I would like to begin this week’s Editor’s Note with a brief warning about the content in the piece below. While it is not especially graphic, the story is not an easy read. It is beautifully written, soulful and full of images that fill your eyes, nose, and ears with every bit of the natural world. It is sad and longing. It is joyful and triumphant. But it is not easy to read. Please take your time to experience each of the author’s words. They are all important, and we can all learn something from her powerful journey.
Y.V. Marian, as our author calls herself, is an immensely talented writer (just check out some of her other poetry and prose here), and her vivid images bring the reader along with her as she relives cold Maine winters and warm Southern springs. As she takes us through each stage of her life and, consequently, each stage of her trauma, she moves with a thoughtfulness and grace that I found remarkable.
Ms. Marian’s piece uses her shifting relationship with nature as a form of representation for her personal growth and healing after years of trauma. In doing so, she taps into her great love for the Earth, filling the audience with vibrant observations and emotions that only bring us nearer her trauma - and thus nearer her process of healing.
I will admit that I was at first slightly skeptical of an essay proposal that centered on nature, and wondered how it would fit within the body of work we have curated at The Issue so far. As soon as I began reading Ms. Marian’s first draft, I realized just how wrong I had been. Her story, while different than many we’ve seen before, serves to remind us of the first and most important building block of this project:
We all deserve to live our identities to the fullest, to believe in ourselves and our place in this world. No matter where you need to go to remember that - be it a far off mountaintop or your own backyard - I encourage you to take some time today to breathe in, breathe out, and remind yourself that you are meant to be you. You belong. You matter. You are natural.
NATURAL WOMAN - Y.V. Marian
CW: child sexual abuse, mention of suicide, violence
I have many dreamscapes, and she walks in some. She was not my first love, but she was the first woman I loved. I find her when I fall asleep in tangerine orange sun, wistful murmurations of sunbeams opening my memories. It plunges me into April 2016 and Southern spring fragrance: wisps of dogwood, wet grass, bike grease and sunkissed skin. We were cleaning our bicycles under oaks and by magenta azaleas, when she surprised me by taking my hand and pulling me into the front yard, a mottled grassland of anthills, foot stickers and car exhaust.
The lawn glared in comparison to our usual haunts of experimental forest paths and trespassed lake beaches. Unlike her yard, - where her queerness seemed exposed to locals driving by - among these places, we felt safe. Outside, in wilder places, there was never a need to feel on guard with our good company of black crickets, butterflies, gray squirrels, finches, and pine and sweetgum trees. Nature did not have time nor instinct to proffer an opinion.
This time, when we entered the grass, the whole world seemed timeless and placeless, as if carved out for us. She led me to the dogwood in full bloom. She lifted herself up and nestled into the lowest branches. Its branches, I had never noticed, had a perfect opening and layering of limbs to fit two bodies. I followed her into the tree. We were right next to the road, yet the white blossoms completely sheltered us from passersby.
And there, through a window-like branch configuration, we watched the sun set into the curve of blue mountain foothills. The bugs got louder, and the breeze picked up, snuggling us with tree leaves. Our eyes were drowning in that tangerine orange sun, and we took communion with the pink sky. As deep indigo descended from the east, we emerged. I cried softly at the sense of a new knowing of Earth.
I often wake from this reminiscence with a rush of longing and gratitude. The longing is not for her. Our initial resonance shook our bridge into a rubble pile of toxicity. I long for reunion with the sunset sky. And that is where my gratitude enters. The intense period defined by her ushered me into a restored relationship with nature as I learned to accept myself and thus my place of belonging within this world.
In my earliest childhood, I was happiest outside. Nature was my canvas, my teacher, my escape and my friend. Outside the animals talked, if only I sat still long enough to listen. Clouds played out grand dramas for me with their shifting shapes. Even my favorite bible stories involved nature acting as God’s angel: Jonah’s fish and fig tree, Isaiah’s whispering wind, and the starlight of the wise men.
Early childhood trauma eventually ripped that joy away from me. My father had abused my mother and four siblings verbally and emotionally long before I was born. Unfortunately, my memories begin when I was two years old. I remember his narcissism deepening and how his behavior grew insidious. The abuse worsened toward the whole family. He became obsessed with me, and I became his bullseye.
He groomed me, at first with charm through gifts, and then with secret keeping until he held me on a tight emotional tether. Desirous of making me dependent on him, he began controlling my world view. This included my outdoor education. He knew best where and what was safe (indoors, with him), overemphasizing nature’s dangers. He even punished me for straying too far into the front yard. I became terrified of the outside.
Not long before my third birthday in 1996, he began sexually abusing me. To everyone outside him and me, I was just daddy’s little girl. In reality, I had become the prey that cajoled, charmed and lived in prevention of the abuse until it was too late, and then I froze. But nobody was ever there when I froze. His sexual violence continued until I was five and a half. Though still a secret, it stopped when my mother finally had the resources to flee, spiriting us away. I have no doubt we would have left sooner if she had known.
The violence devastated me. My sense of self and world schema shattered. I lived with this hidden history that corrupted how I saw everything - especially myself and my place in the world. I saw myself as totally unworthy of love or unconditional regard. From a young age, I questioned why I was even born. Under the weight of my secret trauma, a misshapen sense of self grew like a poorly set limb.
One of those deformed growths was my relationship with nature. Broadly, I had become someone who could only function when I felt total control over myself and my situation. If I didn’t feel powerful, I withdrew. Moreover, anyone or anything that could hurt me became an adversary. With these deep insecurities and fears further warped by the narrative of nature my father had spun for me, the earth became my adversary for almost 15 years.
The dark scared me, with its stars over the Appalachian mountains sirens of danger. The wails of a wild loon over a wilder Maine lake spiked my heart rate. Rural corridors of long-leaf pines swaying in windstorms bestowed uncertainty. Daddy long-leg shadows on my tent, magnified by firelight, were the harbingers of my imminent death.
In addition to these irrational fears, I scoffed at the larger environmental discourses surrounding me and excluded nature from my political philosophies. I leaned into my ignorance for selfish reasons. Global warming wasn’t real, and if it was, it simply meant I would never relive the terrifying winter nights of my childhood in Maine. Saving the whales was a waste of time, because people had rights to dominion over the land and the seas - because I needed dominion over my immediate surroundings.
My extreme views faded with maturity. Still coping alone through my teens, I tried to knead my trauma into something useful and reclaim my strength on my own. I saw losing my fear of the outdoors as proof that I was more than what my past whispered. I threw myself into spending time outside. Despite my intentions, how I felt in nature didn’t change. My relationship with the environment was still too tightly wound up into my self-loathing and fear of being vulnerable. I was out there, but I wasn’t comfortable; nature was not safe.
When I was 17, I finally started opening up a little bit to friends about my childhood, although never sharing the whole story. Their compassion lifted me, and gave me freedom to start letting my walls down. Going for walks, just to be outside, became normal. I confided in a romantic interest, euphemistically describing some of what happened to me. He was enraged on my behalf, and it gave me hope. I planned day hikes as social events. In school, I learned about biology, chemistry and other natural sciences on a higher level. I accepted that climate change was a real and serious issue that would dramatically alter the world in my lifetime. I engaged with political ideology that recognized its urgency and pursued solutions-based thinking and personal behaviors that could alleviate it.
When I was 18, I took a 15-day canoe trip into the Minnesota Boundary Waters wilderness with seven young women as we prepared for our freshman year of college together. From them, I heard stories about what it could have looked like to grow up without trauma and constantly delighting in nature. These wild women could set up tarps as tents and cook over fires. They knew the constellations. I heard a wild loon over a lake, and grieved alone in my tent as I lamented the loss of my childhood and natural wonder.
Despite the success of the trip, I still relegated the outdoors to cultivated and controlled spaces. I did, however, open my heart to ideas about conservation and outdoor education. My intellectual and academic endeavors moved toward considering nature. What is its role? How should we represent it in literature? How should we tell its stories? What is wilderness?
Are humans natural?
Yet I remained in the hypothetical world, boxing nature up into summits to climb and species to save.
When I turned 20, my lifetime of secrecy caught up with me. Another secret became untenable: coming out as bisexual, which was abhorrent to me at the time. It complicated everything, and took away all sense of control, retriggering my childhood trauma and fears of abandonment. In one swift realization, I was forced to acknowledge myself. I lay in the throes of my mind, examining the worst parts of myself: tainted by violence, doer of intellectual and emotional violence against myself and my environment, selfish, willful, fearful, cruelly utilitarian. And I thought:
Was I natural?
Rather than answering myself, I spiraled.
I began seeing a therapist, at first inconsistently, and then weekly. Over two years, the therapist heard everything and provided the unconditional regard I couldn’t give myself. She persuaded me to open up to my family. Over the course of four months, I told them that my dad had raped me as a child, that I had attempted suicide, and that I was bisexual.
Like the downpour of a sudden summer rainshower, a lifetime of trauma began washing off of me.
When she and I first started dating in 2016, I was 22 and still afraid of the dark. I had only been out to my family about my trauma and my sexuality for one year. As I grew to accept my love for her, I learned I needed to accept all of me. Over our two years together, I became my strongest in outside, occupying my niche in my local ecosystem and embracing the self-acceptance I had felt during that dogwood sunset. Dayhikes morphed into weekends spent camping. Road biking turned into mountain biking. I felt starved of myself if I didn’t get outside every day. In school, I committed to pursuing environmental humanities.
Although she and I broke up, my strength remains and the passion for my once-childhood joy grows stronger every day. Now, I am 26 years old. I’m a flight attendant whose world has no boundaries. I use my layovers to collect sunsets and summits. I am unafraid of the dark.
I have my answer now: I am natural.
MORE TO THE STORY
Want to read more words from Y.V. Marian? Check out her blog here.
Y.V. Marian touches on several important topics in her essay this week. The Issue has published several stories on similar themes. Click here if you'd like to explore more on LGBTQ experiences, or here to read our past essays on sexual assault.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Click here to read more about building strong communities and protecting children from abuse.
RAINN provides resources about dealing with child sexual abuse as a parent or community member, and as a survivor. If you need to talk with someone, you can call their hotline at 800.656.HOPE.