God Save the Forest by Ashia Ajani

I didn’t intentionally spurn the forest


it became another question of Southern belonging

I didn’t have the patience to unravel.

Must’ve been when the little white kids next door

asked if we wanted to play “Cowboys and Indians”

and all I could think about was the split

in my conquered DNA that stood on both

ends of the chastening rod.

Or maybe when a man held a shotgun to the back of my

mentor’s head while we were out in the field,

asked whose land you think you on, boy?

Neither of ours.

We just learned to love it because it was the only thing that

granted us some semblance of peace.

My mentor says he has encountered poisonous snakes in the Panamanian jungle

and this scared him less than doing research in the deep South.

Snakes are usually more frightened by you than you are of them

same goes for white folks but Lord,

how I prefer a fang to those trigger fingers

I didn’t intentionally spurn the darkness until they

claimed ownership of that which once sheltered us

When all that was hunt and run soaked my endings in bloodlust

through this violent cat and mouse condition-

the inherent trickery of my blood begged me to stay grounded

when all I could imagine was flight.

The voices in these woodlands are alive and they carry a vengeance

Maybe this is why white people fear the dark and what it holds

we marvel at its ability to hold,

call it semantics, a cultural linguistic loophole

our right to something

Abuela weaves together sweet tales about the backwoods that were once hers

long after the plantation manifestation made a mockery of her inheritance

the trees held their secrets with rope and flame

but I can’t help but envision my abuela laughing, running not from any one thing

but towards the witching hour our foremothers once found refuge in

Mississippi is a graveyard of all my kin’s wildest ambitions.

we play pretended Americanness until it felt real enough

to sink into

until it didn’t defend us from the light

until the Superfund affliction reminded us of the well-earned savagery

in our marrow

I flee from what my ancients trusted and isn’t that the most

heart-wrenching betrayal of my blood

to deny myself access to the Blackest parts of this earth

My great- great- great -grandmother’s phantom footsteps litter the ground

like dead leaves

and isn’t that what this lineage always returns to:

this ill-understood trauma of existing in between shadow

and soul.

Tell me: what is the difference between haunting and protecting a place?

Is it one of volition?

The wounds down here are older than the flesh that displaced them

but the twilight reminds me that we could feel whole yet.

Black people in the South breathe life into dark and call it home

Black as the soil that birthed bright cotton

this Mississippi Delta madnesshome

this wild, expansive Blacknesshome

Mississippi, baby, on my good days I imagine you soft and lazy-

draped in all that green, all that darkness

all that unloved Black

Ashia Ajani (they/she) is a Black storyteller, environmental educator and doula hailing from Denver, CO, Queen City of the Plains and the unceded territory of the Ute, Arapahoe and Cheyenne peoples. They have been published in Frontier Poetry, Foglifter Press, Sierra Magazine and others. Follow her work at her website: ashiaajani.com.

Art by Nevil Jackson