Hiranya De Alwis Jayasinghe was one of the women who completed the Lowland Leadership Program this year. You can find out more about her here.
We were lucky enough to get Hiranya to write for us about her summer this year and all the things she got up to with nature being a constant backdrop.
It’s our pleasure to share her writing here. Enjoy.
Nature as an Anchor
Back at the beginning of 2019, I chose a word of the year: anchor. Not for the first time, my word has been ironic. In 2019, I have lived in 6 different places, travelled up and down the country and lived out of a rucksack. If I were to choose a word to describe the year, it would be movement. But amidst a swirling tornado, I keep coming back to anchor. How do I stayed anchored through tumultuous times? How do I keep my body grounded when it is in constant movement? How do I maintain a still, silent space within my own heart? One answer I keep repeating is time in the outdoors. Here are a few things I did over the Summer…
Mull and Iona
Our landlord terminated our lease a month early. As the maisonette had served as a peaceful haven, it was a blow. But there was nothing for it but to pack up and leave. So we did – and put our stuff into storage. Then, we put on our rucksacks and headed to the West Coast of Scotland. It might seem an odd thing to do in such circumstances. But, it worked for us.
We spent a night in Oban, before getting the ferry over to Mull. The sea is in my blood. My ancestors came from the South of Sri Lanka, the teardrop isle. They were coastal people too. So, standing on deck, feeling the breeze, I began to re-anchor. We got the bus through Mull, and headed onto another boat. This time headed for Staffa. The sea swirled as the engine roared. The salt got in our eyes. But, robed in yellow sou’westers, we felt alive. It was idyllic on Staffa. We walked up the steps, and watched and waited. Before long, the puffins landed. Waddling, metres away from us. I was enthralled by these comedic creatures. As a child, I remember getting a ferry to the Farne Islands. There, I saw puffins for the first time. But nowhere as close as this.
We then took the ferry over to Iona. This magical island. We set up camp, and caught our breath. Iona is a restorative place. We went to the shops, the cafes and the Abbey. We walked to each corner, and paddled in the blue ocean. The sun shone and warmed my soul. Whilst in the Abbey courtyard, we saw a swarm of bees buzzing. I wondered what it could mean? After a few slow days, we returned to Mull.
We walked into the green hills, smiling at the Highland cows. After a couple of hours, we arrived at a bothy. I made a fire, and cooked pasta on it. It was cosy. The next day, I navigated us up to the top of nearby hill. It was a hard, but rewarding walk. Getting down was harder though. The hillside was full of scree. I concentrated very hard to make it down slowly, deliberately and in one piece. I don’t care what people say about standing up. I felt so much safer coming down on my bottom! But we made it. And then the heavens opened. It poured and we were soaked through as we walked across the hills. Back in the bothy, we re-made the fire and dried ourselves off. It had been a glorious hike.
The next day was our last. We refuelled, watching planes land, at the Glenforsa hotel. Then, we spent a few hours at the Mull spa. I had a facial, having caught the sun. And we enjoyed the warmth of the hot tub, the steam room and sauna. This is my kind of adventure. The first part catering to the goddess Artermis, the second, to Aphrodite. As women, we hold all these elements within us. I want to integrate them. I want to have adventures that are both “outdoorsy” and “sensual.” Society would have us separate the goddess within; would push us to be one or the other. I choose wholeness.
Sunny Dunny and the North East coast
We got a temporary room for the Summer. It wasn’t ideal. I felt unsafe under the landlords gaze, and the place stunk from years of neglect. Still, we were in Dunbar. The sunniest town in the UK, and birthplace of John Muir. I was living for the first time “besides the seaside.” The outdoors my haven.
I spent hours wandering across the beach, collecting sea glass. It was like searching for treasure. Spotting gleaming green, blue, orange and clear shards in the sunlight. I loved the colours– the sand, the seaweed, the pink stone. We got acquainted with the town through a treasure trail. It took us to the church graveyard, full of poppies and cornflowers. Looking at the gravestones, I saw name after name, born in a small, fishing village, died in the tropics. Several had gone to Sri Lanka (or what they called Ceylon) to make their fortunes. Their histories wrapped up in my own. Why is this history erased? Could there be healing in exploring Empire through our family histories? Both the families that came from the Commonwealth; and those that stepped up in the world because of it. I have a white British friend who’s family were planters in Sri Lanka. I’d like to share our family histories, and the way Empire shaped them. I’d like to have safe spaces to listen, to grieve, to rage and to heal.
I did two overnight expeditions over the Summer. On my way back from London, I spontaneously got off the train at Berwick upon Tweed. My partner was waiting. I love Berwick. It is beautiful from the train. My heart jolts with joy whenever I see it. It has seen better days. But, I have no doubt, will thrive again in the future. We explored the town, and hiked up the coastline. After crossing the border, we camped for the night, continuing on our way the next morning. Another day, we hiked down the coast from Dunbar, and then inland to Abbey St Bathans. The borders are beautiful – so underrated. We camped out overnight, and had breakfast at The Moorhouse. I loved their messy, wildflowers – designed by Borders Eco Flowers. Unfortunately, I was unwell with food poisoning. It was a 14 mile hike home, in a torrential downpour. Definitely one of my least favourite walks. That said, I felt proud afterwards and it is an experience to draw upon when things get tough. I am confident in my own resilience.
People of colour in nature
The final weeks of Summer were difficult. My employer was accused of perpetuating racist stereotypes. The atmosphere inside the organisation was heavy with the unsaid. I, and my BAME colleagues, experienced shock, rage and grief. Although there were pockets of good allyship, I felt betrayed by the white silence. Not wanting to say the wrong thing, many seemed to “keep calm and carry on.” And it left me reeling. I went to see Gurinder Chadha’s latest film, “Blind by the Light.” The cinema has always been my escape.
By sheer coincidence, that weekend I had booked to attend “Wild in the City.” This was an inaugural festival for people of colour in nature. It could not have come at a better time. I made my way to Croydon – not known for its nature! But, a short tramride away, and I came to woodlands. In the middle of a Scout campsite, 30-40 people of colour had gathered. Some stayed in bunks; others – like myself – pitched up. The organisers cooked cooked on site, and made fires from scratch. It was idyllic. Most of all, I felt at ease amongst this group. Their presence, as people of colour, provided a safe haven after the incidents of the prior week.
The variety of speakers and activities was amazing. An Oxford professor of South Asian descent spoke to us about trees and climate change. We heard from the Natural History Museum, Jamaica and the UN Biodiversity lead. We did ancient Egyptian physical and spiritual exercises with an ex-gladiator. We walked in the woods learning what plants to use for cleanliness, and practice making fire. We meditated in nature, and learned about organic gardening. I felt inspired to see people of colourleading. I felt happy not to be “the only.” I began to sense the self-censorship of who I have learnt to be in white spaces.
Three things stayed with me. First, the dictum, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” That weekend, western NGO’s had been gathering to discuss lion-human conflict measures. But who was at the table? Who was in the majority? People who’s ancestors have managed lion-human conflict into perpetuity? Or people without that embodied experience? Second, the importance of seeing women of colour leading in the outdoors. Seeing it inspired me to be it. Third, the importance of safe spaces for healing. On two occasions, white women arrived at the festival. (Their partners were people of colour). I observed the space they took up, their desire to “teach” people of colour and the heightened anxiety. I observed the shift as soon as they left. Their presence was triggering tomany in the group. Moreover, the white women failed to understand how their presence impacted others. This, and the events at work, have cemented my desire to share cocounseling with people of colour. I want to create spaces where no one has to explain racism, or endure gaslighting. I want to create spaces where people of colour can express their emotions. Spaces without straightjackets; spaces to be fully ourselves.
This Summer, nature has been my anchor. Her beauty has restored my tired soul. Her wet wildness has grown my strength. Her sunshine, an open-armed hug. Added to my experiences above are the everyday ones. Walking through the park, my thoughts and emotions dissipating. I hope that, in doing this qualification, I can provide other people of colourwith an anchor – in turbulent times.