identity on tyne in partnership with Northumberland National Park, Harehope Quarry Project, Durham Wildlife Trust and Northumberland Wildlife Trust are offering the opportunity for four writers of colour to be in residence in the North East countryside.
This in a writers in residence project which will focus on people of colour’s relationship with the natural world; to look beyond the beauty of places to discover the hidden histories within.
Over a period of 20 days, each writer with engage with the specific natural heritage sites as well as the visitors, staff and volunteers, exploring the area’s industrial and social heritage, and how people’s actions and events have helped shape the landscape. Collecting stories and information and experiences.
With additional individual writing time, each writer will produce a piece of written work of any genre of approximately 2000 words to be shared at a public event at their given site as well as a regional cultural gathering with Black British Nature writers.
The aims of the project:
* to provide professional opportunities for emerging and established writers of colour in the region to develop their expertise as well as raise their profile * to promote the development of a relationship with regional natural heritage by people of colour * to remove some of the barriers which prevent people of colour from venturing into the British countryside * to develop a language and share our stories of experiences with nature * to promote the protection and stewardship of the land amongst diverse groups of people
All the writers in residence for the project met again virtually for a writing workshop over the weekend. I’m really enjoying this space where we get to create together, as well as share our developments and concerns about how each residency is going. It is definitely a life source for me as I have to move in other circles where I am the only Black face in the room. Usually in these space, I am communicating, or so I think. But from the reactions or usually non-reactions, I feel as if I’m on the other side of double glazing and trying to connect to the group through words and actions but they are just not listening, not even giving me the time of day.
This is what it’s like moving through this world as a Black woman and being judged on my appearance rather than on the value and worth I could bring to the table if you only took the time, and gave me the rightful respect, and listened.
Within our little group of writers, this isn’t the case. We meet under the understanding of our shared experiences. Of being deemed as ‘other’ within white supremacy society, even though again and again through our actions and words we strive to centre ourself in our own experiences. In our space, writing, talking and laughing together, ‘whiteness’ is not centred. We are centred and this is liberating and food for me soul.
I want more of this. More. Thank you fellow writers for being on this journey with me. You make this ride easier and much more enjoyable.
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.
Just over a year ago, the writers involved in Black Nature in Residence met at The Sill, National Landscape Discovery Centre to launch the project. The next week, identity on tyne, the coordinator of the project went into a self-imposed lockdown ahead of the national lockdown that was called a couple of weeks later. Black Nature in Residence has been put on hold since then. Even though we tried to restart happenings in October 2020, things have been taking place virtually and very piecemeal.
Yesterday, as writer in residence for Northumberland National Park, I was able to return to The Sill and walk around the landscape again. It felt good to be back and just enjoy the open views safely.
Hopefully moving forward, I’d be able to continue to explore this vast and amazing county each week leading up to the end of this project in October 2021.
Bring the #OutdoorsIndoors on International Earth Day
Northumberland National Park’s writer in residence Dr. Sheree Mack loves immersing herself in nature. She has learnt to destress through nature and found inspiration for her creative writing in the great outdoors.
Date And Time
Thu, 22 April 2021 11:00 – 14:30 BST
Join Sheree and National Park Ecologist Gill Thompson on International Earth Day to discover how to get the most out of your personal nature experience. From some hints on where and when to find hidden natural delights to practical tips on capturing your own precious memories through journaling, this online workshop will prepare you for a meaningful connection with nature.
For the past month, we’ve been gathering as a group to workshop together. Taking it in turns, we’ve been setting each other writing tasks to create some original work in community together. We’ve been sharing how our residencies have been going as well as discussing what nature writing would look like for us, from us.
Jini Reddy, born in London to Indian parents who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, and she was raised in Canada, has written about her relationship with nature, She writes, “…back in the UK and sensitive to the mood of the day and the things I’d read and the voices I heard, I worried that I didn’t love nature in the right way, that I didn’t bring my gaze to bear upon Her in the approved way. What made me feel even more of a fraud was that half the time I didn’t even think in terms of the word ‘nature’. More often I’d be thinking of a specific place, some amazing, sigh-inducing landscape or a cool, twisty tree, or a small creature or squawky bird I spotted while on a walk in the countryside or in some meadow or park in my neighbourhood.” Extract from Wanderland, short-listed for the 2020 Wainwright Prize for nature writing.
This extract created a really good discussion within the group around what is the norm, or accepted in terms of nature writing and how our own writing might fit into this or not. I know that I’m not going to be afraid to use this residency to dive deeper in to my own relationship with nature. And I don’t want that separation, of saying the ‘natural world’, as I believe there’s only one world and we are all part of it, and we are all one within it.
Anyway, during our final writing exercise, of just choosing one thing in nature to focus in on and produce some thumbnail nature writing, I chose the curlew. The curlew is the emblem of the park, and apparently the park is one of the best places in the UK to hear the bird. This is what I wrote:
curleee. curleee. ghosts heard within the fog, through the winter, along the coast.
within the mudflats, with downward curved bills, rich pickings for worms, they balance on bluish stilt-like legs.
come spring, look up. catch their white rumps sailing across the sky onto the uplands to breed, we hope.
these mottled brown and grey waders are a keystone species, holding the whole system together.
once upon a time, in abundance, curlews overhead were a signal of a storm brewing.
curleee. curleee. ghosts heard less and less now, as bad weather is already upon us.
Wintering into the New Year, taking it slow to come around to this thing called society, work and the ‘new normal’, whatever that might be, I take reprieve and solace, through sea swimming. If I get irritable, not nice to be around, I know it means I haven’t been to the sea recently.
The other week I managed to get into the sea five times, following the movement of the tide throughout the week. I love when the tide is in the most, at my local bay, Cullercoats, the sea seems much more full and welcoming and powerful. Here in this film, the sea breaches the sea wall again and again as the wind and the new moon, therefore producing a huge Spring tide, rushes into the shore again and again with such power and force and roar. Being this close to the sea, being intimate with her is a blessing for which I am deeply grateful.
Catching a dry day, with bright light, is a rarity during these past few weeks. Today was such a day. I’m not walking in Northumberland yet. I haven’t been there for nearly a year, not since we had our first Black Nature in Residence meeting in March 2020 in preparation to start the project. And then Covid-19 hit.
I would love to be out in the Park exploring, but I’m adhering to the lockdown rules and not traveling far from home. I’m also a bit fearful of exploring unknown territory in the North as I would stick out like a sore thumb; a Black woman in red woolly hat. I worry that there will be other people out, see me as a stranger and call the police. I’m not sure if I would be taken seriously if I said I was slow walking in the landscape with notebook and pen and camera for work. But I would be.
I mentioned this residency to a friend recently and they didn’t know that such a job existed. They congratulated me on doing something I loved, but it made me feel the need to it only explore my nature connection but also a need to elevate the position of writer in residence to others to make sure it is seen and recognised.
A lot of work to be done, but I’m in no hurry as I enjoy the slower pace of lockdown to explore what lies just in front of me with each step I take. Mud, leaves, mixing to mulch, a low lying golden sun, frosty aid and wood pigeons cooing in bare grey trees.
My love and deep connection with nature has been with me for as long as I can remember. Growing up in my bonny coastal city in Syria meant that I was lucky enough to spend the Summer on the beach- swimming, cloud collecting and listening with curiosity to seashells whispering to me. Sometimes I would use the flat fan-shaped seashells as chalks to draw my dreams on the wet sands. Being near the sea is a life line- water gives me life and eternal joy.
Over the years I have developed a special connection with the natural world in and within the marvellous and vast landscapes in Syria. Visiting the mountains and being amongst trees was very inspirational and soul nourishing, and there I developed my love for writing, musing and drawing on tree leaves.
Now that I live in England, my love for musing on leaves has grown and developed into something special- creating leaf messages to gift and send to family and friends, and the process fills my heart with joy and happiness.
In 2021 I will take up residence in Northumberland Wildlife Trust. For this residency I would like to explore Northumberlandia, its history and its landscape sculpture. I would also want to explore my internal landscape within proximity to nature, and record my feelings and observations in writing and visual journaling. Further, I would love to chat to the locals and interview some of them to collect stories about their relationship with their natural heritage. Throughout this residency, I would generate creative works (writings, photographs and mixed media journaling) in response to collected stories, my own observations and my interactions with the locals. I will share all my creative work on this page.
I am very excited to be part of this project and I look very forward to immerse myself in this experience.
Sheree and identity on tyne, thanks heaps for providing this wonderful opportunity to explore my connection with nature.