Finding healing and inspiration in nature.
Every mid-month, we have a guest writer on After Five, a voice from a historically underrepresented community or identity group in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem. So far this year, we’ve featured Chovwe, Shingai, Tlotlo, Rafeeat, Akilah and Veronica and Chido.
Today’s letter is from TJ Benson, a writer and visual artist from Nigeria whose collection of short stories We Won’t Fade into Darkness was published in 2018. The Madhouse is his first novel, and his third book. People Live Here, was released in August. He lives in an apartment full of plants and is in danger of becoming a cat person.
On an errand as a little boy, I stumbled upon a yellow five-petaled flower beside the street which my seven-year-old mind believed to be the remnants of a shooting star. I picked it up and it was soft to touch but it felt out of this world somehow and I felt marked, special. This would be the beginning of my warped way of perceiving life, which I would later encounter in my prose to be ‘Magical Realism.’
There are other encounters with ‘nature’ in my life that would be viewed through a supernatural lens, like my mother believing the half dozen wild cats that climbed my bedroom window to keep vigilance over me through the night to be witches. But one lasting magical impact nature has had on me has been the mysterious sensation of being protected by it, being carried in it. Growing up in the nineties, I was somewhat shielded from the horrors of the military regimes and coups (even though I was raised in the capital of the country) because my father would rather switch off the news and take me outside to garden. This, of course, doesn’t mean he didn’t have hushed conversations with friends in the evenings like civil servants across the country did back then. This time spent in nature wasn’t a denial of reality.
When I lost my parents, the first place I was taken to was my father’s village. In the months I spent there, I would follow my relatives away from human settlements and markets, into the forests to farms. What I had felt earlier as a child gardening with my father was suddenly magnified into acres and acres as far as my eyes could see, and it kept wanting to come back. It wasn’t that the horrors I had faced after my parents’ death disappeared in the forest, but it ceased to matter so much when I was surrounded by the whistles of birds, the shrills of cicadas, the sweet croaking of brooks, the perpetual petrichor mixed with the scent of strange flowers and leaves, the communion of trees. How could I feel alone? It was too easy to leave my grief in the city.
This feeling is the most supernatural experience I have had, that I have continued to have. I now prescribe spending time in nature, in all its forms, for whatever ailments I have, not because it can cure or make the pain disappear, but it can use it, it can transform that emptiness I feel into something. And this healing is more real to me than any miracle. The closest I have come to experiencing God. My tribe’s people used to spend so much of their time in the forest and scientists are beginning to catch up with the importance of this. Forest bathing, it is now called. Other forms of nature have also been made available to me. I have made it a practice to always look for the nearest body of water so I can empty the grief and longing bottled up in my body for so long into it. When I would wake up, frantic, into those long insomnia nights of the 2020 lockdown, I would be immediately soothed by the cawing of night birds, the rustle of the palm leaves swaying outside my window, and the meows of a wild cat (sorry mom).
The miracle of nature, its secret, is the promise of abundance, the real physical emphasis that we are not alone. We are never empty. It’s a perfect antidote to the Writer’s Block for me, because when I surrender my empty mind or atrophied thoughts to it, I am immediately reconnected. I thought I was a shy person who failed a lot until I started reconnecting to nature in my adulthood. Animals in the first neighborhood I lived in as a single adult liked me for some reason. Not just cats, but the bat that somehow found its way into the compound; and the duck that somehow snuck into my bedroom to lay eggs in my wardrobe and squawked violently each time I tried to pick an outfit; and the scorpion that crawled into my bedroom while I was having a video call on Valentine’s Day with a girl I liked.
In nature we are reminded that the fact that a plot or a life doesn’t go the way we intend doesn’t mean there is no order in the world. It is just higher than where we are in the simple shapes we have squeezed ourselves into. We are never alone. Forests have gone beyond what Darwinists assumed. Newer scientists have found trees don’t outcompete each other for survival; rather, they grow in harmony and surrender themselves for the development of younger trees. I used to be shy when presenting my work in class or ideas to people because I was seeking validation and submitting myself to be measured. Today, I stand in abundance of all the nature I have connected with and will connect to, to share what I have learned with you.