On May 31, 2020, Duluth nature photographer Dudley Edmondson wrote on Twitter:
In 40 years of birding, I never thought I would see the day when I wasn't the only black birder I knew. #BlackBirders #BlackInNature #BlackLivesMatter. Edmondson was referring to the inaugural Black Birders Week, a series of online events that drew attention to African–American nature lovers and the challenges they face outdoors. Though he wasn't directly involved with the events—which were a response to an incident in which a white woman threatened a black birdwatcher at New York City's Central Park—Edmondson has for decades carried out a similar mission. His 2006 book The Black & Brown Faces in America's Wild Places profiles 20 African–American outdoorspeople. He has led nature hikes with students of color and is a role model for those seeking to break into the predominantly white world of nature photography. When we spoke with Edmondson in early June, he touched on his experience as a black recreationist and explained why he's hopeful even as our country faces incredible challenges.
Q | It's been two weeks since that birding incident in Central Park, which, as you know, happened on the same day as the police killing of George Floyd. How have you been processing all of this?
I can be a bit of an optimist, and believe it or not, a lot of good came from that encounter in New York. We had Black Birders Week, which brought a lot of awareness—it showed the world that there are black people and other people of color who love nature and the outdoors. And as cruel and unnecessary as George Floyd's murder was, now we have global outrage and a huge opportunity to review and rethink the police. And that has led to conversations around other structures, including conservation organizations. So overall, I'm staying positive.
Q | Are you up in Duluth right now?
Yes, I live up here. It's just my wife and me. We don't have any kids. I have a compromised immune system, so I don't leave the house a lot, though I did go fly fishing the other day with a friend on the St. Louis River. It was pretty easy to social distance.
Q | How else have you changed your approach to being outdoors during the pandemic?
I won't go biking with three or five people like I might have done in the past. But because I'm an outdoor guy, a wilderness guy, I've always enjoyed being outside by myself any damn way. So not a whole lot has changed for me. Work has changed, though. Lately I've been doing a lot of work for The Nature Conservancy as a contractor shooting restoration and conservation projects, and that requires travel and meetings, so that's on hold. Right now, I'm at home writing and editing photos.
Q | When did your love of nature start?
When I was a kid in Columbus, Ohio—this would have been the '70s and early '80s. On the weekends, my parents would take us to a reservoir north of the city for picnics. Both my mom and dad had issues with alcohol, but I found when I was out of doors—when we were making hamburgers and hot dogs, listening to James Brown on the radio, and catching catfish—none of that other traumatic stuff happened or crossed my mind. When I was in nature, all of the stress and trauma of my home life went away.
Q | So being outside was kind of like therapy for you.
Yes, it was. But I also liked collecting things—including bees and butterflies and praying mantises. Later, in high school and college, I got into birding and was accepted by that community. But as a kid, I didn't know anybody who looked like me who was into nature. All the people on my block thought I was a nerd. And I guess I was.
Q | What prompted you to combine your nature passion with photography?
At first, photography was mostly a way to keep track of birds I was seeing as a guy fresh out of high school and in my early years of college. I had a friend who was into taking and developing pictures, so we'd travel around taking pictures. Another friend got me into wildflowers, and I started photographing those heavily.
Q | You mentioned college. Where did you go?
I made it two years at Ohio State, but it wasn't for me. I'm an experiential learner. I like to learn by doing and observing. Back then, I'd pack up my little Toyota Corolla and drive from Ohio to Chesapeake Bay in one day. I would bird, camp, and take pictures for a couple weeks, then come home. I traveled a lot by myself, and learned a lot.
Q | Did you encounter racist attitudes in the outdoors back then?
I had a few encounters. At a campground in western Pennsylvania I had an incident where some guys at a site next to me were yelling the n–word. So I went over to their camp and told them to shut up or leave. They apologized and claimed they didn't know I was there. I thought,
So that means you would have used that word if I wasn't there? Anyway, they knew I was there.
Q | How did those experiences affect you?
They create anger and resentment. The one thing I've oddly never had, though, is fear. I'm not sure why. I decided a long time ago that no one or anything is going to stop me from enjoying nature and the outdoors. It's that important to me, and I'll go through whatever it takes to access it.
Q | Did you pursue nature photography right after dropping out of college?
The first thing I did was move to Duluth in 1989. Up to that point I had submitted some photos to magazines but kept getting rejected, so I decided to move to a place with better access to nature. I knew about Hawk Ridge [Duluth's renowned bird observatory] and also had a love of the north woods.
Q | Did Duluth's nature photographers welcome you?
Everyone was really open and welcoming. I got lucky, too, because a few years in I started working with Stan Tekiela, the writer and naturalist. He helped me build my career. He used my photos in his nature books. For years, we were the dynamic duo, traveling across the country. And now I'm really lucky to be working for The Nature Conservancy.
Q | What prompted you to write a book about African–Americans in the outdoors?
The intent was to show people of color that it's OK to enjoy nature—and by the way, here's a bunch of people you don't know who dedicated their lives to nature. It was neat creating outdoor role models. Initially the publisher didn't think there was a market for it, but here we are 14 years later and the book is being taught in schools and sold at parks. But the issue is not resolved. We're still having trouble getting people of color into conservation and the outdoors.
Q | Why do you think that is?
Personal safety issues are probably the number one. I have friends in their late 20s and 30s who are concerned about being in the outdoors by themselves. And there's an environmental education gap. We need to do more to help kids understand and appreciate the connections between themselves and nature.
Q | What can conservation groups and agencies do to help with these issues?
Hire a lot more people of color. Have them out front as rangers and interpretive naturalists, and also as policy makers. I often hear,
We can't find these people, and that's simply because you're not looking long and hard enough. Those folks are out there—you just have to do the work.