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 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.