In the midst of the pandemic, Baratunde Thurston decided to start a garden.
It was a way for the author, podcaster and TV host to reconnect with his love of the outdoors, and process his feelings about the tumultuous state of the world.
“Unfortunately, the squirrels thought I was gardening for them,” Mr. Thurston said. “In the beginning, I saw it as a battle — me versus the squirrels. Over time I realized, these squirrels are my neighbors, too. Maybe we can work something out.”
Connecting with the environment, respecting wildlife and finding reverence in nature are all themes of Mr. Thurston’s new television series, “America Outdoors.” The six-part show follows him on a range of outdoor adventures, from running with ultramarathoners in Death Valley, Calif., to bird-watching in Minnesota and trekking through the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. Viewers learn that nature can be enjoyed by everyone.
“Doing a show based in the outdoors was really the right move in terms of ways to experience this country,” Mr. Thurston said. “I got to hang out with true outdoor enthusiasts and was reminded that you don’t have to be obsessive, or particularly well-resourced, to enjoy the outdoors.”
“America Outdoors” premieres July 5 on PBS. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The show is as much about outdoor destinations as it is about people. How do you define an “outdoor enthusiast?”
This show is about breaking expectations. When I hear “the outdoors,” I have an extreme landscape like El Capitan in mind. I have a white guy in mind, with a beard, and he’s looking off into the distance, having just conquered something. And we did spend some time with people like that, but we also spent time with the original people on this land. It was a beautiful privilege that I got to interview people from three different Indigenous nations.
We spent time with folks who have disabilities, and I got to be guided down a river, white-water rafting and piloted by a man who’s paralyzed. In Idaho, I was hanging out with refugee kids, mostly from Africa and Southeast Asia — part of the “Welcome to America” in Boise is hiking and taking nature walks and getting familiar with all the Americans, all of our neighbors, including the trees and the butterflies. I also met people just in their backyards who maybe don’t have the gear, the car rack, or a subscription to an outdoor magazine, but they know the value of putting their hands in dirt and growing food.
You do a lot of really physical outdoor activities in this show — hiking, surfing, rafting, flying a plane! Which was the most challenging?
The most challenging by far: sand surfing. Walking in sand, first of all, it’s not fun. That’s a great challenge. I really toned my calves and my glutes and my thighs. So I’m kind of grateful. But trying to ride a board? I don’t do skiing and snowboarding. Trying to stand on frozen water, on an incline, it just feels like … Why would you do that? So then we’re doing it on sand, and there’s no fin on the board. So there’s nothing for it to grip, and so you’re just kind of fishtailing all around. We had so many takes and when you go down a sandy hill, you have to walk back up. There’s no shortcut. It was a lot!
Which destinations disrupted your expectations the most?
Death Valley was full of life. It was our first shoot and pretty quickly, I was as offended as the Indigenous people by the name because it just sounds barren. The people we spent time with there, they helped me see it differently. The author of “Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California,” Shawnté Salabert, took me on this hike to Darwin Falls and it’s just beautiful. I also went running with Mosi Smith, this ultramarathoner, and saw Death Valley through his lens. Of course, being with the Timbisha Shoshone members, who say this place should be called Timbisha, not Death Valley just because some white dude got lost. That’s disrupted expectations just because of what it’s called.
There was also a shock for me on Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, with James “Ooker” Eskridge, the mayor of the community. On paper, me and this guy don’t have that much to say to each other. He was in the Trump-iest voting district in America by some measures, and he’s very, very, very conservative. But I had the luxury of spending real time and feeling his energy and experiencing his hospitality. I learned that his home is disappearing due to rising sea levels, due to climate change. He won’t quite call it climate change, but he acknowledges the waters rising and wants to do something about it. He wants sea walls, he wants federal money to be spent to save his town. We were on the coast of his island and seeing tombstones in the water. You can show data about climate change and you could watch an Al Gore presentation and see the temperature going up. But then you can wade through a graveyard. Hearing him describe having to exhume his ancestor to his own backyard; he got emotional talking about it. It made it real. I didn’t expect to have that experience at all. I definitely didn’t expect to have it with someone who’s seemingly so different from me.
Climate change comes up a lot in the show. Was that your intention?
Making a show about the outdoors is making a show about climate change. We can’t avoid the topic. In every location, I was witness to the effects of climate change: the dryness and lack of water in Death Valley beyond what’s expected; the firefighter training for those wildland firefighters; in Idaho, the smoke from Western fires, and the low levels of the river and the high temperatures of the river. In Minnesota, the premise of one of our segments with the Abbas family, the farming family, was trying to breed climate-resilient trees that can bear higher temperatures, because the forest we were standing in is going to disappear. And so rather than just mourn that, what kind of new forest can we create in its place? They’re engineering just through basic biology to harden the forest so that their kids have trees, too. When we were in Duluth, Minne., we could hardly breathe. Minnesota is having mad fires now. We couldn’t see Lake Superior. I had to wear an N95 mask when we weren’t shooting, because it was burning inside.
Everywhere we went, we had a climate story. Sometimes it was more of a focal point of who we were talking with and the story; other times, it just affected how we could make the show.
What do you hope people may learn from this show?
I want people to see the outdoors as a place where we can literally experience common ground among the wide range of differences that make up this nation. Pretty much everybody should be able to see themselves in the show — we’ve got different time zones, different ecologies, different ages and body shapes and abilities. I hope we’ve reflected the diversity of the nation both in its natural state and in its human state. I want this show to be a mirror for everybody.
The Indigenous people I spoke to have a culture of being a part of nature, as opposed to apart from nature. We got to relearn that. That was a really big takeaway for me, especially as the climate gets more volatile in the next decades. We should all stay connected in that way. This is not just something to use. It’s something to belong to.
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