Ritual of Escape
For Toronto-based writer Tendisai Cromwell, walking in nature is an act of care and a quiet resistance to the effects of racial trauma.
llustrations—Niti Marcelle Mueth
On July 13, 2013, a year-old wound reopened.
I had just heard news that the infamous George Zimmerman had been acquitted of the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager, a mere child one year shy of adulthood.
I should have been grieving. Instead, on this summer day near Toronto, cloudless or nearly cloudless, bright and perfectly warm, I found myself feeling very little at all as I followed a path leading to a stream obscured by dense trees. I stepped cautiously through an opening in the foliage and crouched beneath low-hanging branches.
And as I walked across a rocky area to my choice spot, pleasure set in. I delighted in the leaves grazing my face, a foreign yet welcomed sensation. I observed silence. I took in the symphony of chirping birds, rustling leaves, and flowing water.
But this was no ordinary nature experience. I had been pulled here by a yearning to escape my own body.
Martin, too, had been on a walk during his final moments, returning to his father’s fiancée’s home after picking up candy from a store. Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watchman, became suspicious of his presence, confronted him, and fatally shot him. In Trayvon’s face, I see a stranger who is nevertheless familiar to me. And in his death, I see my brother’s, I see my own.
I did not yet know it, but this call to nature would be the beginning of a ritual — a ritual of escape from the horrors and repeated images of anti-Black violence.
The backdrop of brutality
The impulse to retreat must have begun as a child with my earlier encounters with Canadian whiteness. In 1991 my family arrived from Zimbabwe to Ajax, Ontario, then an almost entirely white suburb east of Toronto, where I was greeted with cruelty and taunted for my facial features, my accented English, and my hair, apparently the texture of feces, I was once told. At a summer camp, a girl who befriended me repeatedly referred to Black people as the N-word as if she was not aware there was any other way to refer to my community. There was no easy way for a child to navigate this, and so I retreated within myself.
This is the kind of racial hatred that has the potential to make white children become adults who would consider violence against Black folks; the kind of violence four police officers inflicted upon Rodney King in Los Angeles in the year of my arrival to Canada. His face was left beaten beyond recognition. In May 1992, as I navigated my second year in this country, Toronto police shot and killed a young Black man named Raymond Lawrence. His death further ignited a fierce protest already under way in support of Rodney King after the officers charged with excessive force had been acquitted earlier that month.
In the years that followed, many more murders would occur. And by 14-years-old, in the transition from childhood to adolescence, when my racial consciousness began to emerge, I felt sorrow over a faraway death that felt—for the first time— connected to my own self. I mourned over Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant to the U.S., who had been fatally shot 41 times by New York City police officers.
I have lived my entire life against the backdrop of police brutality. And not just the police: anti-Black violence, both psychic and physical, is ubiquitous — woven into the very fabric of Black life in North America. It was against this backdrop that my relationship with nature evolved.
I recall, with fondness, the cascading vocal tones of mourning doves cutting through the suburban quietness. Memories of roaming through corn fields before they were converted to subdivisions brings me to a place of quiet joy. Many a night, I gave myself to the hypnotism of waves at the lakeshore, a bike ride away from my home. And watching wildflowers move in and out of my line of sight on the side of a Toronto-bound highway still leaves me with an indescribable feeling first felt in childhood. These sights and soundscapes of my early life imprinted themselves on me. They offered a kind of refuge I would later explore more deeply.
Return to the ravines
In 2020, seven years after Trayvon Martin’s killer had been acquitted, my ritual of taking nature walks for catharsis, long dormant, revived itself. The coronavirus touched down on Canadian shores, and a fierce first wave of infections forced the entire country and indeed much of the world to a standstill. But the killing of Black people did not stop. With nowhere to go but outdoors, the pandemic drew me insistently back to the woods. But it was the murder of George Floyd soon after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the police wellness-check death of Toronto’s Regis Korchinski-Paquet, that prompted me to return as an escape.
In this moment of increased and widely circulated images of Black deaths, a particular emotional exhaustion set in. I retreated to where there is life: in the ravines and wooded areas near my home in and around the Toronto area.
These urban spaces felt entirely like elsewhere, as close to wilderness as one can get in a city. Each time, I felt most enchanted by the lush greenery and the leafy canopies formed by 100-year-old trees, with small animal life scurrying about.
Passing through even the most barren winter or early spring landscape, an immense feeling of tenderness overcame me, an elusive state that seemed to magically arrive only when immersed within. And when I left, I departed not with the heaviness of spirit that I often entered with, but with quietude, joy even.
After far too many deaths, and too many months of needing to observe this ritual, I began to enter Toronto’s ravines with a grief that is familiar to Black folks, and leave without peace. I meandered almost aimlessly through the woods. This time, the feelings were sharper, harder to sideline and ultimately escape from.
On April 20, my husband, my two children, and I huddled around a device to hear the verdict in the case of Derek Chauvin, the ex-police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd. When a rare guilty verdict had been read, Chauvin’s empty, emotionless eyes darted around the room. My young children did not understand the significance of this moment. For their sake, I wanted so desperately to believe in change. And although, at that moment, I did not wish to retreat to nature, I celebrated without joy.
Part of a whole
In many ways, everything still feels like a repeat of the year before. We are in the midst of yet another pandemic-induced lockdown in Ontario; one-year death anniversaries have passed, including George Floyd’s, and already more people have died at the hands of police. My own childhood, even, is on repeat through my daughters’ lives. My eldest is now the same age I was when I first arrived in Canada. She is growing up against a similar backdrop of anti-Black violence and police brutality that I did as a child. She may come to know the names of the many Black folks now etched in our collective memory.
As summer approaches, typically a time of increased murders, I can already feel the familiar pull to retreat to nature, a longing normally tethered to grief and guilt. The ability to escape from one’s own feelings, rather than actual violence, is a great privilege. And on most days, I feel a tremendous sense of unfulfilled responsibility toward my community, for others, more courageous than I, are on the front lines of the fight against racial injustice. On other days, when I am more gentle with myself, I consider the value of protecting my spirit.
In these moments, I’m reminded of the words of activist Angela Davis, who said, “Anyone who is interested in making change in the world also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, theirselves.”
My ritual of escape is, in fact, an act of returning to myself. It is an act of care and a quiet resistance to the effects of racial trauma. When I am now called to the woods, I will see beyond the leafy canopy to what lies ahead — a possibility of healing. And not simply my own. I can attempt to heal myself as an individual Black body, but on the body that is the global Black community, I am but a limb, George Floyd another, all of us — in life and in death — parts of a whole.
Sometimes when I gaze at my daughters, in a rare moment of quiet in the day, I reflect on the varied paths a young Black girl’s life can take. With the state of the world such that it is, I fight despair by inviting — instead — joy, resilience, connectedness, and healing. My mind often wanders to faith and then nature. And I think about a lifetime of sublime experiences that await my daughters in our local ravines and beyond. I turn inward, making sometimes daily commitments to combat anti-Blackness in all of the forms that it already takes shape in their young lives. This, all in the hopes that they will inherit, among other things, my love of nature untethered to a ritual of escape.
Tendisai Cromwell is a writer and poet who most often explores faith, nature, and the nuances of identity and belonging. She is currently writing her debut novel. Tendisai is based in Tkaronto/Toronto.