Among Mermaids and Sprites

Joanna Pocock, Surrender

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 340pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910695852

reviewed by Baya Simons

Writing about uprooting one’s life and going off to live in the wild has a long-established history in America – take Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But as with many long-established literary traditions, these illustrious narratives have been characterised by the expression and validation of a male-centric discourse, often implicit in the rugged individualism pursued through tales of self-discovery. This is where Canadian writer Joanna Pocock’s Surrender, a 320-page autobiographical essay which won the Fitzcarraldo essay prize last year, differs from its predecessors. She contextualises her decision to up her life in Hackney, London and move to Missoula, Montana with her husband and seven-year-old daughter Eve – her ‘mid-life crisis package’ as she calls it – within her greater interest in finding a livable and environmentally conscious lifestyle. It’s a narrative set within the political context of the climate crisis, and within the personal circumstances of a woman entering the middle of her life.

Pocock’s father used to say to her – as a ‘humorous yet disparaging summary of [her] life’ – when in doubt, take a course. And it is indeed through courses, workshops and festivals that Pocock works her way towards a deeper understanding of the varied and sometimes contradicting alternative subcultures of Montana. She takes a wolf-trapping course run by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. She enrols in numerous ‘rewilding’ and ‘ancestral skills’ workshops where she learns to weave baskets and forage for stitchwort, garlic mustard and gorse flowers. She partakes in an Ecosex festival which explores the idea of treating the earth like a lover. She attends an annual bison hunt just outside a dusky Yellowstone park, and watches the hunters shoot and then methodically prepare and preserve every part of the bison’s body, rendering the fat for candle making and canning the meat for winter.

Part of what makes Pocock’s narrative voice so likeable is her frank outsider-ness when encountering some of the more extreme lifestyle choices – both on the political right with the wolf trappers, and on the liberal left with the ecosex earth lovers. She’s a city dweller in a monogamous relationship (and not with the earth), a vegetarian – but not a vegan or a paleo-dieter - and someone who can’t give up the cinema, bookshops or stable healthcare provision. Further, unlike some of the off-gridders that she encounters who harbour anger and resentment towards mainstream society, Pocock is enthusiastic about the potential for society to change. Her narrative voice becomes an earnest mediator between the extent, nuances and degrees of various modes of life-commitments to environmentalism and the average white middle-class, earth-conscious but ultimately safe liberal lifestyle.

Pocock’s own black and white photographs pepper the book, sometimes illustrating the description of a landscape, sometimes embodying Pocock’s own neutral gaze at the strangeness of the sights and places she witnesses: the twists and bulges of a bison’s stomach and intestines against the snow are not bloody or gory but strangely beautiful. These photographs nudge the book further into the documentary category: like her narrative voice, they reveal her experience of Montana but they don’t pass judgement.

Yet a photograph of a seemingly empty landscape causes a shift half way through the book. Pocock has driven from Montana to Oregon to visit Finisia Medrano, a trans woman who, for 35 years, has been living nomadically on ‘the sacred hoop’. ‘The sacred hoop’ is the seasonal migratory lifestyle practiced by Indigenous Americans for thousands of years, where communities follow their food source, eat the fruits of the previous season’s planting and plant new seeds as they move along. Finisia drives Pocock out into the Oregon desert looking for biscuitroot plant, which, when dried, pounded, and made into biscuits or bread, is a staple of the Native American diet. As they search for the ‘pale green lacy tops’ of the plant, there’s a tension from Finisia’s need to find food to sustain herself, and from Pocock’s desire to see that the off-grid lifestyle can work:

‘We made our way to a tree in the distance and sat in its shade for several minutes. Finisia rolled a joint and began singing a mournful song called ‘Hone Jon’. It was about a peaceable spirit that moves with us. As soon as we got up and began walking again, Finisia found some biscuitroot. We were elated. The atmosphere lifted. I could see so much life around us. So many roots diving into the darkness under the ground.’

On the opposite page is a photograph of the Oregon desert, the contrast between blacks and whites high so that it almost looks like a negative. The grasses glow faintly against a black ground, and the sky fades from grey to white. At first glance the image reads as a barren prairie, but the pair’s reported discovery of biscuitroot among the ‘scrubby tufts of sagebush’ prompts you to look again at the photograph, seeing not arid land but an abundance of food. Finisia, Pocock reports with a touch of wryness, likes to ‘sauté them fresh in oil with wild garlic’. Before this moment, Pocock hasn’t quite cracked the broader community of eco-rewilders. Here, she starts to feel integrated, and the lifestyle begins to make sense.

In plain, diary-like prose – which only occasionally feels too unselective – Pocock works through her time living in Montana: the death of her parents, the onset of the menopause, the growth of her child and her deepening understanding of the climate crisis. She records the myriad and increasing ways that climate change affects her life, from the ‘whopping’ hospital bill for a kidney infection contracted after swimming in an over polluted river, to the deep sense of unease she feels when bears are reported coming out of hibernation half way through an Alaskan winter, because temperatures are so unseasonal. ‘It seemed too late to regain anything resembling a balanced harmony in the natural world,’ she muses, ‘which was perhaps another reason my mother’s death did not derail me. There was comfort in the cycle of life behaving as it should: parents are supposed to die before their offspring’.

Towards the end of the book, after her eventual return to London, Pocock learns of a new movement which she senses may hold some answers: ‘ecosex’. Pocock books a flight to Washington, and heads to an ‘ecosex convergence’ to investigate. Ecosex is a radical environmental movement started by an artist called Dr Elizabeth Stephens and a sex educator, Dr Annie Sprinkle, in the noughties. It proposes taking the earth as a lover in order to rewire our relationship with the earth. Post-festival, Pocock’s decodes this: ‘It involved fucking in the woods, a cuddle pile in a tent, naked forest bathing, a sensual massage, a breeze up your skirt, a vision quest, or feeding an altar with semen and menstrual blood’.

Initially, she is unsure. There’s chanting, vague discussions about ‘eco magicks’ and men saying things like ‘Hey, we should interact sometime’. She feels like ‘a school mistress among mermaids and sprites’. However as the festival goes on, she engages with it, and begins to appreciate it:

‘I realized that what was going on here really was quite radical. What I had been living these five days was not some nostalgic hankering after the past, but a desire to imagine and create a different future [. . .] Unlike so many ecologically based movements, this one is not misanthropic – it celebrates humans, rather than wishing them dead for their ecocidal ways.’

It’s the ecosex festival in America which gives the book its title, ‘Surrender’, and which unifies Pocock’s disparate experiences of life in the American West. ‘Sometimes all we can do is surrender,’ she writes at the close of the essay, ‘to our circumstances, our desires and fears, our need for escape, our failures, our pain, our inner wildness, our domestication’. In opening herself out to new versions and ways of living, Pocock suggests that acceptance – of our past selves, of human error – and the desire to do better can be radical and rebellious acts.

Baya Simons is a writer based in London.