Suck it up, Buttercup
Spending time in nature as a woman
TW: Violence & Assault
It’s been a week, y’all. It has been a hairy motherfucking week. I got jumped coming out of Kingman Island park on Monday.
Here’s a picture I took shortly before getting jumped.
This past Friday, I was supposed to be interviewed by Shenandoah Magazine with the poet Janine Certo about our pieces, The Elephant’s Tiptoe (mine) and Breaking My Father Out of the Hospice Unit to Go to the Italian Market. We got sent a few (but not all) of the questions beforehand. One of the questions is, “What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career as a writer?” This question messes me up every time I think about it.*
What RISKS do I take in my writing?
Are you fucking kidding me?
I’ll tell you what goddamn risks I take.
The biggest risk, as it turns out, wasn’t loading my 76-year-old mom in the back of a puddle-hopper plane like she was a piece of luggage in the swamps of Botswana.
It wasn’t standing in a plastic bucket of anti-foot-and-mouth disease chemicals on the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe, surrounded by dogs and men with rifles and ammo draped around their shoulder. My mom, impatient for me to finish the process, started to wander off, getting a quarter of the way across the bridge by herself. When the guards noticed and the guns dropped to horizontal and the dogs growled then yapped and then strained their leashes, she looked back with the most Blanche DuBois, I-always-depend-on-the-kindness-of-strangers expression I have ever seen and walked, unharmed, back towards the dogs and the pointy guns and towards me.
Everyone exhaled except me and my mom. My mom was never holding her breath in the first place. I possibly never started breathing again.
My biggest risk wasn’t the time in north-central Kenya when I was covered with locusts either, although the locusts do represent a real threat to the people who live in the area and probably signal major climate changes and droughts to come in the world at large. So maybe, yes, the locusts, in the long term.
But in the short term, it was the time my computer froze up during a company-wide server migration and my work’s IT office told me it wasn’t worth coming into the office to try to fix it now — it was already six pm — and I normally get off work at 6:30, which means my evening walk in winter is usually just through the neighborhood in the dark but the moment the IT person gave up on my computer I pulled on my jacket: I could just make it to Kingman Island for a walk before sunset.
Kingman Island is actually two islands: Kingman and Heritage Islands, both of which were dredged from the Anacostia river starting in 1903 as an aid to commerce. Later left neglected, over 100 different species of bird and other wildlife flourished forgotten on what began their lives as, essentially, mud mounds in the middle of the Anacostia River.
Until 2008, the land was owned by the federal government, but in 2008 it was transferred to the District of Columbia, which began developing the islands for recreation. In 2016, District Department of Energy and Environment scientists discovered a plant on Kingman Island that is on the Maryland endangered species list – the Virginia Mallow. Now, after significant investment, the islands are described as being home to “important and rare ecosystems, including tidal freshwater wetlands, vernal pools, wildflower meadows, and tidal swamp forests.” They’re also home to an annual bluegrass and folk festival and to probably hundreds of walkers, runners, fishermen and women, strollers, birders, school groups, dogs, and everyone else from the all-sorts bag of characters found in any urban park.
I’ve already written about the park here. To be honest, I’ve felt guilty about not going more often. It always seemed like the kind of place that, if I were the kind of person to show up every day at 6:30 am, it would reward me handsomely with fox sightings, bald eagles, herons, and lord knows what else. Unfortunately, I am not that kind of person. (Why am I writing a nature newsletter if I can’t make it out of bed at 5:45 am? Good question! A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or so I’ve heard, else what’s a heaven for.)
I saw the teenagers on the way in, but I don’t clock them as a threat. There were dog walkers still. There were kids in the nearby soccer fields. I could hear their parents.
The kids were young — maybe around 13 or 14, and they had several younger siblings with them. There was a little girl, around four or five, in pink and her hair in little poofs. I passed them on the first bridge headed into the park as they were headed out. After I passed them, one of the guys — a big guy himself — called out, “Bitch, you fat!”
At first, I didn’t even recognize it as being directed at me — I thought it was part of the joshing between the teenagers — but there was an extra beat after the comment, and I knew the guy had turned around, was waiting to see if I would respond. I didn’t of course. I found the interaction reassuring: it spoke to the kid’s inexperience, his nervousness. To wait for me wait for me to pass by 30 yards and then call out your insult speaks to fear.
I made it to the far island and considered going just a bit further, to my favorite hidden path leading to some wetlands. No, I thought to myself, seeing a dog walker turn around. The sun was really setting by this time. I wouldn’t press my luck. I’d head back.
The dog walker and I were neck and neck and neck for most of the walk back. She had two little dogs — Pixie was her mischievous black-and-white one. I caught onto the dog’s name real quick because her owner was constantly calling, “Pixie! Pixie! Come here, Pixie.” She raced over the final bridge after Pixie and I lost sight of her.
The teenagers must have been waiting for me, hiding in the bushes beside the exit gates. As soon as I got close, there were six or seven of them behind me, but two were almost on top of me, on either shoulder. They had a script, clearly. I don’t know if they had done this before or if they had worked this out for me. One grabbed my purse (which he didn’t get due to the cross-body strap), and the other started working himself up to hit me, which he did. My glasses went flying. He hit me some more.
The majority of the boys were filming the incident. I thought maybe I should be filming too, so I got out my phone (which was probably stupid) but of course it was immediately knocked out of my hand. “Guys, let me just get my phone,” I said, and for some reason, that seemed to put events on pause.
We stopped, I got my phone. I thought we might be done.
But then the skinny guy — and thank god it was the skinny guy and not his bigger friend who, no matter his experience or lack thereof could have done some real damage — the skinny guy started working himself up again, started hitting me in the face and eyes and ear and neck.
I could see mostly confusion in his eyes. He had seen men, grown men, knocking out women with just one punch, maybe two, and he couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working for him.
“Bitch, I’m going to knock you out,” he said, and I thought, “oh shit, he’s not stopping until I pass out.”
And that’s when I started screaming and the teens ran.
I walked to my car, locked myself in, and called the cops. The cops were fine, the EMT was useless, and my friend Michèle coming over to check on me, hang out, and bring me a monkey ice pack is probably why I’m not a raving lunatic at this very moment. (Or so I think.)
I suppose I can’t be sure that I’m not a raving lunatic. On Wednesday night, I wrote Shenandoah Magazine to say, basically, “hey, yo, I just got assaulted on Monday so, you know, if I seem weird or emotional or whatever in the interview, it's probably just that.” I mean it didn't even occur to me to delay the interview or anything, I was just like, hey, I'm fucked up, FYI, and also I'm gonna have black eyes in the zoom call don't be alarmed.
And then they were like, you know what, let's wait another week or so to do this so you're not fucked up, or at any rate not, like, at maximum fucked upedness.
And that was just such a relief and I felt so silly not even thinking to ask for it, and also that *of course* my answers right now would be all weird because all the themes about nature and writing and what all are all a little strange for me at the moment.
I mean, what RISKS do I take? You want to know, now, what risks do I take for nature writing?
I assume I’m going to make some adjustments. I’ll ask friends to go on walks with me for a while. They’ll do it because I have great friends. The friends I have with self-defense backgrounds will show me a bit of that. I’ll probably get some pepper spray. Maybe I’ll get a dog.
Maybe I’ll get a dog and it’ll be great. Maybe this will turn into a dog newsletter. Maybe everyone will want to tune into the adventures of WanderFinder and Buttercup, the dog with the lop-sided grin, and it’ll be so charming that one day, someone will say to me, hey, remember when you got assaulted? And it was kind of a turning point in your life? And it all turned out for the best, don’t you think?
And it will be like a record-scratch in time and I’ll come so close to using Buttercup’s special “attack!” code word that makes her go absolutely nuts — and by nuts I mean taking a teeth-first leap at a man’s crotch — and that guy will never even know how lucky his balls got that day because no matter what happens from here, no matter what lemonade I make or how cute my eventual dog is or what a great friend I might meet in dog-training class, it sucks to get your head punched over and over just because you’re a woman who wants to take a walk after work.
Nothing will ever make that better.
This is the risk that all of us take, all the time: women and all female-presenting nature lovers, nature writers, nature photographers. Female-presenting people who find peace in nature. Female-presenting people who do not want to take a walk with their friends all the time (sorry friends!) but sometimes want to be alone. Female-presenting people who do not want to get a dog (sorry, Buttercup!). Female-presenting people who want, and deserve, the time and space to be alone with their thoughts in a natural space for as long as they want.
That idea alone brings me incredible peace, even as it seems right now, to me, unattainable.
At any rate, the point of all of this is to say that I am very excited about the interview with Shenandoah Magazine and want to thank them and Janine Certo for their patience while I get my shit together. I will let y’all know when it’s about to come out.
*I realize the question about risks was probably meant stylistically, not necessarily so much about content. I actually have some good, writerly, stylistic things to say in answer to this question. Don’t worry, Shenandoah Magazine!
Hope y’all have a wanderful — and safe — week ahead.