Although in theory the beauty of the British countryside should be available for all to enjoy, such spaces are popularly imagined as ‘white’ environments. Rural areas represent for some the last bastions of Old England, an imagined ‘golden’ age (where everything was right, and white). As part of the current discussion around identity, Britishness, and belonging, I wanted to explore some of the issues involved in the disconnection between people of colour and Nature.

“The countryside is popularly perceived as a white landscape predominantly inhabited by white people, hiding both the growing living presence and the increasing recreational participation of people of colour,” wrote Julian Agyeman and Rachel Spooner in the book Contested Countryside Culture: Otherness, Marginalisation and Rurality. When I read their words as a sociology student in the early 2000s, they struck a chord – here was my lived experience, something known yet not fully understood. The trope that black, Asian and minority ethnic people only inhabit urban spaces is strong, rooted in factors such as economic constraints, stereotypes, racism and exclusion. A small body of literature has explored this issue, but it has been little discussed outside academia.

The idea that black equals urban, for instance, is a relatively new form of blackness as viewed through a white lens. A child of dual heritage growing up in 1970s Britain, I was assumed by white people to have come from Africa. Later, such assumptions began to include urban parts of the UK where black and Asian communities were firmly established. The idea that a black person could come ‘from’ rural Britain was impossible – presumably only white-skinned people could spring forth from such green and pleasant land. And we see this on TV, in adverts, in the arts – black and brown people portrayed as urban beings. While it’s true that the majority of people of colour in the UK live in urban spaces, we don’t do so exclusively. There is more than one way to be black or Asian; like anyone else we have multiple, intersecting identities.

In the post-war immigration era, people migrated to the UK from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia for economic reasons. I spoke to Satish Kumar, editor emeritus of Resurgence & Ecologist, who settled in the UK in the 1970s. These people, he said, “focused on cities, work, factories, living upstairs with a shop downstairs. They didn’t have the opportunity to engage with Nature. They were under economic pressure, working 24/7. It’s not about less love for Nature, but that economic circumstances didn’t allow this engagement.” I can’t help wondering if there was also an element, for immigrants like my Ghanaian father on arrival to the mother country, of wanting to present an urbanised, anglicised, modern version of themselves, and to leave any association with rurality (and poverty) behind. And stories of being forced to work the land were still within living memory.

In spite of the inevitable pull of cities, people with African and Asian heritage have gravitated towards the countryside. Our experience in rural spaces has been difficult. The 1992 report ‘Keep them in Birmingham’: Challenging Racism in South-West England found “a disturbing picture of racial prejudice and discrimination towards ethnic minority residents”. Various reports have shown that people of colour in the South West experienced intolerance ranging from subtle racism to verbal abuse and physical violence. In 2004 Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, described a “rural apartheid”, which kept black and Asian people out of the countryside. In 2001, Jay Rayner’s ‘race map’ showed that people in rural areas were more likely to experience racial attack than those in inner-city areas. And since the Brexit referendum in 2016, hate crime in Britain has increased, with rural areas being more affected. It is understandable why many ethnic minority people don’t want to go to the countryside: it doesn’t sound safe.

Not only do people of colour feel excluded from rural areas (or are mistreated in them), but also we are not represented in the stories being told about land and Nature. The conversation around racism in Nature writing was propelled forward recently by Richard Smyth’s article ‘The Dark Side of Nature Writing’. Smyth points to a long connection between Nature writing and right-wing ideology: for example, children’s book Tarka the Otter was voted this year the nation’s second-favourite Nature book, in spite of the fact that the author was a known Nazi. Key tropes of a post-war, ‘back-to-the-land’ movement persist, argues Smyth, in today’s Nature writing scene, which is “haunted by the ghosts of fascism”. Smyth points to a juxtaposition of the alt-right and climate change on social media, which creates a vision of “a green England concreted over to build homes for immigrants, and of an English ‘race’ under existential threat from non-whites”.

Anything that stokes the flames of nationalism in our current political climate is problematic. Talking about green spaces becomes dangerous if framed in a way that links Nature with an ‘old world’, and immigrants with a new, destructive world order. The idea of purity is anyway troubling, whether related to a raw, untouched natural environment, or a ‘pure’ race of people. In an article published in The Quietus, writer Gary Budden wrote: “There is no untouched nature in Britain. Everything and everyone is hybrid … no-one and everyone belongs … now is the time to fully interrogate whatever ideas we have about ‘the land’ and who and what belongs there.”

Critics and academics have talked for a while about the need for diversity in Nature writing, and in response to this The Willowherb Review was recently set up by Jessica J. Lee to provide a platform to “celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour”. Lee, a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author and environmental historian, told me: “I didn’t grow up with a Nature-loving family. I had to edge myself into it, with a lot of fear.” Her first book, Turning, traces the growth of her passion for lake swimming following a lifetime of terror of lakes.

As well as an absence of voices of people of colour in Nature writing, there is a lack of involvement in environmentalist movements. Writer Elisabeth Jeffries explored this “white enclave” in a Guardian article in 2005. “BME [British black and minority ethnic] groups”, she wrote, “perceive green organisations as being concerned with the natural environment agenda, while they themselves have been more preoccupied with urban deprivation issues, since most of the BME population lives in towns.” She describes the situation as an “urban/black–rural/white split”, which could be addressed by the BME population and green leaders building partnerships.

Increasingly, work is being carried out to support these communities’ engagement with Nature. For example, the Black Environment Network works with deprived ethnic groups, supporting them to access “the vast resources available in the environmental sector”. Birdwatcher and environmentalist 16-year-old Mya-Rose Craig (also known as birdgirl) set up Bristol-based youth organisation Black2Nature, which aims to encourage inner-city minority groups to visit the countryside. She told me: “As a person of colour naturalist, I had been out in Nature all my life but noticed I almost never saw any other people of colour, outside of my family. I started running Nature weekends and invited teenagers of colour from inner-city Bristol. I realised that the stereotypes were false: they easily engaged with Nature, but not necessarily in the traditional white middle-class way.”

An online group called People of Colour in Nature was founded by Karen Larbi in 2017 to provide a space where people can share experiences and photos of being in Nature and discuss the exclusion of people of colour from conversations around land, sustainability and climate change. The seed was sown after Larbi attended a residential in Devon in 2016. “I arrived as a burnt-out mental health campaigner who rarely left London and was afraid of interacting with Nature, and left with a deepened awareness of how vital Nature is for our mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing.” She is inspired by African spirituality, which relates to the environment as it often “centres a deep reverence and respect for Nature”.

And new stories are being told in the arts. This year a play by rapper Testament, Black Men Walking, combined the story of a black men’s walking group in Sheffield and 500 years of black British history. Bridget Minamore wrote about the play: “Maybe there is something about finding yourself in the peaks, or finding the people who have come before you – the black and non-black people who built the country you continually try to claim as also being yours. Walking is a reclamation. Of moving slowly enough to say this is a land you can take your time with; these peaks are safe, I won’t need to run.”

Satish Kumar said: “Nature is not just for reading about. Many faiths have their roots in Nature. People need to be reminded of their roots, go out, celebrate the divine and the sacred in Nature.” If more people from minority backgrounds are able to spend time in the countryside – if it becomes a safe, inclusive space – this will be beneficial for individuals’ physical and mental health. At a societal level, increased diversity in rural spaces will connect communities, help us to dismantle the myth (and post-colonial hangover) of old, white England, and promote an understanding that the countryside is for everyone.

Louisa Adjoa Parker is a writer with a particular focus on black, Asian and minority ethnic history. Her collection of poems Blinking in the Light is published by Cinnamon Press.