Zakiya Mckenzie was selected to join our writers in residency programme back in 2019 to celebrate our centenary year. Here, she helps us to mark Black History Month with her important reflections from that time.
Writer in the Forest. Resident writer of the English woodland. What a position it was to hold.
It was a year of exploration and understanding. Of recognising the many different uses for woodlands, and the history of life (and death) they have endured. I am not the stereotypical naturalist in the English sense, so it was an honour to reflect on the forest from my point of view.
For one, though born in London, until my year in the forest, it was a landscape I knew very little of. I grew up in the Caribbean and never thought I could see beauty in the flat, grey of England. How could it compare to mountainous backdrops and rainbow spectrum of natural colour?
I found in the forest of England, its own beauty, its own worth, different pieces that together create budding ecosystems I have come to love. Maybe it was having this outside eye that allowed me to welcome what others might have long forgotten. But as I express in my Nightvision podcast for BBC4 recorded in the Forest of Dean, I really just think that “a nature lover here is likely a nature lover anywhere.”
I’m a black woman, the typical naturist in England is not, but I hope to have showed that this very closed idea of who appreciates and interacts with the environment is wrong.
Frankly, England’s nature sector has a problem – it does not seem to see outside the old guard to focus on people and activities that are working in non-traditional ways. This is not confined to the nature sector though, all across the UK, people have rallied around the Black Lives Matter movement, various decolonisation efforts and evidence of covid inequalities to point out disparities in access and opportunities for minority, working class and migrant people.
I hold fast to the view that there is misunderstanding of abilities and interest that effectively shut out innovation and fresh approaches to old issues that could arise where people have various points of reference to draw on.
Forestry England turned this on its head by commissioning me to write. My collection is about how good I felt moving through the spaces, but it also stretches back to the Caribbean where my family moved from at a time when that region was still the ‘British West Indies’.
It was really heartening to meet tree climbers, dendrologists, foresters and volunteers who acknowledged that some of the plants one can see in the arboreta and gardens of the forests were brought to England through exploitation. I will never forget Dan Luscombe at Bedgebury Pinetum expressing his commitment to protecting and conserving forests life, especially for the trees and plants taken from ex-colonies.
These are hard topics to broach, the wounds of the past haven’t easily healed, but with a climate crisis in the background at all times now, we have got to be thinking about a better today and tomorrow for our one planet.
Removing the barriers, so that more and more people learn to love and thus be invested in protecting it, is my vision of the future.