November 3, 2022

History in the Soil: Exploring "America Outdoors" with Baratunde Thurston

In summer 2022, PBS released America Outdoors, a miniseries where writer Baratunde Thurston connects viewers to outdoor places and people—expected and unexpected—across the United States.

From meeting Timbisha Shoshone people whose homeland is within what is now known as Death Valley National Park, learning about nature with refugee children in the New Roots program in Boise, Idaho, or observing the commitment of those working to keep the Boundary Waters in Minnesota intact, this six-part series is about how we as human beings interact, honor, and engage with the land that surrounds us. Each episode intersects with issues of equity, access, and the impact of climate change, all while emphasizing how the outdoors invigorates our minds and hearts.

Four people observing a fifth practice a stance on a surfboard in California.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

David Malana, Joi K. Madison, and Lizelle Jackson from Color the Water Surf Club with Baratunde Thurston at Topanga Beach in Malibu, California.

As Thurston says, “A lot of us make the mistake of thinking that history is only human and that it's about people and what we wrote, and what we did. [But that is] missing the context of where. History is literally in the soil, it's in the rocks, it's in the waterways, it's in the trees, and 500 years from now, you will not be a historian if you're just looking at documents. It's just not enough. You're leaving out most of the picture. So to travel like this, to get to experience places and people together, it was history.”

Learn more about the making of America Outdoors in this conversation with Baratunde Thurston (edited for length and clarity).

How did you become the host of America Outdoors?

The outdoors shaped me. My mother made sure that we had access to [the outdoors], and I think it helped keep me sane and keep me alive as D.C. [at that time] was descending into a certain hell. My whole childhood was balanced with outdoor activity, but then I went off to college and plugged into the internet and never came back—with some exceptions such as biking and surfing in New York City.

There was a part of me that said, “You need this. This show is going to be a reconnection point for me. It's not a stretch, it's a homecoming.” And I thought it would be exciting to have me do it, because we don't often see people like me doing outdoor stuff, especially on PBS.

Two men using a spear to catch fish on the Salmon River in Idaho.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

Sammy Matsaw (Shoshone-Bannock) and Baratunde Thurston with a fishing spear at Salmon River in Pocatello, Idaho.

Throughout the series you talk to a lot of people with different histories and backgrounds, and I especially appreciated that almost every episode included a conversation with specific Native American communities.

If we're going to do America outdoors, you literally can't talk about national parks without talking about Indigenous people. You can't talk about "purple mountains majesty or amber waves of grain” and all this romanticized stuff without talking about the people who were here first, who were displaced off the land so that we could build a national park there or a subdivision. Being able to [talk to Indigenous communities] was an honor.

To be able to talk about accessibility, Indigenous land rights, racial discrimination, and criminal justice and climate change with all these different types of people—it's their story.

“History is not in the books, it's in the world, and I hope that this show, for those who can't travel, provides an experience more than some other medium, because of how we tried to bring that history to life.”

Baratunde Thurston

While I'm helping to draw it out, this isn’t “Baratunde’s take” on everything. It's all these great people we found. This is not a show about the outdoors. It's not a nature show. It's a show about people and our relationship with the outdoors, but we literally start with people.

A lot of them opened up to us because they felt that we were approaching them respectfully. We were open and listening, and [because of that the] the Ojibwe, in Minnesota, were like, “You want to try this [harvesting wild rice]?” I was like, yes.

In my head, however, I was saying, please don't let me mess up. Then I'm drumming the rice, knocking the rice, and that's time travel. I'm getting to participate in something that's been handed down since before there was any idea of a place called the United States of America. That's really freaking cool.

If I think about just the word “history” and how we understand and how we experience it, this was tactile and tangible, emotional, physical, and fully immersive. History is not in the books, it's in the world, and I hope that this show, for those who can't travel, provides an experience more than some other medium, because of how we tried to bring that history to life.

Two men stand next to one another along a trail with trees and flowers and a slope behind them.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

Thit Naing, a New Roots camper, with Baratunde Thurston on the Mores Mountain Loop Trailhead in Boise, Idaho.

Many of your reflective moments in the show were about how you felt, how your senses were heightened—essentially why the outdoors is important to wellbeing and mental health.

We've built this narrative that says we are separate from, we are better than, we control, as opposed to we are a part of, we are paired with, we depend on, and so on. Slowing down doesn't have to mean abandoning, and stopping, and ceasing. It can mean connecting and building a relationship with other parties. I sampled a ton of different ways to sync with others: on a surfboard or on horseback for instance, both of which move at a different rhythm than my phone, than my inbox, than my zoom meetings.

And I breathe differently. We breathe differently when we're connected on that level. For me it becomes a spiritual experience too. It's literally a different energy.

All of this was heightened by COVID-19. We made the show in the summer of 2021, so the first time I was indoors without a mask was in North Carolina shooting for America Outdoors.

It was nerve wracking, and so there was an extra sense of wonder beyond nature, because I was not in my house. I’m seeing trees that are not in my backyard. Yay! It was the same for the people that we featured who were often very excited themselves.

A lone man in a canoe in the center of a pristine lake surrounded by dense green foliage.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

Baratunde Thurston paddling a canoe on White Iron Lake in Ely, Minnesota. The lake is part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of the most remote places in the United States.

During every episode, you made it clear that understanding our connection to the outdoors meant also opening our eyes to how it was being altered by climate change. Why was that an important element to include?

There are many stories to tell here. How are communities being affected? How are they responding? How are they adapting? It's a great set of stories to be told there, and here is this show, America Outdoors, which doesn't use climate in the title in any way, but it's embedded, and everywhere we went, we felt it.

In [making the show] we wanted the audience to let their own eyes and ears communicate to them what was happening, [building] a different connection to what climate change means. When we were in Idaho, we never had a clear sky. If you look back at that episode, it's all forest fire-polluted sky. The mountain biking scene [in Boise] was supposed to be green and full of blooms, but it was [actually] brown with only a handful of blooms.

In Los Angeles we talked about the drought, and the challenge of growing food with [Florence Nishida, a Japanese American whose own family history after incarceration during World War II influenced her work]. In Appalachia, the sky was affected by west coast fires, and the New River in West Virginia was epically low. We were in our boats with the waterline above our heads.

Two men, one in a wheelchair, the other on an inflatable raft built to make rafting on a river accessible sit talking to one another.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

Baratunde Thurston and Eric Thompson, a class five river rafting guide and outdoor accessibility advocate with Handicraft Adaptive Whitewater Raft.

A woman and a man eating food underneath a tent laden with produce.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

Florence Nishida eating with Baratunde Thurston at Good Earth Community Garden in Los Angeles.

In Minnesota there's a major drought too, and that kicks off fires. And with [author and photographer] Dudley Edmondson, I had an N-95 mask on when I wasn't on camera to prepare for that. We were supposed to be up at Hawks Ridge, but we couldn’t even see Lake Superior. It was right there, but all I saw was this wall of smoke, until the end of the day when it cleared out and you could see [the lake].

Climate change was present everywhere.

You took care to make sure that there was an element of resilience also included.

I didn't want the show to just be a chronicle of our demise. It is also witnessing a resurgence, and that if we work with nature, we can more than just survive the climate crisis.

[In the show] there were all these people figuring out solutions to some of our problems and ways that we can live together, not just with our human neighbors, but with all our living neighbors. That was a part of the climate experience of this show that wasn't just witnessing degradation. [These] People were listening to and working with nature in an active sense, either, in the case of the Abazs family in Minnesota, migrating a forest and training [the new trees] to be more resilient, or the Trainum family in the Shenandoah Valley [who focus was on foraging to eat sustainably]. There was a hopefulness as well.

Two men, one with photography equipment walking up a train in the woods.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

Dudley Edmonson and Baratunde Thurston walking on a trail at Hawks Ridge Nature Reserve, Duluth, Minnesota.

At the end of each episode, you spend a moment looking into the camera and sharing your impressions of the people you met with and the places you visited. In a lot of ways this show became deeply personal.

I bared my soul in more ways than I signed up for, because I try to stay open. I think the best moments are when I'm not trying to show up as like host man, but as a human. I ask myself: What am I sensing? What am I feeling? What am I remembering?

[During the episode about the Great Dismal Swamp where viewers learned about the enslaved Black communities that were forced to labor there and the maroon communities that found freedom in its deep reaches within older Indigenous settlements] my producer asked, “Do you want a moment to yourself?”

I went over and started feeling more of a homecoming that I hadn’t directly experienced. [A realization] that I'm a direct product of this history before I stepped up on the island. It was cloudy the whole day, drizzly sometimes, but as I stepped up the sun peeks through, dappling all around, I realized, Oh my God, I'm not alone here. I cried at just at the weight of that moment.

That segment [in the Great Dismal Swamp], that’s the whole series. That’s the moment that delivers on everything that we sought to do.

A lone man standing in the middle of an island in a swamp.

photo by: Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS

Baratunde Thurston at the Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, Virginia.

“There are so many things people seek in wild spaces. But I never realized how many of them depend on feeling free. Free to escape the biases and barriers that so many of us face each day. Free to make the most of our time in a place like this. Being here has got me thinking about connections and belonging….

I’m starting to think it’s that sense of belonging that makes people feel so strongly about being in wild spaces and fighting to preserve them.” (Baratunde Thurston, America Outdoors, "Minnesota").

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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