Belonging and Nature in West Hill

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Poet, writer and storyteller, L. Oluwafemi Hughes-Jonas shares a story written during lockdown that subtly illustrates an impact of the Covid-19 crisis, revealing the importance of a connection with nature, alongside a more disquieting sense of privilege and ownership.

photo of a tree in leaf against a background of grass and woodland

St Anne’s Wells Gardens. Photo: L. Oluwafemi Hughes-Jonas.

On a day last June, I attempt to write about the theme of belonging and nature. The theme resonates and feels sensitive for me, a British-African. Hoping to unblock my writer self, I take a break in St Anne’s Well and plan to walk over to St Nicolas Quiet Gardens, my sanctuary over 30 years. And, during Covid – lockdown /unlock time, a space near home where I and many locals escape.

It’s a cool afternoon. As I stroll, I notice light trying to break through the flat-milk sky. Not unlike my own process. Right now, I’m content under this oasis of trees. But, a brief encounter stops me in my tracks, twice. It’s not an unusual scenario:

An unfamiliar pooch, charges in your direction while barking loudly.

Often, I freeze hold my breath, the ‘owner seeing the situation, swiftly calls on their pet: “he’s harmless” they say, taking him in tow. We exchange smiles I breathe out. Job done.

Yet on this June morning the scenario has all the tension and trepidation of a silent film, in slow-motion. I’m frozen, the owner, while only an arm’s length away, crawls like a tortoise, towards his barking terrier. More, his hard-shell silence and steely gaze, slice through my pleading eyes. I notice his pursed lip. “Is he thinking, “Who is this stupid woman, scared of small lovable dog”? I can’t tell, but as he finally takes control, I hear myself apologising. “I’m just a bit afraid of dogs when…”

“Well” he spoke assuredly, “This is a place of many dogs … so not the best place..” He stopped short… “for you” hung momentarily unspoken in the air between us, before drifting into a chilled and sour milk sky.

My equilibrium quickly returns “I think this is a place for everyone.”

I promptly dismissed the incident in my head. ‘This was a decent enough guy, perhaps, interpreting my fear as dislike of his pet dog, and whose ill-manner, briefly, threw me off balance.

Later that afternoon I reflect on our shared gardens. How over 30 years I’ve seen changes in the ways we use these spaces; from strollers, tai chi practitioners and meditators to couples doing sports exercise, a place of refuge /sleep, to walkers, their dogs and more. Brightonian’s while we not perfect are generally open and accommodating to such diversity.

Back home and with my writing. My mind has cleared. Light comes through my window, flooding me with thoughts. I reflect on belonging and inclusion during pandemic, front line workers finally recognised as essential, disabled people again fought for their lives, as others who are overlooked. I think about the incident in the park how it speaks to the theme of ‘belonging’ in nature. I allowed myself feel the momentary blow, the impact of the spoken and unspoken atmosphere:

The territorial claim over a green space, meant to be shared. Reveals the complexity of this theme.

I think about my childhood growing up in an institution that kept us waifs separate from ordinary life and from nature itself, about how regularly my presence has been subject to question, often unwittingly, and at times blatantly. The impact on mental health, a collective experience for many struggling with the complexities of belonging re: disability, class background, ethnicity and more. Here there’s a gap in understanding of who can take belonging and inclusion for granted and those that often don’t have that privilege.

I notice how my equilibrium more often returns quickly. How, I have found healing in nature itself. Walking the south downs way over 30 years has given me a feeling of belonging to the land as well as friendships here. Our parks are part of nature we long to protect. We have woken up to our belonging in her soil. Our interdependence.

Three weeks after I began writing, I experience a similar incident in St Nicholas garden. This time a much larger dog, charging noisily, from much further away. Even more frightening. This time the owner, like most, behaved responsibly. I asked if she could put him on a leash. She accepted. I was grateful.

I experience Brighton and my neighbourhood as one of most open places in the South. During lockdown, we saw some of our best qualities. And like many cities we have our challenges. As we face more lockdowns and use our communal spaces more, whether gardens, beaches or pavements, we are challenged to negotiate how we use, share, take care of them and each other. Many are fighting to enable people, animals and earth to breathe more easily, be protected, respected and enjoy belonging together in our precious green city.