Naamal De Silva and Portia Sampson Knapp
Screams and Cries blend and transform
BlackBirds sing spread wings
- By, Portia Sampson Knapp, July 2020
Portia in Canada. Photo courtesy of Portia Sampson-Knapp.
Naamal: I first met Portia over a year ago at a Women’s Environmental Leadership (WEL) Initiative dinner hosted by the Anacostia Community Museum. The dinner was in a beautiful and strange gothic room within the Smithsonian Castle. Arched windows framed stuffed ducks arranged as though in flight. A stuffed lynx stared down at us from a warm brownstone wall. The night was warm and felt filled with possibility. I re-connected with friends and met a few new people with whom I’ve stayed in touch, including Portia. Over the past two years, WEL has provided me with abundant inspiration and opportunities to connect with inspiring women. In the midst of a pandemic, it gives me joy to remember sharing a dinner and conversation with 30 or so people outside of my family. In dark times, such inspiration is vital, and I am grateful to Katrina Lashley and her colleagues.
A few weeks after we met, Portia attended a writing group meeting that I co-hosted with Priya Parrotta. In inviting people to the meeting, I wrote “We will discuss how music can shape our stories. I would love for us to work towards writing something - a poem, a journal entry, a song, a blog post. Stories, including music, are a means of inquiring into and understanding life and our place in the world.” During the meeting, we spoke and wrote about music in our lives and related to our connection to nature.
Over the summer, Portia and I re-connected through a series of emails about life during the pandemic and the renewed movement for racial justice. Reading and reflective writing has helped both of us during this time.
Portia: I've been really devastated and also hopeful. There is new attention from what feels like a larger audience in regard to the systemic racism and violence in this country. I myself have increased my exposure and have found two things:
1) Leaning into the grief has me growing and healing and even connecting more with people.
2) My own self-confidence increases the more I observe and learn about my own history.
It's been painful and healing all at the same time, and I'm grateful that it seems the majority of our country does have some understanding of the injustice and wants to see change.
Naamal: Soon after this email, she sent me a poem.
Portia: It's been very hard, despite the lack of time constraint, to focus long enough to delve into my feelings and use them to create. I was able to squeeze enough creativity out of me for a single haiku. Hopefully this is the start of more.
Screams and Cries blend and transform
BlackBirds sing spread wings
Naamal: We also did an interview over email, where I asked some questions about her relationship with nature.
Naamal: Where are you from? What was your relationship with nature like as a child?
Portia: I'm from Philadelphia, PA. Despite growing up in the city, I was raised with a love of nature. Both of my parents are career environmentalists who took me camping and sent me to an elementary school in the woods. I loved sleep away camp and eventually attended and then worked for a wilderness canoe program. I can remember when I was VERY little, of all things, having a real love of earthworms. Though they elicit a strong "ick" factor, I was drawn to their gentle nature. After rainstorms, I picked drying worms off the pavement and tossed them lightly into the grass and dirt in an attempt to save them. I held this habit heavily up through high school, and I still do it on occasion today. Because of this and other examples, I think it was a love of animals and a desire to connect with them that opened the door for me to the natural world.
Naamal: I love the story about the worms! I’ve seen so many young children in programs like FoodPrints be drawn in by disgust and then, at least in some cases, switch to fascination and care. Even when they stick to disgust, there is a connection to nature.
What inspires you to protect nature?
Portia: What inspires me to protect nature? Where to even begin? There is something very healing about being outside and in communion with the woods, water, mountains, desert... Every day, our culture invents incredible technology that serves a purpose and simultaneously pulls us away from this medicine. Nature allows us to be present, to slow down, and listen and feel, to confront our traumas and demons that, like it or not, make us who we are today. Being in nature is centering.
Protecting nature is also about survival. My Dad once told me that being an environmentalist was not about saving the planet. "The planet will take care of itself," he said. "Protecting the environment is about the survival of the human species."
I also believe we have a responsibility to preserve the land and creatures around us to the best of our ability, and we often fail them when serving ourselves ease and luxury.
Naamal: How do you protect nature? How would you like to do so in the future?
Portia: I vote. I try to share my love for the outdoors with others. In my 20s, I led wilderness canoe trips for young people. In the future, I would like to find ways to spread this kind of exposure. I think there's no better way to teach appreciation than to take people outside and teach them about it, be it for 10 minutes or 10 days.
Naamal: What renews you?
Portia: There is nothing better than being still outside and just listening, feeling, smelling, and observing nature. I LOVE a multi-night deep wilderness camping trip. Overcoming moments of discomfort is an essential part of the process.
Naamal: What worries you?
Portia: That our love for technology will pull us so far away from the outdoors that we will no longer appreciate nature. In the process, we'd lose an essential part of ourselves.
Naamal: What gives you hope?
Portia: The fact that there are so many people under the age of 40 who have grown up during the era of the internet and social media that seem to love rustic, outdoor experiences. I hope that we teach our children the same.
Naamal: Who inspires you? Personally? Professionally?
Portia: Jane Goodall has always been a huge inspiration for me. What a humble adventurer whose love of animals and their habitats became her life's mission. She defied the perceived odds for an English woman who at the time had no formal scientific training and changed the face of science as it relates to animals, primates and humans in particular. I think we'd be well served to have more people with her tenacity, confidence, passion, and respect for the natural world.
Naamal: I have so many more questions, but this is a start. Each piece of what Portia spoke of could have been a blog post, but no single story can create a portrait of Portia in this moment in time. No single story could possibly capture her over time. Nevertheless, I love the idea of an accumulation of stories that, when considered collectively, help us to understand ourselves and each other.
Even in the best of times, I focus too much on wounds to society and nature. Since the spring, I have cycled rapidly through hope and despair. In this time, I find myself leaning even more than usual on the stories of people working to heal our collective wounds. I gather these stories mostly through confidential interviews for consulting work. I hold on to the stories and think with them. It’s a pleasure to share one more publicly.
You can connect with Portia on LinkedIn.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.