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.Jola Olafimihan