Poet Amani Saeed meditates on overcoming her fear of the outdoors

In partnership withOn the Edge
Poet Amani Saeed meditates on overcoming her fear of the outdoors
Using found natural sounds in an intimate outdoor performance, poet Amani Saeed seeks reconnection with the Earth in Odes to Nature, a new Huck film series in collaboration with On the Edge.

Amani Saeed drops a pebble into a small, tree-lined pond. The stone bursts through the water’s surface with a satisfying ‘plop’ – caught on microphone – then sinks to the bottom. As the pebble impacts against the pond floor, it throws up a billowing cloud that looks like smoke – or a miniature volcano erupting beneath the water. This ghostly and dramatic effect is produced because this unassuming, crystal clear body of water inside the RSPB Fowlmere Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire is part of a chalk stream, one of the UK’s rarest habitats.

Amani Saaed is a writer and spoken word artist. Amani chose this location to perform her piece for Odes to Nature because, ever since she was a child, water has been the element she feels the greatest affinity to. Odes to Nature is a collaboration between Huck and On the Edge, a non-profit group of storytellers and scientists who use the arts to help reconnect people with nature. In each film, musicians, poets and spoken word artists perform a piece outdoors, exploring their own connection to nature, with sound artist Rob Taliesin Owen creating a simple beat from found natural sounds for the artists to lay their lyrics over.

“The first thing that struck me about this location was just an immense quiet,” Amani says. “You feel like an outsider intruding on the space. At first glance, it looks like a wash of green but, especially as a writer, I try to observe and look at things for what they are. Focussing more closely on the details, I’m always struck by the beauty you can find. Here it’s like all these little vignettes: the clearness of the chalk stream water, the smoke-like effect when I dropped the pebble in there, all of this different foliage coming out, dying and turning into something new. It’s like a sensory overload in a way.”

Based in London and raised in New Jersey, Amani’s roots span around the globe, across south Asia, particularly India, and also Iraq. Her powerful writing explores growing up between sometimes contradictory cultures, “always feeling like a constant other, being perceived as both a foreigner and a westerner, a Muslim who is ‘not Muslim enough.’”

With her ability to effortlessly blend the personal and the political in performance, Amani was an obvious choice for Odes to Nature. But unlike other participants in the project, such as folk musician Sam Lee, whose work is heavily inspired by nature, Amani is a self-described “city girl.” Living, writing and performing mostly within the urban jungle of London, Amani felt like she had long lost her connection to nature – becoming alienated with it, even.

“I mean, the first thought was panic, given my fraught history with all things natural and green,” Amani reflects. “My process is that I put pen to paper, see what comes out and take it from there. You write the crap out of it: essentially a free-write, trying to find out what nature means, what it means to me. I was searching for some kind of connection. But the more I kept writing, the more this relationship with water and memories of family came out.”

“I often feel quite guilty that I don't have that feeling and I feel like I should... In my family there are some generations which are really connected to the earth. Like my Nanijan, my grandma, she's got this incredible back garden where she grows her own vegetables and has a rose garden.”

Amani Saeed

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, on the edge of town, nature was always within easy reach. Farmland was just a short walk away and Amani enjoyed camping adventures with the Girl Scouts as a child. But back then, Amani took it for granted and always longed for London, for the family she would visit there each summer and its literary culture, which she’s immersed in today. The fondest memories she has of that time are the (much underrated) Jersey Shore and learning to swim with family. “The water reminds me that I’m alive, I’m breathing,” Amani writes in her piece. “Like a mother, her liquid fingers cradle me.”

But now that all feels a long way away, both in time and geography, and the first lines of Amani’s piece reflect that distance: “I don’t know much about trees. I can’t tell you which way is North, how to forage for mushrooms, don’t have the guts to sleep under the stars. I’m afraid of the darkness of the woods, the quiet they keep.”

Some people take nature and the outdoors for granted and can easily see a place for themselves within it. But the outdoors, and particularly environmentalism, can be a very white, male, macho and middle class space: all a bit too Bear Grylls and expensive equipment. Without someone to welcome you into that world, it can all seem distant – daunting, even. For Amani, there’s a sense of remorse for losing that connection to nature, which others in her family have held onto more deeply.

“I often feel quite guilty that I don't have that feeling and I feel like I should,” Amani reflects. “In my family there are some generations which are really connected to the earth. Like my Nanijan, my grandma, she's got this incredible back garden where she grows her own vegetables and has a rose garden. She even buried some of my childhood hair there because that's a family tradition from Islam: it's an act of giving back to the earth.”

Standing on the edge of the chalk stream pond, with the beat of natural sounds coming through her headphones, Amani begins to deliver her performance. As the verses radiate throughout the clearing and across the pond, her words pull together those disparate connections again. She appears rooted to the earth once more – as are all who listen to her captivating performance.

Find out more about how On the Edge are using art and storytelling to help us reconnect with nature.

The Odes to Nature series also features spoken word artist Suli Breaks and continues with folk musician Sam Lee, so stay locked to Huckmag.com

Follow Amani Saeed on Twitter.

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