'Seeing' series: A story about a weeping cherry tree, and the restoration of family legacy
Before formal training and other layers of life experience, Dr. Carolyn Finney — a storyteller, cultural geographer, and artist-in-residence at Middlebury College — began her engagement with land in her childhood.
She grew up on a 12-acre estate in Westchester County, stewarded by her parents for 50 years. It is on this estate in the early 1960s, at the age of 5 years old, where she became an “accidental environmentalist.”
It started with her pet duck. “Ducks will imprint on you," she said. "At the time, we used to have this screened-in porch. And we keep this little duck inside, in the screened in porch. One day, we all had to go into town, which was literally five minutes away.
“Instead of leaving the duck inside the screen porch, we blocked the exit of the yard so that he could be outside. While the duck couldn’t get out — there was also a stone wall — it never occurred to us that something could get in.
"When we returned, we couldn't find the duck anywhere. We looked all over the property and we eventually see this big tom cat with a duck hanging out of his mouth! So I'm very upset.
“A week or two later, I'm outside, pushing my doll carriage. I see that same cat and that cat is chasing a chipmunk. And I'm like, ‘Oh no, he's not getting that chipmunk.’
Watch Shanta Lee Gander's full interview with Dr. Carolyn Finney here:
“I think, I know where they're going to run to and I climb up on this rock and I pick up a small rock. And my plan is when the chipmunk and the cat run by, I'm going to drop the rock on the cat's head, it’s going to stun them and give the chipmunk time to escape.
“Remember, I'm 5 or 6 years old. Well, I should tell you that my timing was a bit off and when the chipmunk and the cat ran by, I released the rock and I killed a chipmunk! I pick up a chipmunk. I put the chipmunk in my doll carriage because I am mortified and bring it to the house to show my mother to show her, ‘'Look what I've done.’
"She looks in the carriage, she screams she's like, ‘get that out of the house.’ As an adult, I've managed to extrapolate and think, isn't it interesting as a child, I thought of nature outside of myself because that's how I was always thought about it. And thinking that I could somehow manage it with all my good intention, I was gonna manage that situation between the cat and the chipmunk?
"I didn't want to kill anything. I just wanted to help the chipmunk.”
This was Finney’s first lesson in unintended harms within nature, but also the foundation upon which all of her work rests. Perhaps some of us can relate to having that one moment while growing up, when we realized that our separation from our environments is a false one — our chipmunk moment that stayed with us.
In Finney’s case, this story is one within many others along the way that has contributed to her ability and gift of connecting the personal to land. And while Finney will refer to herself as an accidental environmentalist alongside being an artist, scholar and storyteller, the ways she connects a range of audiences to the environment is not accidental.
The connections that Finney draws are intersections of land, body, and belonging. Other themes include power, race, privilege, and class. And true to Finney’s ability to weave all of these pieces, it starts with place.
"Race, place, body identity, belonging, environment, all those things are about how we are in relationship to ourselves, each other and the Earth itself."
“It's a story I tell more than anything about where I grew up," she said. "And I do it for a number of reasons. Race, place, body identity, belonging, environment, all those things are about how we are in relationship to ourselves, each other and the Earth itself. In my work. I like to say that I want to meet people where they are. They invite me in to have these conversations that are sometimes hard to have around topics like race. So how do you have those in a way that opens people up, as opposed to shutting people down or shutting people out? Neither one of which I want to do. So I start with where I grew up.
“I always back up a little bit and talk about my parents — the people who raised me — who grew up Black, poor, in Virginia. Both came from very large families, high school education.
"My dad went off and fought in the Korean War, like a lot of men did at that time. And when he came back, he needed to get a job. And it was hard. It was Jim Crow. It was the South.
"My father tells a story about how he saw a park ranger in a park ranger uniform. He thought that looked like a good government job. And when he went to apply what they told him was, ‘I'm sorry, but we don't hire Negros.’ So my father, like a lot of other Black folks, and my mother, became part of that Great Migration from the South to the north.”
The jobs they took were 30 minutes outside of New York City in Westchester County, working on a 12-acre estate. Her father was hired as the chauffeur and gardener. Her mother did some housekeeping.
“They needed full-time caretakers for that estate," Finney said. "It had beautiful vegetable and flower gardens, pear, apple, peach trees, a small pond with sunfish and bass, a swimming pool, a very long driveway. There were woods and wildlife. There were two houses on the property. One was a gardener's cottage, which is where we lived, and a much bigger house for the owners.
"They didn't live there full-time. With the help of the owners, my parents adopted me. As I understand it, the owners of this property played a significant role in my adoption. They took care of the legal issues and paid for my adoption.
“They said it took a little while to find a little Black girl, which is what they were looking for. What I tend to always say to folks is that my parents relaxed and had my first brother, and then did more relaxing time together and had my second brother. My mother ended up having two boys, not planned at all.”
Finney and her brothers spent their formative years on this land.
"We were allowed to use this property like it was our own,” she said.
Sometime in the 1990s, Finney's father bought her mother a weeping cherry tree, as a 40th wedding anniversary gift. He planted it near the pink hydrangeas next to the gardener's cottage.
Then the estate's owner died.
“She passed away with my father at her bedside,” Finney said. “But before she did, she had a house built for them in Leesburg, Virginia. When they moved and left the property, they clearly couldn't take the tree with them, because the roots were in the ground. So when they moved to Leesburg, they bought another one, the same weeping cherry tree, Prunus pendula is the Latin name."
Five or six years later, Finney's parents received a copy of a letter from one of the old neighbors.
"The letter was from the Westchester Land Trust, letting all the people in the neighborhood know that a conservation easement had now been placed on this estate," she said. "It was letting everyone know about the environmental values of the property – the wildlife, where it sits in the watershed, all the reasons why it should be protected. At the end of the letter, the land trust thanked the new owner who had been on it for about six years for his conservation-mindedness. What stunned me was not that he got thanked for that, but there was nothing in the letter thanking my parents who had stewarded that land for nearly 50 years."
Finney added: "My parents were erased.”
"I got angry because — I said, 'This is what happens. This is what erasure looks like. Perhaps this is the story we should be telling about the erasure.'"
The erasure of the Black body from land, and specifically environment, is something that we are well versed in without being fully aware.
For example, many may not realize that just in the realm of literature, Lucille Clifton’s poem, “the earth is a living thing,” and Angelina Weld Grimké’s work, “The Black Finger.” — in which a black cypress tree is used alongside the rhetorical question of freedom and liberation — dwell within 400 years of Black nature poetry. In 2009, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, an anthology edited by Dr. Camille T. Dungy, was the first anthology at the time to remind us of the connection between African Americans and nature through art.
And Finney’s academic work, including her 2014 book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, is very much a part of this pantheon of reclamation and memory.
If we look closer, even within Vermont’s own landscape and history, Black and Brown individuals who stewarded land, owned land and were dispossessed from it with their erasure is a part of our vernacular and history. By 1920, 14% of all U.S. farms were Black-owned. Today, Black Americans operate fewer than 2% of U.S. farms.
But unlike in many of these stories, Finney shares how the place called her back years later.
In 2020, Finney had written a piece for The Guardian that caught the attention of the New York Botanical Garden. They invited her to do a residency centering her work.
"I started telling ... the story about this cherry tree," she said. "It was kind of random. And they said, 'I bet you we could get permission to get on the property, take a grafting of the tree, bring it back to the New York Botanical Garden, tell the story of your family.'"
During this time, Finney connected with a filmmaker, Irene Taylor of Vermilion Films, who wanted to document the story.
“We're sending her all the family videos and pictures," Finney said. "She sends a historian out to the estate to see how far back we can go in terms of ownership, back into the 1800s, to really understand the land. We're planning this thing.
"Finally, the Westchester Land Trust is on board, and they said let us get on this property and make sure the tree is there. About a week later, right before the first of the year 2021, this is what the land trust sent me back: 'The whole thing had been landscaped.' Everything was gone.”
“I felt that horrible feeling you can get in the pit of your stomach when something bad just happened and your stomach just hurt," Finney said. "I showed this to the filmmaker. She was devastated.
"I got angry because — I said, 'This is what happens. This is what erasure looks like. Perhaps this is the story we should be telling about the erasure.' Then I thought about it a little more, and what if I could get everybody on board to plant a new tree?
"We were worried about whether or not we could get the new owners on board. It's a white couple who were both medical doctors. They weren't responding to requests from the land trust initially. I thought, let me write them a really personal letter. I have to tell you, that woman wrote me back in 20 minutes, and said, ‘Yes, we would love to honor your parents.’"
Last summer, Finney and the crew went back to the property and planted a new tree. More than six months later, she's still processing the experience.
“As I tell the story of growing up on this place and think about my accidental environmentalism, I’m watching how even our own stories that we can tell 100 times evolve, because you could have never told me this story," Finney said. "I would have never thought about the cherry tree before 2020. It popped in my head because I knew the story. But it kind of evolved into something else as an opportunity for mutual accountability.
“I've been wondering how, even a story that we claim as our own, how do we hold it close and at the same time, not treat it with so much preciousness that it can't breathe and be in relationship with other people's stories and experiences? What is the new owner saying? How is the story for her? How did she tell her brother and her nieces and nephews, like this is what this tree is?"
"... we were all actively creating a kind of belonging to a moment. To a possibility of, ‘We're gonna move forward differently.’ And no one in that group, as I understood it, wants to be engaged in any kind of erasure of anyone's story, including their own."
What started as Finney’s story, her parent’s story, and the estate’s story now belongs to more people: The filmmaker, the land trust, the Botanical Garden, and the family that owns the property now.
"The word that popped out to me is the word belonging, because that is probably the thing that drives me more than anything as somebody who was adopted," Finney said. "After that exercise this summer with the tree, and I haven't said this out loud before, we were all actively creating a kind of belonging to a moment. To a possibility of, ‘We're gonna move forward differently.’ And no one in that group, as I understood it, wants to be engaged in any kind of erasure of anyone's story, including their own. And so here we are creating a different kind of moment of belonging, being symbolized by a tree."
She added: "I love the idea of belonging perhaps being more than me waiting for somebody to tell me, 'Oh, you belong here.'"
This story is part of "Seeing…the Unseen and In-Between within Vermont's Landscape," a series dedicated to the exploration of culture, place, people, and the stories that run deep here in Vermont.