Review of ‘Surrender’ in the Spectator


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.

The Sparrow and the Twig


One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it.
—Barry Lopez, ‘Landscape and Narrative’

final sunrise

Sunrise over Dartmoor

We are polite and tentative with each other. Many of the 18 participants wear the trademark rewilder outfit of buckskin and carry sheepskin rugs. There are flasks made of wood and plenty of hand-carved spoons and bowls stashed neatly on shelves in the hut where we store our utensils and any extra food we have brought. My industrial-era enamelware is out of place, ruining the vibe, violating the aesthetic. I am looking at people’s feet. Some of the shoes look handmade. There is jewellery crafted out of leather and bone, holey sweaters fastened with buttons made from deer claws. There are tufts of fur. I do not look like these people. A few of us city-dwellers wear clothing that shouts ‘civilisation’ and ‘sweat shops’ and I am grateful not to be the only ‘civ’ here.

As if from nowhere, Lynx Vilden bounds barefoot like a cat towards us. I had first heard of Lynx when I was living in Montana. She is revered in the West for living as our Paleolithic ancestors did. Her knowledge of ancestral skills is vast and rumour has it she can get a fire started in 30 seconds with only two sticks. She is all buckskin clothing, chiselled cheekbones, spiky blonde hair and eyes the colour of a mountain lake. Born in 1965, Lynx is exactly my age but looks like Brigitte Nielsen’s younger Stone Age sister. For a rewilder (they tend to be a quiet bunch) she has quite an online presence. The tagline on her website is: ‘We aim to “live” in the wilderness, rather than “survive” it to get back to civilization.’ I never managed the seven-hour drive from my bungalow in Missoula to her yurt in Twisp, Washington. So, when I heard she was teaching ancestral skills for a week in April somewhere in Dartmoor National Park, I pounced.

Lynx silently motions with her hands for us to gather and then begins to walk away. We are to follow her to a nearby patch of flat ground where she instructs us without words to take off our shoes. She is holding a hand drill – a flat piece of wood called the hearth, and a stick, which is the bow. She motions for Leah, one of the participants to hold the bottom of the bow onto the hearth while she spins it. Lynx gestures for us to gather some dry grass. It takes maybe 45 minutes for us to take turns holding the hearth and spinning the bow to get enough heat for the grass to light. Lynx carries this smoking bundle through the woods and we follow. I am not used to walking barefoot over hard early spring ground. The pine needles, sticks and rocks hurt my soft city feet.

Lynx lights a larger fire with the bundle and we sit around it in a circle. Our week of living outdoors on Dartmoor has officially begun. Dusk is settling. A wind picks up and I straighten my legs so my bare feet catch some of the warmth of the fire. We pass around a talking stick and tell each other what ‘miracle’ brought us here.

final supper


Back at camp, Katie the cook has a large pot of venison stew waiting for us. The meat came to us from Bob, a local deerstalker. Any worries about the animal’s welfare are put to rest. After supper we take turns saying what we are grateful for. Many people list the deer we have just eaten. Thanking the food and the land seems to be a common thread. It would be easy to be cynical, to do a Portlandia-style satire on the middle-class Paleo folk who don their buckskin, make fire from sticks, play their handmade flutes, and thank the stones for being stones. But there is more here. I can feel it although I have no name for it, yet.


After dinner, we tell the group what we were passionate about when we were seven years old. I talk of my upbringing in the soulless Canadian suburbs. Most of the participants tell tales of playing in streams and catching frogs. Canadian suburbs are designed for cars, for life with sunken living rooms, dry bars, rec rooms, where everything is tinted by the glare of TV. I hated growing up in those suburbs and now I am feeling as I so often do, somewhat disappointed, even a little angry that my childhood was spent not in the woods but in a place where soil was called ‘dirt’, where lawns were mowed to a buzzcut every few days and where bees were swatted to death for fear they might ruin the barbecue. I had no connection with the place I grew up in. This has always rankled me. My birthplace has left me empty-handed of stories, unlike the ground I am sitting on now with its hauntings and druids, ghost stories, songs and rituals involving stone, bone, moss, fertile swathes of soil and rainsoaked ferns.


 The next day I tuck my knife into a cloth bag with some bread and cheese, a bottle of water, my journal and Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez. We begin a silent walk where each one of us is led to a spot to sit for an hour or so. From my rock I can see a decaying stone wall covered in moss. Fallen trees are criss-crossed with ivy. Gigantic bees buzz around me but what I notice most of all are the birds: wood pigeons and the quick trills of what I think is a wood warbler. Sunlight struggles to make its way to the floor of the forest through the branches of very tall oaks. Where I sit, the air is cool. I am aware of the two landscapes we all move between: the one outside us and the other that exists within.

Our assigned task is to gather ‘vegetal matter with a utilitarian value for the whole group’. This way of thinking is so foreign. We have all become so individualised, so atomised with our own phones, computers, flats, social media accounts. City life is the opposite of what Lynx is creating here which in a word can only be described as a tribe. I bristled when I heard it being used earlier in the day. I felt it was a word one needed to earn. But now I am beginning to understand that a tribe can be formed when we rely on others for our food and shelter, warmth and companionship.

I am seeing the landscape for what it can do rather than as a collection of named objects; as active, not passive. Barry Lopez captures this idea in his essay ‘Landscape and Narrative’ when a black-throated sparrow lands in a paloverde bush: ‘the resiliency of the twig under the bird, that precise shade of yellowish-green against the milk-blue sky, the fluttering whir of the arriving sparrow’, these are what he means by ‘landscape’. It is by watching the landscape that one learns it, not necessarily by knowing the names of things.

I spot some fiddleheads. My mother would buy small packs of these velvety green ferns at vast expense from the supermarket in Ottawa. She would unwrap them from their clingfilm, lift them from their Styrofoam trays and then soak them, boil them and sauté them in butter. We would savour the two or three on our plates as if they were gold. I harvest a few to bring back to the group. I look around for something else I might be able to share. I pull off a hunk from a charred stump. We could draw with it. Then I spot a bone. This could be a ladle or a spoon. I put that in my bag and top it up with some young nettles. We can use these for tea. My inadequacy is making me manic. Just then I see members of the group approach. I take a breath and join the line. Some of them have bulging bags and I wonder what foods and implements they have conjured from these woods.

We walk silently across fields and through forests of bluebells. Eventually we come to Blackingstone Rock, a 75-foot high, Christmas-pudding-shaped tor of pure granite flecked with shiny feldspar. Running up the back of the tor, like a spine, is a metal ladder. We climb to the top where the wind whips and where the views over Dartmoor spread out on all sides.

The Dartmoor chronicler William Crossing believed that in an attempt to settle an argument, King Arthur and the Devil hurled a giant quoit at each other. As the quoits hit the ground they turned to stone creating the two tors, one of which was Blackingstone Rock and the other Hel Tor. The tor is pockmarked with small circular basins, which I am told were druidical altars. Like a cat, Lynx curls into one for a nap.

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Lynx having a nap on Blackinstone Tor

We head back into the forest, quieter now, feeling the effects of the sunwarmed stone on our backs. Lynx instructs us to gather two dry sticks and eight switches of hazel. People are running into the woods, knives and folding saws at the ready. I am feeling lost. Ella and Carlos, a couple who I had spoken to earlier, notice my anxiety and patiently show me what hazel looks like and offer me the use of their saw.

Once we have our sticks, we head back to camp. Katie has prepared fried pollock with mashed swedes, parsnips and celeriac. I am hungry. In my effort to lighten my backpack, I took out a lot of my food. Hunger is something I have forgotten how to live with. I am shamed by this.


 As I try and sleep that night, I hear an owl’s repeated hooting and the response from a more distant owl. They are marking their territory. I fall asleep with a burning desire to understand them. It is only when they stop their hooting around 4:00 a.m. that I wake. It is the silence that has roused me. A very faint light creeps over my tent, almost like a shadow. I feel I am suspended in that fleeting moment between night and day, between the animals of the dark and those who emerge with the light. I am inhabiting a precious liminal moment. At 52, I am suspended between youth and old age and this sense of being between things seems to be the frequency I am tuned to. The word comes from the Latin limen, or threshold. I am feeling it everywhere. A strange sense of total and utter wellbeing consumes me. And then the birds of the morning take over. The woods around me fill with sound. Life can continue for another day.


We are to find a partner and forage for our lunch. I am paired with Lynx. We walk together down a lane away from the camp. Lynx had seen some very young, green spruce buds. She shows me how to remove the brown husks from the lime-green almond-shaped buds. They have a sharp, astringent lemony taste. She spots a curved slice of fallen tree bark to put them in. It makes the perfect receptacle which in New York or London would add about £20 to the price of a meal in a restaurant (‘served on a hand-harvested spruce board infusing the buds with the taste and smell of wilderness’).

With her survival skills, Lynx shares similarities with Preppers. But, rather than fill her bunker with dried food, bottled water and ammunition, she is prepared in another way: Lynx can live in the wilderness by hunting, gathering, making bows, arrows, clothing and whatever else she needs; she does not have to escape the wild in order to survive it. The Doomsday approach of Preppers who see themselves surviving the economic collapse by storing up on man-made supplies is based on fear and a mistrust of government. A bunker lined with tin cans and bars of gold is finite, whereas Lynx has the skills needed to survive indefinitely – skills that can be passed on. They might both share a mistrust of the system, but their approach could not be more different.


We all place our foraged food onto a picnic table. The colours are spectacular. We silently take turns trying every plant, taking in the smells and tastes and textures: stitchwort, garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-hedge, gorse flowers, pink purslane, primrose, violets, landcress, pennywort or navelwort, dock leaves, hawthorn leaves and spruce buds. It is like eating a fairytale.

foraged plants for lunch

Plants foraged for lunch

That afternoon we are to begin our baskets. This is what the sticks are for. I break into a sweat. I have only ever made one basket and it looked like those photos of webs made by spiders on LSD: anxious, wonky and a bit mental, revealing more about me than I care to.

Lynx shows us how to strip the bark from our hazel sticks, how to bend them and tie them into a U-shape using animal hide as string. I feel my body move in sync with the making of my basket: I bend to make the wood bend, my muscles contract when I tie the struts together. When the deer hide is soaking, I stand, relaxed, watching it soften in the water. This work is three-dimensional, tactile. There are smells and sounds – it is anathema to the flat, backlit screens we all spend our days staring into. It is this physical dimension I have been craving without knowing it.


On our second-to-last day, there is a snow flurry. As the snow gets heavier, we take shelter in the lodge, the one structure with a roof, and watch the grove of beeches bleach to white. A wind whips the flakes around us. Lynx announces we will walk out onto the moor with what we can fit in our baskets and we will camp without tents. Many of us think she is joking and look at each other and laugh. We go silent as we realise she is being absolutely serious. I am not prepared to camp in the snow. An elderly gentleman from France comes over and whispers to me, ‘This is too much!’ He is on the verge of a very Gallic rebellion.

‘Let’s see what the weather is like tomorrow,’ Lynx says as a way of placating us.


The following morning the inside of my tent is a golden pink. I step out onto crispy, white grass. We had agreed that if it wasn’t raining we would head off for our night of wild camping. I pack. We hike out late morning walking through bluebell meadows, crossing streams on bridges made of fallen granite slabs and we say hello to the inhabitants of the few small towns we pass through. They stare at our buckskin and hazel baskets strapped to our backs. We are filthy and giggle like children at the disconnect between us and the villagers with their Lidl bags, heading home to their running water and televisions.

After about three or four hours we come to a wall of Herculean boulders. We scramble up. On the other side is a tiny patch of flat ground, just big enough to cradle a fire and our bodies around it. We set up camp and Katie heats up some leftover stew made from Chunko the lamb, whom we had been eating throughout the week. She adds nettles and throws a few garlic heads into the fire along with some sweet potatoes. We eat with our hands and there is something wonderfully primitive about being here, eating like this from the land. We sing, we laugh, we chat. The group is one unit now.

After dinner, I am told the temperature will sink below freezing. I move my bivvy bag from between two slabs of rock to a spot next to Tiffany, a woman with a surplus of blankets. We agree to ignore the ticks. I go to bed before the others. Maybe it is because I am the youngest of seven children, but I feel comforted falling asleep to the faint murmur of voices. When I was young, much of my education came from this late night eavesdropping. Perhaps it was my attempt to recreate tribal life in those cold, atomised suburbs.

I listen to the laughter and the crackling of the fire. I watch the stars above me. I never want to leave. I am suspended here. We all are. This is the discovery I make: we are all living liminal lives. Denying this is part of the madness. The only real thing is the liminality of life, the moments when we can inhabit fluidity, accept the threshold. We are just passing through, why should we expect anything other than being between places and times and states of being. I let my tears quietly fall. There is that familiar tickle as the salty water slides along my cheekbones into my ears. This is right. I should be crying. I have lived another day. We have all lived another day. This feels like the miracle it is. Sleep comes to me before the group has dispersed for the night. My dreams are more vivid than they have been for a long time.


I get back to London very late that night. My ten-year-old daughter is still up. She runs to hug me. ‘You smell of dead animal,’ she says excited at this meaty version of her mother.

My husband Jason asks, ‘So, are you a new person?’

Me: ‘Um, yeah.’

Jason: ‘Will I like this new person?’

Me: ‘I don’t know.’

Jason: ‘Do you like this new person?’

Me: ‘I don’t know yet. I have no idea.’

Published March 12, 2018 on the Dark Mountain blog:

All photographs by author

Alchemy is Magic

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Philip Corner performing his Paper Piece in honour of Ben Patterson, September 2016

I believe in alchemy. These four words keep surfacing from somewhere just as I am falling asleep or on the verge of waking up or when I am walking down Bethnal Green road to buy vegetables. They first surfaced while I was watching Philip Corner, the 83-year-old artist and musician a couple of weeks ago perform at Café Oto. As he and his diminutive wife, collaborator and muse, Phoebe Neville enacted his ‘Piano Movement’ by literally moving a piano, it happened. I realised that a piano is not merely an instrument, it is an object, a sculpture, a piece of work in and of itself. It not only makes music, but takes up space. Corner did eventually sit and play the piano, but throughout the evening, the instrument became so many things. By the end of the night, it sat shrouded in paper and covered in flowers and torn fragments of paper. By this point it had become a monument to Philip’s friend and fellow Fluxus artist, Ben Patterson, who died this past July. Patterson was known for his ‘Paper Piece’ in which he asked audience members to make sounds using paper. Corner enacted his own version, while he and Neville wrapped the piano in thick, brown sheets. They crumpled and ripped the paper and stabbed at the keys. The noise was incredible. And angry. In those sounds and in their movements I sensed the grief at losing a friend.


Cascade Mountains from the air.

So, a piano becomes a memento mori. An object that can be silenced and repurposed with grief and mourning.


Divided land from the air.

Since witnessing Corner and Neville’s performance, I keep thinking about this alchemy. Today during a Yoga class, I stared at a poster on the wall of the studio in an attempt to keep my balance in a one-legged pose. The poster was one of those small laminated things telling you that you can’t use the door because it is alarmed, or something. I couldn’t actually read it. But the key point was that it had two blocks of colour on it. In my mind the poster became a Rothko. It didn’t look like a Rothko at all, but my brain morphed it into one of his red and brown canvases.


Mountains and the Great Salt Lake in Utah from the air.

And this has been happening to me frequently. Objects are morphing from one thing to another, from one use to another, from one state to another. And I think I know why. I, myself, am morphing from one state to another. The change. The half-century mark. I am there. The child-bearing years are coming to an end, the days of being able to be called ‘young’ are coming to an end. My body is being replaced by another one. I am feeling it physically, but it is manifesting itself in me psychologically in more profound ways.


The Great Salt Lake, Utah, from the air.

It is odd that no one talks about perimenopause (the period leading up to menopause). It is a sort of bizarre edgeland in one’s life. It goes unmarked and yet, as I am experiencing its effects, I feel it should be marked with something like a wrapped piano or something equally magic. Our bodies at this point are losing their ‘use’ value and becoming something else: a shrouded vessel. There is mourning needed for the loss of what we once were and also some celebrating in order to welcome the new person we are becoming.

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Buffalo hide being scraped in preparation for tanning, Montana, January 2016.

Why are there no rituals around this time in a woman’s life? Women are reluctant to talk about it even amongst themselves. There is a reticence and a shyness around menopause. Is it because so much of our value is measured in our ability to procreate, attract a mate, look ‘hot’, be ‘sexy’, satisfied that we are the subject of locker room banter? I am finding the transition difficult, there is no doubt, but the struggle lies more in the challenge of convincing myself of my value as a woman who is heading past her shelf life.


Buffalo hide being scraped in preparation for tanning, Montana, January 2016

We have seen in this farcical competition between Hillary and Trump how the disregard for women has become so normalised as to barely register. If there is one thing to come out of the disaster that is the Donald, it is that men are coming out and saying, “Wow, I had no idea you women were treated like this. I didn’t know you had it so bad!” We are often treated like this and we do have it so bad. We are badly paid, we are beaten up by our husbands and family members, allowed to die in childbirth, set on fire, forced to marry people six times our age, sometimes when we are eight years old, sold into prostitution and slavery, forbidden from using contraceptives, we have our clitorises sliced and we have acid thrown in our faces. We are not listened to and we are ridiculed for aging. Our cellulite is circled in tabloid newspapers and our stomachs mocked for being saggy after childbirth. We are not allowed to get wrinkles and god forbid our hair should go grey. But it doesn’t end here. We are expected to be nice. And we are the ones who take the day off work when our kid is sick. We also do seventy percent of the household chores and the cooking — even if we are the main breadwinners*. When our parents or even our partner’s parents get old, we are the ones who do the caring. We buy the birthday presents and make the soup for sick friends. Of course there are exceptions—many exceptions and many incredible men who love and care and do the lion’s share. There are men out there fighting the fight on our behalf. But they are rare and we love them.


Floor of Powell’s Bookstore, Portland, Oregon.

At the moment as I approach this physical and psychological change, and experience the alchemy inside me, the image I have in my mind is one of running between carriages on a moving train while someone is offering me lunch. No thanks, I can’t stop to eat, I have to get into the next carriage. I’m moving fast and I have no time to sit and chat. There is life all around me and I feel it pulsing inside. It isn’t a child I am about to bring into the world, it is something else. Equally valuable, equally demanding and important. Equally beautiful. We just have to watch and see what it becomes. I think we might all be very surprised. Alchemy is magic.

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Philip Corner’s piano after his Paper Piece in Memoriam of Ben Patterson, September, 2016

*In Britain women still do 70 per cent of the housework. Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores than their husbands, with only one in 10 married men doing an equal amount of cleaning as his wife.

Learning to Drive


People often use their cars to express who they are and what they think.

Life lived as a passenger is a very different experience from that of a driver. When I hit thirty, I decided I would learn to drive. I called the British School of Motoring, which was the one that people said I had to use, and booked some lessons. At the time I was living off Portobello Road in a busy part of West London. My lessons involved dodging buses and angry black cabs on the Harrow Road and avoiding pedestrians. No one observed any lights and my efforts to try and find some order within the chaos of London’s narrow, crowded streets felt frustrating and futile. On top of that, I was learning on an old, manual car. Getting to grips with a clutch while avoiding killing people was too much. I ended up running over a cat and that was that. No more lessons for me.


A stop sign in Missoula, Montana.

Almost twenty years on, I am living in Montana where the roads are wide, and there are few pedestrians, let alone cars on the road. And drivers seem exceptionally courteous, certainly compared to London ones. So I have decided once and for all that I will get over my fear of cars, my dislike of petroleum products and the people who suck them out of the earth, and challenge the view of myself as one of life’s passengers.


The perils of being a pedestrian in a car-centric country: sometimes the pavement literally just stops.

When I think back to the adventures I have had, I don’t feel any particular lack in not having driven a car. I crossed the US on a Greyhound bus around ten years ago, and by not driving, I met people and went places I would never have if I had done the trip in my own little metal bubble. The thing you notice more than anything as a passenger in life is that you have to put your trust in complete strangers. In St Louis, a bored taxi driver from Somalia let me sit in the front seat with him while he picked up customers and told me about his life before America. During one call out, we went to a very rough part of town and sat and waited outside a boarded up house. After about three minutes a guy stumbled out in a pair of black trousers, a white untucked shirt and a bow tie askew. You could still smell the booze on him from the night before and he could barely walk a straight line. But we got him to his shift in an upmarket restaurant almost on time. I have also been ferried around Amarillo, Texas and Detroit by taxi drivers who wanted to show me their towns. The cabbies in St Louis, Amarillo and Detroit didn’t charge me for their time, perhaps enjoying some distraction from their normal routine. Telling people in America that you don’t drive arouses their curiosity and their desire to help.


Old, beat up cars are such a big part of the landscape here in Montana, you stop noticing them after a while. This one is in Clinton.

The driver in Detroit was ecstatic at having someone he could show the real city to. “This place is like Beirut,” he said as he whisked me to a part of town where the buildings had no windows, the cars lay in parts strewn across empty lots and people walked around like zombies, literally out of their minds, pushing shopping carts full of rags. I showed him the hotel I had booked myself into which turned out to be a crack den with people passed out on the front stoop. “Why would you want to stay there?” he had asked. “Because it was cheap,” I replied. He laughed at my naivete and I told him I had managed to book somewhere else called The Milner where the elevators were shaped like coffins and water leaked through the ceilings making the lights fizz. We talked at length of the promise of Detroit during the height of Motown, when Berry Gordy was at the top of the music business and the sounds coming from Hitsville USA were unlike any heard before or since. Compared with the city I was being shown the sadness was too much to hold in. And he didn’t mind me crying as I watched the city in all its crumbling beauty fly past. All that potential, all that hope, all that great music. All of it gone and replaced by poverty and decay and a sense that the place was not worth saving. My visit to Detroit was before any books or photos or films had been made about the town. When its nineteenth-century buildings with their collapsed roofs and chandeliers spilling from broken windows had yet to be documented. When I got back to London, I tried to explain what I had seen there but no one really believed me. I had taken some photos but managed to lose most of them. Would I have experienced Detroit as deeply if I had been in my own car and possibly too freaked out to go to its more devastated parts? Who knows. But I would certainly not be able to say I cried in a taxi while the driver shook his head in sadness alongside me and kept me company in my grief.


Clinton, Montana. This one was for sale by the owner.

Around a month ago I went out driving with a friend on some quiet streets and in the parking lot of the Mall. It all went smoothly, but I was too worried about crashing her expensive car and destroying our friendship, so I called Missoula’s best-known driving instructor Mike Kincaid who is not a native Montanan but a transplant from Long Island, and set up some lessons. There is something about his broad New York accent and his laconic sense of humour that puts me at ease. We’ve now been out in his car three times. I have negotiated rush hour on the biggest street in Missoula, which is nothing like rush hour in London, but nevertheless I managed to share the road with other cars without hitting them. Mike has been teaching me to parallel park, which I am told no one ever does here, but it’s on the test. I am learning on an automatic on streets with hardly any traffic and it all feels so much more manageable than my previous attempt. Maybe after all these years, this is my time to drive.


Mike Kincaid, my driving instructor. Maybe the only driving instructor in Montana who subscribes to the Nation.

The impetus for learning to drive here and now is because America, with possibly the exception of New York, is a place where you need a car in order to survive. Learning to drive is a rite of passage, and like marriage and kids seems to be the accepted face of normality. Stupidly my not learning to drive sat next to my “f*** you” button which I press when I don’t like what I am being told to do. I grew up in the Canadian suburbs where you were expected to drive. But as a teenager when I had saved up a chunk of money from babysitting or cleaning houses I would take myself to New York or Florence or Paris instead of putting my money towards practical things. In my bohemian teenage head, sitting in Parisian cafés was much more romantic and life-enhancing than sitting in a car in the Ottawa suburbs being told about the rules of the road. Learning to drive was aligned in my mind with accepting that a white wedding and three kids in a suburban bungalow were my future. I never wanted any of that, and somehow along with rejecting the normal uncontested route, I also rejected driving a car. It was my own personal revolt against the status quo, and what a stupid one it was too. In short the political and personal threads that had seemed so important to me as a young woman had over the years turned into a Gordian knot of non-driving. With the onset of middle age comes the acceptance that some of our stances are puerile and plain ridiculous.


This old car, which still runs, was parked near a stone angel marking the grave of a much-loved German Shepherd. Clinton, Montana.

On a purely practical level, I need to be able to lug food from the supermarket and get E to her ballet classes when J isn’t around. I need to be able to buy birthday presents for E’s friends and take her swimming. Even these simple tasks will seem like monumental achievements to me, if I do in fact learn to drive and pass the test and find the money for a cheap car. These are all big ifs. J has always said that my problem with driving is that I see cars as large metal death machines. My reply to him is that they are. And death in a car, just like death in an airplane (I am also terrified of flying), is not how I would like to go. Driving makes me aware of my mortality and not in a good way. And the thought of killing someone else terrifies me beyond anything resembling a rational fear.


Cars provide an endless source of stupid bumper stickers and signs.

I always wonder how people can get into a car and turn it on in such a cavalier manner. It’s not ridiculous to contemplate the fact that every time you get in your car, you might kill someone. In fact, not to think about it seems much more ridiculous. And then there is the ecological argument that favours not driving. You only have to look at the destruction caused by the Canadian Tar Sands or the ongoing catastrophic environmental damage caused by BP’s oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago to know that by handing over your money to oil companies you are implicated in the destruction of the planet. By learning to drive and perhaps one day owning a car, I will directly be part of the machine of oil consumption, rather than indirectly, as a passenger. Maybe this is more honest. Maybe by not buying gasoline and yet benefitting from the kind people who have ferried me around all my life, and by allowing myself to fly across oceans, there has been an element of hypocrisy around my not driving. The idea I can’t shake in all this is that right when we really need to be cutting our consumption, I am learning a skill that relies on the very people who are destroying the planet. And that just really sucks.


Clinton, Montana.