Black bodies in Nature

I returned to Addison and Hedgefield this spring to see how a change in season is reflected through trees, shrubs, flowers, birds, wind and smells. The journey was long but one I looked forward to. Armed with the freedom a reduction in Covid restriction brings. Also the sun came out to play and my skin loved it. I felt a strong pull to get out and find some trees.

On arrival, I was a little concerned. I worried if I was ever going to be able to identify these new trees myself, but that was the point. I needed to get out there and try. I needed to make new tree friends, call them by their names (English names; they have more names in many other languages) and find some peace beneath their shade. The first was the sycamore, huge trunk, orangy, wide branches, looked like something you could only picture from a biblical story. If only I was a little lighter, physically stronger and possibly had wings, perhaps I would have nestled on its branches, looking as far as my brown eyes could see. It took me a while to peel myself off her image. I needed to continue, I would return to her with stories and new found knowledge of other trees.

I later found Alder, Beech, Birch, Ash, and others. I just looked around, from bark, to branch, flowers if any, and foliage. I met some that I could not name, and later it felt like they didn’t need a name. They were just there, supporting a massive ecosystem, which in that moment included me. As I walked, I met strangers, we said hello, some gave a smile (I smiled back. We also observed social distancing rules), and continued on our separate journeys. With each step, my worries melted away, I felt at ease, I found myself just focused on my time there. I was so at ease, I did not realise my mask had left my face and found itself on the path (Don’t worry, I found it).

I must admit that I love trees. I see trees, roots, branches and fruits everywhere. In computing, in transportation maps, processing thoughts, and within myself. Whilst receiving chemotherapy, one of the side effects I had was the darkening of my veins, especially the veins on both arms. Even though those veins were hardened and slowly collapsed from treatment. I couldn’t help but marvel at how my body was still a reflection of a tree. As I later struggled with neuropathic pain and fibromyalgia, trees became a representation of strength, we both need iron, we both sometimes have naughty branches, we sometimes fall ill but we’ll hold firm. We are both a reflection of our environments as they change.

I felt refreshed from my time at Addison and Hedgefield, and shared pictures with family and friends, wanting more Black faces in the countryside. I had been the only black face, I had seen and knew the barriers we faced when accessing the countryside. I thought perhaps sharing pictures and videos, in an attempt to take them on a virtual walk with me, would ignite a stronger desire to come venture out and make some new plant friends.

Then it happened, I returned to the bus stop. I had just missed one bus. I saw it! Written on the bus stop chair. “FUCK niggers” and two swastickers written in Black on a Red bench. Within a few microseconds I felt unsafe, unwelcome, threatened and scared. I felt my blood rush, I looked left and right, forwards and towards the woods. I wondered who wrote it. Was it one of the people I had come in contact with whilst walking? Why be so hateful? Why am I not allowed to be in these spaces just like everyone else? I took a picture of it and recorded a video. I thought, if anything happened to me, at least there was evidence. I thought maybe reporting it would make someone remove it. I seriously jumped on the next bus without thinking of where it was going. Fortunately I was safe, a little shaken, but safe.

On the bus, I felt rage and anger. Such arrogance, stupidity mixed with racist intention is a massive part of why we don’t come out into the countryside. We already deal with so much, one can ask why add another way to re-traumatise myself. I thought of going back and scratching that damned thing off, but then I didn’t know if there was a law against damaging a bus stop (why should I have to worry about that when the monster already did), I didn’t return. 

If it was against the law and I did it, I would more likely be facing harsher sentencing than the person who originally defaced the bench. I thought of other black women, deciding to explore the countryside, with beaming faces, want to make new plant friends, breathe clean air, relax in the shade, talk and touch the bark of the sycamore, only to be met with such awful messaging. I’m still angry and hope that this anger fuels more of us to take these spaces as ours too. We belong to the Earth and ever deserve to live peacefully in her.

I will not forget the joy I felt and still feel, the warmth of those smiling faces (and eyes), the kind hello’s, that dog who just wanted me to pet her, the swing, the random carefully hidden toys left by fairies (possibly children), and just how it felt to be there. 

To whomever wrote that message, it was seen and read. It won’t stop me from going out, being proud in my blackness, loving nature, sharing and inviting more black bodies out into nature. Connecting my experiences, laughing and smiling. I hope but do not expect you to change. 

The ignorant shall not destroy you. I am here because of the work of others before me. I am bliss and rooted just like that sycamore.

Jola Olafimihan

Jola Olafimihan

Mangoes, dragonflies, trees and Clay. Those are my earliest memories of nature. Although I grew up in cities, I have always been surrounded by nature both merciful and torrential. As a young girl growing up in Nigeria in the 90’s, living surrounded by butterflies, birds and trees, gave me the release I needed in times of stress and worry. It still does today. Eating traditional sweets and catching falling mangoes from our garden and just having a blast outside is something that reminds me of the richness I was surrounded by.

Living in the UK really changed my exposure to nature. Cities are less green, gardens smaller, I rarely saw butterflies. I waited 10 years to see my first wild hedgehog. Access to wild unrestricted nature was far and expensive. It became even more difficult to deal with mental fatigue and stress. Then I moved to Durham. Durham, an old small city with such beauty, it made more sense to choose this place for my future studies. I walked around more, day and night, bathing in the shadows of trees, chasing the local rabbits, reconnecting with the soil and just getting lost in nature. Taking the longer more scenic route to university, made me feel lighter and less blehhh.

My first time writing about Nature was brought on pollution. The pollution of land, river, air and ocean, brought about by human activity in Nigeria. Seeing the effect oil spills had on our environment birthed my first publicly shared poem. When I was much younger, I’d create imaginery creatures that worked at night, replenishing nature whilst we slept and would then sleep in the day time, whilst we worked. However, this poem was different, it hurt. That pain I now use to fuel my writing, activities and creations.

At age 22, I was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer. My life was thrown into a spin. My life now included journies between the hospital and my home. I was weak, exhausted and sick but I longed for Green and sea. My first trip out with friends whilst on chemotherapy was physically exhausting. However, mentally I was fired up. At the end of my chemotherapy cycles, I was invitend to a week long trip to the Lake District by Climbing Out. It was an amazing experience. I conquered my fear of bottomless water and jumped off a bridge, twice. It felt amazing to be surrounded by friends from the hospital and made some new memories.

After that, another lull, until Sheree. I met this amazing being who loved earth and beamed that love to others. She brought access to nature to black women like myself, who felt disconnected because of our lives and experiences. I became stronger with each new walk, with each journey, I started to reconnect. My senses where returning. Enjoying the texture of soil and plant, creating a new bond and friendships, and writing again.

I was beyond excited to be invited as a Writer in residence. Plus with an organisation in a place that made me love and bond with British nature, the Durham Wildlife Trust. There is much I have to learn but I can’t wait to see myself evolve as a writer. Even though Covid-19 has slowed things down a bit, it’s allowed me to discover new ways to reconnect. Through this residency, I hope to show the bond we have with the earth, mentally, physically and emotionally. I also hope it inspires more to reconnect and heal through exposure to the Green, Blue, Red and colour diversity of nature.