An upshot of the pandemic is that it's forcing people outdoors, a reality that Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., is taking full advantage of as it focuses on exploring Black history through nature.
Voices in the Landscape is an interactive audio exhibit at Longwood Gardens. At each stop, guests can use their phones to listen to recordings of storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston, explaining Black history as it relates to horticulture. She lectures on the history of Black gardening, recounts stories from Africa, and even sings Negro spirituals.
There are many studies that show being in nature is great for mental and physical health.
"More than ever before, we're seeing our visitors seeking the restorative and the healing powers of the gardens," says Erin Feeney, the director of Landscape Architecture at Longwood Gardens.
Sephora Kolelas and Navigaye Simpson came to Longwood to take pictures. They did not know about the exhibit. While in Longwood's conservatory, they listened to a piece about George Washington Carver, a man known for his many innovations in sustainable agriculture (though he did not invent peanut butter).
Simpson and Kolelas both agree that learning about Carver's history provided them a more profound experience at the gardens.
"Instead of just coming in and thinking, 'Oh, those flowers are purple, that's nice!' It's way more than that now, listening to these," Simpson says.
Besides Kolelas and Simpson, there were not many Black visitors at the gardens on Feb. 21. Jerry Poe, a Senior Public Safety Officer at Longwood Gardens, has recognized this problem.
"If you don't see a lot of us here, you don't think you belong," he says.
Poe has worked at the gardens for 27 years. He loves it, but he admits that the town has a perception of Longwood that only the affluent visit. He says that doesn't include many people of color in Kennett Square.
At the same time, Voices in the Landscape had a large impact on him, especially the stories from parts of Africa. His favorite was "Making a Connection," a stop about an ancient plant from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa called Wood's Cycad. In the recording, Alston talks about the history of the plant and recounts an ancient Zulu creation story, in which the reeds of a plant dropped into the Earth by the creator, uMvelinqangi, becomes the source of all people and things. This story helped Poe connect to his roots.
"I just know it has touched me in a different way than other things that Longwood has done here," he says.
Poe would like to see this exhibit become permanent and for Longwood to find more ways to reach the people of color in his town.
Longwood Gardens hopes the exhibition will be a step forward. Voices in the Landscape will stay at Longwood Gardens through March 21st.
Abbey Gau, Longwood's Marketing and Communications Specialist, says, "The Black community is definitely underrepresented, and we know that. We're hoping exhibits like this can help to bring that audience. We're trying to diversify our programs and really be accessible to all."
Alston, the storyteller, says she hopes that Voices in the Landscape will help Black people peel back another layer of their history, one that does not get told as often.
"We moved the agriculture of this country and moved the economy of this country through agriculture for centuries," she says. "We have a long standing relationship with America's soil and with gardening."
Similar events have been held across the country.
Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tn., had their rangers explore the ways in which African American stories are connected to the landscape in their Black History Month Ranger Talks. Seattle Parks and Recreation has encouraged its residents to learn about the city's Black history by visiting its different parks.
Black history is always on display at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Catonsville, Md. It has chosen to focus on its outdoor events since it reopened during the pandemic. They teach visitors about Black agricultural history and farming techniques year-round, and through their event, "Forgotten Contributions to Farming".
Remembering such history reminds us that Black people have always had deep connections to nature.
The first stop on the Longwood exhibit, "The Power of Story," ends with this: "We have always found ways to heal out of American soil. Gardens of hope for our future."
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