Surrender in Granta Online

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July 2019

Surrender

Joanna Pocock

Chuck picked me up on the dot of 10 a.m. from a house in north-east Portland, where I had been staying with friends. What you first notice about Chuck are her long unshaven legs, huge blue eyes, easy smile and unfaltering politeness. She has an open, yet somewhat reserved air about her. She moves with confidence, as if ready for any eventuality: rain, sun, the end of the world. It was all to be taken in her stride. This was good because Chuck and I were complete strangers and were about to drive two hours to Wahkiacus (population 91), a tiny unincorporated community in Klickitat county, Washington, where Surrender, the fourth Ecosex Convergence, would be taking place.

It hadn’t been easy finding Chuck. Back home in London I had given up on getting to Surrender. Despite having my Montana driver’s licence, I still wasn’t comfortable behind a wheel. I had come up empty-handed after asking every person I knew in Montana if they or a friend would be able to ferry a fifty-two-year-old woman and all her camping gear to a sex festival. At the last minute Jason remembered someone we knew who had recently moved to Portland. She had a friend who had a friend and so on . . . which led me to twenty-seven-year- old Chuck, who had just quit her job and sold a house she had co-owned with her ex-fiancé. In her words, she was ‘out to find freedom’. So when I suggested that in return for driving me to the Ecosex Convergence, I would spend 230 dollars on a ticket for her and cover her gas and lodging, she couldn’t believe her luck.

We headed east from Portland along Highway 14 hugging the Columbia River, which cuts through high basalt cliffs strung with thin waterfalls. I was distracted from the scenery by our conversation. Chuck seemed to know a bit about ecosexuality. She was twenty-five years younger than me and identified as non-binary and there were overlaps between her social circle and that of the ecosex community in Portland. She proudly showed me how her driver’s licence now had an ‘x’ instead of an ‘m’ or ‘f ’. Chuck also mentioned that she was into the kink scene.

I aired my insecurities about ecosex – or more specifically, my reluctance to be sexually open with strangers. ‘You’ll just have to get in touch with the untouchable goddess within you,’ Chuck shot back.

A dirt road after the tiny town of Klickitat (population 362) took us up some steep, sharp switchbacks. We came to a patch of cleared, hard-packed land dotted with a few small wooden huts and some open-sided wall tents selling T-shirts and scarves printed with Indian patterns and the Sanskrit sign for ‘om’. Beyond the cleared area was a forest of Douglas fir and oak. People were hefting coolers and backpacks out of their trunks. As we rolled up to the Surrender reception booth in Chuck’s white Subaru, we were greeted by three smiling women. They told us where to park and where we could pitch our tents. I signed a bunch of paperwork giving the organizers the right to use photos of me and waiving any responsibility on their part should I get injured doing aerial silks, a form of acrobatics using long strands of fabric. A friendly middle-aged woman with close-cropped red hair asked me which ‘pathwork’ I had signed up for. My mind went blank. All I could remember was that mine had the word ‘Magick’ in it and had something to do with deities. She initiated me by sliding a bit of string around my neck from which a small shell dangled, then hugged me.

I stood slightly stunned in the drizzle. The planning that had gone into this trip had conspired to make me feel extremely tired. Crossing the ocean with my camping gear and finding someone who would agree to drive me were only two of the many logistical issues. But here I stood in a pair of jeans and a heavy fleece to ward off the cold, surrounded by people in gauzy ‘I Dream of Genie’ numbers, in bikinis, circus pants, flowing dresses, bare chests, leather straps criss-crossing torsos, hats, tattoos and tribal piercings. I was a schoolmistress among mermaids and sprites.

 

Surrender | Joanna Pocock | GrantaI first came across the term ecosexuality while reading about Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker, feminist stripper, artist, writer and activist, reputedly the only porn star with a PhD. I had seen her perform at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in the mid-1990s, when she was keen to show us all her cervix. I was struck by her vibrancy – she is a tall, curvaceous red-head who favours bright red lipstick. She came across as engaging and intelligent but, most of all, I remember that she combined intellectual ideas around women’s bodies with a playful sense of the absurd. She surfaced for me at a point when I was weighing up Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s anti-porn stance with the more sex-positive attitudes in Sallie Tisdale’s 1995 book Talk Dirty to Me. Sprinkle’s openness wasn’t something that came naturally to me, and yet I was enticed by it. I wanted to be the kind of person who could embrace it.

The ecosex festival had grown organically out of Annie Sprinkle’s mission to make sex less shameful and environmentalism more sexy. In 2004, Annie Sprinkle and her wife and collaborator, the academic, artist and activist Elizabeth Stephens, embarked on a seven-year art project they called the Love Art Lab. Each year, they would marry each other anew and every wedding was to have a different theme, location and audience. Their 2008 wedding to the Earth was perhaps when the idea of ecosexuality became enshrined in a movement with a name.

In their Ecosex Manifesto, Sprinkle and Stephens write:

We are the Ecosexuals. The Earth is our lover. We are madly, passionately, and fiercely in love . . . We treat the Earth with kindness, respect, and affection . . .We are skinny dippers, sun worshippers, and stargazers. We caress rocks, are pleasured by waterfalls, and admire the Earth’s curves often. We make love with the Earth through our senses. We celebrate our E-spots. We are very dirty.

By seeing the Earth as their lover, they differ from ecofeminists, who tend to frame the Earth as a mother figure.

There is a playful and provocative side to Sprinkle and Stephens’ manifesto, but they are serious about raising awareness of the Earth’s degradation at the hands of corporate interests. Their film Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story follows their efforts to save the Appalachian Mountains (the second most biodiverse region in the world after the Amazon) from mountain-top removal mining practices. Stephens grew up in the shadow of Gauley Mountain and has a personal connection to the place. But instead of earnest pleas for help, they reframe environmentalism in terms of love stories, tragedies and dramatic relationship upheavals and breakups. It’s as if Pedro Almodóvar had directed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Although some might see the ecosex endeavour through the lens of the 1960s counter-culture, I traced it back further to the ideas of the scientist, psychoanalyst and student of Freud, Wilhelm Reich. In the 1930s, Reich tried to marry Marxist concepts, such as the rejection of private ownership, with sexuality. He saw marriage as a form of ownership, with women as property. In his view, many of society’s ills could be alleviated if humans could free themselves from constraints around sexual desire and its fulfilment. The family and the gendered role of women were particular bugbears of his and he advocated for a more tribal approach to social units. The premise of his work is in some ways no different from the free love gospel preached in the 1960s, though for Reich sexuality was a serious tool with which to reject fascism.

Reich had narrowly escaped the Nazis during the 1930s and settled in the United States, where he came up with his Orgone Energy Accumulator (OEA), a phone-booth-sized structure lined with metal and insulated with steel wool. He was convinced that this device improved the ‘orgastic potency’ of its users by harnessing energy. By extension it also aided their general mental and physical health. The FBI, however, saw things differently and counted Reich as subversive. By the mid-twentieth century he had a cult fringe following: JD Salinger, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Sean Connery and William Burroughs all believed in the OEA. ‘Your intrepid reporter, at age 37, achieved spontaneous orgasm, no hands, in an orgone accumulator built in an orange grove in Pharr, Texas,’ Burroughs famously wrote in Oui magazine. The view that sexuality could function as a means to fight repression and social injustice was not a new one and I wondered if the Ecosex Convergence would be another iteration of this idea, played out against the backdrop of environmental collapse. Perhaps there was a sense that by casting the Earth in the role of lover, we might be encouraged to keep her alive.

 

Chuck parked the car and I scoured the forest for a flat piece of ground. Once I had pitched my tent, just big enough for me and my backpack, I lay down and pulled out Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America:

While we live our bodies are moving particles of the Earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the Earth.

I was astonished by the overlap between Wendell Berry, the author-farmer-environmentalist from Kentucky, and the sex-positive ecosex movement. Intersectionality was everywhere. As I read, I could hear laughter and birdsong and a woman having an orgasm in the woods nearby.

At supper that evening, I sat with Chuck and a handful of others at a wooden picnic table. Rain was falling and we sat on towels, coats, plastic bags, whatever we could find. It turned out we were all fairly new to ecosexuality. Over courgettes and asparagus cooked in tahini someone brought up the idea of consent – how could having sex with the Earth ever be consensual?

I said, ‘Well who said you had to do anything to the Earth? Maybe you could let it do things to you.’

They fell silent. One of them said, ‘You are so right!

Like being rained on.’

‘Hey, I like that,’ someone else replied.

The idea which seemed to be floating among us was that ecosexuality was a fairly open-ended pursuit. It relied on energy transfers between plants and humans as much as a physical exchange. We all agreed that being barefoot at the beach and enjoying the waves wash over your toes could be an ecosexual experience. The movement aims to raise awareness of our relationship to the Earth and to bring a sense of humour to eco-activism.

A woman passed around some Ayurvedic seeds for us to scatter over our food, to help our energy flow. The guy on my left told me he was really into sacred clowning, a form of performance art which plays with the character of the fool or trickster, whose job it is to reveal the corruption inherent in power by using humour and a sense of the absurd. Chuck got excited at this idea. It turned out they were in the same pathwork, involving some ‘jester work’. I zoned out but came back to the conversation when the guy on my left announced that the court clown could ‘like fuck with the King and Queen’. I headed to the only dry place – the inside of my tent – and made some notes until it was time to convene in the dome for our evening’s entertainment.

 

The dome was a Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic structure about twenty-five metres in diameter – large enough for all 175 attendees to gather with space to spare. Carpets and cushions were scattered around and colourful banners hung from metal struts. Sitting in chairs across from the entrance were the two women who had made Surrender possible: Lindsay Hageman and Reverend Teri Ciacchi.

Lindsay was living at the Windward Education and Research Centre, an eco-community occupying adjacent land. You could just about see the centre from here and their goats could be heard bleating throughout the campsite. Lindsay, fresh-faced, dark-haired and I would guess somewhere in her mid-thirties, smiled readily and had an easy but focused manner. You sensed when she put her mind to things that they got done. She began by welcoming us to the land, which she said was happy to have us here. She told us a bit about the Windward Community, ‘an intentional community dedicated to loving the land and to loving each other. We embody ecosexuality every day!’ Its members were aligned in their dedication to sustainable living and an open approach to sexuality.

Teri Ciacchi is a sexologist, priestess of Aphrodite, and holistic spiritual healer in the Living Love Revolution Church. An Eco Magicks practitioner, Teri also teaches Cliteracy Salons, Clitoral Revelations and Vulvic Explorations. Teri was about my age. She was an ample woman who had difficulty walking and rode a golf cart. Tonight a leopard-skin pillbox hat (just like the Dylan song) sat atop her turquoise hair with its pink fringe.

We removed our shoes before taking our places cross-legged on the floor. Rain was pounding onto the dome and the air was moist with sweat and wet, earthy smells. Teri asked if we wanted to make a joyful noise. People whooped. As an aside she said maybe folk shouldn’t be naked for our first meeting as that would be ‘just weird’. There was laughter. Then she invited us to inhabit our bodies by doing ‘the Line, the Cross and the Circle’. We sat or stood up straight, our bodies establishing a vertical towards the sky. We were told to picture ourselves sending roots or ‘a monkey’s tail – whatever works for you’, down into the ground. That was the Line. The Cross was formed by our outstretched arms and the Circle was made by rolling our heads.

Once we were grounded, Teri went on to say that we are ‘languaging a lot about the figure 8’. At this point I lost her. I managed to write the following notes as she spoke: ‘We’re being portals,’ ‘We speak regularly with non-human living things,’ ‘the elementals’, ‘the fae’. Then she brought it all together, ‘We’ve got to be in relationship with these things. What we want isn’t more important than what they want!’

‘We need to listen to them, to do what the Earth is telling us to do,’ Lindsay added.

Teri finished off the idea: ‘And with the same rapt attention as we do with someone we want to fuck.’

A lot of discussion around consent followed. Lindsay told us to repeat after her: ‘We aim to have zero consent violations!’ We repeated it and she said, ‘That felt good!’ There were readings from the Surrender handbook by people in the audience. Once these were finished a person got up to tell us that we all needed to respect the shrines that were in the forest and in clearings on this land. ‘It’s really important that you don’t move anything on a shrine as that can be very traumatic for the person whose object it is.’ People clicked their fingers in response. Finger clicking is a signal of agreement resurrected from the days of the Beat poets by the Occupy movement, as a replacement for the more aggressive clapping of hands.

Once the housekeeping was out of the way, it was time for the ice-breakers. We were instructed to move our bodies like jellyfish: ‘A school of them! Wiggle!’ The two people leading the ice-breaker told us we were allowed to make eye contact with people around us – ‘Questioning eye contact’. Then we were to turn into lava and move like molten rock, before forming small groups of around six to eight people. One of the guys in my group looked like Larry David, with impossibly white teeth. He had approached me earlier and commented on my plimsoles. We had laughed at how cloth shoes are the worst shoes to wear in the rain – they stick to your feet and are impossible to take on or off. After our short chat about footwear, he had said, ‘Hey, we should interact sometime.’

That small exchange made clear to me that I had zero interest in ‘interacting’ with this man. I hadn’t always been like this. I was rapacious in my twenties and thirties and led by sex. Boyfriends accused me of being a nymphomaniac. I was wild and hungry for experience and had several boyfriends on the go at once. Being sexually faithful is something that only happened once I had a child in my forties. Sex for the sake of it has lost some of its appeal and I am surprised by how comfortable I am about this new phase in my life. It feels more like a gain than a loss. More like power than vulnerability.

In her 1991 book, The Change, Germaine Greer wrote about Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dinesen), Madame de Maintenon (who secretly married Louis XIV at the age of forty-eight), and the author and art historian Anna Jameson (the subject of my failed PhD), all of whom found love later in life. ‘It is simply not true that the ageing heart forgets how to love or becomes incapable of love,’ Greer reminds us.

Indeed it seems as if, at least in the case of these women of great psychic energy, only after they had ceased to be beset by the egotisms and hostilities of sexual passion did they discover of what bottomless and tireless love their hearts were capable.

We were instructed to sit on the floor, close our eyes, and cup our hands. The moderators silently walked around the room, placing edible objects into our palms: strawberries, cress, courgette flowers, tomatoes and grapes.

‘Taste, lick, smell, use all your senses. Feed yourselves and each other!’ The dome went quiet but for some ‘Yums’ and ‘Mms’ and the licking and smacking of lips. We opened our eyes and were asked to say our names out loud. The members of our small groups whispered them back to us. Then we were to make a gesture and a sound to go with it. I rubbed my stomach and said ‘Yum’. Everyone in my group repeated this. We chanted ‘we’ and ‘me’ until the energy in the room was raised to a potent level. Someone stood up and read the Mary Oliver poem ‘The Plum Trees’, which I hung onto as a return to the world I recognized. I slipped out before the cuddle circle got going.

Lying in my sleeping bag I prayed that the tent would hold out against the lashing rain and high winds. The swaying branches above me were making me nervous. I heard Chuck walk into a tent pitched about twenty feet from mine. I had met my neighbours earlier in the day while they were setting up their camp: two men and a woman, all beautiful, tanned, confident and in their twenties. Chuck announced, ‘Tomorrow I’m doing sacred clowning!’ The strumming on a guitar stopped and a deep voice replied, ‘I love this world.’ Chuck and Deep Voice talked about heading to the smoking lounge, a large tarp stretched above some chairs and a coffee table. It was the only place where smoking was allowed. I heard their tent unzip.

Someone else in the tent started strumming Deep Voice’s guitar. There was more whispering. Then a guy practically shouted, ‘If you spray it in your butt hole, you’ll get high!’

More laughter. I finally worked out they were talking about ‘weed lube’, which another guy said was for your ‘lady bits’.

A woman asked if it worked on your ‘man bits’. ‘I don’t know,’ came the reply.

Then the woman spoke again, ‘I think my pussy always has the munchies! It’s hungry and horny!’

I turned twenty in 1985. AIDS had just hit and the free, open life I’d been inhabiting in the early eighties seemed like a dream. It became cool to be celibate. Having sex with people was conducted under the spectre of people we knew getting sick and dying. These were sometimes the same people we had gone clubbing with, taken drugs with, kissed and had sex with. We were still into pleasure-seeking, but by then it involved some degree of sadness, fear or uncertainty and lots of condoms. None of this fear was apparent to me at Surrender. What did feature was a lot of talk about consent.

‘We live in a rape culture,’ one woman had said during the meeting that evening, ‘so we need to create a consent culture.’ We were going to be having a two-hour talk about consent the following afternoon. I could not imagine what you can say about consent for two hours, but even in my short time at Surrender I had become aware that I knew nothing about love and sex in 2017. I hadn’t even heard of weed lube until now. I fell asleep that night to the sound of more rain, more laughter and multiple orgasms.

 

The following morning I woke to a downpour. My tent was starting to leak so I removed the dirty clothes from my backpack and lined my nylon floor with them. My mouth tasted horrible and everything smelled like mildew. I could see my breath. My will to stay was starting to crack.

Breakfast that morning was buckwheat porridge with cryogenic cherries. The woman next to me told a story about her friend who got cryogenically frozen ‘for like a second’ as a way of boosting her immune system. A few people chimed in saying they had heard it was good for you, but really expensive. The rain was falling into our buckwheat. I slipped away to brush my teeth.

It was the first day of my Eco Magicks pathwork and I was relieved to have a place to go, a place where I could sit and learn something and not feel inadequate. I’m at ease playing the good student. Those of us doing Eco Magicks were told to meet at the entrance to Lilith’s Forest, near Inanna’s shrine. Inanna is the ancient Sumerian version of Aphrodite or Venus, who represents love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility and war. Our group of about fifteen people was led by Teri, who wore a furry pillbox hat, purple leg warmers, Birkenstocks with socks, and a faux leopard-skin coat. Next to her was a pretty fifty-something witch called Melanie and a guy called Benjamin Pixie dressed in hand-tanned salmon leather, and what Teri referred to as his ‘bee skirt’, a concoction of black and yellow fabrics sewn in asymmetrical stripes. He was bearded, tattooed and pierced with tribal earrings. He had an alert animal intelligence about him.

There were brief introductions. We said our names and also the pronouns we would like people to use when addressing or referring to us. I said I was fine with ‘she’ and ‘her’. Many people preferred ‘they’. One woman said she used ‘zhe’, whose object form is ‘zhim’ and possessive form is ‘zher’. It is an archaic non-gender-specific Chinese pronoun. The ‘zh’ is pronounced like the second ‘g’ in ‘garage’.

We were given an alchemical potion called ‘Saturn’s Anchor or the Embodiment of Rooted Desire’, intended to open us up. It had a pleasant, herby taste. I think I heard Benjamin say it had been made with ground elk antlers and dinosaur bones. He spoke like a prophet, in a quick staccato. He was passionate about the Earth and the honey his bees made, the mead he brewed, the skins he tanned. His brain was a rapid-fire machine and he talked about the natural world as if reciting poetry that had been dredged up deep from a bog or the inside of a tree. He was someone with the practical skills needed to live in the wilderness. He was someone I wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with.

Melanie was soft-spoken, with wispy reddish hair, pale skin and fine features. She was a High Priestess in the Sylvan Tradition of witchcraft, a branch which emerged in the 1970s in Northern California. Rather than identifying as a religion, with rules and dogma, this tradition of witchcraft sees itself as a way of life that honours nature – hence ‘sylvan’, a word relating to Silvanus, the Ancient Roman god of forests. Sylvans respect their connection to the Earth, reserving a particular reverence for forests, which are home to the ‘fey’. These unseen beings are what most of us would call fairies. They act as messengers between humans and nature. An elderly gentleman in our group put his hand up and asked about the ritual of mixing semen with blood and drinking it. Melanie told us this was used in sangromancy – which is the casting of spells involving the use of blood – but that nowadays the concoction was more likely to be yogurt and pomegranate or cranberry juice. ‘It’s safer,’ she explained.

We were asked to visualize a Sheela-na-gig, the Celtic female figure with a large, open vulva, to ‘let her come to us’. The images in my mind were pathetic: the witch from my daughter’s illustrated Hansel and Gretel followed by the animals in the Disney version of Snow White. I felt utterly deficient. Teri and Melanie discussed how important it was for us all to connect with our non-human ancestors and plants. ‘They can guide you,’ Melanie said. Teri added that our ancestors would have ‘listened to plants’, but that ‘monoculture, monotheism and monogamy’ had done its best to sever this communication.

 

Surrender | Joanna Pocock | GrantaIn the dome that afternoon we gathered for the consent talk. It was 4 p.m. and people were dancing to loud, trancy house music. The rain was still falling and the air inside the dome was thick and damp. Teri was rapping into a mic: ‘It only takes one individual to start a revolution!’ from the song by the artist Deya Dova. Participants were hugging, lying on their backs with their feet flailing in the air. As the dome heated up, more people were stripping off and swirling in ecstatic, naked dancing. I sat at the edge of the dome next to a woman in a lawn chair who told me she was a Buddhist and who, like me, didn’t seem keen to get up and dance. I didn’t feel judged for not taking part – I felt ungenerous.

Lindsay and Teri were sitting where they had been last night. As we were about to begin, Lindsay announced she wanted to run naked in the rain. ‘Well, do it then!’ Teri cried. About a dozen people stood up and ran outside to feel the rain on their skin. The lectures began once everybody came back. There was talk of body sovereignty. The Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin and the writer and activist bell hooks were mentioned. There was a discussion about the colonizing of the very land we were sitting on. The presentations wouldn’t have been out of place on a liberal arts college course called ‘Gender and Ecology in Post-Colonial Times’.

We were encouraged to engage with the Earth and not to deny our part in its colonization, but to move beyond that thought by getting in touch with our own ancestors, with our own histories. Place, for obvious reasons, seemed to play a significant part in this movement. Knowing where we came from would help us feel grounded. A woman stood up to say she was raised by radical hippies and struggled ‘with the idea of going back to the land. The global population is so high, we can’t all go back to the land!’

‘Solutions have to be place-based. It isn’t “one size fits all”,’ replied Lindsay.

It was time for the consent talk. ‘We are creating a new culture here. Part of its soil is consent. We’re building it into the soil . . .’ said one of the three people leading this presentation. Subtleties were outlined in various hugging techniques. When someone asks you for a hug are you expecting the two-second ‘greeting-style hug’ or one of those long constricting ones? They illustrated this with play-acting. They talked about the feeling that comes from someone’s body when they are saying ‘yes’. I was finding it strange that we had come to a place where this all needed to be outlined. How had we moved so far from being able to understand each other?

We were reminded to continually check in with ourselves and that ‘consent for one activity is not consent for others’. The speakers warned us to be aware of ‘pop-up boundaries’, which were described as akin to ‘stepping on a rake’. The difference between ‘consent’ and ‘compliance’ was explained. We listed situations that could get in the way of consent, such as being drunk, stoned, hungry or ‘hangry’ (the anger that comes from hunger) or being in a ‘trance state’. Environmental factors, such as being in the dark, could also prevent full consent.

I could now see how this would take two hours.

If we asked someone to do something with us and they said ‘no’, we were given some appropriate responses, such as ‘Thank you for taking care of yourself,’ or ‘Thank you for being true to your authentic boundaries.’ One woman stood up and said how sick and tired she was of her kids having to ‘go kiss grandma’. Her kids didn’t want to kiss grandma and it felt like coercion. She got some knowing applause.

Then Lilith’s Forest was brought up. Lilith seemed to figure prominently among those gathered here. She has come down through myth and storytelling as a she-devil, a femme-fatale and a wild woman of the night. In Sumerian sculpture, she is portrayed as slender and large-breasted, often with the wings and feet of an owl. In medieval Jewish mythology, Lilith appears as Adam’s first wife – before Eve – but she left him in protest at her subservient role. The Hungarian anthropologist and friend of Robert Graves, Raphael Patai, explored the origins and symbolism surrounding Lilith. In a 1964 article in The Journal of American Folklore, Patai wrote that Adam and Lilith ‘could find no happiness together, not even understanding’. When Adam asked to lie with her, she replied, ‘Why should I lie beneath you . . . when I am your equal?’ When she saw he was determined to overpower her, ‘she uttered the magic name of God, rose into the air, and flew away to . . . a place of ill repute, full of lascivious demons. There, Lilith engaged in unbridled promiscuity.’ She was still attracted to Adam, however, and returned to him as a lover after he had taken Eve for a wife. The Hebrew for Lilith can be translated as ‘Night Hag’ or ‘Night Creature’. I can see how, with her enormous sexual appetite and her unwillingness to be coerced into sleeping with Adam, she fit the model of the ecosexual.

The earliest mention of Lilith is found on Sumerian clay tablets dating from around 2400 BC. Her epithet was ‘the beautiful maiden’, but according to Patai, ‘she was believed to have been a harlot and a vampire who, once she chose a lover, would never let him go, without ever giving him real satisfaction’. Scholarship varies on whether the Sumerian Lilith is related to the Jewish mythological figure. She was a fairly common character in ancient literatures but doesn’t show up in the western canon until Goethe’s Faust, when Mephistopheles encourages Faust to dance with Lilith, the dangerous ‘Pretty Witch’ who ensnares young men with her beautiful hair by winding it around their necks. Although her provenance is disputed, Lilith’s role in contemporary culture is to represent the free-spirited woman, the goddess of the night, the physical manifestation of mysterious, female sexual urges, the personification of women’s erotic power.

Lilith’s Forest consists of twenty acres of woodland set aside for consensual group sex or any kind of consensual sex play you can think of. But you must negotiate with your partners beforehand – a ‘Negotiation Station’ was set up just outside the forest for this purpose. If things escalated and you wanted to go further or try some new things, you needed to leave the forest and renegotiate before heading back inside. I had been told by a woman sitting next to me that there had been two consent violations last year. Nothing serious but enough for the organizers to make sure everyone felt safe.

The meeting came to an end after some more play-acting, exercises and questions from the audience. The rain had not stopped. I headed to my tent in my soaking wet shoes, coat and rucksack. Lying on my sleeping bag (the one thing that remained dry), I unzipped the front flap of my tent and squeezed out the dirty clothes that had been absorbing the water on my few square centimetres of floor.

The conversation around consent seemed logical and yet I felt saddened by it, as if it were missing a crucial ingredient. Consent, for me, de-eroticized desire. I thought about the thrill of sex in my twenties, of not knowing where I would wake up and with whom, of how wonderful it was to trust the person or people I was with to not go beyond what I wanted, and how sometimes I had gone beyond and was elated that I had. I can’t imagine finding sexual fulfilment by negotiating every step, every move, kiss and touch. Some of us want to lose control and inhabit the unbounded mystery of bodies at play.

When we hook up with someone, we are hooking up not just with their body, but with their morals, their sense of decency, their ability to read our body language and understand our words. And here is my problem with consent culture: sex for some people needs to be spontaneous, dark, unwholesome, and with an element of surprise for it to be arousing. This self-policing in the arena of sex felt, to me, anathema to its essence. In discussions around sex today, there is rarely a mention of pleasure or desire – these are subsumed into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, as if all the information you needed from your sexual partners could be found in a multiple-choice test. It all seemed bizarrely reductive in its efforts to be more open.

It is indeed crucial to steer clear of the non-consensual – too many women, including myself, have been violated by men. But paradoxically by placing the emphasis on consent, we are placing the responsibility onto individuals to avoid rape and abuse rather than seeing it as a societal problem of power imbalance. As I was thinking about all this, I realized I am old, romantic, and very out of step. Yet I still liked knowing that there are elements within myself and others that can surprise, enchant and disturb me. In fact, I want there to be these places inside myself.

While the rain drenched the thin nylon skin of my tent, I recalled an interview I had done in 2015 with the writer Sarah Hepola. We were talking about her book Blackout, which deals candidly with her alcoholism and its impact on her sex life and her writing. In the introduction, Hepola describes her route to becoming a feminist:

Activism may defy nuance, but sex demands it. Sex was a complicated bargain to me . . . It was hide-and-seek, clash and surrender, and the pendulum could swing inside my brain all night: I will, no I won’t: I should, no I can’t . . . My consent battle was in me.

Here is the crux of the debate: our consent battles are inside us.

‘Feminism today is about identity politics and consent. We didn’t use the word consent in the 80s, and now it’s everywhere,’ she had told me during our conversation. When your consent battles are within you, how can they be legislated for?

 

Surrender | Joanna Pocock | Granta

Supper happened quickly. It was still raining and the ground under the picnic tables had become a small lagoon of mud. I was thinking of leaving the festival as the rain had penetrated all my belongings and the floor of my tent was slick with several millimetres of water. I had a word with Chuck about leaving the next morning and she looked distraught. She hadn’t had any sleep and emitted that energetic glow from having been up most of the night enjoying herself. She wanted to stay and I could not bear to drag her away.‘OK,’ I told her. ‘Let’s stay, but if the inside of my sleeping bag is wet by tomorrow morning, we’re leaving.’ She agreed. She had forgotten to put a tarp over her tent and everything she had brought with her was lying in a pool of water, but she had other things on her mind and seemed amazingly unperturbed.

That evening we were back in the dome for a performance. It was a re-enactment of the Sumerian myth of Inanna and the Huluppu tree from The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written epic dating from 1300 to 1000 BCE. Discovered in 1853 in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in modern-day Iraq, the story of the young Sumerian hero-king Gilgamesh was imprinted onto twelve clay tablets in cuneiform writing and describes the king’s relationship to the wild, sexual Inanna. Gilgamesh’s refusal to be lured by Inanna plays a part in his journey from an arrogant, reckless young man to a hero-king who rules with wisdom. Excerpts from the epic were read aloud:

As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?

Great Lady, the king will plow your vulva.
I, Dumuzi the King, will plow your vulva.

Then plow my vulva, man of my heart!
Plow my vulva!

As I listened to the words of Inanna with her female power, fertility and unabashed sexual desire, something very strange happened. I felt a warmth between my legs. I quickly left the dome and ran to the outhouse in the pouring rain and saw that I was bleeding. Not just spotting, which was how my period had fizzled to an end last year, but gushing. All this talk of nature, sex, ancestral pathways, the goddess Inanna, consent, orgies, orgasms and weed lube had brought back my period. I headed to my tent where ‘just in case’ I had packed a few pads. My head was throbbing. I lay down feeling impressed with myself that despite my reluctant mind, my body had decided to show me that it was listening.

 

This is an extract from Surrender by Joanna Pocock, available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions. 

Surrender

All images courtesy of the author

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Surrender in Tank Magazine

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June 2019

Joanna Pocock’s Surrender is a book about the American West, ecology and how people, as crisis caves in, both invent new ways of living and uncover old ones. During a two year stay in Montana, faced with the loss of her parents and the onset of menopause, Pocock develops a fascination with the radical eco-communities that surround her and the ways they attempt to salvage a wrecked landscape into an endurable form. She attends the Ecosex Convergence, meets scavenger communities and, in the below extract, joins Finisia Medrano, a transsexual rewilder, to learn about life on “the hoop”.

•••

I had become obsessed with Finisia Medrano. I would stay up late Googling her at the kitchen table in our small, damp, rented bungalow in Missoula. The mushrooms growing on our carpets were thriving. The hobos continued to walk into my spider traps and I would examine their fat, striped bodies before chucking them in the bin. The wasps in the kitchen ceiling had come out of their hibernation with the beginning of summer and buzzed loudly above my head, sounding like an electric razor.

While I typed away at my MacBook Pro, I was keenly aware of the arsenic and copper inside it, both of which were probably mined in Chile. I knew that the process of pulling these elements out of the ground was killing whole villages and poisoning rivers. In the Republic of Congo, children as young as seven are digging cobalt out of the earth with their bare hands. Their lives were being cut short so my battery could have a long one. It was the same story for the bismuth from Mexico, the gallium from Guinea, the cadmium, chromium, manganese and platinum from South Africa, the lithium from Zimbabwe, the mercury from the only mercury mine in the world in Kyrgyzstan, the vanadium from Kazakhstan, the antimony from Tajikistan, and so on. But every morning I powered up my computer, made a cup of coffee, and scrolled through the petitions in my inbox: dozens of them every morning, asking for money to combat child labour, to save the orangutan, to clean up rivers running orange from the mining of copper used in the making of my computer. Every morning I put on the mask of schizophrenia I needed in order to get through the day, a mask I imagined someone like Finisia did not need. I assumed her reliance on modern technology and the extraction industries needed to power any devices she might have would be minimal, perhaps even non-existent.

 

Finisia Medrano. Photograph by Joanna Pocock

 

The West is one of the last places on Earth where thoughts around wilderness as inoculation against the darker forces of modernity are still in the ether, in the discourse, in people’s decisions to live off the grid, on the land, in the wild. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to understand the West and its promise, real and imagined, of freedom, escape, transcendence, and its promise to turn us from predator to prey. I gathered the courage to add Finisia as a “friend” on Facebook. My need to meet her was gaining in urgency. I got an almost immediate response posted publicly onto my timeline which began: “Why would any stranger want to be my friend when I have a public profile and not even the cops have to spy on it?” The irrational aggression and paranoia in her response made me anxious. Why would the cops be spying on a 61-year-old, transsexual rewilder? She was not the sweet middle-aged woman with dangly turquoise earrings and a penchant for reading tea leaves that I had been expecting, but an angry, quarrelsome rewilder who travelled on horseback, harvesting roots while replanting the wild gardens of the West – and she was looking for a fight.

_

Eve noticed the horses first, and then the lean-to along the side of the road, next to a wooden fence and a collapsing outhouse. Frenchglen sits in a lush, grassy valley irrigated by small, meandering canals. It was an oasis in the eastern Oregon desert. A dark green tarp was stretched across six poles at waist height. Eight horses stood in a home-made paddock with a single electric wire wrapped around the makeshift corral to keep them from running away. Jason parked up as Finisia emerged from under her tarp to greet us. She was dressed in her trademark wide buckskin skirt, large-brimmed leather hat, and – despite the June heat – a thin wool sweater. Her long uncombed hair spread across her shoulders, giving her the air of a nineteenth-century gunslinger from a travelling Wild West roadshow – she could have been Annie Oakley’s wilder older sister. The lines on her weatherworn face had the detail of a Dorothea Lange photo. She stuck her roll-up in her mouth to shake my hand.

As soon as I said “Hello,” she started immediately, in a deep-voiced and very fast delivery, to tell me about my domestication.

“The problem with you is that even your internal flora have been domesticated! It takes forty to fifty days to acclimatize to a wild food diet and some people begin to starve in that time.”

She was not interested in the social niceties of small talk. This could have been the result of thirty years of solitude on the hoop, or simply because Finisia wanted, above all else, to get her message across: the Earth is dying and those of us who do not throw off our domestication are responsible for its death.

The type of slow, painful starvation I would experience if I were to live Finisia’s hunter-gatherer life could be prevented by the administration of “warm, spring bear poop” as a high colonic enema.

“How do you administer it?” I asked.

“You know, with one of those rubber whoopedy-doo things,” she said, drawing a roller-coaster shape in the air with her finger. Those of us who are domesticated may suffer a fever from such an enema, but once that has passed and we have survived, our insides would be “rewilded” and we would achieve “food freedom”. Until then, I remained an “ecocidal whore of Babylon” – “Babylon” being her name for civilization.

A soft-spoken figure clad in buckskin appeared. This was Michael Ridge, who had been travelling with Finisia for many months. Handsome, in his early twenties, Michael had the limpid blue eyes, the long hair and the slender features of a prophet. His jaw wore a fresh, red gash. We shook hands and he wandered off with the horseshoes I had brought at Finisia’s request to start shoeing up their smallest packhorse. He and Finisia were curt with each other and she told me he had royally pissed her off. Something to do with a horse, his ex-girlfriend who had been with them until recently, and some expensive chains they had lost. The story had too many detours for me to follow.

 

Photograph by Joanna Pocock

 

There is much of the nineteenth-century, mountainman outlaw in Finisia with her buckskin, her jail time, her horses, rifles and foul mouth, but the model she most identifies with is the hunter-gatherer, the original inhabitants and stewards of this land.

For Finisia, like many rewilders, the rot of civilization began with agriculture. Once we became sedentary and started storing our food rather than going out to find it, we became landowners. Our gaze shifted from seeing land as belonging to all people to seeing it as something to be owned and exploited. Once grain was stored, it could be taxed. It became a commodity. The West is full of people trying to escape dependence on Big Agriculture, Big Oil and Big Government. For some, living sustainably consists of incremental urban rewilding; for others it is living off-grid, by the light of home-made candles in tiny solar-powered homes. Finisia’s radical rewilding approach is the most extreme, the most severe, the most committed. For her, the life of the hunter-gatherer is the only climate-change-proof one. ◉

 

Surrender is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The Lightning Field

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1. Deserts

Growing up in eastern Canada, I’d never lived near a desert or had any kind of relationship to one. In my late forties, I found myself living in Montana. It was here that I met a nomadic woman who took me out to dig for roots in the Oregon desert. Finisia showed me the plants she had been sustaining herself on for thirty-five years as she travelled the Great Basin. She also taught me about the dry seeds hanging by threads to the tiny fronds of biscuitroot, fritillaria and yampa, just waiting for an animal to run past or a wind to whip up and scatter them. She collected and replanted these seeds in this giant wild garden that had fed her all her adult life. If I had not met Finisia and seen how she lived among this spartan bounty, I would still be blind and deaf to the quiet, pulsing life of a desert.

In the late 1950s the writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey worked as a park ranger in Arches National Monument in the Utah desert. In his 1968 book Desert Solitaire, his descriptions of the plants, animals, light, sky and stone are shot through with the tension between the human visitors to the park and the arid, delicate ecosystems. ‘Where is the heart of the desert?’, he asked. ‘Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere.’ A desert ‘says nothing,’ he wrote. Throughout his book, he refers to these places as ‘barren’ and yet he imbues them with a form of life that is elusive. Something akin to ‘spirit’, perhaps. 

I consider the tree, the lonely cloud, the sandstone bedrock of this part of the world and pray–in my fashion–for a vision of truth. I listen for signals from the sun–but that distant music is too high and pure for the human ear. I gaze at the tree and receive no response. I scrape my bare feet against the sand and rock under the table and am comforted by their solidity and resistance. I look at the cloud.

 

There is a sense that Abbey saw the desert as a blank slate, as a space onto which he could project his own version of ultimate ‘desert-ness’. Abbey’s version of things was often complex: he railed against overpopulation, yet fathered five children; he wanted the human imprint to be minimal in the wilderness, yet enjoyed throwing beer cans from his car as he sped along quiet highways; and his views on immigration would now be considered questionable. Much as I admire the brilliance of his writing, the passion he expressed for wild places and the energy he devoted to environmental issues, my relationship to him remains complicated and guarded.

Just after the publication of Desert Solitaire, a group of American artists emerged in the West and Southwest whose vision of art was one that dissolved the walls of galleries and museums. The work they created in craters, lakes and in arid landscapes was intended to expand the idea of art and the expectations of its audience. Their pieces would be intertwined with the Earth, they would contrast with the land or they would merge with it; they would suffer natural entropy or they would withstand it; and they would encourage us to question our relationship to the planet and to the act of creation. Richard Long, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim and Walter de Maria all carved, sculpted, walked and dug pieces that attempted to remove the constraints of the institution. This migration outside simultaneously led these artists back in time.

There are thousands of examples of ancient geoglyphs – arrangements or rearrangements of objects across large expanses of land. Many can only be seen from a great height. The Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert, which date from 500 BCE, cover an area of nineteen square miles. These geometric shapes and animal outlines were made by scraping the top layer of red iron-rich Earth to reveal the pale yellow subsoil underneath. This drive to alter the Earth to express a desire – or perhaps a need – to connect the sacred to the performative, stories to place, the human with the non-human, the man-made with the natural has been with us forever. We have always communicated both with the Earth and through it.

 

A desert landscape, New Mexico, by Joanna Pocock

2. The Lightning Field

In 2012, my partner, our daughter and some friends travelled to the remote high desert of New Mexico to see one such act of communication through landscape: Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field. De Maria made it a condition that only six people be allowed to view the work at one time and they must experience it for twenty-four hours. There is a small, roughly hewn homesteader cabin for visitors to sleep in. For De Maria, isolation was ‘the essence of land art.’

The artist had made a test version of The Lightning Field near Flagstaff, Arizona in 1974. A year or so later he secured funding for his larger and more permanent version from the Dia Art Foundation who purchased this swathe of New Mexican desert. He chose this site for its beauty and remoteness and for the fact that lightning strikes here roughly sixty days per year.

To create this work, De Maria drove 400 stainless steel poles measuring around twenty feet in length into the ground in a grid that stretches a mile from east to west and a kilometre from north to south. The east-west rows contain twenty-five poles, the north-south, sixteen. Despite the uneven ground, they have been placed so that their pointed tips are level and they form a continuous plane. There is an intense symmetry at work here which contrasts the undulating ground and the distant ribbon of red-ochre mountains. Everything about the setting is warm. The piece itself could not be colder or sharper.

Once you secure your place and pay for your night in the cabin you are sent ‘instructions’. You are told to meet a man called Robert in the Dia Art Foundation building in Quemado, New Mexico (population 250). You aren’t told much else. While sitting in a small Mexican restaurant on Quemado’s main street I noticed a tall rangy man in a Stetson leaning against a truck in the parking lot. I asked if he was Robert. He nodded. We paid for our lunch and piled into his vehicle for the forty-five-minute trip. You can’t drive to The Lightning Field on your own, the desert terrain is rough, there are no markers, and it’s not on any maps. You have to surrender yourself to it.

In the truck on the way there Robert nodded at the red ground and slash of blue sky, ‘When I look out there,’ he said, ‘I get weird thoughts.’ He wouldn’t elaborate. Robert had been one of the high school kids chosen by De Maria in 1977 to hammer the steel poles into the Earth. It was a great gig, he said. He got to live out in the desert and drink beer every night. When I asked him what he thought of the artwork, he replied, ‘It’s what you make of it. Everyone has their own Lightning Field.’

 

The Dia office in Quemado, New Mexico, by Joanna Pocock

3. Horizon

Robert dropped us off and drove away. I felt an immediate pull to touch the steel rods, to try and understand where I stood in relation to them, to get my bearings. When I walked in a circle around the outer perimeter of the cabin facing away from it, the only place my eye could land was on the line of the horizon. There are no trees, no telephone poles or mobile phone masts. There is nothing manmade in your field of vision apart from the The Lightning Field, which in this setting seems very small.

Over the course of the afternoon, I observed the movement of the sun in order to work out the time of day. I have rarely been in a landscape where I could see the sun dip below one spot on the horizon knowing it would rise from another spot within the same field of vision. If I had stood there all night I would have been able to witness this without moving my head. My response to the work was one of wonder – a simple awe slowly crept into me. I wandered between the poles stepping on the tiny bleached skeletons of desert rats, the shed skins of snakes and the odd animal tooth. Flowers blossomed, hares scrambled into their burrows and mounds made by fire ants rose and fell, every now and then exploding with flames of small, fast moving red dots. In the early evening we had a rain shower and then the rainbows arrived. We were shown every colour transmittable by light reflected back at us in the burnished steel rods.

As the sun set, we sat on the small wooden porch and watched in complete silence as the tapered steel tips of the poles raged with the ball of fire in the sky. I thought about the intervention into this landscape by the artist and how it made me more aware of the inscrutable power of the desert. But what was most noticeable to me, because of the scale of the site and the flatness of the land with its perfect 360-degree view, was the curvature of the Earth. I could see the gentle curve of our planet and I became acutely aware that we are all standing on a ball of rock spinning through the Universe. Witnessing this place is to witness one’s insignificance. Yet, there was something tugging at me, something about the whole thing that didn’t sit completely comfortably.

There is a violence to The Lightning Field, to these man-made lances piercing the surface of the Earth. They could be javelins or spears. There is a sense of humans dominating the land. And there is perhaps something perverse about framing lightning as a spectacle. In our heated world where wildfires now ravage so much of the West in ever-increasing conflagrations, witnessing lightning for entertainment seems a luxury, a foolhardy and entitled pursuit.

 

Flowers in the New Mexican desert, by Joanna Pocock

4. Transience

Visitors to The Lightning Field are forbidden from sharing photos on social media or publishing them on blogs, in newspapers or magazines. The Dia Foundation has a very tight grasp on what information is allowed out into the world. Perhaps there is an attempt on their part to protect the purity of the one’s experience and to avoid visual oversaturation. John Beardsley, the art historian and author of Earthworks and Beyond, finds the measure of control exercised by De Maria and Dia to be problematic. The restrictions around access to the site and the demand that images not be shared are for Beardsley a ‘wilful cultivation of mystery’. He goes on to discuss the ‘enormous disparity between the actual sculpture, which is a minimalist understatement, and the promotion it receives, which is anything but.’

To demand so much from the viewer does indeed heighten expectation. For the visitor not to see lightning, not to experience a revelation – spiritual, aesthetic or purely personal – could be interpreted as a fault in the work. Yet, this sense of anticipation was a large factor in my connection to the piece. The Lightning Field asks the viewer to reconsider one’s relationship not only to art but to its setting – in this case the desert – and to ask the question of where art belongs in the world both physically and psychologically. If a desert can be a museum, what else is it capable of? If art can be part of the desert, then where else can it exist?

I think it is only right that we should feel anticipation and maybe even anxiety when entering a desert landscape. Like meeting a stranger, we cannot know how our communication will go, how much understanding we will have with each other and how much future we might share. During my night at The Lightning Field, I could feel the landscape was telling me things, but I couldn’t hear the words. The conversation between the Earth and the work drowned out the conversation between myself and the piece. If you follow the thread of so much art, you will be led towards a grappling with our mortality, but rarely are we asked to face the mortality of our planet. This is where my understanding of The Lightning Field falls away and my words begin to fail. And this is also where the success of the piece lies for me: it is a reminder of our transience and our participation in it.

 

Road through the desert, New Mexico, by Joanna Pocock

5. Impermanence

Where I live in London, I am in closer proximity to stainless steel girders than I am to the skeletons of tiny desert animals. I am domesticated and unwild despite wanting not to be. The Lightning Field, perhaps more than any piece of work I have confronted, explores this paradox: most of us live, sleep and breathe closer to metal than to sand or soil. It is this discord that unsettled me and continues to do so. The desert has become a rarified spectacle for most of us.

One can imagine the 36,000 pounds of stainless steel used to make The Lightning Field still standing long after most of us have gone. What will be made of it? What stories will be spun to make sense of these steel spires? By creating something permanent in a fragile landscape, De Maria reminds us of the impermanence of our existence – both natural entropy and man-made destruction – and our simultaneous desire to create something lasting. Perhaps there is posturing in De Maria’s methods – a kind of arrogant grandeur – but how many viewers would willingly wander into a desert without such an invitation?

My visit to The Lightning Field occurred simultaneously with my commitment to living closer to the Earth. I have no idea if my experience there fed into this desire, but I suspect it did. I suspect that the effect of land art on many of us who make these pilgrimages is somewhat mysterious. I suspect that I owe more to The Lightning Field than I care to admit. What De Maria has done is create a work that echoes perfectly Abbey’s description of the desert as the ‘skeleton of Being’, one that is ‘spare, sparse, austere’. But it is the work that is these things. The desert, by contrast, becomes an entity whose very ‘Being’ is shown to us as vibrating with life, abundant and plentiful.

While we gazed out at the blackness of the desert from our cabin, we saw very faint strips lightning dancing between the stars in the distance and we could hear the soft rumblings of thunder. But it didn’t approach. None of us slept much – it feels like such a waste of time to sleep in this environment. I wished with all my might that Robert would forget about us so we could stay indefinitely. I didn’t want to only feel space; I wanted to feel time. I sensed their merging in me here in the desert as I waited for lightning to strike.

Robert showed up at lunchtime as arranged and dropped us back in Quemado. After about half an hour of driving, we hit rumbling, low, grey fog which was illuminated with brilliant flashes of lightning. We couldn’t see out of the car so we pulled over and waited for the storm to pass. We sat in silence watching the rain and lightning. And then, once it was quiet, we looked at the clouds.

 

Desert, by Joanna Pocock

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

Read more

 

 

https://dark-mountain.net/the-lightning-field/

The Letting in of the Light

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Published in Soanyway Magazine, January, 2019

 

Written September 27, 2018

 

Nobody shall violate this grove, export or take away what belongs to the grove.
Nobody shall cut (wood) except for the requirements of the annual divine service …
If someone violates (this rule), he shall offer … an ox to Jupiter.

From the Lex Spoletina, a standing stone at the entrance
.to the Sacred Wood of Monteluco, circa 300 BCE

 

1.

I am half way up a mountain in Umbria called Monteluco. The town of Spoleto sprawls at its feet, a jumble of terracotta tiles, limestone and sandstone bricks, ochre walls and lanes of granite cobbles. Against the crazy blue of the sky, the view from this hill consists of bands and patches of pure, sharp, arid colour. The day is not cold but the air has something in it, the portent of autumn. I don’t know where I am, in that way that comes over you when you allow yourself to be a passenger. I am one of a group and we are winding our way up this mountain. We are not exactly strangers, but many of us have never met. I have no idea where I am in space. But this place is where I want to be, so I am not lost.

 

 

2.

We pass a replica of the standing stone known as the Lex Spoletina, (its original having been tucked safely away in a museum in Spoleto). It is inscribed with the rules of this land and marks the entrance to the Sacred Wood of Monteluco: a concentrated mass of ancient evergreen oaks, with deep, dark green leaves, almost black in the shade. More like holly than the version of oak I am familiar with in Britain. Translated from the Latin, Monteluco means ‘sacred wood of the mountain’. There are three other words in Latin for ‘forest’, but ‘lucus’ is the only one to bestow a spiritual dimension. Some believe it is derived from ‘lucendo’, a letting in of the light.

 

3.

Much of this forest has no undergrowth, as if these monoliths need only soil and sun – nothing earthly in between. Seekers have been coming here for centuries to find God, solitude or some version of a higher power. According to the Earth, every forest is sacred so I am trying to feel what drew the hermits, the holy people, the visionaries to this particular grove. There is something here – a feeling that this place has held tight to the secrets told to it during the night. And then there is the pull of Jupiter – the deity to whom this wood is devoted. With his thunderbolt and his eagle, he is god of the sky, the most powerful of the Roman gods. These are his woods.

 

4.

I wander through the oaks, the light filtering from above masking out the forest floor in shifting patterns. The trunks of these trees are broad. Although they have been here for centuries, they are too young to have met Saint Francis when he walked this ground in 1218, spending his days praying and meditating, kneeling at his wooden bed in the monastery now bearing his name. Nor would these trees have looked down on the 81-year-old Michelangelo, who it is said rushed here from Rome to flee Spanish troops in 1556. There are holes dug in the rockface where hermits have slept over the years. I want to curl up in one and spend the night. But I walk on, pulled by the force of these trees and this mountain to go higher.

 

 

5.

When the acorns for these oaks were softening, probably some time in the early nineteenth century, their shells would have cracked open in the pitch black soil. Their first leaves may have already sprouted on 3 January 1818, the day that Venus occulted Jupiter. Those who looked up into the sky on that cold night would have seen Venus, the planet named for the goddess of love, the Roman version of the wise woman who embodied the soil, the land, blood and fertility. And they would have seen her moving across Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, obliterating him from view. The trees I stand among may have witnessed this. The next Venus-Jupiter occultation will be on 22 November 2065. Will these trees still be here? They have seen things I never will. They understand things in a way I cannot. As we are about to begin our descent, I stand before an oak examining its furrowed bark. Someone says, ‘You look like you want to hug it.’ I turn and smile at this stranger. ‘Yes, I do.’ I wrap my arms around this ancient tree, this witness to things I can’t comprehend. I hear laughter. I hear people made more alive for being here. I hear the woods and the tales they tell us and I get a faint whisper of the stories spoken on a frequency we cannot tune into. We begin our descent. Something in every one of us has shifted, such is the power of these trees. These sacred trees and their blessed letting in of the light.

 

https://www.soanywaymagazine.org/spoleto-special

Watching the royal wedding on telly? Here’s what you need to know about St. George’s Chapel and Windsor Castle

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As I boarded the train at London’s Waterloo Station, I could not get that infernal pop song by the Dixie Cups, out of my mind.

I was indeed going to the chapel, but not to get ma-a-a-rried. I was going to get a good look so that when the clock strikes noon on Saturday, I can toast my TV with a glass of bubbly knowing a bit more about the site of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s royal wedding.

St. George’s Chapel is on the grounds of Windsor Castle, the oldest continuously inhabited royal residence on the planet. With 13 acres, the castle is also the largest.

William the Conqueror chose this spot overlooking the Thames in 1070, and since then, it has been home to 39 monarchs.

On the early spring day I visited, the clouds spit intermittently and cast a gray light. From the train station, I followed the tall, fortified walls of the castle, and although I was here to check out the chapel, I couldn’t resist following signs to the State Apartments. They’ll give me extra context, I told myself, but really, I was just curious.

Grandeur and glitz

They were even grander than I had expected — shimmering gold furnishings with satin and silk upholstery and wallpaper in ruby red and emerald green — the result of Charles II’s attempt to outdo France’s Louis XIV in splendor.

The ceilings, painted by Antonio Verrio, show gods and goddesses in shades of bubblegum pink and baby blue frolicking above the Queen’s Audience Chamber, the Queen’s Presence Chamber and the King’s Dining Room. It is difficult to imagine that these are working rooms regularly used for ceremonial occasions and not film sets.

Amid the glitz are paintings by Holbein, Van Dyck, Rubens and Canaletto. I was particularly struck by Rembrandt’s thoughtful “A Young Man Wearing a Turban” and his 1642 “Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap” with its earthy palette. What would he make of his glittering surroundings?

I stepped outside under glowering skies and caught sight of a building that is more filigree and air than stone. This was it — one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world. I wandered inside St. George’s Chapel, and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I gasped.

One of the volunteers heard me and laughed, admitting that after years of working here, she still can’t believe her surroundings.

The chapel is a classic cross-shaped structure with a transept, nave and two side aisles. The ceiling looked as though skeins of lace had been stretched across it and magically turned to stone; the windows shimmered as if gemstones had been pressed into glass.

The original building dates to the 13th century, but the chapel was finished in 1483 during the reign of King Edward IV.

The chapel seats 800, far fewer than the massive St Paul’s, where Harry’s parents, Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales, were married in 1981. And it doesn’t have the political associations of Westminster Abbey, a stone’s throw from Parliament, where Harry’s brother, Prince William, married Kate Middleton in 2011.

St. George, the chapel’s namesake, is a bit of a mystery. He was probably an officer in the Roman army who died around 300, and King Edward III chose him as the country’s patron saint in 1350, although he had never been to Britain.

Edward III, inspired by the chivalry of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, set up his own chivalrous order, the Order of the Garter, whose spiritual home is St. George’s.

Nearly 700 years after the order’s founding, the monarch recognizes men and women from a variety of backgrounds who have devoted their lives to public service, appointing them into the order. Every June, the queen, knights and ladies parade in their grand velvet robes and plumed hats in the Garter Day procession held here.

st george's side

Side entrance of St George’s Chapel, Windsor

‘Fine, peaceful and hallowed’

The chapel has also been the site of royal baptisms, communions, marriages and burials. I wonder whether Prince Harry chose this site partly because of his baptism here in 1984 and also as a nod to his father, the Prince of Wales, whose prayer service was held here in 2005 after his marriage to the Duchess of Cornwall, better known as Camilla.

One of the most beautiful statues in the church is Matthew Wyatt’s memorial to Princess Charlotte, who died in 1817 during childbirth, along with her son. Artists from the Regency era really know how to do death — possibly because there was so much of it.

A robed Charlotte points upward while a winged angel carries her baby heavenward and mourners draped in white marble “fabric” surround the scene.

Charlotte’s death hit Britain hard. The entire population went into mourning, much as it did after Diana died in 1997.

St. George’s feels somewhat mournful and far away. It is no surprise that Queen Victoria adored the chapel, calling it “fine, peaceful and hallowed.”

Her eldest son, Edward VII, is the only royal to be baptized, confirmed, married and buried here. His marriage to Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 came two years after the death of Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. The widowed queen entered the chapel by a private walkway and shed a tear as she observed her son’s wedding from an oriel window — a decorated bay window Henry VIII had built for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

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Some fine and intricate stonework on the exterior of St George’s Chapel, Windsor

After hours in the chapel, I stopped in the gift shop, where I asked a volunteer whether he could show me Victoria’s secret walkway. He pointed to a courtyard behind the shop. Above was a tiny wooden door and a raised boardwalk.

“She used to go out there and walk around at night,” he said. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he gestured to the courtyard, “That’s where Henry VIII saw Jane Seymour for the first time.”

She was the third of his seven wives and is buried next to him under a marble slab — I almost didn’t see it as I walked through the choir. You need to look where your feet are stepping.

On Harry and Meghan’s wedding day, the couple will be given titles by Queen Elizabeth II. The Duke of Sussex is thought to be the likeliest choice, which would make Markle Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex.

Sticking to the couple’s plans to make this royal wedding a joyous celebration “of the people,” the first to congratulate them as husband and wife will be the 2,000 charity workers and local schoolchildren who have been invited to watch from inside the castle walls.

At 1 p.m., the couple will ride through the pretty Berkshire town of Windsor in a carriage before returning to the castle for their reception. The picturesque route will offer plenty of opportunity for the newlyweds to share their day with the public.

As I left the chapel to undertake the route on foot, the clouds parted and an early spring sun emerged — a good omen, I think.

long walk

The Long Walk with Windsor Castle in the distance

Spring is here (the-uh-uh)

The sky is blue (Whoah-oh-oh)

Birds all sing

As if they knew

Today’s the day

We’ll say “I do”

and we’ll never be lonely anymore.

“Chapel of Love,” The Dixie Cups

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO LONDON

From LAX, American, Air New Zealand, British, Delta, KLM, Lufthansa, Norwegian and Virgin Atlantic offer nonstop service to London. United, Delta, KLM and American offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $772, including taxes and fees.

Trains from London’s Waterloo Station leave every half hour for the Windsor & Eton Riverside station. The journey is an hour. For tickets, go to National Rail. Tickets cost about $17 to $28.50, depending on the day and time

tea shop windsor

Tea Shop in Windsor

Windsor Castle, Open 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. through October. Last entry is 4 p.m. Admission, adults, about $25.30; children 17 and younger, about $14.75; seniors and students $23, children 5 and younger, free. The Castle is completely closed May 17-19 and June 17-18. It will have different closing times on May 24 and June 15 (last admission 3 p.m., closes at 4 p.m.)

St. George’s Chapel, closes at 4:15 p.m (last entry 4 p.m.) Mondays-Saturdays in order to prepare for the evening church service at 5:15. The chapel is closed to visitors on Sundays, as services are held throughout the day. Worshipers are welcome to attend the services.

 

Romance is in the Air at London’s Green Spaces

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Like love and marriage, London’s green spaces are inextricably linked to Britain’s royal family — and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, are no exception. This spring there is much talk of romance in the run-up to Meghan Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry. What better place to feel the love than among the acres of blossoms, rolling green lawns and ancient woodland that make up these royal gardens.

Kew, founded in 1840, is London’s largest UNESCO World Heritage site and contains the world’s biggest collection of rare and exotic plants. Here, you can find musk roses, sweet violets, bergamot and heartsease — otherwise known as the love potion in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”— among lily pads the size of coffee tables and flowers so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see them.
Early in May, Kew’s magnificent Temperate Greenhouse — the largest Victorian glasshouse on Earth — was unveiled after a five-year restoration and showcases more than 10,000 exotic plants from around the world. On the surrounding grounds, cornflowers, foxglove and lily of the valley will be in full force this month, and the air, even in smoggy London, will be scented with apple blossom.The Palm House with its ornate spiral staircase, wrought-iron gallery, canopy of giant palms and tropical plants is another ideal backdrop for your romantic rendezvous.

If it’s views you’re after, try the Treetop Walkway, which connects 200-year-old chestnut, lime and oak trees above the lake and surrounding gardens.

Picnic on the grass

Kew’s magnificent green lawns are ideal for spreading out a blanket and lying in the sun with an alfresco lunch. The British take their picnics seriously — I know this firsthand as I met my husband at one many years ago.

If you don’t want to spend your morning cutting the crusts off cucumber sandwiches, Newens, a short walk from the gardens, will make you a picnic lunch for about $19.50, including Maids of Honours for which Kew is famous.

These flaky, curd-cheese delicacies date to Henry VIII. Story has it that Henry caught Anne Boleyn nibbling one and declared them as delicious as her real-life maids of honour. He confiscated the recipe and kept it locked in an iron box for the sole use of his cook.

In the 18th century, the recipe was leaked by a lady at court, and Maids of Honour became high society’s must-have culinary treat.

One baker who got his hands on the recipe was Robert Newen, who set up shop on Kew Road in 1850. Newens is no longer operated by the same family, but the current owners are in close contact with the original family and everything is still made by hand every day on the premises.

 

kew palace

Kew Palace

A house fit for a king, a queen — and 15 children

Kew Palace, the oldest building in Kew Gardens, is the smallest of the royal palaces and a delight to visit (a ticket to the gardens gets you admission).

The palace, built in 1631 for a Flemish merchant, then became the summer residence for King George III, Queen Charlotte and their 15 children. The couple’s marriage was an arranged political union, but history tells us they were happy together; apparently George was the only member of his extended family not to take a mistress.

King George III, best known for his role in the American Revolution, which led to Britain’s defeat and American independence (and a hilarious turn in “Hamilton”), is also notorious for his bouts of “madness.”

In 1811, when he was no longer fit to be king, George was incarcerated in Windsor Castle, the couple’s other, much larger, residence.

Charlotte and George’s children were not producing offspring, and with a succession crisis looming, the royal sons, now in middle age, headed to Germany. They returned home with the princesses Adelaide and Victoire.

In July 1818, a double wedding took place in one of the rooms at Kew Palace. The king was too ill to attend, and an ailing Queen Charlotte just made it. A race now was on for these two couples to produce an heir to the throne. Duchess Victoire and Edward, duke of York, won the “baby race” — their daughter, born exactly nine months after the wedding, would become Queen Victoria.

In November 1818, Queen Charlotte was taken ill at the palace and died in her bedroom. You can see the chair where she took her last breath. Her coffin was taken from Kew to Windsor for her burial, and the cobbled courtyard of Windsor Castle was muffled with straw, so that the king, now suffering from severe dementia, would not hear the funeral carriage of his beloved wife.

queen charlotte's cottage

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage

Charlotte is immortalized in Kew Gardens with the pretty, thatched Queen Charlotte’s Cottage. This cozy retreat is set in a quiet patch of Kew where you can walk in the couple’s footsteps through London’s finest bluebell wood, some of which is more than 300 years old.

In 1898, Queen Victoria made it a condition that the surrounding woodland be kept as wild and natural as possible, and it retains a magical old-world feel.

Kew has always had intimate ties to the royal family: Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, celebrated her 80th birthday here in 2006 with a small family dinner party.

And in 2009, she cut the cake for Kew’s 250th birthday celebration. With such natural beauty on display, Kew’s royal connections are not surprising.

So why not relax on a picnic blanket with your very own Maids of Honour among the exotic flora and fauna, lakes, ponds and ancient trees. There would be no better way to celebrate the upcoming royal wedding than with your own spot of alfresco romance in these royal gardens — just don’t forget the bubbly.

kew lake

The Lake in Kew Gardens

 

If you go

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, London; 011-44-20-8332-5655. Open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. through Sept. 30 (summer hours). Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, open 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. weekends and bank holidays in summer. Online tickets for adults, $21; children 4-16 $5, children 3 and younger, free. If traveling by tube, get off at Kew Gardens station and walk to the Victoria Gate.

Newens The Original Maids of Honour, 288 Kew Road, Richmond; London; 011-44-20-8940-2752. Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. weekends. Guests for afternoon tea are seated on a first-come, first-served basis, so you might have to wait. 

Sidebar: A Round-up of London’s Top Royally Romantic Parks

Richmond Park: Just one stop on the tube (the green line) from Kew Gardens, Richmond Park is London’s largest royal park. Created by Charles I in the 17th century, it is home to 300 red deer as well as the Isabella Plantation, a 40-acre swathe of evergreen azaleas.

Bushy Park: Known as the spot where Gen. Eisenhower planned his D-Day landings, Bushy Park is a warren of trails, woodland and an unusual water garden built in 1710. It’s also a beautiful walk from Hampton Court Palace. You can also reach it by train from Richmond. If you didn’t bring a picnic, the Pheasantry Café has a lovely on-site bakery.

Kensington Gardens: Start your visit at the Lancaster Gate entrance with the Italian Gardens — a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria. One of the most popular features of the park is the bronze statue of Peter Pan. The Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground is a must for anyone traveling with children. The seven-mile Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk, which also goes through Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’s Park, will burn off the delicious cakes from the Broad Walk Café in Kensington Gardens. You can also visit Kensington Palace, the official London residence of William and Kate as well as Harry and Meghan.

These are technically one park but separated by the Royal London Zoo. Primrose Hill offers amazing views over London, which were immortalized by the poet William Blake: “I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill.” Regent’s Park was captured on-screen in David Lean’s tear-jerker, “Brief Encounter,” where Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson row in the lake. Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” does it for me though, when Pongo meets Perdita in Queen Mary’s Gardens, where in real life you can smell the roses — more than 12,000 of them in London’s largest rose garden. This summer, you can also sip on a Pimm’s while watching a performance of “Peter Pan” under the stars.

 

Rewilding the menopause

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greek icons of female torsos

Published April 11, 2018 on Boundless:
https://unbound.com/boundless/2018/04/11/rewilding-the-menopause/

 

By
Essay | 13 minute read
A writer on the frontline of menopause talks about hot flushes, night sweats, forgetfulness… But she also argues that she would not want the changes to be silenced with drugs.

Last April at a weeklong retreat in Dartmoor I learned how to make fire from sticks, and baskets from switches of hazel. Our teacher, a buckskin-clad woman called Lynx, was visiting from the American West where she lives in a yurt and practices ancestral skills. One night she asked us to place ourselves around the campfire in age order. At fifty-one, I was the oldest woman in the group.

‘As elders,’ Lynx said addressing me and a sixty-something Frenchman called Bernard, ‘what would you like to pass on to the younger generation?’

Bernard said some very funny and wise things.

It was my turn.

‘Menopause,’ I blurted, ‘is wonderful!’ The fire popped and sparks flew. ‘It’s not something to be afraid of; it’s a trip.’ These words had come from somewhere very deep and took me by surprise. Despite being in the thick of menopause, I had not spoken about it to anyone.

The next morning at breakfast several young women approached to say they’d never heard anything positive about menopause. They were hungry for more. I knew when I went on this retreat that I would be getting closer to the Earth, I would be camping and foraging for food, but I hadn’t expected that in doing so I would get closer to my body.

It took being out in the wild to come to the shocking realisation that the thing preventing me from opening up about menopause was shame. I am embarrassed at losing my fertility, at seeing my looks fade, at getting old. In our youth-obsessed, consumer culture where surface beauty is valued along with our ability to make babies and stay ‘hot’, where would I find my currency as a middle-aged woman?


The word ‘menopause’ comes from the Greek meno for ‘moon’ – also the root for ‘month’ – and ‘pause’ meaning to ‘halt’. Technically menopause is our last menstrual cycle. The correct term for the stretch of time from peri-menopause until a year after our final period is the ‘climacteric’, which stems from the Greek word for ‘ladder’ and is also where we get ‘climax’. Looking at menopause as a dramatic event, ‘climax’ fits nicely.

For centuries menopause was understood to be a deficiency disease. Our loss of oestrogen was not considered a normal physiological function of aging, but an illness. In Victorian times, the ‘insanity’ brought on by menopause was treated with poisonous purges of lead and mercury, sedation and incarceration in an asylum. It was also recommended that women’s ovaries – their ‘organs of crisis’ – be removed. This, however, often proved lethal. In looking at its history, you begin to form a picture of menopause as a deadly business. Put bluntly, many women have died in the never-ending search for a ‘cure’ for its symptoms. When we weren’t being physically dismembered or drugged, Freudians like Helene Deutsch, founder of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, dissected our psyches. In her 1945 opus, The Psychology of Women, she argues that a woman’s mental health was inseparable from her desire to be a mother and that women who embraced the end of their fertile years were ‘deviant, unfeminine, and shameful’.

Women have always been victims of what Susan Sontag called the ‘double standard of aging’. Men can seamlessly graduate from boy to man but for women there is no equivalent: ‘The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every grey hair, is a defeat . . . even the passage from girlhood to early womanhood is experienced by many women as their downfall, for all women are trained to want to continue looking like girls.’

It was the swinging sixties that ushered in the way for middle-aged women to remain girl-like. This came in the form of physician Robert A. Wilson’s 1966 bestseller Feminine Forever. In it he promised that his prescribed oestrogen therapy (ERT) would allow us to retain our ‘straight-backed posture, supple breast contours, taut, smooth skin on face and neck, firm muscle tone, and that particular vigor and grace typical of a healthy female. At fifty, such women still look attractive in tennis shorts or sleeveless dresses.’ On the other hand, if we failed to take these prescribed hormones ‘from puberty to the grave’ we became ‘flabby’, ‘shrunken’, ‘dull-minded’, ‘desexed’ ‘castrates’ who risked ‘alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce and broken homes.’ It gets worse: ‘After menopause . . . the breast begins to shrivel and sag . . . Often the skin of the breast coarsens and is covered with scales.’

Scales! Wilson wasn’t looking to alleviate menopause, he was looking to eradicate it lest we become monsters.

Here he is in predator mode: ‘Roving about at a party, a footloose male might scan his surroundings at floor level, searching for a pair of trim legs . . . He assesses her face . . . her hands, teeth and throat.’ Reading Wilson’s book today is shocking. His abhorrence of our bodies is visceral and his distaste for the aging process in women is violent, even sadistic. I could barely finish it.

Wilson’s aggressive promotion of oestrogen was as materialistic as it was misogynistic: the writing of Feminine Forever and his book tours were funded by the companies who were manufacturing oestrogen and looking for a market. He received millions of dollars from pharmaceutical giant Wyeth, among others. In its first seven months, Feminine Forever sold 100,000 copies. Bafflingly, this book-length advertisement is still popular. ‘A must-read for all women over 45!’ ends one Amazon review from 2013.


Conjugated equine oestrogen (CEE), the hormone Wilson advocated was – and still is – manufactured from the urine of pregnant mares. If you’re prescribed HRT today in the US or the UK, the chances are it will be Premarin (short for ‘pregnant mares urine’). And if you’re squeamish, do not read to the end of this paragraph. The urine needed for ERT and HRT will have been extracted from mares held captive in horse farms in China, western Canada or the US. These creatures are tied up and kept pregnant, with catheters permanently strapped to their urethras. After about twelve years, they ‘wear out’ and are slaughtered. Their foals are sold for meat. But none of this will be discussed during your visit to the doctor. It’s just another cog in the Big Pharma machine. And the chances are you won’t be told about bio-identical hormones made from yam and soy, but these are beginning to get backing from the medical establishment.

‘Almost any tranquiliser might calm her down, but at her age oestrogen might be what she really needs,’ claimed an ad for Wyeth in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1975 – the height of ERT uptake. Despite advertisements like this, and Wilson’s contemptible proselytising, many feminists embraced oestrogen therapy. It would, they believed, release them from the trap of biological destiny. It wasn’t so long ago that ‘natural’ processes such as childbirth often killed us, so the quest to be free from the diktats of our bodies is understandable.

However, the HRT honeymoon was not to last. By the mid-seventies, several drug companies in the US had been selling dangerous and untested products, such as the intrauterine contraceptive device known as the Dalkon Shield which killed thirty-six women and hospitalized a further 7,900. Then there was DES (Diethylstilbestrol), prescribed to prevent miscarriages and to alleviate the symptoms of menopause. The only problem was it had no positive effect on those conditions. It did, however, cause vaginal, cervical and breast cancer, auto-immune diseases and a whole host of abnormalities in many girls whose mothers had taken the drug. Those who were on the fence about hormone therapy started to rethink the trustworthiness of Big Pharma.

The health campaigner and journalist Sandra Coney wrote in her 1991 The Menopause Industry, ‘Mid-life women have actually had no say in the services being provided for them. The “choices” available to them have been largely selected by commercial interests who have products and services to sell . . . The industry that has grown up around the provision of choices to mid-life women is primarily controlled by men.’ Looked at like this, why would we want to trust the very men who are out to make money from our symptoms?


I am writing this from the frontline of menopause: hot flushes, night sweats, forgetfulness, and truly bizarre dreams overwhelm me both regularly and randomly, like guerrilla attacks. Maybe it’s my love of stories, of always wanting to follow leads, but I cannot help but read these as part of a narrative – encouraged perhaps by the idea that I am indeed at a climax in this narrative. If I silence this metamorphosis, this strange falling away of my old self, then how will I be able to mourn its loss and welcome its renewal? All of my symptoms feel wild, unprocessed and extreme – like the weather, like an avalanche or a tidal wave. At any moment, I have no idea what is about to hit. Are we not wired for this any longer? If we could accept the wild in us, would this not help us face the parts of ourselves that ebb and flow out of our control? Perhaps our inner wilderness, despite its sometimes inhospitable landscape, is really the last remnant of ourselves from a time when we, and everything around us, were wild. Could our domestication be preventing us from walking this landscape?

The popular advice coming at me on the subject of menopause made me angry. Jenni Murray’s chirpy book, Is it me or is it hot in here? from 2001 gets very excited by the shiny hair and line-free skin enabled by HRT, without properly delving into the dangers: ‘It will be a few years yet before we really know the benefits or otherwise of taking Hormone Replacement Therapy. Until then, we’re all just guinea pigs in what may prove to be the greatest or the worst thing for women’s health.’ This understatement sadly came back to haunt Murray when she was diagnosed with breast cancer linked, she believes, to her HRT. She later wrote a piece in the Telegraph in which she confesses: ‘So, if I had known then what I know now, would I have taken it? The answer is no. I now know that the menopause is a pain, but it doesn’t last forever. Breast cancer, on the other hand, even if you survive it and I’m now in my tenth year, never leaves you.’

Too many of the conversations I hear around me focus on what brand of mare’s urine I should be smearing on my thighs, or what diet I need to be on to stay sexy, despite my age. This is not what I am looking for. I want to interpret the symptoms, understand them, not eradicate them.

Because there is so little in the mainstream about reframing our attitudes towards women and aging, I turned to anthropologists Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp who tell us that, ‘Menopause can never be understood apart from other social circumstances – marriage status, fertility history, access to property – through which women’s power and experiences are constructed.’ They go on, ‘our own culture’s conflation of . . . the loss of biological fertility with a reduction in status, is challenged by the fact that in many other societies post-menopausal women may adopt and foster children and have new authority over kin, especially daughters and daughters-in-law.’ Finally! Here was a view of menopause that placed it in a wider context as a fluid and natural physiological process with myriad cultural, historical and personal interpretations, rather than as a monolithic obstacle to be drugged out of existence. Organisations like the Red School or Hands Inc. are working more in this vein.

Among some of the women I have spoken to, this social perspective is crucial. Friends who were sent into a premature menopause due to chemotherapy had to deal with the symptoms of their illness, the loss of parts of their bodies, the challenge of chemo itself and the even more profound distress of facing their mortality. Some feel ‘aggrieved’ at having menopause ‘forced on them’ and not being able to ‘experience it naturally’, which will inevitably mark their menopause specifically for them. Among those who wanted children but didn’t manage to have any, menopause represents an acute and very private pain all of its own. One friend who became suicidal turned to HRT, which she feels ‘saved’ her. Another found intercourse too painful and claims HRT brought the joy back into her sex life. I am not demonising anyone for choosing HRT, but I do wonder whether we would find it easier to bear our symptoms if society valued us for our accrued wisdom rather than our pert breasts.

Most of us at some point in our lives have struggled to accept our bodies. I don’t need to list the statistics – we all know girls and women with eating disorders, who are full of self-hatred, who desire to be other than what they are. Menopause is no exception. In order for us to begin to understand it, it might help to look into why menopause exists. The only other female mammals to live beyond their reproductive years are pilot whales and killer whales (orcas). The theory behind this is called the Grandmother Hypothesis.

Almost uniquely, orcas live in multi-generational pods: their offspring don’t leave to set up their own family units but stay together as a tribe. If female killer whales were to carry on reproducing until death, their focus would be shifted away from the generations of existing offspring – but this doesn’t explain the theory fully. It took Darren Croft and Ken Balcomb, scientists at Exeter University, to pin it down. Since the 1970s they have been studying killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, and the answer they have come up with is: salmon. These unpredictable fish make up 97 per cent of an orca’s diet. ‘They’re not distributed equally in space,’ says Croft. ‘There are hotspots that differ with season, year, tide.’ Because of their accumulated wealth of knowledge, the older females are more skilled at finding food when stocks are scarce or particularly unpredictable. ‘Adult females are more likely to lead a group than adult males, and older post-menopausal females (who make up a fifth of the pod) are more likely to lead than younger ones. This bias was especially obvious in seasons when salmon stocks were low.’

A reliance on older women with their stores of accrued wisdom was a common thread in hunter-gatherer societies, which is perhaps what Lynx was keying us into around that campfire. Today however, adult women are encouraged to be silicon replicas of their younger selves. The knowledge we gain as we age is getting lost or being devalued and yet, as I saw in Dartmoor, the hunger for it is there.

But there is something else going on here, to do with the colonisation of the female body. Undoing my domestication and calling back something wild are the messages that keep coming at me from my hot flushes, night sweats and outlandish dreams. Germaine Greer, in her visionary 1990 book The Change, posits that menopause is a time to slow down, take stock and feel liberated from one’s sexual objectification as well as from one’s sexual desires. She advocates reclaiming the idea of the witch, the wise woman, the elder. And with our ‘scaly breasts’, why not? For me this is another opportunity in the narrative of menopause: Could we rewrite our stories and turn them into something more open-ended? Should we be exploring the unfamiliar plot lines, the places in ourselves we haven’t been to? If we’re lucky, our partners will come with us on the journey. Without dismissing those women for whom HRT is the difference between surviving menopause and not, I do wonder if a reframing of our worth as humans might help us cope where hormones can’t. Recent studies in Europe and North America suggest a correlation between the severity of a woman’s menopausal symptoms and her sense of being valued.

Despite all the good that the pharmaceutical industry has given us – the life-saving drugs, the cures for childhood diseases – it is fair to say that Big Pharma can be rapacious and reckless. I do not want the changes going on inside me to be silenced with drugs. I want to learn this new language coming at me deep from inside my body. At the moment, I have gleaned a few words, and so far they are telling me this: stop, be quiet, and listen, only then will you understand.

 

 

https://unbound.com/boundless/2018/04/11/rewilding-the-menopause/