Lessons and Land

by Esme Murdock, Ph.D.
I am a scholar who researches environmental justice, African American/African Diasporic, and Indigenous environmental philosophies. How I came to be a scholar is a story written by my desire to understand myself as a black woman living on Indigenous lands in a settler colony and how to move through the world in a way that keeps me, and others whole. This is a long and unfinished story, but I will share part of it with you; a narrative brimming with the presence, memory, land, water, and peoples I call my relations.
I grew up on the pre-contact lands of Mohegan and Mohegan-related-Algonquin-speaking peoples and the contemporary territories of the Paugussett Nation, in what is currently called southwestern Connecticut, on the shore of what is currently called Long Island Sound. I was never taught about the Indigenous peoples and nations who call this place the “Long Water Land,” and I never learned of land memories outside of colonization and whiteness. However, in writing this I am going to share how my upbringing is storied with these lands, waters, and peoples. I’m going to explain how where I am from and who raised me taught me that lands, waters, peoples, and justice are all inextricably related.
I am seven years old, walking down the street I live on with my mother to mail a letter. I stop to pick a leaf off an old maple tree. My mother bends down to my eye level, looks at me, and says, “You must ask before taking, and you must also thank for what is given.” I nod, look at the leaf, the tree, apologize, and express gratitude. We continue on our errand. My mother was teaching me about consent, about relationships. She was teaching me to respect another who was not me or excessively like me.
I am eight years old, carrying a plastic bucket behind my father as we set up to fish off a bridge where the backwater of the Sound flows into the beginnings of estuary and marshland, where the water is wide. We are fishing for bluefish; my father teaches me what this relationship requires through continuous casting and reeling. While my father demonstrates, I watch the white heron stand stock still, one foot raised in the air, and realize the heron has a different and equally important relationship to fish that requires a different method, stillness.
My mother, my father, maple tree, bluefish, and heron are all teachers. These stories and experiences taught me about the connection between peoples, lands, and waters, how we need each other, how we are different, yet connected. How the story of justice is written with all of us.
My mother taught me sensitivity to otherness and gave me a language to understand violations of consent and how otherness is often used as a justification for mistreatment. In part, her womanhood taught her those lessons.
My father taught me that not all relationships are the same, and you have to know who you are relating to in order to be oriented to them correctly; to speak their language requires listening and learning. In part, his blackness taught him those lessons.
I learned to pay attention to the world around me in all the abundant manifestations of Creation. In part, my womanhood and my blackness teach me these lessons.
The “Long Water Land” has millions of such histories and lessons, some steeped in past and continuous injustice and some steeped in the limitless joys of Creation. We need all the stories to be whole.
For further reading on regional Indigenous histories, explore “Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England.”
Dr. Esme Murdock is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San Diego State University and served as a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College this year. Her research explores the intersections of social/political relations and environmental health, integrity, and agency.