Enchanted forests: the women shaking up nature writing

The worlds of conservation and nature writing are overwhelmingly white and male. But the Forestry Commission is taking steps to change all that

A chilly breeze blows through the wood and the old tree trunks creak as they are rubbed together by the wind. A grey squirrel twists around a grove of ancient yews, its claws scrabbling drily on the dark bark. A great tit’s seesawing song is the only note of spring. There is no sign, however, of the newest inhabitant of Leigh Woods.

Zakiya Mckenzie, one of the Forestry Commission’s new writers in residence, can’t find her way to this nature reserve just west of Bristol. Mckenzie, chosen from more than 1,000 applicants to write about woodland life for the commission’s centenary year, is extremely lost, somewhere on the wrong side of the city where she lives.

‘We are often the uncomfortable ones’ … Zakiya Mckenzie walking in Leigh Woods.
‘We are often the uncomfortable ones’ … Zakiya Mckenzie walking in Leigh Woods. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Eventually, she reaches the woods stressed and an hour late, via an expensive taxi. She is soon laughing about it all but also emphasises that it is “a perfect example” of why more black and minority ethic people are not found enjoying Britain’s countryside. Like many other nature reserves, Leigh Woods is not easily accessible by rail or bus, and Mckenzie is a time-poor, carless single mother, studying for a PhD in literature. And there is a deeper cultural obstacle: she feels alone and awkward, being frequently the only black face in the forest.

“We are often the uncomfortable ones,” she says, adding her belief that conservationists and wildlife organisations need to come to her territory “and be uncomfortable, too. Meet us where we are. Come to our meetings, in our space, and ask us, ‘What can we do? What are we missing?’ I need to get people from my communities out as well, which we’re trying to do.”

In a bid to tackle the extremely white worlds of both conservation and British nature-writing, the commission has chosen Mckenzie to be one of two “writers in the forest”, the other being Tiffany Francis. And, for all Mckenzie’s discomfort in the countryside, she cannot wait to explore some of the commission’s 250,000 hectares of English woodland.

“I’ve already looked at the woods,” she says, “and you can definitely stay overnight in some. I’m a writer, so I’m a dreamer, so I have a wish list and I’ve already thought, ‘I’m going to be resting in this place and I’m going to do the zip-line in that one, and in this one I’m going to learn about the history of coal mines.”

Mckenzie was born in London and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. She developed her love of green spaces staying with her grandmother in rural Jamaica. “I could just wake up and walk out and I would be gone for the entire day and my grandmother wouldn’t worry. I’d come home wet because I’d gone in the river. That’s where I recognised I’m always going to be a little greenie. I love metropolitan spaces, but I also love the calm. That’s why Bristol works for me. I have a cityscape and then, a stone’s throw away, I’m in a park where it’s foresty and I can’t hear any cars.”

Mckenzie moved to Bristol five years ago, and has encouraged young multicultural Bristolians into nature via the Green and Black project she ran for Ujima Radio, a community station where she presents a show. During this project, she witnessed typical “misunderstandings” between city kids and conservationists when she took a group of teenagers to a bird reserve north of Bristol.

“The teenagers are loud, that’s what they do, but it is a bird sanctuary so lots of people want calm. People were whispering to one another, ‘Look at these loud children.’” Mckenzie at first urged the teenagers to keep quiet. “After a while I stopped. I’m not going to tell the kids to be quiet to make everyone else feel comfortable. This could be their one chance all summer to get out to a place like this.” She talks of the dangers of being made to feel “like an outsider in those spaces and that can be a big turn-off”.

As a black woman interested in writing about the woods, Mckenzie must also face the extremely white world of publishing. Ethnic minority nature writers are a vanishingly rare species. “Publishing itself has its own problem with representation,” she says. “I do think the writers are there, but they probably don’t know how to market themselves, get themselves seen, which is a problem across the board.”

A new leaf … Mckenzie will write about people who work in the woods.
A new leaf … Mckenzie will write about people who work in the woods. Photograph: Huntley Hedworth/Alamy Stock Photo

Mckenzie quotes Marvin Rees, the mixed-race mayor of Bristol. “Marvin said that just because we experience problems of racism and inequality doesn’t mean we have the solutions all the time. Institutions and organisations have to be willing to address it, just like the Forestry Commission has tried by picking someone like me, who probably seems very foreign to lots of regular readers of nature writing.”

Mckenzie is going to use her residency for creative work – histories or fantasies of the forest in times past – and for more journalistic inquiries that give voice to people who work in the woods: “I want to profile the people who work there.” She talks of opening children’s eyes to jobs they might not have realised could involve working in forests.

The commission’s residency follows a long tradition of woodland storytellers, from the folk tales about Little Red Riding Hood and Robin Hood to Shakespeare, whose Midsummer Night’s Dream was said to be inspired by Grendon Underwood in Buckinghamshire. Forests continue to inspire a new generation. “The magic here is very deep, because the mystery is very real,” writes Sara Maitland in Gossip from the Forest. And nature writers who have celebrated woodlands include Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin, who planted a bower of ash trees before he died. “Sometimes an ash will send out its branches in florid, baroque spirals,” he once wrote, “for no apparent reason except exuberance.”

‘We are nature’ … Tiffany Francis in Alice Holt forest, Surrey.
‘We are nature’ … Tiffany Francis in Alice Holt forest, Surrey. Photograph: Sarah Lee/Guardian

Like Mckenzie, Tiffany Francis developed a love of nature while playing at her grandparents’ home, in ancient woodland on the South Downs. Francis will use her residency to write a narrative poem about the non-human residents of the woods – inspired by Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, about two sisters lured by fruit, as well as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

“I love all the different emotions you have in these narrative poems,” says Francis during a walk around a commission wood not far from her home in Petersfield, Hampshire. “They are always about people, and I wanted to write about the forest in the same way. Take a human narrative and apply it to the forest – you get war, tragedy and comedy in all the same way. I hope it will illuminate the forest and make people aware that we are nature.”

British nature writers may be extremely white, and the canon of historic nature writing overwhelmingly male, but in the decade since the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie sharply identified the stereotype of the “lone enraptured male” there has been a blossoming of lone enraptured females. Francis is one of a new generation who was spotted online. An editor at Bloomsbury was so impressed by a blog she wrote on foraging that they published her full-length debut, Food You Can Forage, last year.

“The fact that the two people chosen for the residency are women is inspiring,” says Francis. “Nature writing has been very male, but it’s definitely changing and I’m very optimistic. Credit to the publishers who are trying to be aware of more equal representation among their readers.”

Francis will create illustrated panels of woodland scenes for her narrative poem, reflecting the fact that she is also an artist who returned to painting the natural world when she discovered nature writing during her MA. She has drawn chapter illustrations and the gorgeous front cover for her second book, Dark Skies, which will be published this autumn.

For Francis, time in the woods will be welcome respite before the publication of Dark Skies and preparing for her wedding this summer. Ultimately, both Francis and Mckenzie detect a nourishment in the woods that is universal to the human species. “I find woods very comforting,” says Francis. “A forest is full of life but there’s a beautiful smell of decay and all the matter rotting under your feet. It’s a complete cycle of everything and that’s reassuring and calming.”

The woods, says Mckenzie, “just remind me I’m so tiny compared to everything else and my problems today might not be the same problems tomorrow. Being out in the forest reminds me to nurture myself. Tomorrow morning the trees are still going to grow, the sun is still going to shine and I can get up and try again.”


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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