Coming home to nature

Coming home to nature
Nicole Jackson found her refuge there. She works to help natural areas be welcoming to people of color.
(Photo: Ken Chamberlain, CFAES)
(Photo: Ken Chamberlain, CFAES)

Story by Alayna DeMartini

In some ways, Nicole Jackson does not fit the stereotype of a bird watcher. She is a millennial and she is African American. 

She knows there are many, many more African Americans, who, like her, are youngish and thrive on birding or just being outdoors. And she wants to change any perception that people of color aren’t interested in the outdoors, as well as the reality that they don’t always feel welcomed there. 

But can’t we all go to parks? Yes and no, Jackson said. No one is banned from walking into a public park. However, not everyone lives by a park or a natural area, nor does everyone have the time or the means of getting to one. Some of the obstacles to getting to parks are perceived (Do I need expensive gear to hike?). Some are not. 

African Americans haven’t always felt safe or welcomed in parks, Jackson said. Though the Jim Crow laws that kept Blacks out of certain parks in the southern United States ended in the mid-1960s— about 60 years ago— there are still reminders, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, of why people of color might, at times, feel uncomfortable in parks.

During a hike last winter, Jackson met up with other Columbus area birders in their search for ducks, hawks and gulls.

On Memorial Day, a white woman walking her dog off-leash in New York’s Central Park was involved in a confrontation with an African American birdwatcher. He asked her to leash her dog, which is the park’s rule. She didn’t. While he videotaped her, she told the man she was going to call the police and say that “an African American man” had threatened her life. Then she dialed 911.

“There was a time when I didn’t think I belonged in outdoor spaces,” Jackson said. 

Growing up, whenever she visited parks, she was among mostly white people. 

She has experienced uncomfortable looks and questions (Are you from here? Are you lost?). On social media, she has heard of more overt signs of racism against African Americans in the outdoors, she said. 

“This type of incident was something I was all too familiar with.”

Within days of the Central Park conflict, and in response to it, Jackson helped organize and promote the first Black Birders Week. It became a national social media campaign to increase the visibility of Black birders and Black nature enthusiasts. From May 31 to June 6, people of color posted outdoor pictures and videos of birds and other intriguing finds in the wild. 

“Nature’s beauty is diverse, so the population occupying it should be as well.”Nicole Jackson

“Black Birders Week gave me a chance to openly share my feelings about these incidents,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one feeling tired of it all.” 

In her position as the program coordinator for the Environmental Professionals Network at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), Jackson aims to get more students, particularly African American students, connected to environmental career opportunities. She also holds a part-time job running a CFAES program that certifies people to become volunteer naturalists. 

A longtime nature-lover, Jackson first connected with the outdoors as a child growing up in Cleveland. When she was five, she became a foster child, and while in foster care, she was abused. The outdoors became her therapy.

“It was definitely a distraction from what I was going through every day,” Jackson said. “Smelling a flower, watching a caterpillar, those put me at ease.”

Soak it in, she would tell herself, because she never knew when she might have another opportunity to witness it again. 

In 2009, Jackson had an internship that involved putting bands on the legs of Acadian flycatchers to track them.

As a break from the anxiety she often felt, she sought out trees, vines, and the rose bush that grew in front of one of her childhood homes. She took care of that bush, watering it when it needed it, because, in some ways, it had taken care of her, offering her moments of solace, something to wonder about. 

In most of her experiences in nature, Jackson was alone. When she visited parks with her family for occasions such as family reunions, Jackson went off to find her own trail to a lake or woods. 

It wasn’t until a college internship that Jackson became interested in bird-watching. While an undergraduate at CFAES, her advisor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources studied birds around the world. She suggested Jackson pursue a summer position doing field research on Acadian flycatchers and northern cardinals. Why not? Jackson thought. The prospect of spending much of her day outdoors intrigued her.

“Just to be able to watch those birds, look at their behavior, I was really fascinated,” she said. 

She especially loved discovering eggs in nests, knowing they would eventually turn into babies, and those babies would fly off on their own.

“Just to be able to watch those birds, look at their behavior, I was really fascinated.”Nicole Jackson

After graduating with a degree in environmental education, Jackson worked at nature centers and parks in the Columbus area, working closely with urban youth to encourage their interest in nature.

She’s passionate about getting more young people of color involved in the outdoors, teaching them that they too can have a place in it.  

As a member of an advisory council that supports national parks, Jackson helps recommend ways to bring in more visitors, including people of color, to the parks. A 2018 National Park Service report found that although the nation is increasingly ethnically diverse, visitors to national parks are far less so—95% white. 

Jackson hopes to help change that. She wants to normalize the idea that Black people are also nature-lovers, some of them birders.

“To a lot of people, that’s weird or abnormal,” Jackson said. “Why does it have to be this unusual thing? I’m a person of color and I like birding. Sometimes you are looked at as being unique or an outlier. That can be unsettling.” 

And yet, that too has gotten her a lot of media interviews recently, including articles on the websites for PBS’ Nature and Portland Audubon.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson has tried to squeeze in time to bird-watch, just to tap into the Zen of it all.

Part of what draws Jackson to birdwatching is that it's calming and slides her into the present. (Photo: Ken Chamberlain, CFAES)

“I go on a lot of outings by myself, with my binoculars, and wait to see what shows up,” she said. “I’m more of a casual birder.”

Sometimes, she’ll spot a bird that wandered far from home. During a bird-watching jaunt at a nature center near downtown Columbus, she and her friend happened upon a tern. 

“You don’t normally see a coastal bird in a city,” she said. “You usually think of more bird species being in rural areas, but birds can be found everywhere. They thrive in different ways, and that just means they’re resilient.”

It is resilience that Jackson admires most about birds—that they hatch and within just a few weeks move out of their nests, building new ones from nature’s scraps. In an urban environment that might not offer much food, they still can survive, and they keep moving. 

In describing how adaptable birds are, Jackson, in some ways, describes a quality in herself, always looking ahead. As a young child, she sought out libraries just to connect herself with people and places and animals she wouldn’t have otherwise known about. 

“Reaching out as far as I could to things and to people was my way of being resilient. Knowing that there’s so many different types of people, different types of nature—that kept me moving forward,” she said. 

And yet nature slows her down as well, sliding her into the present. She just waits for something to happen and savors the times that it does—when she sees a bird she’s only flipped past in the pages of a guidebook, when she listens to leaves stirring in the wind, or when she watches slices of sunlight through grass.

“Being OK with not having to say anything in nature is intriguing,” she said. “Just having a space to receive whatever nature is giving you. Nature just says, ‘I’m here with you.’”

And Jackson stands by. She did as a young girl and she does now when she’s anxious, caught up in what she needs to get done in the next few hours, in the next few days. Nature helps her reset, teaches her patience—that all she has to do is watch and wait and something she might not have expected just might unfold.