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'America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston' explores the relationship between humans and nature

Baratunde Thurston sees a Suwannee snapping turtle up close. (Courtesy of Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS)
Baratunde Thurston sees a Suwannee snapping turtle up close. (Courtesy of Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS)

From Los Angeles to Appalachia, Season 1 of “America Outdoors” brought host Baratunde Thurston all over the country. Throughout the season, Thurston spent time with memorable people at each of his stops, learning about the history of the natural area and how humanity intersects with nature.

Now, the show is back for a second season. And Thurston is digging deeper, expanding the show’s breadth to feature people and places a viewer may not automatically deem ‘outdoorsy.’

As he travels throughout the country, comedian and writer Thurston encounters people with myriad viewpoints about climate change, cultural politics and more. But he says that even with those differing points of view, we’re all living together on the same planet and need to form a sense of community.

“We have a lot of differences. We have a lot of divisions. We also can cross them and live with them on this common ground with this planet that we must share,” Thurston says. “It’s the best one out there. I’ve surveyed the others. They’re not as good.”

5 questions with ‘America Outdoors’ host Baratunde Thurston

What was the approach for this new season?

“We wanted to get deeper into what we did in Season 1, which was to tell the stories of people with a deep and profound connection to nature, to tell the stories of people we don’t often associate with being outdoorsy.

“We also were looking at doing a lot of conversation and exploration of what the relationship with nature can do for our mental health, for our physical health, even for our spiritual health.”

You include in your show voices that we don’t often hear from, such as river guide Louie Hena of the Tesuque Pueblo.  How do voices like his deepen our understanding of our history?

“Patriotism is a form of love, and love requires knowing the person, the people, the place you claim to love. And so this show helps deepen that sense of patriotism, helps deepen that sense of love, because we’re willing to know things that we aren’t all taught.

“To be able to travel this land and interact with so many different nations within the nation, people who were the first to build here and settle here, is to know the land better, know the country based in this land better and create the potential for loving it better.”

You met so many memorable people. Is there one you’ve just not been able to forget?

“Nikki Smith, who appears in our Utah episode, is a world-famous rock climber, [who] literally wrote the books on how to do all these extraordinary climbs. Nikki Smith is trans and she shared with me her journey — climbing all these [rock] faces — and her journey facing her inner self and growing up in Utah in the Mormon community.

“We get to have this exchange and this conversation while we are literally rock climbing, and we’re sitting on the edge, the side of the mountain and there’s actual eagles soaring at eye level. It’s like the most American thing I’ve done to be out in the great American outdoors talking with someone about their journey and their identity.

“That one moment captured the physical challenge and adventure, captured the beauty and just the raw like, ‘oh let’s enjoy nature,’ and captured some of the hurt and the challenge and the trauma as well as the healing that is possible with a relationship with nature.”

At a time when this country seems to be so polarized and hatefulness so rampant, tell us how you found the opposite in your travels.

“We get told that there is no ‘us.’ There’s just you versus me, and everybody’s out to get you and take something from you.

“[But] there is another story that’s out there, and it’s a ‘we’ story. It’s the story of us, and a lot of the people that we feature, I’d actually say everyone that we featured in this series, represents that version.”

How has your relationship with the outdoors changed through doing this show?

“I think my relationship with the outdoors has changed in that I now consider the outdoors more a part of me. And I recognize more explicitly that there is no future without these outdoors, without this planet specifically.

“It’s inspired me to try to do more to tell that story of the integration of the outdoors with our insides and to do more explicitly to preserve those outdoors so we can stay living right here in a way that we all enjoy.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Tamagawa also adapted it for the web.

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