Atiya Wells is a pediatric nurse, as well the founder of the Baltimore chapter of Free Forest School, Backyard Basecamp, and BLISS Meadows Farm. BLISS Meadows is currently raising funds to purchase a house adjacent to the farm for a community center, and there’s just one week left!! When she asked if I would help promote it, I proposed an interview, something I’d already been thinking about making a semi-regular part of the column.
Atiya walked me through the 2.5 acre farm site, which consists of a beautiful wildflower meadow, pond, shed, and growing space. Afterwards, we sat in the field and talked. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Abby: So, you said you grew up in Jersey?
Atiya: Yeah, in north New Jersey, which is sorta like the Baltimore of New Jersey. I grew up in the Central Ward, close to Prince Street Projects. We didn’t have much green space, actually I don’t think we had much trees.
Abby: And now you’re a Master Naturalist! What was that path like?
Atiya: I went on my first “official” hike when I was 22, with my now-husband. I was in school and I was stressed out, and after that 20-30 minute hike up to this overlook, I felt so refreshed and amazing, I was like “we need to do this more often!” So we started going almost every weekend.
When we had kids, we started taking our daughter with us, and she absolutely hated it. We would pull into a park, and she would be like “Is this hiking? I hate hiking, I want to go home!” So I began looking for other things that involved us being out together as a family. I thought, maybe she needs some activity to do, maybe hiking is just too boring for her.
I found Free Forest School, and I was like “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” It’s free, which is exactly what I need. And the major theme is that it’s child-led and child-directed – where we hike, how long we hike, where we stop to play, that’s all up to the kids. We started doing that every Sunday, and my daughter loved it. She had the time to sit and be. The research I’ve read is that kids need that unstructured time to just play. They need to sit down and –
Abby: – start imagining.
Atiya: Yeah! Just use their imaginations and manipulate the environment.
We did it every week, even in the wintertime, and my daughter absolutely adored it! Maybe the second or third week, parents started asking me questions, “hey, what’s this, what’s that” and I knew absolutely nothing. I thought, if I’m going to be leading these groups, I should probably know a little bit about what’s around here!
Abby: So you started it?
Atiya: Yeah, there was no Baltimore chapter here. We now have three sessions running. I had never even been to a Free Forest School, I just read the stuff and was like “I can do this.”
Abby: That’s beautiful! So, how many people did you get out at first?
Atiya: It started off small, maybe twelve to fifteen families, parents and children – it’s not a drop-off thing – sometimes more, sometimes less. Summer, we usually have a big boom, spring break, winter break, because people are trying to figure out what they’re going to do.
Abby: And where did you find the families?
Atiya: Everything’s on Facebook. I invited people I knew from my daughter’s school, then they would invite people. I think we have maybe 300 families in the group [https://www.facebook.com/groups/FreeForestSchoolBaltimoreMD] now. I’m trying to make sure we have access across the city. We have the Double Rock Park session, Herring Run Park, and Cromwell Valley Park. I’ve been trying to get someone on the west side interested in starting one up.
So, I didn’t even know what poison ivy looked like at the time. I started looking for naturalist courses I could take online, because I was working Monday through Friday. I found this thing called the Kamana Naturalist Training Program that’s offered through the Wilderness Awareness School at Washington State. It’s basically a deep dive into your bio-region. They encourage you to find somewhere that’s hyper-local that you can get to every single day.
On google maps, I found Barbara and Parkwood Park, and I was like “we ain’t got no parks around here!” So I came one day, and it was amazing. It’s this seven acre patch of land that’s wooded, lots of birds. I saw hawks nesting, I saw a fox, and I was like “yep, this is the space for me.” So I was traipsing through there for the last two years, honing my naturalist skills, doing plant, animal, insect identification. If I find something interesting, I pick it up and bring it home.
I saw the Maryland Master Naturalist program was going up at Banneker House in the county, so I raised funds to attend that. It’s a very deep dive into Maryland’s ecology. It’s broken down into topics, the first one is geology, and I learned sooo much about rocks, I never knew so much about rocks! And then you do a course on insects, wildflowers, birds, fish. It was a really good program.
I did the Charm City Farms forager’s apprentice course, so I learned a lot about wild edible and medicinal plants. Plants became my life. I started doing the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Meetup, it’s a camping trip, you’re making a fire, tanning a hide, making baskets out of pine needles and stuff.
Learning all these different things, I started noticing that… I’m the only Black person here! So that led me down another path of research – why is this so. And then I had to re-learn history in the process, I’m hearing from my family about the farms in the south that were stolen from them. It was just a rough, rough transition. There’s this thing I learned about called ancestral wounding that happens from these generations of systemic oppression. I may not have been directly affected by it, but my father was, or my father’s father, so I’ve heard these stories.
Then I started trying to think of ways I could get more people of color interested, and also bring nature education to the places it’s needed the most but where it’s not seen as a priority. So that’s when I started my own business, Backyard Basecamp [https://backyardbasecamp.com/].
Abby: When was that?
Atiya: I started officially in November of last year.
Abby: Oh wow! How’s it been going?
Atiya: Really well! I’ve been in some daycares and public schools across the city, introducing nature connection to teachers. Like with a kindergarten class, ok, the kids need to learn to count to five and we’re working on the letter “L”. We’ll lead the class outside, we’ll talk about the letter “L”, what sound it makes, we’ll point out things that start with it. Then I’ll have them collect five acorns, five of the same color flower. We just form a lesson out of nothing, and the teacher is like, “woah, this works!”
Abby: So you were already in the forest, and then at some point you were looking at this spot next to it for farming?
Atiya: I would come out of the woods and sit by the pond, but I had never come far in until about a year ago. That’s when we started trying to figure out who owns this land and how we get in contact with him, we were drafting a letter. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I googled him and just emailed the letter. We talked that night, and he was like “yeah, please, do something.”
This lot doesn’t have a water main, but the house does. One of the reasons we wanted to get access to the house was so we could get utilities. That’s the dream. We’re trying to renovate the house to have cooking classes, space for WWOOFers [https://wwoof.net/], holding workshops.
The ultimate goal for me is to have this be a prototype for how people in a community can invest in their own community by reclaiming space before the developers come and snatch it away and build that apartment building –
Abby: – and just make money off people.
Atiya: Exactly. We really want it to be community engagement, community space, community centered. That’s the framework and the goal of the prototype. I would love to have a Forest School eventually, that’s the five to ten year plan, running camps, a year-round school maybe for pre-school aged kids. Which is why we also need indoor space, you need a working kitchen and a refrigerator.
Abby: So when did you start talking to the woman who owns the house?
Atiya: Early April. We had some conversations, she said she already had a cash offer from a developer. I was like “oh my god, this house has been vacant for who knows how long, why now!” She said $50,000 is the offer, and she really wanted it gone before July.
I said, can you just give us thirty days to try to raise the money, and she agreed. June 9th is our thirty day deadline, then the next phase will be grant-writing to get the space renovated.
Abby: This has been a real whirlwind!
Atiya: Yeah, we’ve just been moving, moving, moving. We’ve got a land use agreement with the owner of the land that we’re finalizing the details on. He says his goal isn’t to own anything, he wants to give it over to the community. That’s another reason we want to have a community center, so it can all be under one entity, not a person.
Abby: So, if you raise the money, who will own the house?
Atiya: BLISS Meadows. It’s a non-profit, we have fiscal sponsorship through Strong City Baltimore while we’re getting it set up.
At first I was a little discouraged, like “oh, we’ve only raised $17,000…” and everybody else was like, “YOU’VE RAISED $17,000 IN 18 DAYS!!”
Abby: That’s pretty darn good!
Atiya: It’s not enough though!
Abby: What are you going to do if you don’t raise all the money?
Atiya: We’re going to tell people that they can request a refund from Gofundme if that’s what they want to do, or we’ll just invest that money into the farm, to building some structures, getting water and electricity, a greenhouse, indoor space for a kitchen. It’ll be what this house was going to be, just on this property.
Abby: Well thank you so much for walking me through it!
Atiya: Thank you for coming and wanting to see it!
This week, an anonymous donor pledged to match the next $10,000 that comes into the campaign, dollar-for-dollar!! Please, please consider donating and/or sharing ASAP — https://www.gofundme.com/believeInBliss/
Cultural event of the week: Every first Friday, Baltimore Gathering of the Commons (a project of the Baltimore Gift Economy) holds a potluck, documentary screening. This Friday, 6/7, join them for a screening of Baltimore’s Strange Fruit by Eric Jackson of the Black Yield Institute, which examines food apartheid in our city. https://www.facebook.com/events/291533698403048/
Green event of the week: This Monday night, 6/2, is the inaugural meeting of the Baltimore Environmental Stewardship Summit, a loose coalition of activists seeking to move Baltimore forward through discussion. Will feature a screening of a TEDx Talk on climate change, public health, and injustice by a Nobel Laureate. https://www.facebook.com/events/296428134630785/
Song of the week: “I Am Willing” by Holly Near
There is hurting in my family / There is sorrow in my town / There is panic all across the nation / And there is wailing the whole world round / But I am open and I am willing / For to be hopeless would seem so strange / It dishonors those who go before us / So lift me up to the light of change