The love of nature bringing people together – one national park at a time

Audrey and Frank Peterman on their boat "Limitless." (Courtesy Audrey Peterman)

Audrey and Frank Peterman on their boat “Limitless.” (Courtesy Audrey Peterman)

Audrey Peterman grew up on the lush island of Jamaica where she says there was often no choice between outdoors and indoors. She was always at home in wildlife.

“We bathed in the river,” she recollects. “We went to the woods to collect firewood. We went to the fields to get green bananas and potatoes. I was very much into nature.”

Little did she know however, that at 64, she’d be living on a sailboat, with her husband Frank, off a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and be a U.S. national park expert – having visited a total of 171 around the country. It’s been 20 years since she and Frank started their own business, Earthwise Productionsinspiring hundreds of thousands to discover and support our national parks. In 2012, she wrote “Our True Nature,” the first travel guide to the national parks written by an African American woman.

Peterman moved to New York at 28 to join her mother in 1979. Six years later, after moving to Fort Lauderdale, to escape the cold winters of NYC, she met Frank.

“We became instant best friends,” she says in her gregarious manner. “He was so exciting as a writer and a person, I tried to set him up with all of my girlfriends, and it was a disaster. It’s not often that you have a great male friend. We did get together, several years later. It’s been 23 years now that we’ve been married.”

She says their entire married life has included a close relationship with nature.

“When Frank and I got married, we’d go for our morning walks,” says Peterman. “Not only would he identify the birds that he saw, but also the birds that he heard. Now I can tell by the call too, but I never thought it was possible to do that. We are very attune to the outdoors.”

Peterman says it wasn’t until 1995 when they decided to drive around the country and see America. They were about to open a bed and breakfast in Belize, but while Frank was having a drink there before flying home, a local asked him about the Badlands and the Grand Canyon, and Frank said he’d never been.

“The gentleman said, ‘What? What kind of American are you?’,” recalls Peterman. “Frank said, ‘We cannot go to Belize if we do not know our own country.’ So we decided to take two months off to travel. We bought a Ford truck. We drove from the Atlantic to the Pacific – Yellowstone to Yosemite, and we didn’t see any blacks or Hispanics…We thought, ‘How is this possible?’ We decided that we would make a change. A lot of friends didn’t know of these places.”  

She says seeing so many beautiful places they did not know about encouraged them to start their own company to bring information about our national forests to other people who didn’t know.

“The French philosopher, Albert Camus, once said, ‘All a man’s life consists of the search for those few special images in the presence of which his soul first opened.’ That’s what I’m all about,” says Peterman. “From the first moment I saw my first national park – Acadia in Maine – my soul opened so extensively like I was looking into the face of God…When I had that feeling, I wanted to share that with everybody. What it feels like to feel so small, and yet you’re safe. I experience it over, and over, and over, again. That’s why I can’t stop. I didn’t choose my mission, my mission chose me.”

Peterman says they’re busier than ever now, because now they have to travel the country speaking about climate change,” says Peterman. “At this point, it’s all hands on deck. It’s affecting us right now.”

What is the most important piece of life advice that she would give her younger self at her age now?

“I would say keep a more open mind and not to jump to conclusions so readily,” she says. “I think that when we’re younger we see something as it is, but there could be so many reasons it appears that way, but it’s not so at all. Because you think it, doesn’t make it so. There could be another interpretation. Especially something that hurts you – don’t assume that that’s what it is. Even now at 64, I find that as much as I’m striving not to do it, it really takes work not to jump to conclusions.”