that resists giving people a second chance once they’ve been in jail. The show seems to say that redemption is real and possible. But I wonder if we are ready to make the necessary changes that redemption requires?

It’s hard to talk about these kinds of sensitive topics without potentially alienating people. I can vouch for this – in my own work, I have engaged with hundreds of organizations, institutions, and community groups that invite me to speak about our complex and complicated relationships with nature in the United States. who discerns but does not judge? It doesn’t shy away from the difficult, but is generous in meeting people where they are, so they can take that leap to “step out of their comfort zone”, as Thurston suggests, and ultimately change and grow. ‘adapt?

America away doesn’t always go as far as it could when exploring issues like climate change, racism, and economic disparity. Whether it’s xenophobia in Idaho or the loss of jobs in West Virginia, conversations sometimes only scratch the surface of pain, fear, pain and resistance to change that so many of us are facing. I also wanted to know more about how Thurston was really feeling during those conversations. When I asked him questions about it, he revealed to me that his personal journey was not always finalized. Thurston told me his most significant moment came during a visit to the Great Dismal Swamp, which was a haven for runaway slaves for more than 200 years. Contemplating this place and its history, he says, he “knelt down and just cried… out of admiration.”

Skimming over those moments was perhaps a missed opportunity, because for an audience to change their minds, they have to be willing to feel uncomfortable while addressing the tough questions. I understand that America away is a television show, and part of its mandate is to entertain. Yet I can’t help but think that real change happens when we feel something. Only then can we tackle the inherent biases that we all possess.

But all journeys have a beginning, and America away gives its viewers a free ticket to take that first step. “I tasted the transformation,” says Thurston. “I want this for more people.” I believe him. He and his team have created a new breed of nature show, which emphasizes, as Thurston puts it, that “we are all connected.” And he does it with honesty and a commitment to telling a good story.

It turns out that this show isn’t the only one venturing into new territory: at least one other new outdoor series with a non-white host is coming: Ornithologist Extraordinary on National Geographic, featuring Christian Cooper, who was sadly accosted in Central Park by a white dog owner named Amy Cooper. But we still have work to do: while both shows have black hosts, both are male. How might the point of view of these series be further expanded and transformed by challenging who has the power to inspire audience trust and tell a good story? Thurston said it best: we must “shine the light on the same lessons from different angles” in order to enlighten and set us all free.