It’s particularly fitting that when Salma Hasan Ali, editor of BenchTalk, first crossed paths with Nature Sacred in May of 2021, it was at “Girl Church” — an outdoor gathering for women imagined by former Nature Sacred Board Member and active supporter Ami Aronson. Her intent was to bring together people committed to imagining a more creative, compassionate world. Nature Sacred was part of the agenda.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Salma, recalling the day at Josephine Butler Parks Center in Washington. D.C. “We were just coming out of a very isolating year of COVID — it was a breath of fresh air, inspiring, to be out in nature, hearing about this organization that is creating these oases of green for all to enjoy. I was amazed by Nature Sacred’s work.”
At the time, Salma was fresh off the journey of publishing her book “30 Days: Stories of Gratitude, Traditions, and Wisdom,” and found herself intrigued by the Nature Sacred journals, a curiosity that she describes as a natural alignment with her own path as a “storyteller, seeker, sharer.”
“When I heard about the bench and journal – my storytelling ears were just piqued. I was so excited to learn that they exist,” she said. “I thought — these journals surely hold amazing reflections.”
She chatted with Nature Sacred CEO Alden Stoner, and the two later exchanged emails and decided to reconnect. Alden realized quickly that she had found someone uniquely suited to help curate a collection of Nature Sacred’s archive of journal entries into a book — what would eventually become BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature.
“Years ago, we recognized what a treasure these entries are,” said Alden. “Because of this, we knew that we needed more than an editor. We found that in Salma.”
Equally taken with the project, Salma embraced her new role with reverence, immersing herself in the yellow journals, a process she described as both powerful and emotional. “Reading the entries… it felt sometimes that I was going through people’s private journals,” she said. “I felt a deep responsibility towards the writers; I wanted to respect that gesture and trust – whether the entry was a line about sitting there, waiting for lunch or something more profound.”
Salma also felt very connected to the writers. “Depending on where they were written, many were incredibly raw, aching. I cried reading so many of the entries. And often, I would say a prayer, too, for the person writing,” she said.
As she read and re-read the entries, key themes emerged for her. Working with Alden, they settled on chapters that reflected these themes: “On nature’s healing power,” “On hardship and hope,” “Engaging words to keep you going,” “Wisdoms and life lessons,” and “On connection and community.” Together, they drew together what became a tapestry of emotions, profound reflections, glimpses of deep joy, and unique insights.
“For me – this is a collection of our stories, our innermost feelings — so precious and unique to each one of us — the most important things… I wanted for these stories to be captured in something equally precious,” she said, referring to the actual physical qualities of the eventual book. Having worked with a company in Bangladesh, Drik, on previous books she’d published, she already had the seeds of a vision for a collector’s version of BenchTalk in mind.
The hand-bound collector’s version of BenchTalk features a hand-made bench, like those found in Sacred Places, in relief on the cover. The interior pages are made of recycled paper, while rice paper, pressed with leaves, divides the book’s thematic sections. “It was designed to feel like you are holding nature in your hands,” said Salma.
Curating BenchTalk, guiding the design of this book, became a transformative journey for Salma. “I am definitely changed from the whole process of doing this – even now seeing it, I pick it up, turn to a page, it calms me – I take a deep breath and gain perspective. It is at the same time simple, beautiful, poignant, magical.”
The paperback version of BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature drops on Oct 3.