Naamal De Silva
This weekend, I hosted the first in a new Mayla workshop series, “Hope Through Nature, Hope Within.” These writing workshops are meant to create a little space for reflection, writing and sharing. In the face of societal and personal losses and traumas, personal writing in community might be a way to heal ourselves and mend the world in small ways.
With ten people, the workshop was intimate enough to stay together the entire time. The participants were from different contexts in my personal and professional life; there were a couple of people I did not know personally. They joined the Zoom call from four countries across three continents, with roots in at least six countries on four continents. For me, the ability to connect virtually across boundaries and time zones has been one of the brightest parts of a dark time. The workshop was just what I hoped for – a space of sharing sorrow, joy, memories, and inspiration.
To begin, we shared where we were right now, one worry, and one place that brought us joy during childhood. To me, this initiated a juxtaposition between worry and joy that threaded through the workshop. We spoke of isolation from family during the pandemic, of illness, and worry about politics, unrest, and the struggles of young people. We spoke, too, of hills full of birds, patches of sunlight, time with siblings and parents, forests and adventure and freedom.
We then listened to four poems. In selecting them, I thought a lot about the voices I was putting into conversation – like the participants, they were people who likely would never have met in person. Taken together, these poems evoked the pandemic, the movements for racial and social justice, and connections to nature.
During the pandemic, the first poem, by Derek Mahon, had provided comfort to many people in and outside of Ireland. Mahon recently passed away at the age of 78 after a career that flourished during his 60s and 70s (a reminder that beautiful work takes time).
Everything is Going to be Alright
By, Derek Mahon
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
I thought of this poem as the first one in the sequence, but perhaps it would have been better as the last. One participant felt angry on first hearing it – that everything is not going to be ok. But, she ended her reflection with a feeling of acceptance and the idea that life will continue on earth regardless of what humans do. I had also shared this poem with my students at George Washington University, and one of them shared that it gave him comfort just to hear someone say out loud that things will be ok.
To me, the second poem followed naturally from the first because it was explicitly intended to recognize sacrifice and loss due to the pandemic, but also because of the vivid nature imagery woven throughout.
A moment of silence for the frontline workers risking their lives and those we have lost to COVID-19
Close your eyes, inhale the essence of fresh air
And picture yourself floating on a cloud that heals your heart –
Cleanses your soul
Picture yourself dancing in the rain
Ecstatic of overcoming uncertainty
Picture yourself in the wake of a thunderstorm –
Sun breaking, rainbow in the sky
Feel yourself at the ocean’s shore
Listening to the screaming waves
Feel yourself at the riverbank
Anticipating going for a swim
Breathe for the ones we lost –
Let your heartbeat carry their legacies over the hills of the valley
Through strong winds and under the sky of their heavenly home
Kisses to the mothers, hugs to the fathers –
Gone but never forgotten
Exhale and breathe life back into the world.
When I think of a moment of silence, I think of emptying the clutter in my mind or of concentrating on those we have lost. Instead, SM fills that small space with an abundance of cleansing, wild, water imagery that must contrast sharply with daily life in a confined place absent of both wind and water. This poem, written by SM, was posted on the Free Minds Book Club website. SM is a currently incarcerated person. The website mentions that the poets welcome comments on their work - please consider supporting their work or commenting on that site if you appreciate this poem.
Like the poem by Derek Mahon, the next poem has been widely circulated this year, this time in the context of the protests for racial justice. Ross Gay wrote it some years ago.
A Small Needful Fact
By, Ross Gay
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
What first drew me to this poem is the shocking contrast between Garner’s brutal death and the gently slow nurturing of gardening. The poet, Ross Gay, has spoken of being a gardener himself: “I’ve been gardening a lot, working in community with people in a place. It has helped me to think differently.” Often, outside of agricultural and educational contexts, I think more about gardening as a solitary activity – a way of connecting with the earth and nature and sources of food, but not with other people. But then, I imagine community gardens as such places of shared labor and joy.
I chose the last poem because of the ideas contained within it about freedom as the ability to wander in nature. It is from the book, Sparrow Envy, and the poet, Drew Lanham, is a biologist, environmentalist, birder, professor, and writer. As a Black man, he has written for years about the joys and perils of birding while black – an activity that gained attention this year because of Christian Cooper’s incident in Central Park.
Wild Wishes Beyond Widgets
By Drew Lanham
Real world means inside obligations to tend to. Widget making. Deadlines pressing. Bills always due. More and more four walls feels like a trap – a cage with no escape. Not being out; not wandering somewhere wild – seems sinful. There’s something wonderful I’m not witnessing. Some bird or beast flies or creeps by as I stare into someone else’s expectational chasm. It’s an expanse I’m increasingly unwilling to span. A new sun warms in brilliant hues. The same tiring orb sinks into the abysmal blue. Wen that coming and going cycles absent my first-hand witness, I’m squandering time. If wildness is a wish then I’m rubbing the lamp hard for a million more wandering moments.
I’ve been listening to Lanham’s words a lot lately, especially through talks sponsored by the North American Association for Environmental Education. In digging a bit more, I found this richly evocative place description, “Drew and his family live in the Upstate of South Carolina, a soaring hawk's downhill glide from the southern Appalachian escarpment that the Cherokee once called the Blue Wall.”
In selecting poems by Lanham and Ross, I had been thinking about something along the lines of what Rebekah Sager wrote yesterday in an article about her single father: “I am exhausted by the overwhelming number of negative images I see of Black men. Constant and unyielding videos of Black men being shot, sitting on curbs in handcuffs, or their faces smashed into the asphalt. We rarely see them as regular men. Cooking dinner. Going to work. Just being fathers and loving their children.”
The voices and images in these poems have helped lift me up over the past few months. I hope that putting them in conversation provides a tempered sort of hope – there is dying and there is injustice, but there is much beauty and possibility and creativity.
Although I have been listening to these poems and thinking about these ideas, I had not done any reflective writing that was specifically about these poems until today. During the workshop, I kept returning to the idea of breath, taken away by force or air pollution or anxiety, restored by newly planted trees or by laughter with friends.
Through the workshop, I gained even more nourishment through speaking about these ideas with people from different places and different facets of my life. They added their own reflections and poems and a recently written song. We spoke of surrender and loss and healing and slowness and persistence and new life. There was much openness and warmth. It made me feel more certain that in writing, in nature, and in community, we can find hope amidst and in spite of despair.
Naamal De Silva
Whose stories are on your shelf? Who's stories do you follow on social media? What personal stories about the environment have influenced your work and your life?
It is nearly 4am on Wednesday and I’ve been awake for awhile. I feel consumed. Last week, I felt consumed by the news and by social media. The #blacklivesmatter protests are painful and hopeful and transformative. Between the pandemic and these protests, life and society appear to be changing so rapidly. There is such uncertainty. I am terrified that the stories that have become newly visible to so many will once again be covered over, that our progress will erode away into nearly nothing. I care deeply about diversity, both cultural and biological. My entire life, I have felt that much of what I value is invisible to many people, at least to most people with power to create change. In this moment, if feels like that might change. I have such hope that we are about to move towards a time of justice, greater equality, protection for the vulnerable, and greater care for each other and for the planet. I have hope, but I am afraid that I will end up heartbroken.
Last year, witnessing the global climate protests and Greta Thunberg’s rise, I felt hopeful that we were moving forward towards broader understanding about environmental problems, and that our understanding would extend towards an understanding of the unjust impacts of climate change. I had hope that the anger of children would move us more rapidly towards solutions and towards justice. I hoped that, within and outside of the environmental field, we would see more stories of young people of all colors, nations, orientations, shapes, abilities, and religions. Since the climate strikes have become digital because of the pandemic, it feels as though a lot of that that energy and attention have dissipated. We cannot afford to look away. Climate change and biodiversity loss pose threats to our existence, just as police brutality poses a threat to the existence of black people in America.
It will take all of us to address systemic racism in America. It will take all of us to protect vulnerable groups of people throughout the world. It will take all of us to address the climate crisis, species extinction, and plastic pollution. It will take all of us to ensure that the impacts of social and environmental problems are distributed equitably throughout society. To engage and enrage and inspire all of us, it will take the individual stories and emotion and the passionate dedication of a diversity of people. The stories of these people need to be more visible.
Throughout my adult life, I have sought stories of the diversity of people working for the environment. I knew that the environmental field was not only composed of the white and the privileged – it only felt that way because the brown and poor were invisible. I searched for stories, but I felt that I was sifting through sand. I looked for these stories in books, in the mainstream media, and in academic journals. I did not find nearly enough. A few years ago, I found far more through social media. I sifted, and I started following accounts of people who spoke out about how they belonged in nature – accounts like those of Rue Mapp and Jenny Bruso and of organizations like Outdoor Afro, Unlikely Hikers, and Melanin Basecamp. I learned about more stories by attending events and meeting people. I found even more through my dissertation research and reading. I gathered some stories by chance - my path to Maya Hall’s story started with trying on a jacket at a Patagonia store. I started a writing group for Mayla and people shared unexpected things. Finding these people and their stories felt like validation.
I started Mayla because I felt the need to gather and amplify these voice – the voices of diverse people who care for the environment. I intended to include the stories of white people alongside the stories of black, brown, and indigenous people from all over the world. However, the stories of white people always felt easier to find. I wanted all the stories, but I was looking for the ones that appeared to be rare.
That is why I feel consumed right now. Over the past week, it has been so much easier to find stories of diversity. I have been digging deeper into the lives and stories of those who are #blackinnature. These stories bring me joy, even when they express anger. They are some of the stories for which I have been searching my entire life, and suddenly, it feels like I am inundated. I can’t seem to get enough.
They are stories that feel intimately familiar, and yet, they are not my stories. They are the stories of people who surrounded me as I was growing up, of people who were friends or who are friends. They are the stories of authors who have influenced my life and how I see the world. They are stories of people who share my skin color but not my history.
I have many stories of feeling invisible, and a few stories of feeling like I stand out or don’t belong simply based on my color. The stories of black Americans help me feel more visible. At the same time, they highlight my differences. When I am alone in nature, there have been times when I felt unsafe because I am a woman. There are very few instances where I felt unsafe because I am brown. I can recall one summer afternoon in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, my white husband and I were walking along a forested creek, where a group of white men pulled up with lots of beer and a confederate flag flying from the back of their pickup truck. They did not say anything to us, but as an interracial couple, we felt intimidated, and we left. They took up the space we ceded. As we left, we noticed a large Latino family on the far side of the pickup truck; they were the only other people there and they did not give up their right to enjoy time in nature. Maybe we did not need to do so either.
There are far more instances when I have felt protected by my invisibility. In high school, I studied a lot and followed most rules, but I would leave if I felt that I was not learning anything. Two of my history teachers were often missing; my world geography teacher read a newspaper during class while a group of boys played poker in the back of the room. I felt a sense of freedom in leaving, but little fear about cutting class. As I left the building, there would always be police cars around my mostly black school in my mostly white neighborhood. Police officers would be standing by these cars, and I saw them stop black and Latino teenagers. They mostly stopped boys, but a few girls too. They would return these students to the school building. They never once stopped me – they hardly ever even looked at me. It was as though they could not see me, as though my glasses and my South Asian face and my silence were a shield. In those moments, invisibility felt like power.
In my career, I have felt at times that invisibility has held me back. I have, at times, attributed disparities in pay or recognition to my gender or my age or my skin color. Certainly, there have been many times in conference rooms where I have made a point that the rest of the people in the room ignored until it was repeated by a white man. There have also been many times when white men have amplified my voice and supported my work, whether through empowering me to publish articles or through opening doors that might otherwise remain closed despite my education and experience.
I am a brown woman in conservation – sometimes that makes me invisible and at other times it makes me stand out. Nevertheless, I have not had to think about whether my hairstyle would keep me from a promotion. I have never wondered whether I might be arrested or possibly killed for walking in a park. Amidst the deluge of stories this week, I keep returning to that of Christian Cooper, whose care for the lives and wellbeing of birds posed a direct threat to his own life and wellbeing.
We all needed to hear his story, but not just the story of his encounter with Amy Cooper. We all need to hear stories of the diversity of people who care about nature. It is through stories that we make meaning of what is happening in the world. Through stories, we process loss, whether it is the loss of a human life at the hands of the police, or of a nearly extinct shark at the hands of fishermen. We need the stories of the people who resist injustice and who halt extinction. We need MORE stories of black and brown and indigenous and white scientists and activists and innovators and farmers who are passionate and visionary. We need to feel their pain and anger and joy, to hear about their ancestors and home places and sources of inspiration. We need their creative solutions and unique perspectives. We need to see the ways in which racism and injustice limit our collective access to creativity, innovation, and care for the earth. We need their stories and their work to be visible so that, together, we can envision a future that is both just and sustainable.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.