At the end of July 2022, after a record-breaking heatwave that scorched and dried British ground, we gathered a group of young people at the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, home to the arts and community initiative, Phytology. Healing Justice Ldn brought together members of the youth group When We Speak, with myself, a poet, and the intention of engaging in conversation about the lands we live on and are connected to.
After breaking the ice with food and games, the group were welcomed into the space with a tea tasting of the nature reserve’s own herbs. The young people took time to describe the tastes and textures before learning which plant the tea was made from. Our Phytology host, Michael Smythe, guided us through the nature reserve space and taught us about some of the plants growing in the medicine garden. Connections were made between the young people and the community-led reserve, some having visited before and some newly learning of their access to it.
Over ‘freewrites’, I invited everyone present to write from the heart and accept the words that came to them, whether they saw them as unimaginative, trivial, or badly written. The point of this exercise is to give the writer permission to say whatever they like and withhold judgement of themselves, allowing a stream of consciousness on paper. There was no obligation to share the freewrites, but several of the young people wanted to read out portions to the group, a first exercise in giving and receiving acts of vulnerability.
The stimulus questions, On which land does your heart live? Which place first woke your heart up? Which land will your heart never leave, and why? took some in the group by surprise, challenging them to think about their connection to countries, cities and specific places in a way that encouraged nuance and emotion. While it seemed that the prompts were received with confusion at first, the young writers said that those questions were some of their favourite prompts, helping them to think creatively about their relationships to land and space.
Together we read and listened to poems by Khalil Gibran, Warsan Shire, Jay Griffiths and Mahmoud Darwish, in English and Arabic, which raised questions about our role on earth, safety, freedom, extinction, and more. After working with the words, writing and editing new poems, we stood together under the net canopy of Phytology’s open-air garden room and warmed up our bodies and voices, preparing to bring our introspective thoughts outward for an intimate performance. Amongst silly drama games, the vocal exercises had the group singing a note together, collectively pushing outside of several comfort zones, in a way one young person described as ‘powerful’ and ‘spiritual’.
A tree-log-audience formed and we listened to the original poems and speeches about climate change, caring for nature, the mistreatment of refugees and migrants, mental health and the wonders of natural beauty. To end, we wrote a group poem, combining newly inspired verse and quotes from pieces written earlier in the day, in a range of languages. Handwritten on a piece of planting paper, infused with wildflowers, we then joined together to leave our words in the ground. After digging holes by the Phytology billboard, we planted our letter and headed home.
Planting a Love Letter
Something might grow from this
a seed of hope
a nurtured confidence
hearing your own thoughts back in a voice you rarely call upon
one that beckons listeners and is crowned in wreath
mugwort-strong and warmed by silky, mallow tea.
Something might grow from these words
this love letter to the land that holds us
engulfed in subtle beauty, even when we close our eyes.
We close soil around our shared secrets
whispers to the moss and grass and bark and earth we sometimes forget
but even as small as this, a word of thanks spoken aloud
we see love is a fruitful act, sprouting possibility
and despite everything, it continues to rise
reaching up, alive.