Over the last four years, a segment of my research has focused on the intersection of land, temporality, justice, particularly with respect to Black communities in the UK and Jamaica. So far, I have produced essays which consider what it might look like to include marginalised positions in a shared conversation about the natural world, even while looking at the body as a medium through which to understand Black relationships to nature in the context of colonialism and its frameworks. One such essay, ‘Reclaiming Time: On Blackness and Landscape’ has garnered international attention and led to various art collaborations around the world, including the current exhibition ‘Natural World’ at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which features my work alongside that of curator Nathaniel Stein and photographers David Hartt and John Edmonds. From these explorations has emerged a creative nonfiction book entitled Scanning the Bush, which is now under contract with Hutchinson Heinemann. This is a project that surfaces the interconnected histories of land and temporality, and the stories that are generated around them. The book deepens understandings of the entangled UK-Jamaican histories around land, farming, and relationships to the natural world through a methodology grounded in storytelling. In a word, this book builds on the usual methodologies I work with as a Senior Lecturer in Critical Theory and Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, those of critical storytelling, or the intertwining of storytelling with critical theory. Against the background of my Jamaican heritage, I leverage my skills as a writer and poet to tell stories about generational relationships with land in that country, even as I use my position as an immigrant academic in Britain to provide insights into the enduring colonial frameworks that help to shape such stories. The ultimate aim is a shift in perspectives on human relationships to the living world.
It is from this perspective—beaconing marginalized positions with respect to land and nature from my intertwined subjectivities as storyteller/poet and academic—that I come to this project. The funding gained from the BA will help me deepen the research for the book by focusing on the particular temporal idea of cultivation. The word ‘cultivate’ circles around ideas of tilling, raising or growing, and caring for. As the art historian Nathaniel Stein notes, these meanings apply to developments one might nurture in society as well as those one might generate in the soil. To cultivate is to improve by care, to care something into existence. In the three years of research offered by the collaborative grant, I will address the challenge of a just ecological transition by exploring how these ideas and practices of ‘cultivation’ might foster an awareness of deep time in mainstream political consciousness, while expanding public and policy-oriented discussions around land access for the practising of inter-species kinship and independent food growing.
To do this, I undertake an auto-ethnography that develops the question of cultivation by exploring my own connections with nature in Britain. Coming from a background in which I’ve experienced kinship with nature through cultivation practices (tilling and living with the land, hands in the soil, food independence, time spent in nature, etc.), I investigate what it means in Britain for a Black man of Caribbean heritage to be alienated from such kinship through class, the politics of the built environment, of agriculture and of land. I document the process of this research that puts into practice various processes of cultivation in more or less challenging spatial contexts—the balcony of a flat, an allotment, an urban garden whose topsoil has been depleted. In carrying out the lived, embodied actions of reconnecting with the time of planting and tending, the auto-ethnographic research will expand conversations about the value of the scales and rhythms of time associated with processes of cultivation and open dialogues with policy makers about how these processes might expand our ideas of, and foster attitudes towards, a just ecological transition. Time is a nucleus around which ideas of social justice, access to nature, being taken off land in colonialism, cluster, and, as such, I will also explore what insights this auto-ethnography generates with regard to time and temporality and their relationship with a just ecological transition. The results of this auto-ethnography will be woven into the book in progress.
In the context of this research, I will explore collaborations with grassroots advocacy groups such as Black to Nature, the Ernest Cook Trust, and the Huddersfield Black Walking Group, as building a relationship with them will create a channel for advocacy through poetry and creative writing.
I will use the research support from the BA grant to develop and push forward this work in the following ways:
- Field visits to Jamaica to explore stories of relationship with the natural world, and how questions of temporality and justice intersect with these. Sites of independent, localized farming in my country of origin reveal how growing, cultivating, and handling in even more intimate, co-dependent, and enduring ways are necessary for evolving a strong sense of kinship with the living world. These field trips will allow me to conduct interviews with farmers and herbalists, and carry out observations of small-scale independent farming, thereby deepening the understandings offered by my book.
- allowing for teaching buy-out to devote time to the auto-ethnographic work – studying and documenting my relationship with the land of the UK as a Jamaican man, and the process of cultivating kinship with another land through allotment growing.
- Collaborations with a Black hillwalking group in Huddersfield and arts groups – exploring stories of land and kinship in the UK amongst black walkers and artists/readers/writers.
- Visiting, observing, and making personal records of the work of the Kenyan Peasant League, whose work offers a temple for handling the challenges of growing enough food, fighting gender-based land grabbing, access to seeds, and avoiding debt spirals.
Allen-Paisant, Jason. ‘Reclaiming Time: On Blackness and Landscape’. PN Review 257, vol. 47, no. 3 (2021): 31-34.
Stein, Nathaniel. ‘Nature and History out of Order’. Allen-Paisant, Jason et al, The Natural World. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same title, organised and presented by the Cincinnati Art Museum, September 30, 2022—January 15, 2023. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 2022.