On this week’s podcast, we welcome Indy Srinath. Indy is an avid homesteader, forager, educator, herbalist, and food justice activist. She is currently working in LA managing an urban farm on Skid Row. She shares with us her story entitled, “A Forest As Black As Me.”
“It’s such a different world that we’re in these days, and it is interesting how some of these themes that I touch on in this story transform and transcend time. And I think that’s both beautiful and slightly disheartening because I speak a lot about nature and being a person of color in outdoor spaces, and it’s a challenge I’ve had since childhood.” – Indy Srinath
You can learn more about Indy and the work she is up to on her Instagram page at indyofficinalis.
Listen to Woods & Wilds: The Podcast Episode 5 featuring Indy Srinath
Indy was also featured in our Stories Happen in Forests documentary. Watch her vignette now:
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Check out other episodes of Woods & Wilds: The Podcast
Elizabeth Lashay: Welcome back to Woods and Wilds podcast. I’m so excited to be here. I’m Elizabeth Lashay with Slay the Mic, and I’m joined by my wonderful cohost.
Kimala Luna: I’m Kimala Luna with Dogwood Alliance, and we have the absolute privilege today to be here with Indy Srinath. Indy Srinath is an avid homesteader, forager, educator, herbalist, and food justice activist. And last year at Woods and Wild’s IRL, she shared a really beautiful story that she’s going to share with us again today, and we’re really excited. So, we’d like to welcome Indy. Hi, Indy.
Indy Srinath: Hey.
Kimala Luna: Hi.
Indy Srinath: Hi. I’m so excited to be talking with the both of you. Again, it’s such a different world that we’re in these days, and it is interesting how some of these themes that I touch on in this story transform and transcend time. And I think that’s both beautiful and slightly disheartening because I speak a lot about nature and being a person of color in outdoor spaces, and it’s a challenge I’ve had since childhood. And I think it resonates a lot more for a lot of folks in these current times. So, yeah, it’s one of those things where it’s fun to be back here again chatting with you all, but having the same conversation feels a little dystopian sometimes.
Indy Srinath: Cool. So, I will just go ahead and share this story that we all got to share together last year. So, this is a story called “A Forest As Black As Me”. I was seven years old when I found out I was black. It was Jacob Glastonbury who informed me, on the playground by the tire swing. His hair was the color of dark autumn rain flooding golden cornfields, with the solstice sun suspended in the broken sky. And he always smelled like kerosene and smoke from his dad’s pickup truck. Jacob Glastonbury had a small circle of my classmates standing around him, each with their palm outstretch, and he dutifully doled out one singular Sour Patch Kid to each of my friends. “Yellow for you, Lindsey,” he said, because your hair is yellow. Edwin, you get green because of your green eyes.
Following suit, I stretched my palm out toward him, hoping for the orange one. The taste of red number 40 already on my tongue. I longed to have fingers coated in crystalline preservatives and palm sticky with corn syrup and fructose juice. “You can’t have one because you’re black,” Jacob said, turning away from me. And his words, they hung in the air stagnant and heavy like a Louisiana night. I could feel tears pushing past the levy of my eyelashes, felt them falling down my cheeks like cold water raindrops tracing rivulets down a foggy window pane.
I pushed past Jacob and his kerosene tongue and pushed past the old tire swing and pushed past the Oak trees and through the goldenrod field and past the pine trees and into the rhododendron and into the place where we weren’t supposed to go, into the dark place, into the place as black as me, into the woods, into the woods where you couldn’t hear the bell ring and you couldn’t see the playground and you couldn’t smell the Sour Patch Kids and you couldn’t taste the metallic flavor of embarrassment and shame on your tongue anymore.
And in the woods, I became black like Jacob said, engulfed in midday shadow, where pine trees offered their darkness upon the forest floor and let me sink into the depth of their beauty. And rhododendron let me climb upon its shoulders like some older brother would so I could reach my black, soil-stained palms toward open sky. And Western wind sang gentle hymns as they caressed the tops of black cherry trees. And the stream flowed with midnight black water. I could taste the gilded drops of sunlight as they squeezed through the continuum of the place where night meets day.
And I watched the holy matrimony of a black spider and an Oak limb as she weaved a glistening web, invisible, if not for the blackness of the tree. And I tasted dew from the moss covering the black stones and watched black ants marched down the length of a fallen branch. A black parade in a silent forest. I found something honest in the blackness of the forest, the way the missed clings to the blue, black sky like a whispered prayer, the way sunlight bows in the presence of shadows and drips from the edges of black pine needles. Finally, I felt proud that the forest was as black as me.
I emerged from the woods a silhouette. All that was dark was contained within me. The beauty and the absence of light through black existence light was surely promised. Jacob came to me at the edge of the woods with our teacher in tow and smiled at me through gapped teeth and violet eyes. “Sorry I called you black,” he said. “I’m supposed to give you a Sour Patch Kid now.” I told him I didn’t want his damn Sour Patch Kids anymore, and I knew my mom wouldn’t be thrilled that I had said damn in front of my teacher. But I was shadow barreling through blind night, and I was the midnight sun trading places with the waning moon. And it was 1999, and I just became black for the first time. There was beauty in the darkened woods, and I was enamored with the starless sky. I couldn’t be bothered with artificially sweetened candy and boys who smelled like pipe tobacco and had scorched smiles and tire swings and yellow hair. Not now and not anymore, because I was seven years old and I knew that the forest was as black as me.
Yay. Thanks for listening.
Kimala Luna: Thank you so much. Oh my gosh.
Elizabeth Lashay: Wow.
Indy Srinath: Yeah.
Kimala Luna: Yeah. I’m so enamored with your writing style, Indy. It almost becomes like a song. It’s like you capture the emotion, the rhythm in the description and just like these really graceful sweeps.
Indy Srinath: Oh, thank you.
Elizabeth Lashay: Yes.
Indy Srinath: Thanks. I’m glad it resonates somewhere with you guys.
Elizabeth Lashay: I mean, it resonated when you said it whenever I saw it live, and then now it still has that power. And I think, again, coming to find our identity in a time where racial tension is running high, we still have young people who are waking up every day and finding out their racial identity. And what is something that you wish you knew back when you were seven years old?
Indy Srinath: Yes. When I was a kid, we would always kind of play that game like, “If you could go back into any time period, which time period would you go to and what would you do?” And I think for me and a lot of other children of color, we were like, “Dude, things are only getting better for people that look like us. There’s no way I’m going back in time to any time period.” And I just would want to let my younger self know that that’s okay, to know that looking toward the future and being excited about being represented more and having more of a voice in the future is great, and it’s not something to be kind of ashamed of. I always felt like I wasn’t living in the present as a kid because I was just hoping for a future where I would experience more equity and more opportunity. So, I would just tell my younger self that, looking toward the future and having these grander visions and dreams is totally acceptable to deal with the unpleasant reality.
Kimala Luna: I also, I wanted to know about this story feels really poignant in that it’s this moment where you turn away from the artificial and you really seek this blend of the natural, and that’s embedded in your whole life now. And I guess I wanted to know maybe about the first time that you tied together nature and community building because I know that’s a big part of your life.
Indy Srinath: Yeah. So, I think it really was this journey, especially throughout high school, where I started becoming really disenchanted with our current food systems and just the way they were unable to nourish me as a teenager. I drank a lot of Starbucks and ate a lot of popcorn from the movie theaters and then realized what a negative impact that had on my health. And as I tried to embark on this journey to get healthier and more organic foods, I realized that in order to do that in a way that’s financially sustainable, I do have to become more involved in my community, and growing food came to the forefront of that and realizing that I can’t just go to whole foods and purchase everything that I want. I have to find these really down to earth farmers who are growing this food and purchase it directly from them at an affordable price. And then, in turn, you’re doing that community building work and really getting more in touch with your farmers and the people who grow your food.
Elizabeth Lashay: I know within your story, there was such an intersection between race and then also nature and finding that beauty in nature, as well. And so, whenever you go out into this world, where is the place that really brings you joy?
Indy Srinath: Yes. I really do find joy in the deep woods and in the forest forest. I think that the forest, especially where it tends to meet the ocean, is very unapologetic. So, pine trees have no problem taking up as much room as they need to grow, and plants have no problem vining and taking up room and branching out and climbing on to other things and creating these support systems in nature and thriving through that means. And then, the ocean lapping away at the shore, it takes what it needs and recedes when it’s had a bit too much. So, I really try to emulate nature in that way and just let my existence be unapologetic because I think everyone appreciates the ocean and looking out on the ocean, and we never say it’s too big or too much or too anything. It’s just immaculate the way that it is. So, I try to emulate that a lot.
Kimala Luna: I bet this translates really well into what you’re working on right now. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re working on right now and the ways that you are unapologetically taking up that space?
Indy Srinath: Yes, absolutely. So, I am a female and I’m a woman of color, as well. I’m a black woman. And right now, I am managing an urban farm here in downtown LA in an area known as Skid Row. And so, Skid Row is predominantly houseless… It’s all houseless population. And so, all of the folks that I am in community with there live in tents and live on the sidewalk. Some of them live in single-room occupancy housing. And so, they don’t have access to a lot of resources, and that’s been the case for many of these people for the majority of their life. And many of the people that I’m in this community with are people of color.
Indy Srinath: So, we are creating this permanent space and this urban farm that I’m managing. We’re taking up space, and we’re showing that we are a permanent fixture of the community. And we grow food together and we eat food together and just create this mini community in a place where people really don’t think much grows and people think that there’s not a lot of love or intelligence or beauty. And we just, we’re loud and we’re proud and we dance and we play music while we’re gardening. And we give out food and play music and talk and laugh. And we just don’t back down to anyone, and we have definitely had instances where the police have come and tried to shut down our food giveaway operation, and we just keep going and let folks know that this is our community and we’re not leaving for anyone.
Kimala Luna: Wow.
Elizabeth Lashay: Such an unwavering person and human you are, and I love hearing what you’ve been able to do in LA. And how does it differ from being on the East coast and being in Asheville?
Indy Srinath: Yeah. Yeah. Asheville definitely has a little piece of my heart, but I grew up in North Carolina and I experienced a lot of racism growing up, as you heard in the story. And one of my last experiences in Asheville was actually pretty traumatic. I was out having lunch with some friends, and these people decided to start waving a Confederate flag and a Trump flag directed at me while I was just sitting and having a goodbye lunch with some of my friends. And this was right in downtown Asheville, so it wasn’t like we were on the outskirts or backwoods or anything like that.
Indy Srinath: And a lot of folks told me growing up that racism exists everywhere and it’s not something that you can run from, and I fully believe that. However, I do think that it’s important to go where you feel like you can grow and go where you feel comfortable. And it has been very refreshing to just not see Confederate flags in LA. I really enjoy that. And I’ve been able to delve into some really lovely conversations around race in the workplace. And right now, the people that I work with are all predominantly POC, so that was such a refreshing feeling. So, I feel a lot for Asheville, and I love how much I learned when I was there, but I’m really enjoying the lessons that I learned and bringing that into my current situation here.
Kimala Luna: I’m wondering about, you’ve worked in nature in several different avenues. You’ve been a forager, you do activist work, you build community gardens, so there’s a lot of work with communities and a lot of work in the woods. And I’m wondering about like, what are some really nice, universal truths that you’ve come away with that apply to the forest and also to community building?
Indy Srinath: Yeah. I think that just the overarching idea that it takes pulling all of your shit and your compost and your dirt out into the open for any kind of growth to happen. There was a time in my super early 20s where I felt like I didn’t need to address these shadow places and I didn’t need to address some of the negativity that I felt growing up. And I thought, “I can just be this happy farmer who grows flowers from flowers,” but that’s really not how growth happens in real life and in your farming life. So, once I started speaking out more about some of my experiences and seeing how that resonated with other folks, I realized, “Yes, it makes sense in and out of the garden that you need this compost in order for things to grow, and you need the dirt and the soil.” So, I think that that’s something that I’ve really carried with me, and it’s helped me be a lot more open about my story. And I hope that it helps other folks feel like they can be more open about their stories, as well.
Kimala Luna: I love that. Thank you.
Indy Srinath: Of course.
Elizabeth Lashay: So, not only fertilizing your growth and what you’re currently doing in your life and your job, what do you think is next in terms of being able to continue to cultivate your passion?
Indy Srinath: Yeah. What next? So, right now, I’m currently crowdsourcing funding to create a farm space to teach other people of color and indigenous folks, and black folks in particular, how to grow their own food, and it’s been really incredible so far and I’ve had so much support from different individuals. So, that’s what’s on the horizon for me, is I really want to create this accessible farm space within this super urban area that I live now, so that, yeah, people can get this experience that I didn’t have growing up and feel reflected by their mentors and see themselves in their teachers.
Kimala Luna: That’s awesome. If people want to support that, where can they find it?
Indy Srinath: Yes. I have a GoFundMe going right now, and there is a link in my bio on Instagram.
Kimala Luna: Great. And what’s your Instagram handle just [inaudible 00:18:51]?
Indy Srinath: Yes. My Instagram handle is Indyofficinalis. So, that’s I-N-D-Y-O-F-F-I-C-I-N-A-L-I-S.
Kimala Luna: Great. Also, I want to talk a little bit about mushroom foraging and some major aspects of that that you found [inaudible 00:00:19:17].
Indy Srinath: Oh, yes. Yes. Oh my gosh, mushroom foraging has been definitely the closest thing that I think I’ve ever had to spirituality or religion. I really, really enjoy how much you have to match the pace of nature and slow down and really become observant and tune into the kind of language of your surroundings when you’re searching for mushrooms. So, I think a lot of folks might have the preconceived notion that I had that you could just walk out into the forest or you just start scrambling around on the ground and look for mushrooms and they’ll pop up. But it takes this different nature literacy where you have to pay attention to the trees and identify what trees are around you and look at the weather conditions and pay attention to the soil. And once you’ve realized what’s going on with the surroundings, then you’ll know what mushrooms will grow there, and then you’ll be able to find them and identify them. So, I think it can be a really beautiful and soothing practice, and I encourage everyone to go out and get into a forest and start looking for mushrooms.
Elizabeth Lashay: We are in a movement, in terms of moving towards justice, but I don’t want to just say racial justice, I want to talk about what’s happening in terms of our forest. And what do you think should be happening and that we as a nation, as a country, as the world, need to be paying attention to.
Indy Srinath: Yes. Oh my gosh. I think that the forest and the way we treat the planet is a great reflection of the way we view one another, and I think that it’s so, so important to, when we’re talking abour racial equity and racial equality, to also bring environmentalism into that conversation. Because the tragedies that affect us in minority populations are oftentimes directly related to a lot of the issues that affect the land. So, when we think of the exploitation of labor and how Mexican immigrants are just so mistreated, so mistreated in their farm labor and they’re the ones who are providing sustenance for us in growing all of our food. And then we’re looking at areas that we’re deforesting in order to create more farmland in areas where that’s not necessary, we see that intrinsic tie between how we treat people and how we treat the land, and it’s just awful. It’s totally awful.
Kimala Luna: I want to jump back a little bit to when you were painting this really beautiful picture of this community on Skid Row, just reclaiming their food sovereignty and dancing and playing music. I was curious what the music looked like. If it was like people were playing it or if it was like you were listening to songs.
Indy Srinath: Yes. Oh, yes. It is soul train. We play the hits, all the hits. Yeah. So, we play a lot of music that I think is super… I call it like my mom’s Sunday morning cleaning mix, so we play the oldies. And I think that’s super nice and comforting for people who grew up black in America and the music that they’re listening to in their homes growing up and they’re hearing that blaring from speakers. Then we’re giving out food and we’re giving up this good food that they actually enjoy eating. So, it’s a really lovely time, and it turns into a fun dance party. A lot of times, we’ll play some of those classic middle school dance songs, as well. Like the Ying Yang Twins. I love that.
Elizabeth Lashay: Yes. I love [inaudible 00:23:38]. With that, to follow on your answer and what Kimala had asked, but how powerful is… Everything that you’ve just described is amazing, but the power of music and then the power of silence.
Indy Srinath: Yes. Yes. Definitely. I think the power of music is so incredible because, I mean, I always see it as a tool to bring people together, and if we already know all of the lyrics to the same song and we’ve never spoken to each other before, then we’re already in sync, we’re already on the same wavelength and able to communicate through that. And then, to the converse, the power of silence, just spending time in the garden with people in community, and you’re doing the exact same work and you’re weeding a garden bed together and you’re doing it in this beautiful synchronicity in silence, I think that is so powerful. And just communicating in that way through the soil is so healing.
Kimala Luna: Well, we’re nearing the end of our time here, but I wanted to ask two questions. I guess the first one would be, what is something that you tell yourself sometimes when you feel like maybe it’s a little overwhelming and you want to get back to a good base? And then, what’s your favorite song to listen to?
Indy Srinath: Yes. Yes. That’s a great question. So, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I often remind myself that rest is a form of resistance. It’s just that classic idea that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Taking a nap or just resting and closing your eyes during the day can really help you reset so that you can do some of this active work and really get into the depths of who you are as a person. So, I often just allow myself to relax even when I feel like there’s more I could be doing.
Kimala Luna: And then, what’s a favorite song you listen to and you just want to feel fun again?
Indy Srinath: Yeah. Honestly, I don’t know if this is the most fun song ever, but recently I have been listening to, and I think this speaks to what I was just speaking about about rest, Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady, and just, I love that song. It’s so, so beautiful. And just about like unloading and letting yourself put your bags down, and just this idea of… And I think also, too, honestly, in the work that I do on Skid Row, people are physically carrying around all of their possessions with them and aren’t able to be in this space of rest. They’re constantly in fight or flight mode. And if the garden that I manage can be a place where they can take a load off and put their bags down, literally and emotionally, then I feel like I’m really doing my job right. So, I love that song. It really resonates with me.
Elizabeth Lashay: Well, I’m just so appreciative of you taking the time to not only talk to us but share your story, so thank you so much.
Kimala Luna: Yes, thank you.
Indy Srinath: Yeah. Thank both of you. Oh, it’s so good to be back. I loved having this conversation, and it’s like a little mini-vacation to the East coast, so I really appreciate you guys having me.
Kimala Luna: Yay. Can you tell us one more time, where can we go and support you in your GoFundMe?
Indy Srinath: Yes. Yes. So, it’s in the link on my bio on Instagram, and my Instagram is Indyofficinalis.
Elizabeth Lashay: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us and-
Indy Srinath: Yeah.
Elizabeth Lashay: [inaudible 00:28:11] we’ll see you next time on Woods and Wilds podcast.
Indy Srinath: Sounds great. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.