This is an essay about belonging. It is also about connection, identity and shame. A version of this will appear in a new book Birds can Fly by my old school friend, the artist Paul Harfleet.
What is it about the sight and sound of Swifts, swooping and circling, shrieking and calling, that gets to me so much? After almost 30 years living elsewhere, this was one of the things I was most excited about, to enjoy the Swifts once again, over and over, in the long evening light of an Edinburgh summer. It had tugged and tugged on my soul for years, so when it didn’t happen I was devastated, distraught. A few here and there yes, some faint intermittent screams, but nothing like what I remember, what my body remembers. Those memories will forever be linked to a particular time in my life – coming to the end of secondary school, watching the Swifts out my attic bedroom window to a backdrop of rooftops and hills, their calls filling the room, being out all night clubbing and the long walk home with my pals and the dawn. Forever associated with that time, that sense, of youthful abandon.
My parents are immigrants. Swifts are not immigrants but migrants. Unlike my parents they don’t live here permanently, they move between places, coming here for a few summer months up from sub-Saharan Africa before travelling southward again for the winter. It is a long and perilous trip. Like the swifts I was born here, yet I do not feel I fully belong. Part of this yearning with the Swifts I suspect is to do with belonging. When they are here, they belong here, appreciated and welcomed. I on the other hand sense a certain ambivalence about my presence here, and that conflict resides within me too.
Growing up, as will be very familiar to other people of colour in such places, I was continually asked “where are you from?” One particular memory is being in my primary school playground, a parent standing over me. I am perhaps 7 or 8. By now I have learnt how it goes. Edinburgh, I answer, knowing this is not what they want to hear. They ask again, “yes but where are you from?” Morningside. I can sense their dissatisfaction, sense the next question forming and rising up and out “but where are you really from?” Ah here it comes, predictable as always. Sometimes I would stretch it out longer enjoying their discomfort, watching the tension play out between politeness and nosiness. That insistent urge to place me would almost always win out. I’d give the street name, forcing them to eventually ask “but where are your parents from?” And then I would give them what they wanted; they were adults after all. My mum is Dutch and my dad is from Trinidad. Trinidad, that explains it. Satisfied, they would turn away. Scottish, but never allowed to be just that. Both native and non-native. Later, living in Manchester I grew to be just as tired of Black people noticing my accent and laughing incredulously “I didn’t know there were Black people in Scotland“. My Morningside accent, already soft, softened further and took on Mancunion hues in a subconscious attempt to fit in or at least to not stand out so distinctly. Which didn’t work of course. I’ve never quite fitted in anywhere – in the human realm, that is.
I was into nature as a child. I used to watch the birds out my bedroom window feeding on the flat moss-topped garage roof. Even now as I pass my old house I still think about the Song Thrush that would sing from the Silver Birch in the front garden. At one point I joined the youth group of a conservation charity. I remember sending in a photo of a rookery to a competition, which I didn’t win. But never meeting up with others, no mentors or teachers, always a solitary pursuit. I’d go off on walks and bike rides: Duddingston loch, the Hermitage of Braid, Wester Craiglockhart Hill, and nearer to home the grounds of the mental hospital where I’d sit in a tree reading a book and eating an apple pie from the bakery. One of the first things I did when I moved back, before getting in touch with old friends even, was to visit all these places and explore them through old and new eyes, trying to find my old sit spots, figure out where I used to be. Just the other day I was hit with the sudden realisation that the slope I was running up, that I regularly run up, is the slope we used to sledge down. The disconnected snatches of memory finally clicking into place: the walk down Myreside Road dragging the red sledge, the stone doorway from the road into the woodland, on the hill, the slope with a painful bump. Me and my dad, me and my sister, me and my brother with his girlfriend. The snow.
From my childhood diaries, I can see that nature features less prominently as I get to mid teenage and into my 20s. But it gets rekindled, and gets stronger and stronger with the years. My knowledge and confidence is built up through courses in wildlife identification, bushcraft and natural navigation, by running wildlife groups, organising nature events, leading walks and teaching nature awareness courses.
The key to a sense of connection is spending time in natural places. These are intimate acts of slow and patient observation. It is not about ticking species off a list, the rarer the better. No, this is about getting to know the inhabitants of a particular place – the place that I also inhabit. Spotting signs, following tracks, watching, listening, smelling. This, I have discovered, is how to fit in, and it is deeply nourishing. This connection creates a sense of groundedness. As the artist Miro said, “it is contact with the earth that enables me to fly“. But there’s also something about knowing how to read the sky, navigating by the position of the sun, and at night by the stars. There is a comfort to be gained with the North Star as a steady constant companion, even if you can’t always see it.
My preference is to be on my own in a place and not see other people. Not always but too many times I’ve noticed the looks, sensed nervousness, suspicion even. I’ve been ignored by farmers who reply instead to my white companions when I am clearly the group leader. Walking with other people of colour attracts a lot of attention. We stand out. At best a curiosity, at worst a blight. I don’t want to stand out; I want to blend in – not with other people, but with the place. So I wear greens and browns. Like a fox, I am aware of people before they see me. This gives me time to hide, if I choose.
One time, around 20 years ago, volunteering with the RSPB at a reserve in the Lake District, I had some free time. It was the rutting season, and the roars of the stag swelled and echoed round the valley. I got the idea to try find this stag. Dressed in my second hand camo gear bought all inspired after a bushcraft and tracking course, I set off up the hill, crossing fields and climbing over fences. I found the deer and his hinds and watched for some time from a distance, but what sticks in my mind is not that but what happened next. On the way down, I heard a dog barking. There were sheep lower down in the fields, I knew there must be a farmer about, and that he might have spotted me. I didn’t want an encounter, to have to explain myself, so I skirted round the side of the hill thinking to drop down to the road further on. When I got to the road I heard a vehicle coming, still out of sight round the bend. Immediately and without further thought, I dived into the ditch and lay down in the bracken. The vehicle stopped 20 or so metres away. A man and his dog got out and walked up the road towards me. They stopped a couple metres away from where I lay, heart pounding, barely daring to breathe. Peering through the ferns I saw he was looking upwards, to the top of the fields where I no longer was. All this time I was desperately thinking, what on earth am I going to say if he spots me? What possible good reason can I give for lying in a ditch in camo gear – me, a mixed race young woman? I could think of nothing. Incredibly, neither the man nor his dog saw me. I suppose he was expecting to see me up on the hill and not right in front of him. They walked up and down the road for a bit and then returned to the landrover and drove off. I leapt out the ditch and laughed, slightly hysterically, all the way back and for several days afterwards. A ridiculous thing to do maybe, but that first time of having my camouflage skills properly tested was hilariously exhilarating. Just thinking about it now amuses me greatly. I really have no idea what I would have said if he’d seen me, or what he would have said. Maybe we would both have just laughed.
I’ve always liked hiding. As a child I would clamber onto the garage roof and spy on my neighbour, hidden (so I believed) by the leaves and branches of their Japanese Cherry trees.
As preparation for my Mountain Leader assessment, I went on many solo night walks and wild camps out on the Pennine moors near Manchester where I lived, and later in the Pentland hills near Edinburgh.
I have come to love the dark quiet and solitude, disturbed only by occasional barking of dogs when I near a gamekeeper’s cottage. Here in the dark I can relax, confident that the chances of seeing anyone else are pretty remote, especially in winter. I know where I am, I know the features, and if necessary I know how to get away. I see Roe deer, Foxes, Badgers and Tawny owls.
There are so many ways to know a place.
Cycling from Lancaster train station to university campus, I learnt where the Mallards, Coots and Moorhens would hang out, the Kingfisher’s branches, the Blackbirds on the path, the House Sparrows in the hawthorn hedges on the road up, the Starlings by the supermarket, the Wrens by the path leading to the campus, the Robin in the old gnarled Oak tree, the Jackdaws in the trees fringing the campus. How many times I made that journey, all kinds of weather all times of year. They wouldn’t all be there every time, especially the Kingfisher, but mostly. I looked forward to seeing them, these familiars, and was disappointed when I didn’t.
One nature connection training I’ve done teaches about starting with threads and building and strengthening the connection to string, to cord and then to rope. I like this metaphor.
I am making ropes with the plants and animals in my garden, some thicker than others, some are still threads. I know the plants and when they flower but I’m still learning about their culinary and medicinal uses. I know where the Ants are, and that the Wasps like to nest under the backdoor step, stripping wood off the shed door. The Squirrels and the birds that come to feed, the House Sparrows, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits, Magpies, Crows, Feral pigeons, Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons, the Robin, Dunnock and Collared Dove pairs, occasionally a Song Thrush, have come to learn that my cat and I do not pose a threat. Some allow me to come close. Bis has somehow learnt to just sit and watch, often sleeping in a ball at the base of the Cherry tree whilst they feed above and around her. At 12 years old she just opens a half-interested eye and falls back asleep. The birds call softly to each other when I come to fill the feeders, the cheeps, churrs and ticks now familiar sounds. I am learning their bird language.
I have discovered the routes the Fox and the Badgers take, coming in from the railway line through the gap in the fence I widened deliberately. I’d seen the big holes in my garden but at first assumed they were by the squirrels. Then one evening my cat started hissing at something on the other side of the cat flap – and there, to my delight, was a little Badger face looking back!
Sometimes in the middle of the night I hear a Badger screaming near by, perhaps at a Fox, claiming the fallen birdseed in my garden as its own. Further afield, I know where the local setts are. I know there is a black Rabbit that hangs out with wild Rabbits by one of these setts, having captured it on my trail cam. Attuned to their smell, I know the spots where Foxes like to mark their territories, where Roe Deer rest amidst the gorse bushes and feed by the golf courses, and where juvenile Tawny Owls practice their hooting. This last was hilarious. I’d gone up Easter Craiglockhart hill for sunset and as it got dark started hearing hooting in a woodland below. Quietly making my way down, I began to audio record soon realising that some of the calls sounded different, a bit odd. As I crept closer, I realised there were several Tawny Owls close together in the trees, some hooting more tentatively, with wavering, unsteady kewicks and hoos. It was absolutely delightful, crawling on my knees in the dark, listening to them in the branches above me. I can happily spend hours doing things like that. My friends now know when going on walks that I cannot resist inspecting tracks and scats, sniffing the air, stopping mid sentence to listen to a bird alerting others to our presence.
Relaxing into such immersive embodied experience takes practice and discipline. It can feel superficial if I am too rushed, overly focussed on getting a great photo or audio recording, or if I stop at the level of simply naming the plant or animal. I’ve taught many mindfulness and nature connection sessions, and it is this patience that is hardest to instil in others. Taking time, slowing down, noticing small things, getting up close – a very different way of being from we are used to in our consumer culture which primes us for fast short experiences and that claims bigger is better. In my research, I’ve found that there can be an apologetic quality to ‘just’ being in a small ordinary place than in some grand and awesome landscape. Not so much to boast about.
There was a very strong pull to come back to Scotland, to the land, and it is when I am on my own with the other-than-human that I am most relaxed and get most nourishment. But I am becoming more open to connecting with strangers in these places, to getting beyond visible differences and finding acceptance or at least tolerance. The birds in my garden have learnt to accept the presence of my cat and I, because we have shown through our behaviour that we are not a threat. I shouldn’t have to do that with people, and yet often I feel do have to. We people of colour always have to. So at times I seek out interactions, holding my ground as it were, rather than hiding. And often these encounters are lovely moments, a simple fleeting coming together and departing, enriching and heart-warming.
So far I have talked about connection with the physical natural world.
But there is another world of nature out there and also in here, full of serendipitous happenings and odd encounters, where insights are gained and healing occurs. One exercise I teach in my courses involves asking a question of nature and being open to receiving any insights that come. I explain to participants that there are various possible explanations for what happens and to pick whatever sits best with them: it is metaphorical – a way to access the wisdom of their unconscious mind, or it’s a way to tap into the collective unconscious, that the natural world is conscious and it is communicating with them, or that it is a shamanic connection to the spirit realm.
For myself, I am non-committal – it could be any or all of these things. All I know is that if approached in the right way, and with a sense of humility and gratitude, it works. Useful insights always come, and very often healing happens.
Before I moved back to Edinburgh, I lived for a few years in Bremen Germany next to a wooded nature reserve that was bounded on each side by deep ditches and barbed wire fences. Within a few weeks I’d figured out a way in by following a deer trail and would visit early each Sunday morning when the main road by my access point was quiet and I could enter without being seen. There were virtually no other people of colour in that neighbourhood and I really didn’t fancy being the subject of a police investigation into suspicious activity in the woods. Because of the difficulty of accessing it, I always had the place to myself, which was wonderful.
One time I was there was during a difficult period for me. It was a time of change, uncertainty and anxiety. In a couple months I was moving back to Edinburgh to look after my mum who’d had a fall earlier that year and was no longer able to live on her own. We were in the process of selling her flat but despite trying I hadn’t yet found a suitable new home for the two of us. My contract in Germany was coming to an end in unpleasant circumstances, and I’d accepted a short-term job in Edinburgh that I wasn’t very sure about. Sitting in the woodland, I asked if anyone wanted to give me a message or even just say hello. Almost immediately a few buzzing insects flew very close and through my hair, and then a tiny spider appeared between my eyes, attached to my body by a thin thread of its web. Nice little hellos, it seemed. Then after some time, I heard and felt this knocking. It was coming through the poplar tree that I was sitting against. Looking up I saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker – it was tapping a rhythm on the trunk about 3 metres above my head. The vibrations were travelling down the trunk and into my back. This was no ordinary hello! Tap ta-tap tap ta-tap tap tap. It was like Morse code. The tapping lasted for several minutes and then the messenger flew off. At the time I was fully present in the experience but afterwards I reflected on what had just occurred. Just as the woodpecker was tapping to find insects, I got a strong sense that the message for me was to keep pecking away, to keep probing and testing out possibilities. And as the woodpecker changed rhythm, now soft, slow, now fast, hard, I too should have that flexibility, to listen carefully and adapt as necessary. Such a beautiful calming experience and just what I needed. Full of gratitude, I felt more secure in the uncertainty, confident that things would work out as long as I kept at it. And they did.
And finally, a story about my dad. He told me once how a friend of his called Robin had passed away and he’d gone to visit his widow. Whilst there, a Robin had flown in through the open window and landed on his head, staying a few moments before flying round the room and out again. Later, in my Birds Britannica book, I discovered the folk association between Robins and death. Remembering this, on the last day of my dad’s life, I recorded the Robin in my garden. My dad passed away carried on its song.
And now to bring this essay to a close. A recent I Ching reading contained the line “the flying bird brings the message“. Touching down only to give birth, the Swift surely is the ultimate flying bird. What is its message? At first I thought it was about loss, calling us to re-learn how to live in harmony with the worlds of nature, within and without. Yes, for sure. But I have now come to realise there is a subtler message also. This message is about healing shame – the shame associated with being other, not quite fitting in, not quite belonging. As the Swifts swoop and swirl about the sky, arriving and leaving as they will, they show me that I, that all of us, ultimately belong to the earth. I belong here and I am claiming my birthright of connection.
 Joaquim Gomis (1994) Joan Miro Photographs 1941-1981: Portrait of a universe. G. Gili: Barcelona, p.84