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6 July 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:37pm

In the white world of gardeners and farmers, growing food feels like a radical act

An organic food grower based in East Sussex writes of the racism she has experienced in her seven years working with nature.

By Claire Ratinon

We watched long-tailed tits skip from branch to branch of a holly bush. We paused with held breath, unsure whether they were yet to sense our presence or were paying us no mind. Snub-beaked fluff balls with elegant tails, the rose blush of their bellies visible in brief glimpses afforded by the moments of sunlight breaching the woodland canopy. These woods are all verdure and luminosity. Silhouettes of leaves perform like shadow puppets on the path as we pilgrims pass through gently in holy silence. It is temple, shrine and church.

I imagined, I hoped, that we were alone. Just us, our footsteps, our love, and no-one to remind us that we were walking trodden paths. But a man was coming our way, older than us by double and wearing a panama hat. I step off the trail and veer into the woods to give him two metres and I catch sight of that familiar old scornful glance.

I tried to greet him, to force him to acknowledge my existence but he refused. He received Sam’s hello with a squeezed-out courtesy while I stood in the forest gutter.

It was a nearly-nothing interaction. One of many I’ve had with people who don’t want to look at me. A passing regard with a hint of suspicion, a quiet denial of my humanity. Easy to refute, to explain away, to minimise until I question my sanity, my memory. Yet my long dance with not belonging reminds me not to dismiss those grazes with an unwelcome party. It’s turned ugly before and I’m never quite sure when it will again.

I don’t belong here, in the land upon which I was born. No matter what you say, I don’t belong. If it hurts your ears to hear it, imagine how much it has hurt my heart.

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I’m reminded when I hear echoes of the old “go back to where you came from” song or chance upon the sentiments of an eco-fascist. I don’t know how to separate myself from the racism I see around the world, I certainly can’t separate myself from how it manifests in this country. Nor would I want to.

It’s often troubling to work in the mostly white world of horticulture and agriculture. We POC growers and gardeners are in the minority and are virtually invisible in the collective imagination of who is expected to work with plants, be outdoors and feel connected to nature in the UK.

When you scratch beneath the surface, the tentacles of colonialism can be found in abundance. From the prospecting of indigenous medicinal knowledge, to the appropriation of ancient agricultural practices and the historical pillage of the plants that filled botanical gardens and plantations, and which still inhabit our gardens to this day.

When you hear about the problems caused by a “non-native and invasive” plant species, I urge you to find out how that plant found its way to these shores and interrogate the heavy language you use to describe where it came from and how it grows.

I didn’t become a food grower because I thought it was political. I did it because it was delicious and uplifting and because I had the privilege to choose to. And yet now, for me, growing food is a radical act. It has brought me to an understanding of my place in the natural world and allowed me to feel held and upheld when all else has left me unearthed.

I have turned towards the land, the site of my ancestors’ oppression and dared to plant seeds into the earth of a country that erases my history. I push my hands into the soil as an act of reclamation, of self-determination, of gesturing towards the possibility of establishing roots on my own terms because the land has chosen me and I have chosen her, no matter the prejudices of those who dwell here too.

I grow plants because I believe it is in my blood to do so. I grow plants to reclaim the space that slavery and indentured labour robbed us of. 

Nature meant little to me until seven years ago. I grew up fearful of it, not understanding its relevance, never seeing anyone like me at ease with it.

Yet nature has become the source of my steadiness, my meaning, my power. It is my everything despite having fallen for it in countries stained with the labour and blood of my kin and those of many people of colour. It is my everything despite all the stories I believed that said it “wasn’t for me”.

I rarely feel welcome, and it is not always safe.

My attempts to move towards nature with a heart yearning for communion are often clumsy and troubled but, through my uneasiness, I return again and again and again to take my place in her embrace as is my birthright – and yours.

Ensuring we can be safe and find peace in nature is not as important an issue as police brutality and murder. Denial of access to nature is nowhere near as grave an injustice as the Windrush scandal. But it is, to me, deeply important and if it continues to be proven that nature upholds our wellbeing then surely it’s about time we spoke honestly about what keeps it out of reach for some and not others?

I’ve finally stopped craving belonging on this island. I accept that, although it is the most familiar place to me, it will never be home.

But nature, even here, is mine because I am hers.

Claire Ratinon is an organic food grower based in East Sussex, and author of the upcoming book How to Grow Your Dinner: Without Leaving the House. Find her on Instagram @claireratinon.

This essay, crossposted with permission, originally appeared in her newsletter, What A Time To Have A Garden, and was republished in the Inkcap nature newsletter by freelance environmental journalist Sophie Yeo.

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