"Putting into words what we have witnessed makes it more bearable...for language can bear more than us. To communicate what we have witnessed becomes a mutual bearing." In 2019, freelance journalist and writer Sethi was on a train from Liverpool to Newcastle when she became the victim of a hideous race-hate crime. After bravely reporting what had happened to the police, she experiences panic attacks and a crushing sense of claustrophobia, which makes her long for wide open spaces, just as she did as a child growing up in inner-city Manchester. So she laces up her walking boots and takes to the Pennine hills, determined to reclaim the landscapes of her native land in defiance of the racist who had told her to "get back on the banana boat", and intent on travelling alone, freely and without fear.
As a result of writing the book, Sethi is launching an I Belong Here foundation to promote equality in writing about nature and the great outdoors. While in no way suggesting that all is magically healed, I find it so moving that such an initiative, and such a beautifully written, hate-defying book, have been born from such a horrific experience. I Belong Here is a shining example of how books, at their best, can be an act of resistance, and a communal force for good.
Amid these reflections, observations and calls to action, the author basks in the quiet and solitude of the natural world, finding much-needed space away from the noise of the urban environment and the chatter inside her head. As Sethi makes her way across mountains, rivers and rugged limestone hills, her stamina grows, her resolve hardens and her confidence builds. Nature does not cure her anxiety, but she learns how it can bring relief and a sense of perspective that can be lost amid life’s day-to-day clamour. “Walking through such wild, ancient landscape brings a strong awareness of how we are all temporary guests on this earth,” she observes. “We will take nothing of it with us.”
For anyone who has ever felt out of place, I Belong Here is a moving and comforting read. For everyone else, it is an education. And while punchier and more political than most nature writing, this book is a thing of beauty. The imagery is vivid enough to make you feel pulled to the Pennines as Sethi was — if not for the spectacular scenery, then for the introspection that comes along the way. If you make it to the end without booking a trip there, you might be in the minority.