On murky nights, when dullness stole the sky and blanketed the North Star, Harriet Tubman used her vast forestry skills to propel forward those escaping slavery.
As a child, she learned moss only grew on the northward side of trees and used that knowledge to help direct dozens of people on the Underground Railroad. To blend into the cacophony of forest sounds, she would use owl calls to alert the group when the coast was clear.
She saw the relationship between humans and nature as reciprocal, historians argue, depending on the land to forage and grow vegetables such as okra, tomatoes, and collard greens. Much of the journey north ran along water banks, requiring travelers to understand currents and seasonal water levels.
In recent years, using these examples and Tubman’s upbringing on farmlands — and in plantation slavery — scholars now view her as one of the earliest examples of an environmental justice practitioner in U.S. history. She used the natural world around her to combat the country’s biggest injustice.
Tubman’s beliefs and actions have inspired generations of Black people fighting for climate and environmental justice, including Paulette Green and Donna Dear, the couple who now own and steward a piece of the land that Tubman’s family once lived on and regularly used as a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. It’s the site of the “Witness Tree,” where those escaping slavery prayed at the tree’s trunk for a safe journey north.
For the couple affectionately known as “The Aunties,” running the 111-acre farm in Caroline County, Maryland, is an intentional step toward “real climate justice,” especially on the state’s Eastern Shore, where marshes and trees paint the landscape and rising sea levels threaten centuries of history.
Since the couple of 50 years moved onto the land in 1994, they’ve instilled their own natural practices to maintain it, much inspired by Tubman. And as Black land and history have faced an onslaught of threats over the past several years, they believe it’s more important than ever to protect the land’s history and emphasize its importance for the future of Black American life.
Green and Dear feel privileged to be facilitating the restoration of relationships between Black people and land, Green said: “At Mount Pleasant Acres Farm, Black history is every day.”
“Blackness has always been rooted in us, it’s always been there, and we’re highlighting it through honoring the history of Harriet Tubman, forestry management, and organic food production.”
“We’ve always made clear that love is a priority”
Earlier this month, a short documentary featuring Green and Dear premiered at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia. The film followed the farmer couple, themselves descendants of farmers, as they restore the ecosystem of Tubman’s farm against the threat of climate change.
The region faces an existential crisis spurred by the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that feed it, which have crept into the marshes surrounding Tubman’s former home. With that sea level rise, the land is subsiding, too. As development grows and communities push deeper into underground aquifers in search of clean drinking water, the ground has begun to sink with it.
The landscape is profoundly altered, too, as timbering has decimated the tree population and created sparse “ghost” forests. The loss of the land and the way of life it supported make it harder for the history of its formerly enslaved inhabitants to be remembered.
Through efforts to withstand the erasure of their farm and forests beyond it, Dear and Green have reframed their relationship to history, particularly the idea of freedom and what reparations might mean for Black people facing stockpiled threats. They live on and care for land, which at one time symbolized a new dawn for Black folks, but because of climate change — fueled by environmental racism — the farm’s future is at risk, Green said.
“We talk about the end of slavery being connected to freedom, but it really isn’t, because freedom is something that we were born with — we were freed when we left our mother’s womb,” she said.
“The institution of slavery created a perpetual kind of bondage, and if we don’t talk about what the institution of slavery did to slaves and, ultimately, the descendants of slaves, then we are missing out on dismantling slavery and its continued impacts.”
A desire to protect and uplift this history brought a team of organizers and co-directors, Jeannine Kayembe-Oro and Charlyn Griffith-Oro from the Center for Cultural Power, a women-of-color-led organization, to The Aunties’ land. The group is building a “world where power is distributed equitably and where we live in harmony with nature.”
“We can’t talk about the climate crisis without land conservation, Black land reclamation, remembering ancestral foodways, organic farming,” said Kayembe-Oro. “And we really can’t talk about it without talking about love, relationships, intimacy, and remembering these connections between the future and the past.”
Dear and Green see it the same way, using their time on the land to connect with their ancestral history, strengthen their relationship with each other, and protect the landscape around them. As they’ve affirmed the land, they’ve also affirmed each other and their love. After 40 years of unionship, they were legally married on the farm in 2014.
“We’ve always made clear that love is a priority,” Green said.
The farm has benefited from that love. Over the past several decades, the couple have planted 2,000 trees on the farm, re-introduced native grasses, and exclusively used organic practices to grow fruits and vegetables. Visitors from all over the world and children from the neighboring communities regularly frequent the farm for “farm education” events where agriculture and forestry skills are taught, and the history of the Underground Railroad is passed on.
As flooding became more common, instead of using harsh irrigation methods, they planted an orchard grove, which they call “Harriet’s Grove,” lined with berry bushes and nut trees that serve as natural sponges.
‘We want this farm to remain natural in perpetuity’
The practices of care and love are essential aspects of ensuring climate justice, said Griffith-Oro.
“It means a lot to build climate justice from a place of agroecology and remembering that nothing happens in a bubble,” said Griffith-Oro. For example, “if we’re talking about the price of food, then what we’re talking about is the price of land and clean water needed to farm, and the community tending the land.”
Griffith-Oro said watching The Aunties’ foster a relationship with their land and each other made them realize they weren’t “just dating” co-director Kayembe-Oro, who they married last year. “As we began really getting closer with [The Aunties], we understood that we were meant to follow a trajectory, not unlike theirs.”
The Aunties hope to continue inspiring others to be better stewards of the land around them and better practitioners of love and community building, just as Tubman did, regardless of climate change or any land grab attempts.
“We want this farm to remain natural in perpetuity, to be dedicated to Harriet Tubman and her family forever,” Green said.
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