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03/22/2022

Women History Month talk explores healing through nature

SUNY Cortland student Sherron Brown was an adult when she first hiked Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, N.Y., and Taughannock Falls State Park near Trumansburg, N.Y. Those experiences drastically improved her physical, mental and emotional health.

Now, she wants to do the same for others.

Brown, a non-traditional student and Cortland resident, will offer a sandwich seminar talk “Black Women in the Woods: Finding Solace in Nature,” on Thursday, March 24.

Her presentation, at noon in the Old Main Colloquium, will explore Brown’s personal journey in the outdoors and suggest ways that nature can empower Black women and help them build community.

“Being in the woods feeds my soul,” Brown said.

The talk continues SUNY Cortland’s Women History Month events and considers a topic that Brown has been researching for a capstone project to complete a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

“I care about the health and well-being of my Black sisters because they have their own unique challenges,” said Brown, a communication studies major. “I want to remind them that nature is another avenue for healing and re-centering.”

Black women’s hiking groups and non-profits have gained visibility in recent years because they serve a larger purpose. Health challenges such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease disproportionately affect Black women, according to research cited in a 2020 NPR health article. Yet according to a National Park Service survey, only 6% of park visitors are Black.  

Brown wants to bring more women outdoors because she has experienced the transformative power of nature firsthand. She was born in Jamaica, the Caribbean island nation, and grew up in Uniondale, a Long Island suburb, with limited exposure to large parks outside of occasional family trips to Manhattan’s Central Park or Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

She moved to Ithaca in 2000 and went on her first long hike when a friend invited her to join a small hiking meet-up. A group of approximately 10 people met on Sunday mornings and hiked common destinations in the Finger Lakes region.

Brown recalled that one of her earliest hikes at Buttermilk Falls was both physically taxing and motivating.

“That first hike wasn’t easy, but when I did more of the Sunday morning hikes, I got healthier and better able to walk the trails,” Brown said. “We started at about 9 a.m., and by noon I had an amazing sense of accomplishment.”

Brown moved to Cortland in 2017 and began exploring Lime Hollow Nature Center, especially its Lehigh Valley Trail. She considers the trail to be an ideal spot for beginners because it is flat and well-maintained.

“It’s just a very relaxing place,” she said.

In 2020, during the very early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown looked to make a career change from an administrative support role so she enrolled full-time at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

“With everything shutting down, I figured I would use the time to go school because there was no FOMO (fear of missing out),” she said.

Brown earned an associate’s degree in human services and she is on track to graduate from SUNY Cortland in May — less than two and a half years later.

The outdoors served as a coping mechanism throughout the pandemic and offered a vision for her future. Brown said she wants to pair her formal training in human services and communications to lead workshops, talks and trainings for others.

“I feel like people are going to need to unpack some things, especially as a result of the pandemic,” she said. “I would love to give them a forum to talk. I want to be a facilitator for those conversations.”

In addition to hiking and journaling in the woods, Brown credited her partner, Kuukua Yomekpe, with improving her emotional health during the pandemic. They were engaged last summer during a hiking trip to Colorado.

Brown said she hopes to build a community — both on campus and in the city of Cortland — that is willing to explore the outdoors together in an effort to improve the physical, mental and emotional health of Black women.

“When I’m in the woods, I feel connected and centered,” Brown said. “I want to offer other Black women the opportunity to experience the restorative qualities of a hike.

“I have a saying when I begin my walk: ‘Into the woods I must go, to heal my spirit and feed my soul.’”