“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” ~ Albert Camus.
I don’t know when it was that I first began to truly appreciate nature. I remember the night that my father woke up my brother and I to take us up to the deck of the ship to go and see the stars. We were traveling from the UK to Jamaica, and in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the black sky was awash with thousands of stars; the milky way was streaming bright; he could show us Orion, the Big Dipper, and so many more. It was awe-inspiring. Having been born in a city in the northwest of England before clean energy and smokeless coal, such a clear sky was amazing. Once we were relocated up in the hills of Clarendon, Jamaica, the night sky became my friend. Each month there would be a full moon so bright you could read a book by the light, the colors of the day muted into silvery grays.
All my life I have tended to take more photographs of scenes than of people. When I moved back to England after high school, and showed new friends my photo album of Jamaica, they asked where the people were, and teased me that I must have had no friends! I was privileged to grow up in a land of such astonishing beauty that I needed reminders; representations of the place that would keep the memories alive while I studied in a concrete jungle.
In primary school I had been introduced to the magic of rock formations. Behind the school (it seemed like quite a hike to get there; I don’t know how far it was) were some caves. The area was limestone, rock easily carved by the elements into fascinating formations. Inside the cave were bats that we tried not to disturb (‘ratbats’ as they are known in Jamaica are scary things when they suddenly swoop out en masse, screeching as they go!). But there were also stalactites and stalagmites, and if you hit them with a stone they made a sound like a clanging bell! Cool, dark and damp inside the cave, when everyone was still you could hear the drip, drip, drip of water slowly forming the next stalagmite.
One Easter the family rented a house in Newcastle, a military camp established in the 1800s, nestled in the Blue Mountain and John Crow National Park, it boasts cooler climes away from the city of Kingston below. From the house (formerly officers’ quarters, equipped with a fireplace!) we were able to hike into the forest, near St. Catherine’s Peak. We heard the calls of all manner of birds, picked wildflowers, felt the cool breeze. I don’t believe we saw another person on our walk through the trees. We walked to a spot from which we could look out over the plains below, and I thought of the devil showing Jesus all that he had to offer him in exchange for his soul.
In the US I have the privilege of living close to the Everglades, that area of unique beauty. There are no mountains in Florida, so I have learned to appreciate different elements in order for my soul not to feel starved. But I have also seen the Grand Canyon; I have driven through the foothills of the Appalachians. And of course, I have visited Wales and climbed Snowdon. Moments in time frozen in memory.
This week I watched an episode of America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, a PBS production, starring a young Black man on his travels to discover the wild and open places of the US. Unfortunately, when you visit these places like National Parks and other wide open spaces, you mostly see white people enjoying the scenery. In this episode he interviewed the Black photographer, birdwatcher and nature lover, Dudley Edmundson, up in the heart of Minnesota nature. Like my friends Frank and Audrey Peterman, he has done what he can to invite more diversity into these places, both in the visitors and in the people hired to oversee them. Why is it that more Black and Brown faces are not seen enjoying, benefiting from, soaking in the beauty of such areas?
The answer to that question is long and complex, with many decades of sudden and brutal treatment of people finding themselves in the minority in lonely backlands. He described a couple of Black men fishing on a lake and being shot at for no reason other than the color of their skin.
Unfortunately it is not only people of African descent who are liable to be made to feel endangered when taken out of their normal environment. Recently I read a novel based on a true event back in the 1950s. A Utah senator tried to enact a bill that would have ‘terminated’ the ‘special treatment’ of a tribe of Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indians. This act would have ‘freed’ them from their ancestral homeland, ‘liberating’ them from their dependence on the government. They would have been relocated to the cities, leading the way for landgrabbers to access the land and all the potential it contained. It was the author’s grandfather, the Chairman of the tribe who, recognizing that ‘termination’ was only missing the prefix ‘ex-‘, organized a protest to the bill, and managed to prevent it. This is only one of the ways the colonizers tried to eradicate the true Americans, the First Nation people, the ones who so honored the land that they do not believe you can own it, you can only care for it and protect it for future generations.
This Friday morning I am thankful for the moments I have shared with nature, and the images captured to remind me of its peace and restorative power. Dudley Edmondson described it as freedom. For those who feel overwhelmed by their every day stresses, I strongly recommend a visit to a local State or National Park. It may not be Zion National Park, or the Grand Canyon, but I promise you there will be moments of stillness; of quiet peace; of freedom.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!