Mekdela Maskal Rediscovers Herself and Reconnects with Her History in the Hills of California

Culture

This climate journalist left her Brooklyn apartment to find more space and a sense of self in Northern California, retracing the contours of her culture and childhood.

Last updated: September 8, 2021
6 min read
Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California

Homegrown is a series of narratives from individuals of the Black + African diaspora who are uniquely preserving and honoring their culture and roots through their multifaceted identities and lifestyles.

Mekdela Maskal considers her return to Grass Valley in Northern California a sort of return to her own body as well. Last summer, the interdisciplinary artist and editor packed up her Brooklyn apartment for a calmer pace of life.

The move also brought her back to her childhood roots. Twenty years ago, her father purchased land in Grass Valley, tucked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and eventually built a home — an homage to his native Ethiopia and living in tune with nature. Preserving those values across generations and continents, Mekdela and her siblings spent weekends and summers with their father, embracing the outdoors, skiing, practicing archery, climbing trees and trailing creeks.

“I honestly do feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be right now… I’m on my way to finding more purpose outside of work in this space than I was able to before.”

Today, from this tranquil home base, Mekdela works as an engagement editor on the topic of climate change. While her work focuses on the environment, she’s conscious of rebuilding and keeping her own relationship with the land. She is also separately aware of the mental and physical strength the land provides her as well as the duty she has to cultivate it.

Through vivid reflections with photography by June Ferreira Canedo de Souza, Mekdela shares how she’s rediscovering her connection to the outdoors in Grass Valley, the yearning she felt for it while living in New York that sparked her journey back, and how it’s ultimately led to strengthening her bond with her Ethiopian heritage.

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Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California
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Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California

Leaving the City for the Serene

“I definitely wanted more quiet. Literally, but also to lower the frequency of buzzing that I felt in my body at all times in New York. Just sitting still feels really important for me, and I feel less guilty doing that [here] than I did in New York.

“I remember when I first got here, I was feeling like the day was so long. It would feel like two days. I think a lot more about how we can exist and spend time and contribute outside of the frameworks of work more than I have before.”

Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California

Finding Familiar Paths

Mekdela is no stranger to the Yuba River, which runs northwest of Grass Valley and whose smaller creeks and streams run close to her property. She crouches down on the bulbous gray rocks and wades until there’s enough space for her body to submerge her body in the river’s clear waters.

“I want to take more trips down here because I find that I almost have forgotten the way. There are certain curves that I’m trying to find still.”

“I have to tell myself to do less. I find that my body knows more than my mind does.”

Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California

Finding Familiar Paths

Mekdela is no stranger to the Yuba River, which runs northwest of Grass Valley and whose smaller creeks and streams run close to her property. She crouches down on the bulbous gray rocks and wades until there’s enough space for her body to submerge her body in the river’s clear waters.

“I want to take more trips down here because I find that I almost have forgotten the way. There are certain curves that I’m trying to find still.”

“I have to tell myself to do less. I find that my body knows more than my mind does.”

Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California

Traversing Gheralta and Grass Valley

A few years ago, Mekdela and her father climbed the Gheralta Mountains, a remote range in northern Ethiopia, where centuries-old churches were carved into its sandstone cliffs — a testament to the sacredness of these spaces. She frequently recalls crossing the narrow ledges of those mountains as she navigates the much less treacherous terrain in Grass Valley and reflects on the peace she has found in both places.

“If I’m doing physical things, my body will take over, and I don’t find myself having to think as much about what I need to do. I have to tell myself to do less. I find that my body knows more than my mind does.”

Tending the Land, Feeding the Soul

Back in Brooklyn, Mekdela spent a year before she left the city documenting and supporting the efforts of community gardens in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “I got a lot from that, but I would come home and feel like I couldn’t continue that work for myself.”

Since moving to the West Coast, Mekdela has started a vegetable garden of her own. Growing food is one of the quickest ways for Mekdela to orient herself and connect with the land.

“I love when the hawks surround me above. It’s usually two of them, and they’ll make circles when I’m laying in either of the hammocks. That’s a way of being watched that is so unique. It feels like this freedom in not knowing how I’m seen by any other species. What a beautiful thing. I have no idea what I am to you.”

Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California
Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California
Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California

Remembering the Power of Play

“I have this one memory of climbing a really big pine tree in front of the house. I had climbed up as far as I could. And I remember being able to make out the pilot in this plane that flew overhead and being like, ‘I must be really high!’

“I have memories of just being really playful and feeling very free, which is, I think, the way that my dad curated our lives here for us.”

Discovering Independence and Identity

“I have so much time to reflect on myself… I’ve never felt lost, that feeling like I’m outside of my body has never happened to me while I’ve been amongst nature.

“It feels like I’m on my way to finding more purpose outside of work in this space than I was able to before. I honestly do feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be right now.”

Homegrown: Mekdela Maskal on Leaving New York and Finding Herself in California

Creative Direction: Ladin Awad
Words: Ruth Gebreyesus
Photography: June Ferreira Canedo de Souza
Film: Rodan Tekle

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