In a six-screen video installation at the heart of the National Gallery this winter, Black Londoners play clapping games and trek through an ice-white Norwegian landscape. They’re dressed stylishly, but for an urban environment. ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ is accompanied by five reappropriations of famous Romantic paintings, in which the central European figures have been replaced with contemporary Black protagonists. Blurbs and interviews explain that the artist, Kehinde Wiley, sees the piece as an exploration of European Romanticism and our relationship with nature, climate change, migration, empire and, most importantly, race and what it means to be seen.
Wiley might be from the USA, but these are questions that have been asked in the UK, too, for many decades. In our society, shaped as it is by migration from Commonwealth countries and beyond, different traditions, philosophies and experiences of the natural world have converged. Of late, we’ve become used to asking who can gain access to the natural world, but there’s space, too, for a conversation about what nature and our landscape actually mean to the many minority communities that call Britain home.
WHAT NATURE MEANS TO US
The trailer for the 2018 play Black Men Walking is still available on YouTube. It opens with an empty vista, a very windy Peak District hillside, large boulders and skeletal trees on the horizon, before three Black men in waterproofs and woolly hats stride across the frame. As the film cuts to shots of them cresting a hill, winding through heathered slopes, the play’s opening choral chant echoes over and over, ‘We walk, we walk, we walk...’ A meditation on the Black British relationship with the wild landscape, the play is based on a real hiking group – 100 Black Men Walk For Health – founded in 2004 by Sheffielder Maxwell Ayamba and two friends. The academic and journalist, who grew up in rural Ghana, describes his perspective on the natural world as ‘biocentrist’, one he contrasts with the ideas he believes are dominant in the West.
‘The Western conceptualisation of nature is completely different from the [Global] South or from developing countries, in terms of how nature is perceived,’ says Ayamba. ‘In the developing world, nature is seen as a source of livelihood for sustenance and wellbeing. In the West, nature is perceived as a commodity – for leisure, tradition and for profit.’ In rural Ghana, he says, people saw themselves as part of nature, rather than nature being something apart, and this is a perspective he has carried with him. Of course, today, this view is gaining currency, especially within environmental and naturalist circles.
And yet, this is only one view. Nature means something different to every one of us and for people from ethnic minorities, a huge variety of traditions, cultures and histories feed into that relationship. Philosophies that ‘centre’ humans within nature, or that see the two as separate, also have traditions that inculcate a deep respect for the natural world.
British Muslims are the country’s largest religious minority, close to three million people, originating from all over the world and from many different traditions. Although largely urban, there are many exceptions, such as one Oxfordshire family: the Radwans.
I visited the Radwans’ organic farm, Willowbrook, on a hot, still afternoon last summer, joining young families, mostly Muslim, who had come for one of the farm’s regular open days. The audience was smartly dressed, affluent and observant, and listened to Lutfi Radwan explain why he and his wife, Ruby, abandoned suburban life in 2002, the Islamic ethos that drives them and the religious mandates that demand humane animal husbandry and environmental responsibility. Later, families joined a composting workshop led by Lutfi’s son and daughter-in-law. Noisy children with fistfuls of hay swarmed excitedly at the chance to feed some of the family’s goats, receiving a gentle chiding when their exuberance risked scaring the animals.
When I speak to the couple months later, Lutfi explains that, alongside working life on the farm, his family is dedicated to educating the wider Muslim community about Islamic concepts that relate to the natural world. He tells me that he hopes to prompt people to think about the responsibilities God has entrusted to humanity in return for the Earth as a resource and ask questions such as: ‘What is stewardship about? Why does the Quran talk about khilafah [guardianship]? What is the deeper meaning of tayyib [being pure, clean and wholesome] in the Quran?’
In Islamic belief, humans are conditionally preeminent, but nature and humanity form a unity that must be respected; people are responsible as custodians. ‘All of this issue of stewarding, caring, nurturing, looking after, is really important, because we’re now living in societies where we’re systematically poisoning and destroying the Earth,’ says Lutfi.
CLASS AND NATURE
‘We ramblers, after a hard week’s work, in smokey towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us... Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable.’ Those were the words of Benny Rothman, the son of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, spoken before he was jailed for his part in the Kinder Trespass. This year will see the 90th anniversary of the day when more than 400 men and women took to the hills of the Peak District, tramping through the laws that reserved access to the landed gentry. It’s a reminder that the natural landscape has never belonged to everyone and that the right to have a relationship with it has had to be fought for.
Today, according to the Social Metrics Commission’s 2020 report, the rate of poverty is much higher for Black and minority-ethnic families. Nearly half (equating to 900,000 people) of all people living in families where the household head is Black African/Caribbean or Black British are in poverty, compared to just under one in five of those living in families where the head of the household is white. This is significant because class deeply influences relationships with nature, like so much else in this country. Although government statistics show that minority groups visit natural environments (that is parks, the coast and countryside) far less frequently than the white population, what’s most striking about the figures is that, for everyone, engagement clearly wanes along class lines.
Ornithologist and broadcaster David Lindo is known as the Urban Birder. The homepage of his website features a picture of him lying flat on his back on the pavement, dressed in smart denim and trainers, peering into the sky with a pair of binoculars. The city-dwellers walking past appear not to notice him.
Obsessed with birding since he was a child, he tells me that he eventually carved out a career as a naturalist despite discouragement at school and having worked for years in sales. Although he has appeared on Springwatch and The One Show, he says broadcasters have been reluctant to work with him because he doesn’t have a degree and so doesn’t fit their idea of an ‘expert’. He sees class and representation as important issues when it comes to learning how to find a connection with nature. ‘[A] reason why I pushed the urban thing was because you reach a lot of people who are working class and they begin to realise that they, too, can be involved,’ he says. ‘The voices you hear on TV are still predominantly quite middle class, but it needs to change. People talk about barriers and they talk about racism, which is obviously important, but it goes back to how it’s sold to us.’
London Mayor Sadiq Khan is also pushing the urban agenda. He has announced major plans for rewilding portions of the city’s royal parks, which DEFRA board member Ben Goldsmith says would involve ‘more wild spaces, more scrub, river rewiggling and species reintroductions’. But research suggests that not everyone favours the same type of natural, or green, environment. In her research into ethnic minority park use in London, architect Bridget Snaith found that it was white university graduates who showed a real desire for ‘wild’ landscapes. That same desire wasn’t at all universal, suggesting that this idealised landscape reflects the taste of the educated and powerful. Her work in London also hints at the many differences within minority communities. When conducting focus groups, she found that park users from Muslim communities felt that parks had a ‘restorative’ effect, whereas Caribbean interviewees saw parks more as places for activity or socialising. British Pakistanis did visit national parks, but British Bangladeshis had little desire to escape to the ‘untouched wild’. Caribbean interviewees held unromanticised views of the countryside, preferring urban life.
It’s also the case that while, for many of us, the outdoors is a place of escape, leisure and reflection, for others it’s a place of risk, drudgery and menial work. Ruby Radwan tells me that some people don’t understand why she would want to labour on a farm or practise traditional crafts such as spinning when food and clothes are easily available. ‘We’ve had older women and men come and say, “No, it’s a bit dirty.” They don’t want to get out of the car and walk along the muddy path – it’s going to make their nice shoes dirty.’ But she’s understanding, observing that in many countries, the move towards industrialisation and urbanised middle-class life puts ‘rural things right at the bottom of the heap. The rural workers get paid nothing – planting, harvesting, the most meaningful things for existence, are so devalued.’
‘Nature’, then, is perhaps less an observed, discreet phenomenon and more a cultural experience, something that one has to conceive – where you make meaning as much as find it. Migration, whether from the country to the city or across the world, inevitably means disruption and a necessary process of reinvention.
Beth Collier is a psychotherapist. Her practice is centred on nature as a medium for psychological healing and development. Also an ethnographer and outdoor leader, she founded Wild in the City, a non-profit that works to reconnect minority groups with nature through hiking, woodland-living skills, natural history and ecotherapy. She says that younger generations feel that they’ve lost many of the intimate relationships with the natural world that were once inherent in their communities. ‘Whether it’s memories of people, grandparents, foraging wild foods and pickling them; whether it’s memories of Somali grandparents as shepherds navigating herds, using the stars, very powerful, deep connections, of nature being a source of food, a source of guidance, part of the rhythm of the social life, in terms of festivals and other celebrations.’ Collier sees the loss of these connections as wrapped up with the legacy of colonialism. The racism faced by communities when they first settled in the UK deterred ventures into unfamiliar landscapes and the consequences are still ongoing.
The insecurities of diasporic life can also create their own legacies. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, who leads the New North London Synagogue, is the cofounder of the Eco-Synagogue project. He tells me of his strong affinity with the natural world, but explains why that isn’t necessarily reflected more widely among Britain’s longest-standing minority community. ‘So the focus in a lot of Jewish life has really been the Shulkhan Arukh – the code of practical law,’ he says. ‘How do I replicate a way of life wherever I find myself? How do I create a community that follows the weekly Sabbath, the yearly festivals, has the resources to conduct lifecycle events, has a cemetery, has somebody who can do the ritual circumcisions and the ritual slaughters – these have been overwhelming preoccupations in the face of a lot of adversity and have taken attention away from, “And what’s my relationship to the land?”, which then can come across as something of a luxury.’ In this telling, the loss of connection to nature is an unavoidable sacrifice of urban migration, of subsequent rebuilding, one common to every diaspora community.
But if some communities have less of a relationship with the natural world than others, is that a problem? Many believe that it is. Rabbi Witttenberg describes a lack of contact with nature as a ‘spiritual impoverishment’. He believes that there’s valuable perspective to be gained – the environment and the seasons ‘frame a sense of time and mortality, and have an influence in mitigating a culture of growth, prosperity and so on with a sense of humility.’ Losing touch with that is a ‘very significant and major loss’.
Maxwell Ayamba describes the outdoors as the ‘natural health service’ and sees it as essential, citing the fact that health problems such as diabetes and depression are prominent in many minority communities. ‘A lot of the people who come on our walks give personal testimonies about how just having that space, that freedom to roam and walk or talk and share their lived experience with their peers has really improved their mental and physical wellbeing.’ He points me towards NHS England’s new Green Social Prescribing scheme, which encourages GPs to refer people for nature-based interventions and activities.
Nature is also a vital component of our emotional development and sense of security, according to Collier. ‘In terms of psychotherapy, we have the concept of a significant other in our life, who are usually our primary caregivers, our parents and also our close siblings and other significant people who are important parts of our lives. And I argue that nature is a significant other – that whether or not we’re aware of the importance of a relationship with nature, having one or not having one will have an impact on our sense of wellbeing.’ She also argues for a ‘quality over quantity approach’ – whether it’s a patch of flowers outside a block of flats or a dense forest, it’s the quality of our relationship to it that counts.
This relationship with nature is what travel writer Jini Reddy sees as a source of what she calls ‘lifeforce’. The natural world represents an opportunity not just for wellbeing, physical health and learning, but also for exploration, adventure and self-knowledge. Her Wainwright Prize-shortlisted book Wanderland details a year-long quest through the British countryside in search of what she describes as ‘magic’ – the spiritual gifts the natural world can yield beyond the aesthetic or empirical. Through her journey, she finds deeply individual connections to the landscape outside British mythic traditions.
Reddy has a cosmopolitan perspective – born to Indian South African parents, she grew up in Montreal, lives in London and has spent a lifetime exploring the world. She also thinks that there are many ways of finding a deeper connection to this concept of ‘lifeforce’. ‘People experience spiritual connection through lots of things – through art, through creating food that brings communities together,’ she says. Although she finds it easiest to experience that connection in the wild, she says ‘spiritual is just a word, I guess. Some people don’t resonate with the word, but they might experience that feeling, that deep feeling of joy and connection. I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of value – not everybody would say that they need to go into nature.’
BACK TO NATURE
During the 1980s, seminal artists such as Ingrid Pollard examined the relationship between Black Britain and the romantic traditions in nature. Today, Kehinde Wiley and a new generation of creatives are taking up the mantle.
The Willowherb Review publishes writing ‘on nature, place and environment by writers of colour’. Editor Jessica Lee suggests that nature is being seen more honestly and more politically than in the past, and that ‘the push to hear from more writers of colour has clarified that notion that there isn’t just one way of experiencing nature’. She believes that the scope of this new writing ‘extends far beyond these borders, especially as we think about the legacies of migration and potential futures (and presents) wrought by climate change, biodiversity loss and more’.
In their work, Willowbrook farmers Lutfi and Ruby Radwan raise awareness about personal responsibilities and religious duties; psychotherapist Beth Collier’s approach is based on healing and restoration; and Rabbi Wittenberg focuses on offering practical help to improve environmental sustainability. Maxwell Ayamba has founded the Sheffield Environmental Movement, a non-profit that helps ethnic-minority and refugee communities in the city to experience the British countryside and outdoor activities, enlarging access by providing clothing, transport and outdoor guided activities to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
David Lindo offers courses and training through the Urban Birder World and says the most important thing is educating young people about the nature on their doorstep, not just in far away places. He passes on enthusiasm first and foremost, encouraging people to not be intimidated by a lack of knowledge. ‘It’s not necessarily a question of me pointing my finger down at the kid saying, “This is what”,’ he says. ‘The kid can teach me as well.’
It’s a message of independence echoed by Reddy, who has sojourned through natural landscapes around the world on her own, without being held back by ideas about the expertise she’s supposed to have. ‘There’s so much joy in following your curiosity,’ she says. ‘I think your world opens up if you can overcome your fears. Sometimes I’m fearful, but I still do it anyway. I’ve done stuff where I’ve been really anxious, but I kind of know that if I stay with that feeling, stay with it, stay with it, and still do it, then I’ll get through that.
‘And just think of the beauty you’ll experience,’ she adds. ‘There’s so much natural beauty in Britain it’s incredible. And, you know, often people are really friendly. I think sometimes we carry things in our heads about how things are going to pan out, and they don’t always pan out that way.’
There’s always a danger when searching for collective narratives among the stories of the millions of individuals who constitute Britain’s varied ethnic and religious communities. But the unseen cultural topography that shapes our relationships with nature, whether in the landscape of town or country, are real enough. When we connect with nature, we’re connecting as much with traditions, world views and values as with the landscapes themselves. Some will do this alone, but ultimately, the connection to the natural world is created together.