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Legacy On The Land

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Aired 2/9/10

Audrey and Frank Peterman were unfamiliar with the National Park Service. As the result of their eventful 12,000 mile cross-country trip through 40 states, they are now considered 'expert' environmentalists on the public lands system. Audrey Peterman joins us in studio to discuss her book, "Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Just for a moment, create a mental image of a stereotypical environmentalist. Perhaps you picture a man in the great outdoors wearing hiking boots and eating a granola bar, or maybe a long haired-woman in khaki pants and a kerchief around her head. But no matter what other stereotypes you included in your image of an environmentalist, I bet the person you pictured wasn't black. The environmental movement has been seen for some time as almost exclusively white but, that's a situation my next guest is helping to turn around. Audrey Peterman, with her husband Frank, has become active in promoting our great national environmental heritage to people of all races. Her book is called "Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care." Audrey Peterman, welcome to These Days.

AUDREY PETERMAN (Environmentalist/Author): Thank you so much, Maureen. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

CAVANAUGH: Now you began your adventure in the American wilderness in 1995. What is it that led you to just pick up and just travel around the U.S.?

PETERMAN: Well, interestingly enough, my husband and I had been married for only a couple of years and we had decided we had – he had seen a show on TV about Belize in Central America, which emphasized how the Belizean people really treasured their – the natural world and treasured their land and thought that it was the best possible thing that they had to pass on to their children. So we decided that we, with our last child having graduated from college, it was time for us to enjoy our real lives and we were going to move to Belize and open a bed and breakfast and live near the rainforest and go to sleep at night hearing the howler monkeys. But preparatory to doing that, we went down and Frank spent a month exploring and on his last day before he came back to America, he was in a bar having a drink with a local Belizean man and they got to talking about cowboy movies and then they got to talking about the badlands where many of the cowboy movies were filmed. And so the gentleman said to Frank, well, what do the badlands look like? And Frank said, uh, I don’t know. I’ve never seen them.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

PETERMAN: The gentleman said, but you live in America. So what does the Grand Canyon look like? And Frank said, uh, I never saw that either. So when he came back home to where we were living in Ft. Lauderdale, he said, honey, it’s not time to go to Belize. How about we take some time off and go and discover our own country? And I said, sign me up, let’s go.

CAVANAUGH: So tell me, how did – what kind of reaction did you get when you decided just to sort of pick up and begin moving around the country?

PETERMAN: It was hysterical because, first of all, we had this idea that we were going to be in the woods, you know, hiking and camping and exploring and discovering. And our – Frank’s mother was alive at the time and she was horrified. Many of our friends and relatives were just terrified. They were like, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you know what happens to black people in the woods? The woods are not friendly to black people. In fact, several of Frank’s friends actually offered him guns to take with him for protection. But both of us were very firm on the fact that, you know, we were not going out looking for trouble. We are Americans.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PETERMAN: I was on the verge of becoming a naturalized American.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERMAN: And we didn’t take a gun and we had nothing but pleasurable experiences.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, you grew up in Jamaica.

PETERMAN: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And, I wonder, did any of that experience prepare you for camping and hiking in the – in North America?

PETERMAN: Well, actually, no because I had never camped before in my life and the idea of hiking was nonexistent in Jamaica. And yet, you know, I grew up so closely embedded and enfolded in nature that even the word ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ were never spoken. It’s like a fish doesn’t know it swims if it lives in water, so in the same way, I was so totally immersed in nature and in the natural world that I had no concept of it outside of myself.

CAVANAUGH: So let’s go back to the reaction that you got when you first – you and Frank said you were first going to go out and explore the country, the great natural wonders of the United States. Did this put – did this make you think twice about this adventure you were embarking on?

PETERMAN: Oh, no. No. I think because I grew up in a country where the majority of people are black and I grew up in a very safe environment, I really have not been bogged down with a lot of fear in my life and I’m very grateful for that because actually that’s one of the chief messages that Frank and I bring out from our story, that if we had allowed ourselves to be intimidated by other people’s fears, we would still perhaps have been in the same niche doing the same routine, everyday things instead of embarking on this amazing life of adventure and discovery that we’ve been on ever since.

CAVANAUGH: So tell us what it was like when you finally, you and Frank finally did get to one of these remarkable – the Grand Canyon or one of these remarkable environmental beauties that we have in this country.

PETERMAN: Oh, first I have to tell you about the first national park.

CAVANAUGH: Please do.

PETERMAN: Acadia.

CAVANAUGH: Acadia.

PETERMAN: In Maine. And I had no idea actually that it was a national park. But here we were, you know, on the edge, on the Atlantic Ocean, the highest, I think, Cadillac Mountain, which is in Acadia, is one of the highest places on the north Atlantic coast. And so we’re driving up this mountain which is surrounded by this forest on the edge of the ocean and we’re driving and we’re driving, we’re driving. We’re above the clouds even. And then we get up there and, oh, my God, there’s this amazing, shimmering panorama of light and water and beauty. And it was just entrancing. But even then I had no concept that this was a national park. I saw the name, Acadia National Park, but that meant really nothing to me. It was just a beautiful place.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERMAN: But as we traveled across the country and then came to the badlands, oh, my God. If you haven’t seen the badlands, holy moley, you need to because suddenly, you know, there you are on the road and it’s just the normal earth that you’re accustomed to and then you turn off at the sign that says Badlands National Park and suddenly you’re enfolded in this panorama, in this vista of natural beauty where it’s like all the earth is gathered up into like sandstone and it’s formed in the shape of temples and spires and pyramids. And it’s unbelievable beauty as far as the eye could see. Oh. And then, you know, getting to Yellowstone, wow. That was actually when I recognized that these beautiful places that we were experiencing were not just isolated beautiful places but they all had this tag behind them: park. National park. National park. And so it was finally in Yellowstone that I said, what the heck is a national park?

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Audrey Peterman and she and her husband have written a book, “Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Park (sic) Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care." Why should ever American care, Audrey? Why did you write this book?

PETERMAN: Oh, I – We wrote the book because we wanted to communicate to the American public that each of us is here to a tremendous natural legacy. Much of the land that was here before the Europeans came still remains in the interior of the country in its natural state even though much of it on the coasts, you know, has been developed. But the National Park System actually comprises 394 units spread out across the country that really commemorate the natural beauty, the history, and the culture of our country since its inception. And consequently, it also contains the stories of all the people and all the ethnic groups who have contributed to the development of the country. And it’s quite, quite different from the text that we have gotten in most history books.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. And in one of – from the title of your book, one of the reasons is you want to bring this to people of all colors, of all races, and I’m wondering why has there been this color barrier when it comes to our natural environment?

PETERMAN: Well, I think that we got an inkling of that when we started out and people were so afraid. I mean, in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about militia men in the outdoors…

CAVANAUGH: Militia men, yes.

PETERMAN: …and that whole thing.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERMAN: And then, of course, the experience of African-Americans in this country has been rife with violence that has been perpetrated against people primarily in the outdoors, off the beaten path. You know, the lynchings that took place were – many of them were outside of city limits. And so there is that ingrained and subconscious fear in people that really has not been expurgated because I feel that nobody has taken the time to actually emphasize that, you know, yes, those were those days but now the time has changed dramatically. Those impediments are not in place anymore and it’s time for us to take hold of our natural – collective natural heritage.

CAVANAUGH: And is it still true that our national parks are not visited proportionately by blacks and Latinos and other minorities?

PETERMAN: Oh, yes, that is very true. In fact, I – To look at the workforce, for example, at the National Park System, in 2007, 72.7% of the workforce in the National Park System was still white. And the visitorship is a minute percentage of the population of the people of color. And when you go to many of the large scale national parks such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, for example, you are much more likely to see people from Japan, people from India, people from France and Germany than you are likely to see any of America’s native sons and daughters who are people of color. And I think one of the reasons is the lack of information. There’s really, unless you know that they exist, it’s very hard for you to find out about them.

CAVANAUGH: And why is that so? Why is there so little information getting to people of color about these natural wonders that we have all over the country?

PETERMAN: Beats me. You know, one of the things that we have heard from the National Park System is that they are prohibited by law from advertising. And my response is this, when is informing the public necessarily the same thing as advertising? Because the National Park System contains the record of our collective national inheritance, and the Park Service is charged with maintaining these places for the inspiration and enjoyment of the American people. So to the extent that a growing number of people, as we know the growing demographics in America are among communities of color, to the extent that these people do not know about these places, they don’t have either the opportunity to enjoy them or to benefit from them in the myriad ways that they can bring benefit to our lives.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Audrey Peterman and I’m speaking with her about her adventures in our national parks with her husband Frank and also about the book, “"Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance (sic)." How did you discover, Audrey, the history of African-Americans was so interwoven into the history of our national parks?

PETERMAN: It actually happened quite by chance. We were in Sequoia National Park in – well, we’ve never stopped. Since we discovered the national parks, it has become, you know, the intent of our lives. Every time we’re going someplace, we’re looking for what national park is there. So we were in Sequoia and we had been hearing for a long time that the Buffalo Soldiers were actually instrumental in protecting the giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park. And in 2003, actually, the Park Service had an anniversary event that commemorated that service. And it was from that time then that we began actively looking for instances in the national parks that were really directly related to the contributions of African-Americans. And we found them all over the country, from Florida all the way to Alaska.

CAVANAUGH: Going back to Sequoia, there’s actually a giant tree that has the name of one of the – the captain of one of those soldiers, isn’t there?

PETERMAN: Yes, actually Colonel Charles Young, he was the head of the deployment that protected the parks in – Sequoia in 1903 and actually he did such a wonderful job, his team did such an amazing job, that the local population tried to prevail upon him to name one of the giant sequoias after himself and he would not do it. He said that those lofty beings should never, you know, be relegated to the – to be named after any human being.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERMAN: But he did relent in time and he did name one giant sequoia for Booker T. Washington…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETERMAN: …who was his contemporary at the time. And that giant sequoia tree is still standing there today. It’s an amazing story. And if I can tell you this…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

PETERMAN: …when the park did the 100 year – the centennial of the Buffalo Soldiers service, and one of the people that they brought back was Theodore Hamilt – Theodore, I think his name is Hamilton, but anyway he worked for the California State Park System and he was the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my.

PETERMAN: Yes. And when they – Ted Jackson, his name was, yes. And when they brought him up to the park and I asked him how do you feel to know that there was a giant sequoia named for your great-great grandfather? He said, I’m less impressed by that because there’s so many things named for him, what really impresses me is I have been considered in my profession to be a leader, a pioneer, and now I come and find that I have history dating back 100 years up in here. So it’s just unbelievable.

CAVANAUGH: You know, one of the really moving stories that you tell in your book, “Legacy on the Land,” is about the Sable Guides of Mammoth Cave. Tell us about that.

PETERMAN: Oh, that’s a heart wrenching story. The – Apparently Mammoth Cave, before it became a national park in the 1930s…

CAVANAUGH: And where…?

PETERMAN: It’s in Kentucky.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, okay, thank you.

PETERMAN: The state of Kentucky. And it is actually one of – I think it’s the longest cave system in the world. And the cave was explored in the early 1830s by a group of young, enslaved Africans, the Bransfords – Matt Bransford and Stephen Bishop were these two young guides, and it’s such a fascinating story because they explored the underground cave system without the benefit of electricity. And they were charged with the care and protection of all the wealthy, white tourists who were the only people who could come and explore the cave at that time. And so think about this, they were slaves above ground but masters underground because the people who visited the caves were warned to obey their slightest command as it could mean the difference between life and death.

CAVANAUGH: And in your book, you note that even today in some of the most dangerous areas of the cave and the hardest to get to areas of the cave, they find inscriptions from these guides…

PETERMAN: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …way back then.

PETERMAN: Yes. Yes. And this family, members of this family guided in the cave system continuously for a full 100 years. And when the cave system was bought in the 1940s, I believe, by the National Park System, all of the black guides were let go. But today, a descendent of theirs is once again guiding at Mammoth Cave. Yes, his name is Jerry Bransford.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

PETERMAN: It’s in the book.

CAVANAUGH: That’s wonderful. You have another story in the book. There’s so many stories in this book, I – we’re not going to have time for all of them but if you could tell us a little bit about the Sage of Porgy Key? Is that correct?

PETERMAN: Yes, the Sage of Porgy Key. My God. This story is told in Ken Burns’ documentary…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, umm-hmm.

PETERMAN: …”The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” And I’m so proud to say that we introduced them to that story. It’s amazing. And it’s the story of this African-American family that actually bought an island in Biscayne National – in Biscayne Bay in 1897. Who knew that black people owned islands in America in 1897? And they ultimately owned two and a half islands in a place, in an area, that was frequented by people in high society, like President Nixon was a person who frequented the Coco Lobo Club, which was just across from their property. So jump to the 1970s and they’ve been in – on this land continuously for more than 70 years and then a group of developers wanted to develop the area and turn it into another Miami Beach. And the son of the family, his name was Sir Lancelot Jones, this family had two sons and they named them King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. Sir Lancelot refused to sell his property to the people who wanted to exploit it and, in fact, sold the land at a loss to the Park Service because he insisted there have to be some places where people can go and find themselves once again in nature.

CAVANAUGH: And this is what you’re talking about when you say all of these stories that you don’t find in history books.

PETERMAN: Yes, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And were you actually surprised to learn about this web of stories you found when – as you were discovering these wonderful aspects of the United States.

PETERMAN: I was completely entranced and amazed. And that really fired my passion to get the word out into the larger community, into the country, and particularly to young African-American people, young Latino people, who really don’t necessarily see themselves of having – as having a proud legacy in America. And I wanted people to know that, yes, you have so much to be proud of, your ancestors’ contribution is commemorated in these most sacred places in America, in the National Park System and you shouldn’t be the last to know.

CAVANAUGH: Do you find yourself now not quite as lonely as an African-American environmentalist? Is the attitude changing now? Do you think?

PETERMAN: Well, I find that there’s hundreds and thousands of us. We just put on a conference in Atlanta last year that brought together more than 250 people of white, Latino, Asian and African-American descent, many of whom are mountain climbers and the first African-American to sail solo around the globe, a young Latino man who’s going to Antarctica to save the last remaining wilderness, all of these people who are doing amazing things and who are leading programs that connect young people to the outdoors because, as you know, more and more literature is coming out now showing that people need that connection to nature in order to be healthy, in order to be sane.

CAVANAUGH: Where are you going next?

PETERMAN: Where am I going next? I’m going to Little Rock, Arkansas. I have not been to Little Rock Central High School and I get to go speak there this coming week and…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s fascinating.

PETERMAN: Yes. I’m excited by that.

CAVANAUGH: Have you visited all of the national parks?

PETERMAN: Oh, I wish. That is my goal in life. There are 394 units; I’m right now up to 153…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

PETERMAN: …and my goal is to go to all 394 by which time I hope they will have created another 200 because it’s an evolving process, you know.

CAVANAUGH: And I just want to ask you, Audrey, did you ever get to really enjoy camping?

PETERMAN: I love camping. I love camping. And one of the things that really confounds people of color is that they think that in order to be in the outdoors you have to camp and rough it. And lots of people of color are so accustomed to roughing it historically they don’t want to go back to those days. And so I’m so thrilled to tell people that in almost every national park you can find a lodge, you can find a high-end hotel or you can find accommodations just outside the park that – so that you don’t need to rough it. But I do enjoy camping.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone that you can meet Audrey Peterman tonight at REI San Diego. It’s located at 5556 Copley Drive. She’ll sign copies of her book, “Legacy on the Land,” and give a talk about her personal journey to becoming an avid hiker, camper and adventurer. Audrey, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

PETERMAN: Thank you so much. You’re magnificent.

CAVANAUGH: So are you. Thank you. And I want to let everyone know that they can post comments about anything they hear on These Days online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes.

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