This week saw me finally meeting Patrick Norris from Footsteps in Northumberland to walk across the Pilgrim’s Way, a pathway that only becomes available when the tide is out, to reach Holy Island. This is a nature reserve rich in resources for rare and special wildlife. It was such an amazing walk, as we set off at 5.30 across to the island. getting over there, in the rain and wind at times, we were getting by the howlings from a gathering go grey seals hauled out onto the sand flats. They were grey, but also mottled white, and black and brown, and had such a way of moving across the sand. Patrick called it ‘garlumphing’. And to hear them sing. Their haunting cries carried to us within the wind, in harmony with the wind. It was like the sound when there’s a window left ajar and the wind comes inside. Like a draught coming inside. After a picnic on the island, for the way back, we saw the setting sun. It was all about the light.
Just as we stepped off the causeway, as dusk was starting to settle in for the night, out from the long grass, flying low across the tarmac to the banks of seaweed on the other side, was a beige-tawny, wide wing span of the curlew. The curlew, featured within the Northumberland National Park’s logo; this was my first sighting of the bird. It was a wonderful way to end the evening with it’s evocative ‘curlee-curlee’ call sending us off home.
For the online nature journaling workshop which took place on International Earth Day, 22 April, we had five participants. It was a lovely group of women with different experiences of writing, but everyone brought their enthusiasm to the table. It was so lovely to have Gill Thompson, the Park’s Ecologist, there presenting around the different landscapes, fauna and flora to be found within the National Park, as well as giving it a personal flavour with insights into her personal delights.
The workshops was part writing and then going out into the landscape on the participants’ doorsteps. If we were meeting within the Sill, National Landscape Discovery Centre, we would have been able to walk out together, probably up to Steel Rig and along the crags for a bit of a jolly, making sure all our sense were open to the surroundings and what they had to offer.
But I think it worked well, with the hour outside alone and then coming back to the group online for the final task of creating something from the outing. What I used to structure their musings while out there, was something I picked up a few years ago from the book Writing Wild by Tina Welling. There’s three parts to the exercise; naming, identifying and interacting.
NAMING – serves to alert our conscious awareness to our senses. Name what you see and then move into the other senses, notice the smaller things – e.g. the clouds, the tree, the straw coloured grass.
DESCRIBING – engages our senses and body responses on a deeper, more intimate level. Choose one thing that attracts your attention and describe in detail e.g. lichen – the feather tangle, delicate filigree, soft against the finger, pale snowy green in colour.
INTERACTING – invites us to create a relationship with our surroundings. It’s when you open yourself to place and allow an exchange, or interaction , between the outer works of nature and inner world of emotion, experience and memory.
Try it next time you’re outside and want to get some words down, record some kind of reaction that you can work on later once you get back home.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to share some of the women’s writing, as well as some of my own, once the Park has created a writer in residency page on their website. More details to follow soon.
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.