By Alycia Pirmohamed
At an event I once attended titled “Landscape and Literary Culture,” Aimee Nezhukumatathil said something along the lines of, “The trees don’t ask you where you’re from.”
Lately, I’ve been asking myself why I rarely imagine my body, a brown woman’s body, moving through the natural world. It makes me wonder what I have internalized about ecology, about the borders between “natural” and “urban.” About access to green spaces and the bodies that are perceived as belonging within them.
It makes me wonder about what it means to “belong” at all. I think of the ocean I have crossed to arrive at my current home in the U.K. The ocean crossings of my ancestors who migrated under colonial rule. The great sea of separation, the great sea of coming together. All the distances my poetry has traveled, distances seen and unseen, and all the imaginations I have metaphorized to crack through the borders.
My first memory of this place is not a clear image.
My first memory of this place is disorientation. I’m on a walk with a colleague as part of the collaborative project Scree, a digital guidebook of writing prompts and experimental hiking routes in the Lake District. We’re generating one of these experimental routes together.
There is a heavy, hanging mist in the air. Fog surrounds us. This is just one fractal of my disorientation. Sometimes I can see the silhouettes, the loping outlines of the fells. Usually, I can hardly see the body in front of me. One thing I know about myself: I am good at losing my body. Translation: I am good at assimilating until I disappear.
We stop every so often on the well-trodden pathway to write poetry. This is our effort to co-create with and within landscape. Our first writing prompt is inspired by Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, a collection I have repeatedly returned to over the last decade. In the making of this book, Kapil travelled across borders—India, the U.S., and the U.K.—to interview South Asian women. The resulting collection brings together poeticized answers and reimagined experiences. It crosses spaces and silences.
At this stop, maybe a kilometer away from the Rydal Water car park where we began, I pause and write a response to one of her twelve interview questions. In that time, I become an extension of the collection’s many voices. My writing is a tendril that cuts through the fog to join their growing forest.
What is the collective noun for a group of brown women?
In Strange Encounters, Sara Ahmed writes that “migration stories are skin memories: memories of different sensations that are felt on the skin.” How does meaning or intention change when I write about the sensations felt on my body amongst the white spruce in Canada versus the mangrove trees in Tanzania versus the silver birch in Scotland?
All of these landscapes piece together the slippery concept of “home.”
Ahmed also suggests that “the physical sense of moving through space is enough to trigger a memory of another place. Memory hence works through the swelling and sweating of the skin.”
This conceptualization of “skin memories” resonates deeply with how I might hold multiplicity; it presents me with a way to explore how I belong in a range of different landscapes. Sometimes I extend “place” further—not just landscapes, but also their metaphorical counterparts: homelands. For example, the sensations of walking up Stone Arthur, condensation stippling on my skin, might trigger memories of moving through the heavy heat in Dar es Salaam, or walking through the near-zero visibility fog in Vilna, Alberta.
Further still, perhaps moving through space in the Lake District triggers the inherited or ancestral memories that have been passed down to me through familial stories. When they find me, they swell into the shape of a body that came before mine.
“What do you remember about the earth?”
Not so much the intersecting threads of insects, bracken, grass, fallen autumnal leaves. I remember the feel of the earth, damp and rich, against my skin. My skin is a palimpsest written with, first, ancestry, and then the scattering rain.
What I remember about the earth is stratified with skin memories. These skin memories are sometimes gaps in historic and ancestral knowledge. Memory and membrane come together in an act of cartography, where landmarks are written in forgotten first languages.
In her essay “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” Robin Wall Kimmerer asks, “[A]s our tribal diaspora left us scattered to the four winds, who would I talk to?” On the route up to Alcock Tarn, the map I’ve created is layered with all the times I’ve walked away from the wind I know into an unfamiliar gale.
All of this is to say, the first time I visited the Lake District, I felt like a
Between 1798 and 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote her famous journals, including the Grasmere Journals where she catalogued her observations while walking in the Lake District. These field notes capture a dynamic landscape throughout the seasons. They are a hybrid form that reads as memoir, essay, research, poetry. They are a literary heirloom that answers the question: What do you remember about the earth?
In them, I look for excerpts about the mist and find one from 23 January 1802: “We were afraid of being bewildered in the mists, till the darkness should overtake us. We were long before we knew that we were in the right track.”
I realize now that when I walked the loop above Grasmere two centuries later on 5 November 2022, shrouded in the mist of my own present tense, I was an echo of her echo.
I’m constantly reevaluating how I think about place. I’m always thinking about how I encounter particular places with my particular body: how both body and landscape are dynamic, how both change over time—aging, eroding, evolving. In Tongues, Chandra Frank writes that “to be a Brown feminist is to forge connectivity through a chasm of difference.”
What do you remember about the earth? One woman asks and another answers, despite the generations between them. Despite their different migration patterns. Despite the changing curvatures and ecotones and agencies.
Somehow, in that brief moment on Nab Scar, I become the interstice. My body and its own particular lived experience, its own knowledge, leak into a polygonal space. Revelations bloom into self-understanding through the shared languages of the natural world.
If my experiences are a series of metaphors, of remembrances, then what does it mean to be present in nature? How can I pinpoint particularities on this moving, milky, membrane of place?
In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit acknowledges that “the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.” Meanwhile, the landscape is steady throughout my doubling.
Who will next write about the Lake District mist?
I come back to this idea of fog, the ground cloud I pass through. Particles lift and echo around me. The way forward is opaque. By continuing on, I have to trust the area’s history, all those footsteps I walk into, as much as I have to trust my own body.
I think of how the world under a generous mist looks as if it is in the process of being erased. I’m ascending up to Alcock Tarn on a wet November day, but couldn’t I just as easily be walking through Alberta’s ridge of Rocky Mountains? My body has its own muscle memory that calls back to those tall, Canadian peaks. One leg surges forward and remembers the climb up Assiniboine. There is the mix of stone and dirt and moss, the hard then soft pattern of my steps.
In a way, fog invites me into this landscape’s loosened borders.
Alycia Pirmohamed is the author of the chapbooks Hinge and Faces that
Fled the Wind, and a co-author of Second Memory. Her debut collection,
Another Way to Split Water, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2022. She
is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest, the
Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest, the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, and others. Pirmohamed studied creative writing at the University of Oregon and the
University of Edinburgh.