Qwantese Winters’ goal is to get people outside more. As Madison Public Library’s Naturalist-in-Residence 2023, she wants people to think about and appreciate nature through the theme “Rooted in Nature.” Christina Lieffring went to Madison’s Troy Gardens to bring us Winters’ story.
The insects are singing their final songs. Squirrels are frantically gathering for winter. Migratory birds preparing for their long journey. There’s an explosion of late-blooming goldenrod and the slightest tinge of yellow and red in the leaves of the trees.
And Qwantese Winters wants you to take it all in.
“I want you to see the beauty and the enchantment of the trees and how they sound when the wind is blowing through them. The vibrant colors of the flowers, the smell of dirt — which is my favorite smell on the planet. I wish I could bottle it up,” said Winters. “I want you guys to have that feeling, almost like being a child again. Everything amazes you when you’re a child.”
Nature has been a safe space for Winters since she was a young girl. Now, she’s the Madison Public Library’s 2023 Naturalist-in-Residence. Her first event in this role was a meet-and-greet and tour in September at Troy Farms, where she was an apprentice in 2019. She says that apprenticeship deeply transformed her relationship with farming.
“One of the reasons why I thought it was important for me to have a farm experience was because my only understanding of agriculture and Black people was slavery, right? So I came here with the intention of dismantling that by getting my hands in the dirt and doing this work outside of that context,” said Winters.
She had started this work of reframing when she learned that her grandfather had been Gullah Geechee, descendants of Africans who were enslaved and built a distinct culture in the coastal southeastern U.S. They had their own language, arts and food traditions.
“Knowing how to grow food was something that was used to sustain their families and their communities,” said Winters. “So with that perspective in mind, it really helped me to see that this is a gift. And it’s not a curse.”
Winters views food as more than sustenance.
“There’s a lot of medicine out here — and I don’t just mean as in food is medicine, which it is,” said Winters. “I mean, on a spiritual level, being able to know how to grow your own food reminds you of the smallness of yourself and the bigness of nature and everything that’s outside of us. Right? I think that that’s a medicine.”
Winters has worn many hats over the years: she’s a doula, an herbalist, she’s hosted a PBS Wisconsin’s “Let’s Grow Stuff.” Plus, she’s an artist and a writer. But instead of taking one hat off and putting another on, all of Winters’s hats seem to overlap.
“If you think about it, from my art to the writing to the doula work to working with the land, there’s an aspect of each that requires me to nurture a certain aspect of humanity. I think that’s what links it all together,” said Winters. “When I’m creating art and when I’m writing, I’m trying to nurture the minds of the people who are engaging in what I’m creating.”
“When it comes to my doula work, I’m trying to nurture people’s relationship with their bodies and with natural processes that happen within their bodies” Winters added. “When I’m working with the land, I’m trying to nourish us not only physically by growing food, but also nourishing that mental, emotional, spiritual, medicinal aspect of what comes from connecting with the land.”
Maybe that drive to nurture is one reason she’s so comfortable with children. At Troy Farms, when some of the toddlers keep trying to climb on picnic benches, Winters scoops them up and puts them in her lap.
“Children are very much a part of what I do and what inspires me,” said Winters with a smile. “I love children. I think it’s just because they’re just so innocent. And that wonder that I was talking about earlier — about just this imagination that they have and this desire to explore. I think that that’s so precious.”
For so many of us, our connection and knowledge of our natural world has been lost to trauma, to our modern life, and to time. Winter’s journey as a naturalist is about reclaiming that connection — and also the wonder — we often leave behind in childhood. The poster for her residency shows a Black girl in a yellow dress, ankle-deep in running water, gazing at the surrounding woods.
“When we’re adults, sometimes the world just goes gray,” said Winters to the group at Troy Farms. “We don’t take the time to just stop and pause and be like, ‘Wow, this environment is beautiful. What’s around me is beautiful.’ So I would hope to be able to offer that through all the different things that we do together … for y’all to walk away with that and to feel like a kid again when you’re outside.”
MUSIC: “Mother Nature’s Son” by Al Di Meola