Rewilding the menopause

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greek icons of female torsos

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

 

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

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

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

Bernard said some very funny and wise things.

It was my turn.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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The Sparrow and the Twig

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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

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.

Lynx curled up.hor

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:
http://dark-mountain.net/blog/the-sparrow-and-the-twig/

All photographs by author

Stories Made of Rivers

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This photo essay was published on the Dark Mountain blog, November 20, 2017

http://dark-mountain.net/blog/stories-made-of-rivers/

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White Sulphur Springs, Montana

We have created every living thing from water.

The Koran, Chapter Al-Anbiya, Verse Number 30

 

  1. Civilisation

The first story I was told about rivers can be summed up like this: There is direct line from the Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur to the Chrysler Building. I was around nine.

 

  1. Civilisation II

Rivers allowed us to grow food, store it, build houses, libraries, museums, cities and empires. I was maybe ten when I heard this one.

 

  1. Cells

In sixth grade, the story shifted from history to science when we memorized that our hearts and brains were 73% water. I have always seen fresh water as precious, magical. I used to believe that water could think. If my brain was mainly water, why not?

Every single living and non-living, visible and non-visible object around us—our computer screens, the retinas in our eyeballs, the dust in the air—all of these rely on fresh water. Our body is a walking river. Water flows from us. The liquid inside us will out eventually.

 

  1. Cycles

In middle school, we were taught about the water cycle: river to rain to snow to mountain glacier to melting ice, back to river. We coloured in those diagrams and added those arrows diligently. But we were not told that this cycle was one of the many ways the earth breathes in and out. Nor were we told that bathing in the River Ganges frees the bather from sin, the outward cleanliness symbolising inner purification. This waterway is fed by the glaciers in the Himalayas, the Mountains of the Gods, and feeds the Indian plains as if descended from the heavens.

 

  1. Hygiene

The fact that we as humans spend nine months growing in water also passed us by at school. The giggles of embarrassment in ‘Hygiene’ class drowned out any information about babies rolling around in their water-filled pods.

 

  1. Secrets

Water’s ability to seemingly clean itself, to rejuvenate, to flow and keep flowing no mater what we throw at it is a strange sort of illusion. If you fell a forest, the trail of destruction is there for people to see. But water is different, it keeps the secret for you.

 

  1. Flow

Many rivers—despite their damns, their drying out, their dead fish, their pollution—are still flowing. Sometimes they run yellow or orange or green. Some may look crystal clear but are carrying thousands, if not millions of particles of arsenic, cadmium, phosphorus, nitrogen, mercury and lead. Two hundred and twenty-six million pounds of toxic chemicals are dumped in American rivers every year. Of this, 1.5 million pounds are carcinogens, 626,000 pounds are chemicals linked to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds are associated with reproductive problems. Some rivers, such as the 1,900-mile long Rio Grande are drying up and disappearing altogether, but many in a heartbreaking display of trying to do the right thing, just keep flowing.

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The Clark Fork River, Missoula, Montana

  1. Float

When I lived in Western Montana, ‘floating’ was what you did on hot days. You’d drive to the Blackfoot or the Clark Fork with a spare inner tube strapped to the roof of your car or in the bed of your pickup. You’d throw it into the river, stick a hat on your head (that searing Montana sun), lean back into your rubber doughnut and let the river take you. We were lucky in Montana: 40% of its rivers are deemed ‘good’ by the Environmental Protection Agency as compared with, for instance, 21% in the coastal plains around the Gulf of Mexico. You know things are bad when the best bill of health is one in which you are more sick than healthy.

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The Hot Springs Motel and Spa, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

  1. White Sulphur Springs

Here’s another story. A more recent one, which isn’t taught in schools because it is about me and a guy I once met near a river:

It is a damp December morning in 2016 and I am driving through a starlit, pinky dawn from Missoula to the town of White Sulphur Springs (population 1,000). The morning light has crested above the distant mountains as I roll down Main Street. The town is a mixture of boarded up storefronts and some new, thriving businesses. There is a real estate office, a cinema, a pizza place, a few gas stations, a couple of bars, and off the main street, a library. And then there is the unfussy Hot Springs Spa Motel with its pools of sulphurous, health enhancing spring water. It was while soaking in one of these springs a few months ago that I heard a man with an Australian accent talking about the mine. My ears immediately perked up. I bumped into him later that day in a bar down the road from the motel and we started up a conversation. We were two out-of-towners waiting for our drinks.

I Googled him that night only to discover that he is Bruce Hooper, one of the directors of Tintina Resources—a Canadian and Australian mining company which is behind the proposed copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I find out that he also worked for BP and Rio Tinto—companies behind some of the worst ecological disasters of the past few years. Tintina are dying to get their hands on the world’s largest lode of copper which is buried thirteen miles from Sheep Creek, a major trout-spawning tributary of the Smith River. The Smith is one of the last great untouched rivers, and it pays its keep: about $4.5 million a year is made from floaters who travel its 60-mile limestone canyon between the Little and Big Belt Mountains. But none of this matters in this story.

Tintina’s project is called Black Butte, after the black butte which sits atop the world’s largest deposit of pure copper. It has been on the table for several years, and Tintina are waiting for the green light. Judging by who holds the power these days, it’s probably not long until the trucks start rumbling and the ground is ripped open. The copper will make the company millions, and the River, well, it’s a river. It will keep flowing no matter what shit they dump in it.

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The Mint Bar, Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

  1. The Tour

I book myself into a tour of the proposed Black Butte copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I ask about the tailings—the toxic water that is the result of blasting the copper-laden rock from the earth—and am told that they’ve got a “great idea” for that. The guy leading the tour speaks in a soothing homespun way which does the opposite of reassure me. Doesn’t he know what mines do? All his metaphors for the violence of this proposed mine are couched in Pinterest-style baking terms. The rocks left over from the excavations will be pulverised to the consistency of “icing sugar” and will be blended with the chemical-laden water until it is a sort of paste. They’ll be made into “cakes” and will be shoved back into the holes in the ground. “Cheesecloth” is involved. No one will ever know the land was ever mined. According to my tour guide, this story has a really happy ending, like a Martha Stewart cake recipe: everyone gets a piece of it.

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The Black Butte which sits atop one of the world’s largest lodes of pure copper

  1. West

In 1872, when miners were flocking to Montana to stake their claims, a law was passed which allowed them to dig up what they wanted, inject whatever chemicals they needed to separate mineral from rock, gold from stone, copper from its vein, and walk away without cleaning up the waste. There are thousands of abandoned mines all over the state. Exactly a hundred years later, the Clean Water Act was created. The 1872 act is older but often supercedes the Clean Water Act.

It is difficult for people outside of the American West to grasp the enormity of the reclamation problem. Scott Fields, an environmental health writer, admits there is plenty of controversy around abandoned mines: how many, how lethal, how best to clean them up. But according to him, experts can agree on at least a few major points: “the scope of the impacts of abandoned mines isn’t well understood, the damage that untended mines cause is increasing, and adequate funds aren’t available to address even the largest, most harmful mine sites. And although scientists are developing new methods to treat abandoned mines, the field of mine remediation is still in its infancy.”

 

  1. Place

There are two main types of mining: placer and hard rock mining. Placer mining is all about water. The word comes from the Spanish, placer, meaning a shoal or alluvial deposit. It has also given us ‘place’ and ‘plaza’. Gold is the place, roads are paved with it in our imaginations, it is central to our way of thinking, our economy, our myths, our histories. It centres and grounds us.

 

  1. Twin Creek

This is a more recent story. This one has a happy ending:

It is the end of April and Paul Parson is driving me to Twin Creek, 20 miles west of Missoula. Paul is a restoration coordinator for the river conservation group Trout Unlimited. In his late thirties or early forties, Paul has an easy, relaxed manner and speaks quietly and deliberately, choosing his words carefully—something I have come to associate with this part of the world.

Steering his truck with his knees, he looks over at me and asks if his driving makes me nervous. “Not at all,” I say trying to be nonchalant.

We turn off the I-90 onto Nine Mile Road. This landscape is the stuff of screen savers and calendars. Mountains in the distance, wooden fences and photogenic barns slanting at attractive angles. It was once ranching land but is no longer.

Paul is talking to me about mining. He sees it from the other side, from the side of the rivers that have had just about everything poured and leached into them and left for dead. “Private mining claims often follow rivers as you need a lot of water to mine. And mines just decimate them. Rivers can heal themselves if you give them a leg up and plant the right things near them and get their meanders right, but…” he shrugs, leaving me to finish that thought.

This is what Paul does all day: he reclaims, remakes, and designs rivers, although he dislikes the term ‘designing’ when it comes to what he does—too pretentious.

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Workers from Trout Unlimited at Nine Mile Creek

  1. Replanting

Paul and I park a short walk from Twin Creek and meet up with two of his co-workers, Dave and Rob. Paul says we can kill two birds with one stone by doing some planting—he is too humble to call it rewilding—and checking out how Twin Creek, one of Trout Unlimited’s latest reclamation projects, is coming along. To an outsider, the stream looks perfect—too perfect. Small waterfalls of aesthetically piled rocks appear at intervals. Each stone, dip, and curve of the creek has been “designed”. It is alarming how this near-perfection in nature looks unnatural. I watch the three men walk along the stream. If you didn’t know them, it would be clear to you that they were not out for a hike. They run their fingers through the grasses and shrubs they planted from seed: willow and hawthorn and rose. They touch the trunks of the three cottonwoods they left in place which have seeded others nearby naturally, as well as the conifers which they planted as saplings. They poke at the mushrooms and squat to examine some scat: elk and bear and goose, full of seeds. It’s all looking good.

“We know what a healthy stream looks like,” Paul says, “It’s in our mind’s eye”. They stop and listen to the sound of the water and talk of the meander. Like artists or physicians, they call upon all their senses to review their work. Certain plants are thriving more than others. For the first time in a long time, the creek meets up with the Nine Mile River and will soon be able to support trout. This is a success story.

“Native trout are really sensitive to climate change,” Paul says. “They can’t survive in warm water. They are an ice age fish. Ex-mining water is the worst for them. It’s often standing water, doesn’t flow, gets warm as a result, and the flows that were created from the digging go in straight lines and this causes a lot of sediment. Trout are very sensitive to sediment.”

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Standing water

  1. Soup

Paul wants to show me what a creek looks like before he and his team have done their work, so I have something to compare Twin Creek to. We head to the Mattie V Creek, named, I believe, after Mattie Hixson who married a Montana man in the 1920s. Mattie died in 1985 at the age of 83 and her namesake creek has been sitting stagnant and polluted for a long time. Paul took Mattie’s great grandsons fishing to show them what a good stream looks like and said, “This could be on your property”. They got totally behind the clean up. It is a horribly ugly spot. The still water is split-pea green. It buries the trees half way up their trunks. Hills of sludge have been piled into grassless tors around the site. It is unnervingly quiet and claustrophobic. We don’t stay long.

 

  1. Desire

We are lulled into thinking that because these sacred waterways—and every river is sacred—are constantly flowing, they possess what we desire more than anything: eternal life and an ever-changing nature that gives the impression of permanence. They are everything we want to be. But even rivers can die.

 

  1. Reclamation

The first known use of the word ‘reclaim’ is in the 13th-century anonymously-penned poem Cursor Mundi, whose title in English means ‘Runner of the World’. Its 30,000 verses were written by a cleric in the North of England as a way of tracing history and religion up to his lifetime. In the Cursor Mundi, to ‘reclaim’ is to ‘call back a hawk’. In the 14th century, the word was used to mean ‘to reduce to obedience’. And today the word retains that sense of control in its definition ‘to bring land under cultivation’. But now among ecologists, rewilders, and environmentalists, to ‘reclaim’ land is to return it to a pristine Eden-like state. But, just how far back do we go in reclaiming a river or a tract of land? Does one try to ecologically wind the clock back to pre-ice age times? Or to one of the interglacial ages? If so, which one? They are all very different with their own unique flora and fauna. Does one go back to 1492 when Columbus set foot on American soil, which is what some American rewilders used to think. Others, however, believe that 1778 is more desirable—the year Captain Cook landed in Hawaii. Whereas for some, the foundation of Yellowstone Park in 1872 is the ecological baseline to which we should be aiming in our reclamation projects. And for the more dedicated contemporary rewilders, we should be looking to our Stone Age ancestors, to the hunter-gatherers for the most ecologically healthy baseline. The debates are ongoing. But we all seem to think we need to look back in order to move forward.

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Paul Parson planting seeds

  1. Illusion

In 1963, the National Park Service published the Leopold Report, named after the zoologist and conservationist A. Starker Leopold. Starker was the son of Aldo Leopold one of the founders of the land conservation movement in the United States whose book A Sand Country Almanac contains a chapter on Ecological Conscience in which he put forth the idea that “conservation is a state of harmony between man and land”. But the authors of the Leopold Report were already aware of the problems and the conflicts in reclamation. They wrote, “restoring the primitive scene is not done easily nor can it be done completely … a reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated, using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity.” Even in 1963 there was the awareness that wilderness could only exist in America as a “reasonable illusion”.

The rivers Paul Parsons reclaims, are not wild rivers, they are illusions of wild rivers. Just because a river flows does not mean it is not dead. We can and we should reclaim as much of the earth as we can even if it means dreaming ourselves back to a time very few people can remember, before history was written and stories were on paper. I would much rather wander through the reasonable illusion of Twin Creek than the toxic reality of the Mattie V. For now, and probably for the rest of our time on earth, humans will have to come to terms with the reasonable illusion of wilderness because the real thing is disappearing fast. The story goes that we can call back the hawk, although we know in our hearts it is too far away to hear our cries.