Nature and the power of place

Over the last year and a half or so I have noticed a shift in the way I think about nature and the natural world. At one point during a zoom workshop about nature-writing, I surprised myself (and the other participants) by starting to cry. It helped me understand that I process all sorts of areas of my life through my relationship to place and the world around me.

One of the messages that I seem to be hearing everywhere this year, and one which seems to be part of changing the narrative about ‘nature’ and ‘nature-writing’, is the idea that we do not need to go to the wilderness to interact with nature and that it is no longer the preserve of affluent white male explorers/experts. Nature is for everyone and we can find it wherever we are.

Some wonderful conversations that I have heard that touch on this subject are:

David Lindo’s In Conservation With Melissa Harrison

Anna Britton’s How I Write About Nature with Elspeth Wilson

I can’t share the fantastic nature-writing workshops with Testament (run by Land Lines) and Jessica J Lee (run by Spread The Word) but here is Testament’s Wildstyle – a creative response to nature and Jessica J Lee in conversation with Nina Mingya Powles and Pratyusha in Pathways Into Nature.

The nearness of nature comes up early on in The Nature Seed by Lucy Jones and Kenneth Greenway.

“Evidence shows that spending time in nature as a child […] is the key determining factor in a continuing relationship with nature [in adulthood].” The Nature Seed

Growing up on a smallholding meant that I strongly associated nature with an agricultural rural setting as well as taking on the idea of nature as wilderness (nice to experience from afar). My ideas were so fixed (rural good, urban bad) that it took me a while to start noticing nature in London and I lived there for seven years. I started to keep a nature diary, inspired by Gilbert White, which helped me to look out for wildlife in the city.

Since my main conscious thinking and rethinking about nature has taken place in a semi-rural setting in Brazil, I can’t really separate it from this time and this place.

I don’t know how many birds I saw but didn’t notice while we were living in favela communities in an exclusively urban environment in the three years before that, for example. And it was only when visiting family in my childhood home in the UK earlier this year that I was finally able to distinguish between a Great Tit, Blackcap and Coal Tit, which are birds I would have seen on and off for the first 18 years of my life.

I don’t know how much it would have helped me to have done my rethinking earlier on in life and, of course, I can’t know the answer to that but it took me 20 years to become even slightly aware that place has an effect on me.

During the six months I spent living in inner-city Lima in my early twenties, I remember returning to our neighbourhood one day and feeling crushed. The houses were constructed very functionally like stacked boxes with flat roofs. Most still had metal rebar sticking out of the corner columns at the top of the house, ready to add the next storey, much like many houses I have seen in Brazil.

I’m not sure if it was a combination of the heat and the unfamiliar but seemingly uniform houses that felt so suffocating. Thinking back, I have a clear picture of the avocado tree and the plantain to reduce inflammation that grew in the front yard as well as the geraniums in the public square I used to cross every day, so they must have been highlights in the midst of mega-city living.

I wonder now whether place is one of my anchors which is why moving from place to place feels like such a loss. We moved here from our home in a favela community in Rio, a place I feel a very strong connection with, as a stepping stone on our way to the UK, thinking we would be here for 8 months at the very most. What with paperwork and the pandemic, we’re still here a year after we thought we’d be there. Being aware that we were moving on made me begin to appreciate my surroundings more, our daily walk was a lifeline during the early pandemic lockdown, and without realising it I put down roots here.

A field of capim with sun going down over the mountains

When asked in the nature-writing workshop about what emotion we felt when thinking about our surroundings, I was surprised that my answer was grief.

And perhaps if you feel a strong sense of place (and of having found your place) in many different environments, then moving on is always accompanied by a sense of loss.

Right now I feel homesick for my family and my childhood home, and probably for my childhood as well, but I also feel homesick for a home I haven’t left yet.

I hope that my three-year-old is able to take her sense of place with her when we go, particularly as it is wrapped up with her familial, linguistic and cultural identity.

At the moment it isn’t anything extraordinary for her that we would see a large family group of capybaras in the marsh, or monkeys ambushing passing cars in the forest. Last week while walking to nursery I exclaimed ‘Tucano, tucano, tucano!’ and she looked up briefly and then shouted ‘Look! A Fusca!’ (VW Beetle). I explained that we have Beetles in the UK but not toucans, but she didn’t seem bothered.

At the moment I am trying to record everything around me in a futile attempt to guard against forgetting, whilst also grieving the inevitable forgetting I know will come. I think I have to hold onto the hope of beauty, knowing that wherever we end up, we will have nature with us.

I recently sent my family a blurry photo of a Saí-andorinha (Swallow Tanager) that we walked past.

My mum’s satirical reply sums up my hopes and fears: “Fill up with as many of these as you can because here we have things like Purvis’s Creeping Marsh Wibbler, an unobtrusive little fellow, mainly mud-coloured, with flashes of dun in the tail. The female does not have the distinctive dun flashes. Both sexes creep about, as their name suggests, at ground level; rudimentary nests of twisted sedge are built on tussocks at the water’s edge but are often destroyed through trampling by grazing animals. Numbers are declining, and soon the characteristic wibbling call will be heard no more.”

And maybe I will have a hard time spotting and distinguishing between all manner of pale brownish birds in the UK but I need to remember that there is other wildlife and plantlife to appreciate as well.

A love for the natural world and a strong connection to place is one of my father’s legacies too, and I suppose in some way I want to honour him by continuing to care about and care for places that he loved.

This post was originally intended to be a reflection on the blurring of the boundaries between urban and rural nature and some thoughts on perspective, but it ended up heading elsewhere.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you reconsidered your relationship to place and the natural world recently? What do you think influences the way you relate to your environment?

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