The Plant Life Project, iNat, and Exploring Nature While Black - iNat User Camisha Butler

[Last month, a few weeks after iNaturalist released its Black Lives Matter statement, we received an email from Camisha Butler, (@camcamcam, below) a Black iNat user who hails from the Atlanta area in the United States. Camisha wrote about her lifelong relationship with nature, her use of iNat for her Plant Life Project, and some of the experiences she’s had being Black while out in nature. She said she’d be happy to share her story, so we exchanged a few emails and I used her responses for what follows. - Tony]

While Camisha Butler grew up in the city (Atlanta’s West End, to be exact), she spent many of her childhood summers about one and half hours away in Hancock County, with her grandmother and her cousins. “[My grandmother’s house] was surrounded by a large field and I often spent my time running around barefoot and climbing trees,” she recalls. “I still love walking around barefoot in the summer and feeling my toes dig into the grass and moist soil.” And at around the age of twelve she and her family would join her brother’s Boy Scout activities, like hiking and camping, “and that is when I first became excited about being outdoors and realizing that it was an interest and lifestyle.”

However, Camisha has had negative experiences while out exploring, and in her experience this is often due to the misconception that Black people don’t enjoy the outdoors. She’s been told “I didn't know black people camped,” by an acquaintance, and says

I have experienced curious stares from whole families on hikes and even at the showers while camping, [and] although it's not particularly harmful behaviour, it feels restrictive and that makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I'm not entitled to enjoy a mountainside or gaze out on a rushing creek in peace...In my adult years, I have found a community of black women and men who hike regularly and we often share different trails or pictures from our hikes. I think it's important to have representation everywhere as no race is a cultural monolith and nature belongs to the Earth, which means it belongs to everyone. 

About nine years ago, Camisha learned that her great-great-grandmother, Susie Reaves, was both a midwife (“she personally delivered over 200 children in her lifetime”) and someone who treated others with medicinal herbs. “She would prepare various teas, tinctures and salves which she also kept in her home for her family and patients,” says Camisha. 

This really inspired me. Although I loved being outdoors and being amongst the trees and other greenery, it struck me that I did not know anything about them, I didn’t even know their names. I desired to grow an understanding of the plants around me, not so much for medicinal purposes, but just because I felt it my birthright and responsibility to develop a knowledge of greenery around me so that I can continue our family relation to Mother Earth.

“I’m a serial collector. I collect records, concert ticket stubs, museum pencils and I've even had a paper bag collection,” Camisha explains, “[so] around 2012, I thought I would begin ‘collecting’ plants. Not physically, but through identifying plants around me through photography, and that was the birth of The Plant Life Project.” So she started identifying and learning about the naturally occurring plants she encountered, particularly weeds. Her favorite is the American trumpet vine (above), which is native to eastern North America. 

Last summer, I first saw the trumpet vine on the side of the highway and I became obsessed. I happened to find some growing off an old building in the city and I stretched my arm AND camera zoom to capture a pic so I could learn its name. I’m happy to say that just yesterday, I spotted some vines growing over a very accessible bridge up the street from my house. I went home, dressed properly in my boots, sweats, long sleeves and gloves and I came back and down around the bridge to get my first up close picture. They are so beautiful in color and shape, they appear melodic, the name is quite fitting. It was the highlight of my weekend.

After years of using various resources for identification, Camisha started on iNat in 2018, and appreciates the computer vision suggestions and the corrections, as well as helpful comments from other users. Her goal is to have at least 150 observations by year’s end, with the majority being research grade. She’ll also break out the iNat app while shopping for house plants to get some care tips and information. “The iNat community,” she says, 

is super inclusive and diverse in cultures and interests. It's exciting finding iNat users near and far. There's a comfort in the diversity on the platform because it shows that we're together in our common love of nature. There are biologists, nature photographers and observers from around the world with varied reasons for using iNat, some love plants like me and some enjoy fauna. The community really provides a well rounded view that anyone can be a naturalist. And because IDs are crowdsourced, you have an opportunity to interact with many knowledgeable people from anywhere.


- You can follow Camisha and her #PlantLifeProject on Instagram at nutellabrownbaby.

- Coincidentally, it happens to be #BlackBotanistsWeek! Follow the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

Posted by tiwane tiwane, July 10, 2020 21:37

Comments

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It's great to hear about your nature explorations Camisha. Your American Trumpet Vine image is very striking, thank you for sharing it with the rest of us!

Posted by susanhewitt 25 days ago (Flag)
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I love #BlackBotanistsWeek! Nice to see it on iNat too. Thanks for sharing, Camisha! What a great picture.

Posted by muir 25 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you for sharing your story and beautiful photo. And I agree--the Earth belongs to everyone!

Posted by kmvogelsang 25 days ago (Flag)
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I love your thought that trumpet vines appear melodic. Your photo captures their essence. Thank you for sharing your story & your passion!

Posted by carolblaney 25 days ago (Flag)
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I've been following #BlackBotanistsWeek and it's super! So great to make these connections and meet Black naturalists with widely ranging interests and expertise, but also disheartening to hear the experiences that make it harder to follow those interests. I'm white, and yesterday I was hunting Bartram's rose-pink, following a tip that it was growing at an airport entrance drive. Not finding a security guard, I parked my car anyway by the entrance gate and walked through the field to find the plant. The whole time, I was thinking how much more fraught this would be if I were Black. We can all do more to make naturalist experiences in the U. S. and elsewhere more accessible and welcoming. Thanks for your story, Camisha! Love the part about your herbalist gggrandmother, and your trumpet vine photos.

Posted by janetwright 25 days ago (Flag)
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I'm glad you're finding iNat to be an inclusive space. Your great-great-grandmother must have helped so many people, I'm sure she'd be elated that you're also taking to botany.

Posted by ty-sharrow 25 days ago (Flag)
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I love that you are particularly interested in "weeds." :) They are often overlooked and can be essential in their habitat. Thank you for sharing!

Posted by hallbergbutterfly... 25 days ago (Flag)
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Lovely to hear from you Camisha! I am a brown woman too and believe nature is for all, and so beneficial to all people. Keep on exploring. I can see the joy of being in nature in the portrait of you by the creek.

Posted by lilithohlson 25 days ago (Flag)
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@camcamcam So great to hear your story!

Posted by kitty12 25 days ago (Flag)
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Thanks for enjoying and sharing nature, Camisha! I love it too!

Posted by ecoclaire 25 days ago (Flag)
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Camisha Butler thank you for sharing your story and passion, it is very uplifting.

Currently surrounded by floods, destruction, total annihilation of ecosystems and human misery as the current pandemic in synchronization, quietly and surreptitiously emanates (until now unscathed) throughout our small isolated communities here in Kyushu.

Posted by grechan 25 days ago (Flag)
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Thanks for sharing your experience Camisha! I've been to Atlanta, and love how it feels like a city in a forest!

Posted by rgorcik 25 days ago (Flag)
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This is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

Posted by mertensia 25 days ago (Flag)
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Thanks for sharing your story and photos and deep connection with the community :) iNat reminds me of the good stuff in humans.
A few years ago I learned from an elderly relative, who loved growing and appreciating wild things as much as I do, that my great great grandfather was some kind of forest guide or tree guy who survived a dangerous time in Europe before immigrating to the U.S. by relying on that niche skill set. I too feel compelled to celebrate and continue my ancestors' various connections to plants and wildlife. Also, noted: I should really explore the South when it's safe to travel again!

Posted by mira_l_b 25 days ago (Flag)
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Welcome, Camisha! I haven’t been with iNat for very long but love it. Like you, I’m learning things all the time. And even more - I’m seeing things (sometimes things I’ve seen before but never really noticed) - in a different way. It’s opening up new things to me. And, it’s so true - you never know where we’re going to find something fascinating & beautiful, like your trumpet flower on an old building. Happy exploring!

Posted by vernal3 24 days ago (Flag)
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I am relatively new to INat and, like you, am very much enjoying the experience of sharing for purpose across all sorts of boundaries that the platform allows. I am an artist and part of my fieldwork practice has been spending time in a wetland area close to wear I live and documenting biodiversity there. Inclusivity is important to me so I appreciate you sharing your experience with being black outdoors. Finding out about your great-great grandmother's experience as a midwife and knowledge about medical plants is amazing! Thanks for sharing!

Posted by chdonati 24 days ago (Flag)
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Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us! It is lovely to find so many like minded souls on iNat!

Posted by lulubelle 24 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you for sharing your stories and teaching me about that beautiful vine!

Posted by ecologistchris 24 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you for sharing your story, Camisha! Like you, I love interacting with the iNat community, which is so welcoming and helpful. Best of luck with your Plant Life Project!

Posted by dcarrie 24 days ago (Flag)
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I am from Sweden and I just read your "story". Very touching and very inspiring. I share your enthusiasm and interest of the nature. Keep up the good "work".

Posted by arneholgersson 24 days ago (Flag)
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BEAUTIFUL!

Posted by jeremaya 24 days ago (Flag)
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Camisha, there's so much I love about your statement. "I first saw the trumpet vine on the side of the highway and I became obsessed" really captures the way that plants call to certain people. I like your story of going to the bridge just to get a proper photo. A lot of botanists have and kind of enjoy the experience of being the (odd?) person doing that--or being on the ground to take a picture of something that passersby don't see, and having people ask what you're looking at, and so on. We're involved in expanding perception and changing the values that perceptions have. That project needs Black botanists and interaction between ethnobotanies! Thanks so much for your illuminating thoughts.

Posted by poa 24 days ago (Flag)
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Way to go, Camisha! So glad you're out there seeing and sharing what you see!

Posted by erikamitchell 24 days ago (Flag)
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Hi Camisha,
Very good to hear your story! I was very hit by the experience of the Black person birdwatching in New York who was threatened with having police called on him and then Ahmaud Arbery being killed while jogging. These are two things I as white person, do routinely without threat. I think it's truly unconscionable that Black people and other people of color are threatened or harassed or worse, when trying to experience and enjoy nature or do the things they want/need to do to live. I believe the need to connect with nature is a deeply human need. I came across this article in Seattle Times about the threats Black people feel even in traveling nowadays https://bit.ly/2OjUyra . As someone who loves nature and people and has fought against police brutality for many years, I am much interested in being part of efforts to connect with others who want this to change and to connect with Black and other naturalists of color, including in efforts to facilitate this connection with nature in any ways I could help. So good to hear your story!

Posted by carlbak22 24 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you for sharing your story, Camisha!

Posted by maureenclare 24 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you for bringing your love of nature to the iNat community and helping citizen science. Excellent photo of the trumpet! Nature is for everyone and I am glad you share your love of nature with others. Your great-great-grandmother sounds like she was a remarkable woman. Thank you for sharing your story.

Posted by scibadger 24 days ago (Flag)
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I too was a serial collector when I was younger. I had a small collection of registered trademarks, as I found it fascinating the sheer amount of branding in our world. Insects and spiders have been a passion since childhood, and are typically the focus of my observations on here. Nice to see your story on the front page, and happy observing! The more connected we are as a species to nature as a whole, the better.

Posted by greenscenery 24 days ago (Flag)
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Camisha, your story about finding the trumpet vine (lovely!) under a bridge made me laugh; I have spent an inordinate amount of time clambering about below overpasses! Interesting things eke out an existence on edge places. Your discussion surrounding Aunt Jemima is really interesting, thank you for sharing. It's all certainly very complicated.

Posted by julie_sf 23 days ago (Flag)
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Camisha, your story is aspiring. I too enjoy the feeling when out and around the green. I teach an outdoor class at a small urban community college and like to provide the same level of excitement and passion to my students of color. One thing I have noticed by the comments on this thread, is the absence of comments of people of color. We have a long road to go, but (all of us...) together can reach that destination.

Posted by sog 23 days ago (Flag)
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Keep up the good work, young lady! It's so nice to have such a multi-talented naturalist in our community. Please keep sharing your stories.

Posted by hfabian 23 days ago (Flag)
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Hi Camisha, thank for your sharing your heart felt story. I share your love for nature and the desire to better understand our sorroundings. I am sorry for your less than uplifting experiences from others while hiking. Every now and then someone stares at me with my telephoto lense and seems to wonder what I am up to. I just smile and say hi. This typically seems to work for me, but I am white. I do long for a day when ignorance of our superficial differences does't cause a whole range of negative consequences.

My math professor in college used to get so upset with us when we didn't understand his Linear Algebra lectures. Finally, he would lose his temper, start jumping and yell, "Why don't you get it!" He was so large a man that the entire room would shake! However inappropriate his behaviour at the time, that is how many of us feel about the racial prejudice and inequities of our day.

Posted by heatherstevens 23 days ago (Flag)
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I'm all about the idea of collecting plants and animals through photography and identification on iNaturalist! I've almost logged 800 species by now of plants and animals, I tell people it's like a lifelong treasure hunt, and you never know what you'll find out there.

Posted by gman122 23 days ago (Flag)
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@sog, agree. People need to do better.

One thing that people can do, maybe, is be aware of responding in a timely way to observations by Black and POC observers, insofar as that seems to be the case from profile pic or names. (Obviously those don't tell the whole story and will not cover everyone/can be mistaken, but it's worth the try.) I notice young people logging on but getting no response and going away, esp. w/r/t plant IDs, which are slow. I do think of under-representation when choosing what to respond to. (As an educator irl, I know it helps.)

Posted by poa 23 days ago (Flag)
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Hi, Camisha.
I work as an Equity Champion for a Florida school district. The district leader advocates for minorities becoming more involved in nature/outdoor organizations. I spoke with her about you and she recommended you connect with Outdoor Afro, which has a strong group in your area. Good luck -- and may you continue to have individual and communal connections with the natural world and its incredible wonders. Share iNaturalist with Outdoor Afro. I'm sure both organizations would benefit.

Posted by dwhanak 22 days ago (Flag)

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