Review of ‘Surrender’ in the Irish Times

Standard

view from horse camp.smaller

Surrender by Joanna Pocock: toes the thin line between beauty and horror wonderfully

A perspective not of objectivity or voyeurism, but of participation in the web of life and in the land

Review by Abi Andrews

First published: Tue, Jul 30, 2019, 05:52

Book Title:
Surrender

ISBN-13:
978-1910695852

Author:
Joanna Pocock

Publisher:
Fitzcarraldo Editions

Guideline Price:
£12.99

I first came to Joanna Pocock’s writing via on essay published in the Dark Mountain Project. It recounts an introductory course on the “ethical” trapping of wolves, on which Pocock enrolled, in order to try and better understand the motivations and desires of the people doing it. It haunted me, particularly these lines:

“That night I dreamt of wolves running as fast as they could through dark woods. That is what wolves do. They run and run. They cover the ground like magic.”

Pocock’s prose is understated and spare, and, like a cave painting, does perfect justice to her subject. It doesn’t debase the living world by trying to overword it. It is just a sketch, and in its gentleness touches it perfectly, like petting a flighty animal. This is nature writing that we need: standing in contrast to writing that forces the human into the picture as observer, or tries hard to pin the thing down exactly, with alienating expertise or florid description.

I was happy to find the piece again, embedded in her recently published Surrender, which came out in May with Fitzcarraldo editions in the UK, and for which she won the 2018 Fitzcarraldo Editions essay prize.

In it we follow Pocock over two years living in the town of Missoula, Montana, with her husband and their young daughter, and their eventual return to London. She charts points of personal crisis: the death of her parents and the onset of her menopause, at the same time as trying to find a place for herself in a world that is both personally and macrocosmically chaotic, navigating the corporeality of increasing climatic breakdown and ecocide, their multidinuous effects on our relationship to place.

Hoping to find an answer to the question of belonging, she meets communities that are finding ways to forge or cling to relationships with the land that they love, even as it mutates between their fingers. She is asking perhaps the most pertinent question of our anxious moment: “How I could live on the planet with sanity, if not joy?”

Pocock is ever conscious of the things we drag with us as we go seeking; the things that ride in on our backs. And she doesn’t shy away from the reckoning that is the consequence of looking closely at a world in the process of dying (or being destroyed). Because the closer attention we pay, the more we are invested in the catastrophe. Pocock is attentive to the scale of the devastation, of the wildfires that spare nothing, not even the fish, whom we might have thought safe in the water; the fish suffocate from the ash from the fires. Pocock shows us there is nothing left of the wilderness in the mythological, Thoreauvian sense. The anthropocene leaves nothing untouched.

What we have to work with then is a natural world defined by loss. An ache, with both the beauty and brutality of a bruise. And for Pocock Montana is a crucible for this, where one is faced with the scorch marks of wildfires; drought, yet vast rivers with the minimum of pollution so as to still be beautiful. Besides devastation, there are vast tracts of land and flourishing wildlife still left to fight for. Pocock toes the thin line between beauty and horror wonderfully, reminding us of our contemporary contradiction: “The interconnectedness…is palpable and yet so are the strands severed from it”.

For Pocock, the pull of the American West is the invocation of Hiraeth, a Welsh word pertaining to “the longing for a home you can’t return to or which never existed”. There is the question of feeling a relation to a place to which you have never had access, and hold no claim to. How can she find belonging here? What is that pull for someone like Pocock or myself, of suburban origins and closer proximity to the domesticated streets of a city like London?

It perhaps comes from the promise of wildness. Because despite the corruption of absolute wilderness, America still tempts with something like wildness, where the standing of humans as top of a hierarchy is sometimes primevally undone. Pocock finds significance in the possibility of being preyed on. Of being eaten by something. Of being acted upon by the world you look out at.

Which brings us again to the situatedness of Pocock’s work; the question of what emerges between observer and observed. Hers is a perspective not of objectivity or voyeurism, but of participation in the web of life and in the land and communities as she writes them. In Surrender, this undertaking is feminised. It took a women to write this book, or this particular, reciprocal type of nature writing. It stands in contrast to, as Kathleen Jamie coined it, the perspective of “the lone enraptured male”. Because the narrative is deftly intertwined with Pocock’s experience of the menopause, hers is an embodied writing. A writing that says here I am, inside a body, a changing body, in interaction with the changing world. She finds resonance between the interrupted cycles of her body and disturbances in the natural world. Her feeling of “being out of sorts”, having “something to do with the weather”:

“Bears had been spotted coming out of hibernation in Washington state and Nevada. In Juneau, Alaska, temperatures had been above freezing this past week- even at night…it seemed too late to regain anything resembling a balanced harmony in the natural world.”

Instead of resistance, in accordance with accepting the dictation of her body, likewise she must “tune into the chaos” of our unravelling life-web. She reckons instead with how to bend to shape, as a more pliable building resists the destruction of an earthquake. And most movingly, how to help her young daughter to navigate the chaos. And how to tell her the story, “the one where the planet dies at the end”, how much of the story, and when? A Lone Enraptured Male doesn’t typically have the responsibility of a child, at least not so deftly seamed into his writing.

Climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse are the inheritance of the young. It’s disorientating, for those of us coming of age at a time of collapse; an ending already, just as you are beginning. We are constantly told that the world is diminished. How do you explain the love that is there, despite it all?

Pocock introduces us to a scavenger community upholding the traditions of buffalo hunting, a transsexual rewilder living by foraging, and an “ecosexual” community reasserting a connection to the land by exploring their love for it. These are communities and individuals getting along with the act of survival, and even continuing to honour a reciprocal care ethic, refusing futility in the face of ongoing struggle. These people Pocock introduces us to are horizonal because they remind us that in places, a close relationship to land goes on, and its continuance is to us as readers, a gift of a possibility.

Pocock’s deeply humane perspective is that we can all only do the best that we can do. She refuses misanthropy, self-loathing and hopelessness, all of which she sees as an unfair dispossession of those who, like her daughter, will inherit the future. Her strongest confidence is put into the Ecosexuals, a mostly young and vibrant movement which she distinguishes from the others for “its insistence on looking forward”.

“Nostalgia is replaced by excitement for what the world could be. Who cares what it once was.”

Pocock does not offer us any benediction of hope, and she doesn’t try to posit any answers. She admits that, finding herself back in London, she is still searching for them, and doubts if she will ever fully immerse herself in the lifestyles of the communities she has learned with. But in her gracious account of them, with Surrender she hands us not a blueprint but a glimmer of a vision, of what the future could be if we make it. Not everywhere, not always, but partitally, and in places; a tentative optimism. And this is the ultimately generous effect of her book; it is affirmative of human agency for change. Like seeds that will germinate between the pavement’s cracks, this is an affirmation that is small enough not to fail.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/surrender-by-joanna-pocock-toes-the-thin-line-between-beauty-and-horror-wonderfully-1.3970641

Abi Andrews is the author of ‘The Word for Woman is Wilderness’ (Serpents Tail Books, 2018) available now in paperback.

Review of ‘Surrender’ in the Spectator

Standard

Hunt.stalking the prey copy

Midlife crisis in Montana

To Joanna Pocock, the American West seemed like Eden — until she discovered the poison lurking beneath the surface

Tom Smalley

8 June 2019

Surrender: Mid-life in the American West Joanna Pocock
Fitzcarraldo, pp.309, £12.99

For Joanna Pocock, a midlife crisis is the moment in which ‘bored of the rhythm of our days, whatever those may be… we begin to realise that we have more past than future’. With the approach of her 50th birthday and the onset of the menopause, she is struck powerfully by this notion. Her response is to leave London and to relocate, with her husband and their six-year-old daughter, to the American West, a place where she hopes ‘the fabric of our lives and rhythm of our days would be different’.

It is an idyllic, optimistic premise that ties into the mythos of the American West as being a place where people can reinvent themselves. In the opening pages of Surrender — which won the 2018 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize — she describes the view from her bedroom window suddenly becoming dominated by ‘mountains and sky and deer looking in’. ‘Montana strikes the newcomer as a sort of Eden.’

Beneath the surface of this Eden, however, the reality is more complex. Run-off from copper mining has left rivers biologically sterile; global warming has caused glaciers to melt; and a million acres of forest are being destroyed by wildfires. In Pocock’s evocative descriptions of these events, her grief is palpable. The fires leave behind ‘a blasted, barren landscape of blackened trees’. At a polluted creek, ‘water the colour of split peas buries standing trees half way up their trunks’.

There is the sense that, in these descriptions of lifeless landscapes, Pocock is also grappling with the menopausal changes within her own body. Perhaps because of this parallel, her rendering of the American West is often framed in a manner both physical and deeply personal. She feels the seasons ‘swinging off their axis, in [her] body’, as she ‘drowns in news of poisoned rivers and melting glaciers’.

Exploring the history of the land and the many existing disputes over how it should be used (and by whom), Pocock delves into the various subcultures that populate the respective extremes of these debates. They range from wolf-trappers and anti-government patriot groups (at a picnic hosted by the latter, she describes how ‘almost everybody had a copy of the constitution sticking out of their back pockets, next to their holsters’), to people who have learned to live, often at the very fringes of modern society, in a state of symbiosis with nature.

In the woods of Washington State, Pocock attends a festival for ‘Ecosexuals’, a group whose philosophy revolves around the idea that you should treat the environment as you would a lover. On the ‘sacred hoop’ (a Native American ‘lifeway’, whose adherents migrate, annually, across seven states — subsisting on crops that they plant and harvest along the way), she meets Finisia Medrano, a 61-year-old transsexual rewilder who has lived continuously on ‘the hoop’ for 35 years. Pocock is drawn to people who, like Finisia, have made what many would consider extreme choices in their efforts to live more harmoniously with nature and who, as she admits, lead ‘lives I am not brave enough to live’.

Surrender is not just a historical or ethnographic exploration, however; it is also an attempt by Pocock to understand her place in the world, as a woman in the latter half of her life, as a mother and as a human being: ‘I was dipping in and out of people’s lives; I was becoming infertile; I was watching my child grow up; I had witnessed a lot of death.’

This is a bewitching and deeply affecting book. Pocock’s elegant interweaving of the intimate and the expansive, the personal and the universal, culminates in a work that forces us to consider our own place in, and impact upon, a world that could itself have more past than future.

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/06/midlife-crisis-in-montana/

Surrender in Granta Online

Standard
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

Surrender in Tank Magazine

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.

filigree

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.