Social Difference and Nature

On 31st May to 1st June, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Social Difference and Nature conference co-organised by Dr Krithika Srinivasan (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Karen Bickerstaff (University of Exeter). The purpose of the event was to ‘problematise the dominant narrative of environmentalism/animal advocacy as always already bourgeois’. Over two days of papers and presentations, the workshop investigated how forms of non-elite action are ‘essential for meaningful change in society-nature relations’. Speakers explored the complex relationship between social difference (race, class, caste, ethnicity, ability etc.) and nature, but sharing research on subjects including working class veganism, community ecotourism, human-wildlife conflict and eco-social justice from conservationist perspectives.

My paper was entitled ”Connecting Race Equality, Nature and Wellbeing through Literature’, and explored the relationship between current diversity work in UK environmentalism and cultural history. In a previous blog post, I’ve described the work of Black2Nature, run by Mya Rose Craig (BirdgirlUK), which aims to get BAME children interested in nature, particularly around Bristol and the South West. As a birder and conservationist, Mya-Rose realised that there was a serious problem with ethnic diversity in conservation and birding groups. She began contacting charities to urge them to engage with BAME communities, and then launched initiatives of her own, including the Race Equality in Nature conference in 2016. This brought together community leaders from around Bristol, environmental organisations, educators and broadcasters to discuss problems with diversity and exclusion, and to discuss reasons why nature and environmentalism are perceived to be elite, white, and middle class concerns.

Research proves that there is a good reason to be concerned about BAME engagement with nature, particularly amongst young people. Data compiled by Natural England suggests that children from BAME and lower income communities are not visiting natural parks and reserves to the same extent as white British children, particularly those in higher income groups. While ‘[u]rban greenspaces’ – like city parks – ‘attract a more diverse population than other natural places’, what we might think of as deep countryside or coast are visited in far lower numbers. Overall, the findings of recent research indicates that socioeconomic status and ethnicity has a negative impact on nature engagements amongst children in England.

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Frequency of visits to the natural environment during last 12 months by ethnicity and socio-economic group of children (% of children). Purple = at least once a week; light blue = less than once a week; dark blue = never.

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Natural England, 2016. Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment pilot study: visits to the natural environment by children. Natural England Commissioned Reports, Number 226. Web: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/498944/mene-childrens-report-years-1-2.pdf

After consultation with community leaders, Black2Nature compiled a list of barriers to engagement in Bristol (full reports can be accessed here). There were a number of suggestions raised, but in my paper I focused on issues of representation and perception, negative stereotyping and racism, and narrow assumptions from the environmental sector about what a nature encounter is, and who cares about having one.

Engaging BAME adults and children in nature and environmental issues is important for many reasons: social justice depends on the elimination of barriers caused by racism and social inequality, while the decolonisation of the land and connected social institutions won’t take place unless everyone has a stake and a voice in both. Recent research suggests that forming tactile, sensory and caring relations with wildlife and ecosystems can improve mood, improve concentration and hasten recovery. In the context of an escalating mental health crisis, particularly among BAME people, there are good reasons to help young people access nature through forest schools and outdoor education (a recent Guardian report suggests as much).

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Mental Health Foundation, https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/b/black-asian-and-minority-ethnic-bame-communities

Finally, a genuinely inclusive and intersectional response is necessary if societies are going to challenge political indifference to ecological damage, and make collective and individual behavioural change capable of lessening or mitigating the effects of climate change and ecological crisis. People of colour and indigenous activists around the world are leading environmental movements against water exploitation, mining and drilling, deforestation and corporate land grabs. British environmentalist and conservation organisations will be redundant and ineffective if they only engage with a narrow audience from elite communities.

The Contribution of Literature

As a literary critic concerned with environmentalism and mental health, my first responsibility is to try to amplify the work of Mya-Rose Craig, and groups like Mosaic National Network, which works to ‘build sustainable links between black and minority ethnic communities and the National Parks in the UK.’

I’m also interested in how cultural history may contribute to challenging narratives of elitism in environmentalism, and to the wider necessity of diversifying environmentalism. In particular, I’m interested in the role of the archive, of imagery and narrative in challenging preconceptions about the place of BAME people in the British countryside. In my paper at the Social Difference in Nature conference, I explored histories of nature engagement in the post-war period, particularly of writers from the African and Caribbean diaspora. I looked at depictions of nature and the countryside in work by Beryl Gilroy, Horace Ové, Caryl Phillips, and Ingrid Pollard. This is a just a small selection of writers I’m planning on looking at in the book that I’ll [eventually] write (watch this space for writing on Derek Walcott, V.S Naipaul, and Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, amongst others).

I’m interested in how writers have represented rural places and expressed care and concern for wild nature, and also explored nature relations in the city, breaking down the false binary connecting nature solely with the rural. I want to use literature to better understand the kinds of obstacles BAME people have faced in encountering nature, and to learn from their acts of resistance and decolonisation.

Precedents

I’ve looked around as best I can and haven’t found much work that’s been done on this history, though I’d be grateful if to hear any suggestions in the comments below – this is a new research area for me and I’m likely to get things wrong and need to be pointed in the right direction.

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As a point of comparison, the US editor and poet, Camille Dungy has collected four centuries of African American nature writing in the anthology Black Nature. This incredible editorial project challenges the exclusion of African American writing from canons of ecopoetry and environmental literature, and also demonstrates a long and complex engagement with nature in African American writing. This tradition, while diverse within itself, is distinct from Euro-American nature writing: “Many black writers,” Dungy states, “simply do not look at their environment from the same perspective as Anglo-American writers … The pastoral as diversion, a construction of a culture that dreams, through landscape and animal life, of a certain luxury or innocence, is less prevalent.” (Dunghy p.xxi.) While Anglo-American writers draw from Romantic and Classical tropes of the pastoral as site of harmony and retreat, many poems by African American writers are “written from the perspective of the workers of the field”. These poems are undeniably pastorals, which “describe moss, rivers, trees, dirt, caves, dogs, fields: elements of an environment steeped in a legacy of violence, forced labor, torture, and death”. (Dunghy p.xxi) Traumatic histories of slavery and lynching produce haunted landscapes and what Olivette Otele calls ‘reluctant sites of memory’, while the ever-present threat of racist assault create affective topographies of fear, anger and unease. Many poems in the anthology bear out this tendency. Lucille Clifton’s ‘Surely I am able to write poems’ reveals a conflicting and deeply ambivalent perspective on nature, informed by African American history, Western Romanticism and personal sense-experiences of nature-contact. The poem begins by celebrating the natural world, but ends on a question about the possibility of ever doing so without confronting histories which lie beneath and in the land. Attention to black nature writing does not just reveal the political dimension of cultural histories of nature: it is fundamental to understanding the ways in which perception of nature is never free from social conditions and history.

‘surely i am able to write poems

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely  but whenever i begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches

and…”  why

is there under that poem

always an other poem?’

As well as the critiques of the celebratory landscape tradition of American writing and a sense of alienation and betrayal by the land, Dungy notes how African American nature writing nurtures alternative ways of caring for more-than-human life from the Euro-American tradition. These include shared experiences of marginalisation and oppression and a respect for nature on its own terms — qualities of intersectional black environmentalisms similar to those advanced by Aph and Syl Ko in their recent book, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism and Veganism, and in the work of Chelsea M. Frazier.

In the teaching and study of ecocriticism in the UK, I’ve come across plenty of work on postcolonial and indigenous writing, but very little on the contributions of BAME British authors to UK nature canons. That seems to me to be a problem, one that has also been raised by the participants in the Land Lines project – a major AHRC-funded survey of British Nature Writing. I’ve not been able to find an equivalent UK anthology or study to compare with Dungy’s, but a [still incomplete] survey of Black British literature has revealed a rich history of BAME people’s engagement with nature in the UK, in cities and the countryside. This challenges perceptions of nature as a white, elite interest and, I hope, helps counter the exclusion of British BAME people from canons of nature writing and constructions of the countryside.

Writing the City

One of the obstacles to this work seems to be that Black British literature, as a reflection of aspects of Black British experience, has been read and interpreted as an urban tradition. As a case in point, The Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature features a chapter on urban but not rural literature. Many of the great works of Black British literature depict the experience of post war emigrants from Africa and the West Indies in London, Birmingham, and other English cities. This include George Lamming’s The Emigrants (1954) and Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1957). In the 1970s and 1980s, dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson focused on social issues of police brutality in inner London areas like Brixton and Notting Hill, as well as oppression experienced by Asian communities in regional centres like Birmingham and Bradford.

‘It is as if the Black experience is only lived within an urban environment.’

Ingrid Pollard, ‘Pastoral Interlude’, 1988

Black British urban literature, in general, tends to focus on narratives of arrival, of homesickness and adjustment, of racism, poverty, social exclusion, marginalisation and doubleness. Tools of resistance lie in the decolonisation of urban space—the insistence upon presence in the city, use of hybridised language and place names, and the imaginative doubling of postcolonial places with the geography of the colonial metropolis. As well as being a site of trauma, racialization, dislocation, loss of selfhood and violence, the city also represents a site of hope, discovery, autonomy and new, emergent identities and notions of community. Looking at BAME writers’ depictions of nature, I’ve found that many of the negative experiences described in the city are reproduced and exacerbated in the countryside, and in contact with nature. On the other hand, engagement with nature provides distinct experiences of multispecies community, cross-species empathy, experiences of autonomy and spaciousness.

Above: A Book of Birds and Beasts,; Children playing in Uxbridge Pond, c.1920-1930; Living with Nature poster produced by London Transport in 1966 to promote London’s wildlife and green spaces. Regent’s Park depicted. All from http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/
Below: From Bruce Castle Museum, Tottenham Hale, London. Haringey council purchased Pendarren House in 1972 to provide outdoor experiences for inner city teens.

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The city is a good place to start this work, in spite of not being the obvious site to think about nature-encounters. From the 1920s onwards, public campaigns tried to help city children connect with local wildlife, and also to get children out of the city, either on new transport networks or through council initiatives, including the purchase of outdoor education centres to enable city kids to visit the countryside and learn outdoors skills. During this period, children from urban communities were forming attachments to nature in the city and in National Parks in processes of place-making, decolonisation, and skills sharing.

In 1951, Beryl Gilroy moved to the UK from Guyana to study at UCL and to continue working as a teacher. Because of the racism of the schooling system, she initially struggled to find a job in London. Eventually she was able to began teaching, and would become the first black headteacher in London. In her memoir Black Teacher, published in 1976, she reflects on her experience in London’s school system, first as the first black teacher in all white, working class schools, and then in the burgeoning multi-race school system which developed from the early 1960s, as citizens from across the Commonwealth made Britain their home.

Picture15In inner city schools and north London suburbs, Gilroy experiences naked and subtle racism, ignorance and curiosity from white children and their families. Confronting these attitudes, she develops innovative theories of teaching and child development, which involve expanding children’s experiences and imaginative horizons; engaging them as active and curious learners; expressing care and concern for their experience and welfare; and challenging them to look beyond conditioned prejudices. In one class, she experiments with what might now be called animal therapy in order to help a pair of extremely poor and neglected twins gain confidence. These painfully shy, illiterate children are rejected by their classmates, but she sees their eyes light up when a cat wanders into the classroom. The next day, she presents them with hamster, saying that they must care for it.

‘Those boys came to life—miraculously, I thought, through Billy [the hamster]. … And in a way, they became people of substance, worthy of respect.’ (Gilroy, 73-4)

Animals inspire care, curiosity and empathy amongst communities oppressed by racism, poverty, class and family abuse. Nature aids communication and blurs social difference. In another example, on her first day in a new school Gilroy recites a spontaneous poem about a pond as a way of befriending a class of white children who hide from her because of the racism their families and society has engrained in them.

‘There was a pond

A very big pond,

That, one spring day, sighed and cried,

Oh dear, Oh dear, Oh dear, dear, dear

Why does nothing live in me?

No fishes, no ducks, no butterflies.’

Speaking as if she is the lonely pond, she manages to bring the children out like the missing creatures. They begin to share knowledge of the newts and tadpoles they’ve found in the ponds created in post-war, post-Blitz London, whose working class areas were still undeveloped and dangerous, though also sites for opportunistic rewilding.

‘I like nature things. I find ‘em in the bomb site.’ (48) says one little girl.

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London c.1951-1953, Robert Frank Collection

An intersectional working class and migrant solidarity, and a shared empathy is formed through fascination with everyday life of nature in the city. Children are able to share their expertise and gain in confidence, as well as acting as guides and explorers of a city in which they themselves have very little autonomy, respect or power. Later, Gilroy leads nature walks through these old bomb sites and also London cemeteries and urban woodland. On the one hand, being in nature is no more of a retreat from racism than urban and professional environments, as far as adults are concerned. She experiences explicit racist abuse from a passersby who asks her if she’s ‘at home in these surroundings’—a racist conflation of black women with fantasies of a colonial jungle—and also from a white teacher who panics when Gilroy tries to brush a wasp from her neck, as she doesn’t want to be touched by black hands. (p.82).

With the children, however, nature provides a meaningful leveller. They learn lessons about the importance of not killing living things, and also about life beyond narrowed and oppressive horizons:

‘They ran around stroking tree trunks, running climbing, shouting—experiencing space and size—finding new textures and consciously listening to the sounds of nature for the first time.’ (p.81)

Finding solidarity and shared experience across cultural and ethnic difference coincides with the widening of a sense of multispecies community in the context of place and regional identity: ‘Sparrers ain’t birds,’ says one little girl, ‘they’re Londoners.’ (p.81)

The Countryside

In many ways, the countryside has presented more obstacles for decolonisation and anti-racism than the city, as far as literature is concerned. The scholar Sarah Neal has examined rural space and racism, exploring how different meanings of ‘Englishness’ are enforced in the rural/urban divide, and the role that constructions of the English pastoral played in colonisation and its legacies.

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Her analysis centres on the 1986 film Playing Away, directed by Horace Ové and based on a play by Caryl Phillips. The film depicts a game of cricket between a predominantly West Indian cricket team from Brixton and the residents of a picturesque English country village. It explores cricket as a marker of Englishness, and its legacy in postcolonial culture, as well as “the role that the English rural landscape occupied in the colonial project and the role it continues to occupy in constructions of identity and belonging in post-colonial Britain.” (Neal 443) In the village, the Brixton team experience exoticisation and hyper-sexualisation, as well as explicit fascist racism and implicit othering, patronisation, paternalism, white discomfort, threats of sexual violence, and a jealous and defensive attitude to village land.

These manifestations of racism and racialisation are subtly distinct from those experienced in the city. The English class system, as Neal explains, has been “forged and maintained by the social relations of the countryside”, while in postwar Britain, the countryside has been frequently deployed as a bastion of Englishness. “This process,” as Neal puts it, “denies the history of black, South Asian and minority ethnic people’s relationship with the English countryside,” both in the creation of England’s wealth through slavery and colonisation, and the historical and contemporary presence of people of colour in rural Britain.

Being denied access to and relation with the pastoral, people of colour are denied identification with English and Britishness, and are negatively associated with problems like urban crime and poverty. The countryside, as W. Darby contends, is also sanitised and idealised as a place not affected by social issues, and celebrated as a ‘place of cultural and social ‘white safety.’’

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These tendencies must be seen in the context of what was else happening, culturally, in the English countryside during the 1970s and 1980s. In response to issues like development and industrial agriculture, wildlife decline and pollution, a new genre of nature writing emerged and continues to thrive. Writers like Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin resisted idealised pastoral depictions of the English countryside to write more frankly about rural and semi-rural places, nature deterioration and land misuse, traces of nature in the city, and the politics and semiotics of landscape and place. A genre pioneered by white, middle class English men, it brought environmental issues to bourgeois consciousness.

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Black and Asian British nature writing is very rarely considered in New Nature Writing canons, though the work of Ingrid Pollard and V.S. Naipaul (particularly his The Enigma of Arrival, 1987) overlaps in significant ways with new nature writing: in its reflection on the poetics of place and the politics of presence and its combination of lyric and critical modes. I’ll write more on Naipaul in a later post – here I’d like to concentrate on Pollard’s work.

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In her series Pastoral Interludes, shot in the Lake District in 1988, Pollard explores romanticism’s legacy in the north west of England, exposing disguised histories of violence and the land, as well as attesting to the history of black people’s involvement in British history through the wealth of slavery and physical presence in the lakes during the Romantic era.

‘It is as if the Black experience is only lived within an urban environment. I thought I liked the Lake District; where I wandered lonely as a Black cloud in a sea of white. A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease; dread.’

‘feeling I don’t belong. Walks through leafy glades with a baseball bat by my side. A lot of what made England great is founded on the blood of slavery … the owners of these fields, these trees and sheep, want me off their GREEN and PLEASANT LAND. No trespass.’

Placing herself and other black people in the landscape, she confronts constructions of the countryside as place of ‘white safety’, and also foregrounds the reality that as a black woman, it is her who is vulnerable in the countryside– experiencing dread and walking ‘through leafy glades with a baseball bat by my side.’

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Her later series on the Wordsworth heritage industry mines literature as a fleeting record of African presence in the countryside, providing an alternative black history of Romanticism and new imagery with which to counter the whitewashing of rural Britain and its literature. In Dorothy Wordsworth’s letters, William Wordsworth’s poetry, in street names and gravestones, portraiture and biography, she traces a long history of the presence of people of African descent in rural Britain.

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‘Going to the Lake District over the years, collecting postcards, deliberately searching out England’s timeworn countryside, “the way it’s always been.” ‘I placed walkers in these locations, thinking back to a heritage that Wordsworth wrote about, looking back to a received heritage and forward to a future inheritance. Wordsworth, in The Prelude, referred to “silver collared negroes” … I wondered about those negroes; people recorded in some way; … In Cumbria, Dorothy Wordsworth meets “a jolly African” at her gate in Grasmere.’ Ingrid Pollard.

Present and Future

In recent years, there have been considerably more diverse representations of the countryside to draw upon, in literature and wider culture. Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, the owner of the The Black Farmer brand manages land and stock in Devon. His products and advertising blend the complex and controversial symbolism of the Union Jack with nostalgia for rural traditions like Morris Dancing, and well as more modern concerns including animal welfare, gluten free diets, and rural entrepreneurship.

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In literature, the Out of Bounds Anthology published in 2012, aimed to ‘redraw’ the map of Britain, compiling British Black and Asian poetries of place from Shetland to Cornwall. City poetry is well represented, but the anthology also reveals multigenerational imaginative and physical engagement in heritage landscapes like Wordsworth’s Lake District, the Cotswolds and the Highlands.

 

The relationship between writing and wider social change is difficult to determine, but I’m convinced that collections like the Out of Bounds Anthology play an important part in challenging stereotypes about the identity of place and who should or wants to be there. It also disrupts the ways in which critics and readers approach writing by black and Asian authors: it is simply not acceptable to dismiss the contributions of BAME British authors to modern thinking about the countryside, place, and environmental issues.

In 2018, the play Black Men Walking brought together so many of the themes latent in other work discussed – erasure from history, presence in the land, the pleasure of the walk, solidarity-building, obstacles to access and the slow work of making change. Through the act of walking in the hills, the play addressed 500 years of black British history and challenged negative stereotypes about black people’s interest in and right to walk in the land. I can’t say more about it because I missed the performances on its recent UK tour, though I’m hoping to get my hands on a script and I’m interested to hear any impressions from people who saw it. The play, I do know, was inspired by and dedicated to the Black Men’s Walking Group, who meet outside Sheffield and walk in the Peak District (there’s a great article about the activities of the group here).

“We walk. Though we are written into the landscape you don’t see us. We walked England before the English.” Black Men Walking, by Testament

Final Thoughts / Concerns

In a recent conversation with Mohammed Dhalech of the Mosaic International Network, I was fascinated to find out about the work he has been doing since the late 1980s to get BAME youth interested in outdoor activities, and to increase representation in the boards and committees of National Parks and outdoor institutions. At the same time as Ingrid Pollard was producing her Pastoral Interludes series, Dhalech and his collaborators were leading groups around the Lakes. The Wordsworth Trust now runs Black History Month events to explore connections to the anti-slavery movement, although I don’t know if they acknowledge Pollard’s work in encouraging them to address this absence.

At a moment when work by activists, writers and organisers are making real change and sharing more positive narratives of BAME people’s engagements with nature, looking back to work by Ové, Phillips and Pollard might risk reproducing and reifying narratives of exclusion and traumatisation. I certainly worry about my own lack of sensitivities in doing this work, as a white, middle class critic from an urban and a rural background who has been privileged to be able to move between city and countryside with relative ease. Research by Black2Nature suggests, though, that the problems of racism, exclusion and dislocation that earlier writers addressed are still prevalent, and that to address them conservationist groups and charities need to understand the issues which stop many BAME people engaging with nature. Literature and art can help share understanding and reveal these complex histories, and I hope that by discussing these works in tandem with work now being done to make positive change, it’s possible to amplify current efforts while honouring the critical work of the past.

Works cited

Bragg, R., Atkins, G. 2016. A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care. Natural England Commissioned Reports, Number 204. Web: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/4513819616346112 .

Neal, Sarah. ‘Rural Landscapes, Representations And Racism: Examining Multicultural Citizenship And Policy-Making In The English Countryside.’ Ethnic & Racial Studies 25.3 (2002): 442-461. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 2 Feb. 2017. p.443

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Social Difference and Nature

  1. Pingback: Women’s Nature Writing – Ruth Dawkins Freelance Writer

  2. Pingback: Bio-diversity – Ella J Davies | Nature writer

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