Walking Conversations in Sheffield and Robin Hood’s Bay – Maxwell Ayamba and Maggie O’Neill

rocks and seaweed cover a beach
rocks and seaweed cover a beach with cliffs in the distance

On Thursday 27th May, Maxwell Ayamba (Sheffield Environment Movement, Associate Partner, Walking Publics / Walking Arts) and Maggie O’Neill (UCC and Walking Publics / Walking Arts) met to go for a walk at 11am. We walked in two different places and landscapes for an hour and a half using Whatsapp video to connect with and enable a sense of being in place with each other. At certain points in our conversation, we stopped to take photographs and share our screens, getting a glimpse into the landscape and the sensory aspects of our respective experiences. Capturing the synchronicity of walking under or near trees and hearing birdsong in stereo was captivating. 

Our conversation is documented below in linear form but hopefully the layered, sensory and sheer joy of being outside, walking in the natural world is also captured in this blog in both the text, images, video and sound recordings.

Maxwell video recorded a short piece before we met and so we start with this.

Maxwell started his walk along the Gleadless Valley trail next to the Gleadless Valley Allotments and towards the Mos Valley.

Maggie met Maxwell virtually whilst in her house, putting on her boots and together we walked and talked sharing our diverse landscapes. And whilst Maggie walked downhill along the main road, towards the path to the rocky foreshore in RHB; Maxwell walked along a leafy trail behind a housing estate and near Gleadless Valley allotments in a brilliant sunshine in Sheffield.

Part way down the path to the shore and under a canopy of trees we stopped to hear the synchronous birdsong in both places.

a path covered by trees

a path covered by trees with more space

At almost the same time that Maxwell was sharing the image of a patch of land that had been mined and talking about the harms to the earth, Maggie was by the cliffs, looking at the rock falls and cliff erosion that was impacting heavily upon the coastal environment and the people who were living near the cliff edge.

a tree covered cliff with rocky areas leading down to rocks and stones

This led to us talking about the rights of the Earth and the Earth Charter and how people living through times of the Anthropocene can facilitate a cultural shift to thinking about the rights of the Earth; especially when many peoples of the Earth feel that they do not yet have the full human ecological rights.

One response by the University sector is to embed the sustainability development goals in all modules and programmes, and Maggie’s Dept and University at UCC is doing just this, to facilitate a shift in thinking and cultural change. Maxwell asks: “How do we get people to understand how connected or biocentric we are with nature?” and to speak beyond the ‘converted’ the ‘echo chambers’ and with the wider community about these interconnections; as well as the health and well-being benefits of a healthy planet.

Maxwell talked about his experience in Ghana where nature is revered and honoured whilst the dominant paradigm in the west has been the commodification of nature – nature as a thing and how this commodification of nature is the reason for climate and environmental crisis facing humanity.

At this point we shared photographs, Maggie was standing deep in seaweed, in a dip in the seabed, the tide fully out and Maxwell was under a beautiful canopy of trees, the contrasting shades of green glistening in the sunshine.

Maxwell notes how the Earth Charter has to go hand in hand with environmental justice and his charity advocates this.  But also, environmental justice is a way of ensuring environmental stewardship and active citizenship as people of colour and minorities have been marginalised in the whole environmental discourse. Maxwell passed some people walking a group of dogs, they looked like lurchers or Irish wolfhound puppies. Maggie waved hello to them.

dog walkers in the distance on a path lined with trees

Walking carefully over the seaweed and rocks Maggie walked further out along the seabed.

rocks and seaweed on a beach with cliffs in the distance

We spoke about walking under Covid conditions, the first lockdown meant that people stayed local and tried to walk a lot. Maxwell said the lockdown really impacted on the health and well-being of their walking group (Walk4 Health, formerly the “100 Black Men Walk for Health Group” which inspired production of the national play, “Black Men Walking” by Eclipse and Royal Theatre Production in 2018/19).  The group lost the companionship, comradeship and exercise, as they could not walk as a group. Many members did not have any walks and now restrictions are eased they will start walking again.

“Covid really impacted on my best hobby, walking and I am glad I came through and am still standing. Some of the group’s members will have experienced loneliness and isolation and as practitioners we have to take into account when working with black communities. And how it impacts on humanity as a whole and how the lockdowns impact on us”.  Maxwell

Maxwell spoke about the importance of walking, having exposure to the Sun for Vitamin D as necessary for the body’s immune system and which is also one of the reasons why walking in the outdoors is so vital. We also talked about the very idea of ‘Paths for All,’ who can walk, especially in lockdown conditions and also where can people walk? 

Maxwell talked about the reality for Black bodies in white spaces, and because of visibility, most minority groups don’t feel safe in public spaces, especially in lockdown conditions.  The rise in localism during the pandemic is evident in some people and communities, self-policing their environments, as they don’t want those deemed outsiders having an impact on virus transmission. We agreed that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a good framework to use to raise awareness about race as a social construct, and the many ways it has been used to oppress and subjugate people of colour and therefore their role in environmental issues and access to green spaces and countryside. Sharing stories of being stopped by the police, for Maggie on a single-track country road, in North Yorkshire, with two friends during the first lockdown and for Maxwell with his walking group an encounter with the police at a car park in the Peak District in 2004.

We started the return route to our respective offices, back to the computer screens. Maxwell took Maggie to where the local allotments were on his walk back to the office.

Our discussion ended by talking about how important it is to work with young people, as the future custodians of the natural world; the importance of hearing young people’s voices on these issues, and how walking is also great way of facilitating this, to start reframing narratives. Maggie shared the example of taking a group of postgraduates to the Dingle peninsular, with her colleagues Ger Mullally and Arpad Szakolczai, to open up walking conversations with the Dingle Creativity and Innovation Hub, about walking as way of doing research, and to start conversations with geologists, historians, archaeologists and environmentalists.

a path shouldered by vegetation and cliffs

We said our goodbyes by connecting with the sunshine, the birdsong, the warmth of the day and  by returning to our earlier conversation about the way that everything is interconnected; and it seems such a huge task to address the intersectionality of racial, social and gender based inequalities as well as prioritising the rights of the Earth and Earth justice, but that ultimately we need to keep on working with communities as Maxwell and SEM are doing  and support young people to take forward this work, as they are the future.

You can find out more about a talk Maxwell Ayamba gave as part of the event Other Voices in Garden History – Contested Landscapes. Maxwell is on Twitter.

This walk was inspired by Karen Lawson’s Dialogue Walks – Karen is  Collaborative Learning Lead at the Scottish Government and Producer of the Fire Starter Festival.