Home Local News Madison Public Library’s Naturalist-in-Residence Alex Booker: A steward of land and community 

Madison Public Library’s Naturalist-in-Residence Alex Booker: A steward of land and community 

0
Alex Booker. Photo by Robert Chappell

“I think it was Malcolm X who said the only way to truly be free and to speak up against the oppressor is to have your own food supply,” Alex Booker told Madison365. “When thinking of my role in the liberation of Black people, [it involves] keeping some of these old ways, keeping some of these medicinal root working ways and food ways so that once we are at a place where we need them or need access to them, it’s just sharing the knowledge instead of trying to learn in real time.”

This kind of self-sufficiency and community care is at the heart of Booker’s work as a community educator, and now, as the Madison Public Library’s 2024 Naturalist-in-Residence. His six-week residency, which will run programming from July 14 to August 23, will include nature walks, art classes, sound baths, and cooking lessons.

Studying biology at Edgewood College as part of its Community Scholars program, it took Booker a while to figure out how he’d incorporate his lifelong love of nature into a career. But over the past few years, working at nonprofits and farms, and helping others build their own gardens, Booker has forged himself into an environmental leader—one who is invested in honoring the centuries-old practices of Indigenous and Black peoples to usher us into an anti-capitalist, collective, and liberatory future. 

Madison365 spoke with Booker ahead of the start of his residency. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and concision. 

 

RMB: How did you first come to your love for nature? 

AB: At first, when I was really young, I was a germaphobe. I did not like grass or worms on the sidewalk or anything like that. But later on, I got interested in things outside. I did a gardening camp at a community center growing up and my mom saw how much I liked it. I just always had a garden at home after that. I grew stuff at home in our backyard. I kind of got disconnected from it in college and working, but the moment I moved off campus, I went back to having tiny gardens. It’s been a part of my life, but always as a hobby. As a person of color, the right way to do anything is to go to college, get a master’s or a doctorate. I think the elitism of Madison kind of influenced my viewpoint of what my career journey would be. I’ve always loved the environment, I’ve always loved animals and nature. But [I thought] the only way to do that is to be a veterinarian, but that type of thinking and learning didn’t align with me.

When I left school, I was really trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I [worked] with indoor tropical plants. I took care of plants all over Madison in different offices and restaurants. That’s where I really learned the Latin names of plants, pest management, and the aesthetics and interior design of having plants indoors. And then COVID happened. Offices were closed and people started letting their plants die. I was really trying to figure out what to do nature-wise. One of my friends, who lives out in Oregon, asked me to teach her how to put a garden together. I would FaceTime her and we got a garden set up virtually.

 

RMB: How do you feel like your identity as a person of color has shaped your connection with the earth?

AB: In 2020, I started helping people start gardens in their spaces and just wherever you have [space] available. I went to [the nonprofit organization] Urban Triage and started the Supporting Healthy Black Agriculture (SHBA) program there. So I did work with families about tying the history and the culture of Black people and tying it to why we have these reservations about being outside. I never really had a huge part of that because my grandparents were farmers in Mississippi. And so going back and visiting, I remember being younger and thinking it was crazy [there’s still cotton fields down there]. There’s the shame of slavery, but it wasn’t on us to hold it. So I’ve never had that viewpoint of, “If I’m out in my garden, then that’s like slavery.” I’ve never had that mindset from my household. I talk to people and I’ve learned that other people do think that way. [So I’ve been] reshaping and restructuring and educating [people] that they didn’t just throw a rock that hit a tribe and brought them over here. They chose us because we were experts in agriculture in Africa. It’s literally in our blood to be people that steward the land, that have a connection with it. That was my goal through that program—part of my mission as a whole is to reconnect people to their food systems.

Alex Booker
(Photo: City of Madison)

RMB: You also work in the nonprofit sphere in urban agriculture and food insecurity. How do you see yourself bringing those experiences into your role at the library?

AB: Through my work at Rooted and at the Badger Rock [Neighborhood Center], I have experienced very different lifestyles, socioeconomic experiences, races, gender expression, and a truly diverse population of people. That has opened my eyes to how to make things accessible and how to shape it so that everyone feels included and seen and a part of the workshop, while still centering Black and Indigenous culture. I feel like working directly with communities and with the public and seeing the way that people respond to the stuff we’re doing lets me know that there’s the need and the interest. A lot of the work that we do is geared towards middle school classes and I always hear parents say, “Oh, I wish I learned this stuff,” or they send their kids to day camp and they wish they could cook the same recipe we did. 

That really got me thinking [that] there’s not a lot of spaces for us as adults to explore and learn these different hobbies. That it’s something that a lot of people don’t have time to do, or know where to start. A lot of the stuff I learned, I learned by working there. I probably wouldn’t have learned how to beekeep or tap maple trees. I got paid to learn—not a lot of people have that. So I really want to find different programming and ways to reach other populations and work with family units as a whole. The whole family unit is what will help continue to foster that interest in the youth. If I liked that garden class and my mom was not a parent who listened and fostered interests, if she was not found a way to be attentive to that, it would have gone on deaf ears. 

 

RMB: I’d love to hear a little bit about the programming that you have planned for the library—there’s nature walks, art classes, cooking classes. Where did you get the inspiration for these?

AB: These different workshops are things that I do regularly in my life that my friends and my peers always ask me, “How do you do that? When did you learn that?” Instead of me trying to individually do all of these things, this is a great way to share it with others. A lot of it is the first step into what I view as community eldership, of figuring out what kind of elder you want to be and your role in our overall social ecosystem. When my sister was pregnant with [my two-year-old nephew], I was like, “I want to be the uncle where he comes into the house and he has a cough or something and I’ll just grab some herbs.” That’s where the tea blending workshop comes from, because my first step was really learning more about the different herbs and teas. And then the rest were [designed by] thinking what type of elders are there. When we think about our grandparents, they’re always making a fresh meal. When you think about and learn about seasonings and the herbs and their medicinal properties, that turns your food from substance into medicine. So with that, I imagined cooking with edible weeds.

 

RMB: You’re also a member of the Firm Footing Farm collective. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your experience in that QTBIPOC space.

AB: So [Firm Footing Farm] is out in Black Earth, Wisconsin. It’s [run by] a queer couple who were looking to open up their land for BIPOC queer people to either start businesses or have a place to grow their agriculture. There’s me and another farmer out there currently, and they’re always looking for more people to join us. Everyone has control over their own individual plots that we grow in. We use a lot of sustainable practices: within our space, we use all organic inputs or natural inputs. We are a very low-till group so we do things like using cardboard, mulching, using tarp to kill off plots so that we can plant directly instead of disrupting the soil ecology. It really is about, “How do we work together? How do we keep this place natural and healthy?” With not having to pay for my land, I was able to take a year off and I didn’t have to give up my plot. I’m still able to explore and experiment on different projects and grow different things just for me to test out, and stuff that I plan on giving away to family and friends and the community in general without the pressure of needing to make enough to pay [for the plot]. I get to have full creative control over my spaces, which is not that common to shared agriculture spaces.

 

RMB: As someone who is tending to the earth, what does it mean to be a naturalist in Wisconsin, and especially in Madison which is on Indigenous Ho-Chunk land?

AB: I believe it’s a step in the right direction that the library and the parks are doing things like this. I believe they have some programming that is purely for Indigenous people and sharing their cultures and practices. But I believe it’s important to honor the people who have been stewarding the land before it was taken over, specifically while we’re having these climate change conversations. A lot of times the remedies that people are proposing, Indigenous people have been doing. And colonizers looked at them as backwards and wrong and criticized them. And now everyone wants to eat with the seasons because it’s “so much better” when they were doing that before and [colonizers] were making fun of them for not raising cattle and farming things. There has to be a space where we say that these are traditional [Indigenous] practices, and persevering and keeping them so that we’re able to tap into them when we need them. I believe it’s very important as a Black American and direct descendant from chattel slavery [to know] the relationship between enslaved and freed Black people and Indigenous people, how we work together, how communities have worked together. I really think that Madison has a lot of growth to have Indigenous people all around and holistically upfront.

 

RMB: As someone who works so much with the earth, what do you think are the most pressing issues for Wisconsinites as it relates to our ecosystems, and how can we play a part in those solutions?

AB: I would urge people who don’t have any experience gardening, who don’t farm and feel excited for the warmer seasons and the shorter winters, to understand that this is unprecedented. Nobody knows how to deal with climate change. No one has experienced it, right? [For example], with the drought last year: Most of our water retention methods require some type of rain to come down. Last year, we had weeks where it was nothing, not a drop of anything. That really is going to impact what’s available for us and what we have access to eat. If there’s a drought year, things that need a lot of water — watermelon, cucumbers, a lot of fruit — there’s gonna be less of them. 

And so everyone is learning in real time, and I don’t think people understand the severity of that. That might mean that there’s a timeframe where there are no cucumbers in the grocery store or there’s no hot peppers this year. I really think when it comes to agriculture, people should pay attention to that in their own lives, of really thinking of how we can do more perennial adding things that have deeper root systems that these changes and shifts won’t completely impact how they grow and what the landscaping is. It really is making me look at how I choose what I’m gonna grow, how I take care of the land, and how I eat, and the importance of a community and being able to have people that you can rely on and reach out to.