Durre Shahwar is a writer and PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. She is the co-editor of Gathering, an essay anthology on nature by women of colour (forthcoming 2024 with 404 Ink). Her work has appeared in Wasafiri, Poetry Wales, Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class (Dead Ink Books), Welsh (Plural) (Repeater Books).
Durre is a Future Wales Fellow, undertaking a year of research to look at the impact of climate change on everyday life through art. Durre is working on her first book about language, belonging, and identity as a Pakistani-Welsh person, a sample of which was shortlisted and highly commended for the Morley Lit Prize 2022.
In March 2022 Durre was invited to join the Narrating Rural Change Network and she wrote the following creative work in response.
Writing About Human Entanglement With the Land
“Whose language matters in producing rural sociological knowledge?”
I know too little about the rural lives of my grandparents and even my parents before they moved to the city. What I know are snippets. They kept baghs (beautiful, luscious gardens) by their home in Kashmir that sound like something out of a fairy tale. Snow would fall for days in this area and fires would be lit continuously to keep warm. They would store butter, milk, and ghee – rich foods for a poor person, as my mother calls them. I sense an undertone of hardship as she recalls these memories, some of which are hers and some that have been passed down to her, that are now being trickled down to me in a non-linear order. I try to steer her with questions, but each memory instigates a new one, and is spoken with an urgency, as though she too is remembering these things for the first time, after a long time. I’m hungry to know more and selfish in my pursuit of it because there are few other ways for me to gather these stories. My grandparents no doubt withstood and sacrificed a lot for this land that they owned, that had to be left behind during the Partition. But there is a matter-of-fact way to how my mum tells me these stories. It is the way things were back then, she says. Words that I am sure many of us have heard from grandparents and older relatives born in a different time to us.
Many stories of the rural are marked with this same sense of nostalgia, a longing for what was, but to an extent, an acceptance for how things are now. Looking to the future seems to be a way of looking backwards, like a constant pendulum. This idea comes up in many of the presentations and talks on rural change that I attend. A ‘hiraeth’ for a past in which agricultural communities would come together and collectively work towards a meaningful goal. And even though this idea is expressed in relation to Welsh rural and agricultural communities, through a word that is unique to the Welsh language, it is the same sentiment that my mum expresses when she tells me about her childhood and the ways in which families and communities rebuilt themselves through farming. I am an outsider invited into these conversation and talks, which include a group of people working across multiple disciplines to consider the human dimensions of climate crisis in agricultural communities in Wales. I feel a lack in this space. Lack of theoretical and practical knowledge about farming and land use and the terminology associated with it, as well as a lack of stories about my family’s own history in this area. But not knowing, and the acknowledgement of it, is an opening. An invitation.
Despite writing and taking part in various projects around nature and the climate, words such as ‘Anthropocene’, ‘geo-gardening’, ‘rewilding’, still catch me out. Words that are often sprinkled in conversation in academic communities. One phrase that I find myself drawn to in particular is, ‘human entanglement with the land’. The Cambridge Dictionary describes ‘entanglement’ as: “a situation or relationship that you are involved in and that is difficult to escape from”. And in more sinister terms: “a fence made of wire with sharp points on it, intended to make it difficult for enemy soldiers to go across an area of land” . It seems to have negative connotations, because one would assume that the aim after being tangled or entangled in something, is to detangle and free yourself from it. Yet in eco-criticism, as I learn later, the term ‘entanglement’ is used to describe the complexity of the human relationship with the land and extends to include all life on Earth as being part of this network of different connections. In fact, it seeks to emphasise the extent to which humans and the land are interconnected, rather than divided from each another. Which seems important, given that the latter is a misconception that underlies our everyday language when we frame the countryside as a twee, tranquil place to ‘get away’ from city life, further feeding into the idea of a divide between human and nature. This framing is also often the cause of much agricultural frustration, if people ‘getting away’ to the countryside don’t respect the land and local practices.
The word ‘entanglement’ also reminds of the trickiness of navigating disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and academic language; words can have different meaning and associations according to who is using them, in what context they are said, and what their experience or assumption of the word is. I feel disarmed at being corrected about the connotations of the word ‘entanglement’ and at the same time, excited about a ‘new’ addition to my growing vocabulary of words relating to the land and climate change. For a while now, I have slowly been collecting words such as ‘solastalgia’ (distress caused by environmental change) and ‘eco-anxiety’ that help me make sense of my feelings around climate change. Yet not everyone has access to these words or are invited into a space where they can be part of a conversation about our entanglement with the land, and be surrounded by words and phrases. It brings me to question the language we use to narrate the rural itself, who has access to this language and terminology? Who is being taught about it? Who is in the room for it – who is invited? Who is left out?
As a writer, I have frequently wondered about the importance of creativity is in this narrative, and whether it adds anything to it or whether it is simply window dressing to a larger issue. It seems pretentious to assume that we can heal the earth by simply writing stories and poems and reading them, versus taking more direct, practical action. But I do believe that creativity and storytelling, when done well, can allow us to comprehend, speak, and process the emotions that spur us into action. Words by themselves are sometimes not enough as they are open to misinterpretation, as we already know. Yet stories can fill the gaps between those words. Much of the narrative and language around climate change is relayed through statistics, reports, forecasts, as well as terminology and jargon that many of us may or may not understand. Can stories be used to communicate research, engage audiences, instigate conversation, and provide insight in ways that pure scientific evidence and data sometimes can’t? I feel the evidence of this as I find myself listening and empathising when I hear people talk about rural change in Wales through conversations over cups of teas. The farmers’ stories aren’t just about the generations of family that have preceded them on a particular farmland, but also the stories that each field, hill, or stone, has to tell. This way of orally narrating allows us to speak to each other despite not everyone being ‘local’, or have had parents or grandparents who lived and worked on Welsh farmland, or perhaps had different practices, such as the Bangladeshi farmers who turn to a 200-year-old farming technique to adapt to rising sea levels the threat to crops. Similarly, my mum’s memories of helping my grandad on farmland as a little girl is also a form of oral storytelling that she has passed down to me so that stories like my grandparents’ do not get lost, while also reminding me that this human entanglement with the land has existed long before me. While this was in Pakistan, I can hear echoes of its sentiments in the stories told in the room that day by farmers in Wales[KB1] [DM2] and later, in writing workshops where I invite people to share stories on climate, nature, and the environment. I again find myself sympathising as the participants tell us about the starlings that took longer than usual to come back last year, the changes in the hedges, the salty coastlines walked along, the trees that childhoods were spent under.
In the face of the magnitude of climate change and rural anxieties surrounding it, eco-writing and storytelling can be creative ways to increase environmental literacy on a micro and global level. It can equip us with language and make us aware of our localities and the changes in eco-cultures around us to hopefully empower us to take much-needed action. And while many of us may have an inherited attachment to the land, be it immediate, generational, or the past, it seems important to bring more people, and more communities from all backgrounds into this conversation, so that we are equipped with the same knowledge and can come together and learn from each other in our fight for the climate. We all have a duty to take care of Earth, as it takes cares of us. As I cling so strongly onto my family’s history and preservation of it, I find myself thinking of an excerpt by Amba Sepie in the essay “Settled Kin: Coming home to where we now belong” from Volume 5 in a collection of books called Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (2021) edited by Gavin Van Horn, Robin Kimmerer and John Hausdoerffer:
“It is quite irrelevant to Earth whether I, or my ancestors, were born on the precise stretch of limb that I presently occupy, for her whole body remembers me. We are the children in this story, her offspring – and she will embrace us wherever we land, irrespective of the delusions we might hold about the importance of identity.”
This quote brings me a lot of comfort particularly as I find my trips to the hills and forests and mountains ‘out there’ limited and I begin wondering when I will reconnect with them again, forgetting that I, we, live on this Earth, occupy it, and are inevitably entangled with it.