Caught by the River

Memories Live in the Forest

9th June 2021

An essay by Zakiya McKenzie, extracted from the anthology ‘Women on Nature’, recently published by Unbound.

Nov 5, 2019

My mother died before I knew myself as British. When my only recollections were still those of Jamaica, my tangible ties (in my mind) to the country of my birth were the friends and family who flew to the island to stay at my home in Kingston. England was the richly lilted Guyanese accent of Auntie Greer against that of her London-born daughters – phrases, call and responses that my sister and I still evoke to this day. England was Uncle Liam (thick Yorkshire twang) asking for ‘a cuppa tae’, sitting with the sun, sweating and sipping from a steaming mug. My England was my unreasonable obsession with the Spice Girls, Emma in particular, learning all her part and dressing like her, thanks to platform shoes, baby-doll dresses, ‘matey bags’ given to me by Michelle, my older cousin in Port Antonio, who is always ahead of the style curve. Removed from the place itself, this is how my England was constructed. England was little Nile declaring, ‘Oim noh foive, Oim foive an’a hawf ’, as he climbed the outside grille with ease and ran barefoot among Julie mango, East Indian mango and a special pongonut tree. No matter who came, we would always go to the countryside because that is where my mother’s family, my family, live.

I didn’t know it, but my mother’s England was much richer. She left rural Jamaica, Swift River, to a strange country in the pit of winter. She came to know more about South London than she did about the island of her birth. It was Tulse Hill, Brixton, working at Sabbar Bookshop. She was lovers rock, and rocksteady, rocking crested at Twelve Tribes reggae sessions.This time, more South London than Global South. I feel such a sense of longing when I am in these places now, wanting her to show me the landscape, the places that still remained. I am wanting that part of my mother that I do not know and never cared for until I myself became an adult and mother and know how much of me there is that my child will not see with children’s eyes.

And what is my England now? Places where I am sure she never saw, yet still stood in her time. Leigh Woods is the kind of place to get lost in and think of these things.The slow rustling of bush and birds above bring me ease, fresh inhale. There is so much that is special to see here. Come see Bristol whitebeam trees – Sorbus bristoliensis – it only grows wild here in the Avon Gorge, in my Leigh Woods. These glorious trees take precedence here. In fact, it’s the best place in the world to see a variety of whitebeam, trees that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else altogether like this.They are old and I like old, because old means it stood when my mother stood and so I hold on to it for it holds the memory. Another namesake, Bristol rock cress – the furthest back in time you’ll find this plant is here in the Gorge. The peregrine falcon nests around the jagged ridge. And cliff hooks, apparatus show that climbers brave the precipice for another kind of thrill. The strawberry tree, strong and sprouting high over the old quarry, a wonder for a tree hunter to find.There is a treacherous trail to see this beauty but it is certainly rewarding. With careful shuffling. When I do see it, it is shedding its ‘skin’ to expose a smooth brown underneath. Yet the ‘skin’ crunches away, and I feel the crispy outer layer fall off. It is gone from the living tree, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Still, the steadfast trunk holds the branches reaching out to me. It sheds skin and drops to dirt, but the tree still stands.

I feel tied to the old dirt. I am tethered to the movement of living things here, for I walk with them and think how close my mother was many decades ago, when this same place was under the sky. This wood holds a surety for me. It was here to witness lives untold and still holds the memory.


‘Women on Nature’, edited by Katharine Norbury, is out now and available here. Read Katherine Venn’s review of the book here.

Zakiya McKenzie’s ‘Testimonies on the History of Jamaica Volume 1’ is published by Rough Trade Books.