Greedy souvenirs of euphoria: waking up in a wooden cabin every morning, to a different mountain. Pastel orange or cloud draped like cloak and hat or cut to pieces by light or disappeared completely by sky. Walking alone, deep in woods, excited and defiant to thoughts like you’re not supposed to, there are madmen and besides, wouldn’t company be better? Sitting on a log, in a forest clearing, full of crows.
A feeling of having come home, a spiritual home. Is this how the pioneers felt? Intoxicated by America’s limitlessness? But this is a thefted feeling. My European blood spilled blood here. How then to tread a careful visitor, and how to write it? A feminist writer makes for an uncomfortable âneur. How to write place when women and nature have both been non-autonomous subjects of the male gaze, noting down your contaminations rather than listing your conquests?
A small community of people, off-grid in the forest. Aera shows me how to tell the Doug fir with bark so thick-pitted you can dig your fingers in. She has charmed fingers; her garden bursts its fences, spilling languidly over. If you sing and talk to the plants, she says, they do better. Bees draw invisible topographies between her flowers, and hummingbirds hover at them, like the quivering tips of conductors’ baton. There is a chapel bent from the vines of a flower particularly attractive to the hummingbirds, inside which you can lie in the grass and look up, trying to imagine as they assume position, beak inside bud, that they too are still; tapping into the timescales of hummingbirds, tricking yourself into convergent perception. As if their hotter heartbeats weren’t drumming out a world in more complex nuances; their perception a high speed camera, ours a flickering zoetrope.
Aera is asking, is what I’m doing too removed? Is it right to be carving out a good life in the wilderness, going after the white male pioneer trope, absolved of the incumbencies of wider society, when there is so much to be fighting in the cities? The exclusion of women from the wild stems from a narrative that casts women as inherently social in reductive evolutionary terms, having ‘natural’ instincts inclined towards care. At the basis of this is the dichotomy of individualism as masculine, collectivism as feminine. But collectivism is now a moral necessity.
It was women I found leading restorative work, and where they were, they were opening outwards rather than building islands, offering resfpite to those doing the work of resisting. This is why Aera started inviting in WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms); feeling the tug of tendrils, pulling people in and reaching out. Her sharing of knowledge and the restorative powers of the land itself are like the hummingbirds and bees that weave a web in flight, into and out of her garden, taking bits of it off, impregnating the plants with transferred pollen, inextricable from the flourishing and abundance.
I walk from the mud house in the red sand through a deep arroyo, stepping over plants bent by the memory of annual rainfloods. I sidestep a tarantula that is crossing the dry river bed. She is rusty red, as though her brittle hairs were made of fine strands of copper. She has none of the unnerving jagged speed of an ordinary spider. She first runs a little away from me, and then lies still with the desperate faith of small creatures, their last-ditch trust in destiny, lying in plain sight, awaiting fate to be decided by the larger and differently witted creatures. Maybe I will be confused, or maybe my eyesight will blunder on a still object – I will think her a stone. Or perhaps it’s a try at pathetic vulnerability; by offering herself up, I won’t be able to bring myself to kill her. Which I won’t, because now I love her.
Arroyos are dry ephemeral river beds that fill with mountain and rainwater once a year, shocking the desert.The red soil of the high desert can’t brace against the water, whose rushing torrents have carved scars in the mud and sand. But the plants have evolved so that their seeds can only germinate in this turbulence; they must be roughed up by rushing sediment, then quickly send down roots deep enough to survive the thirst that follows.
Pam works with rocks to help the land become more resilient, after the erosion caused by the building of the railroad in goldmine days. We build one-rock dams, carefully seeking out rocks that will interlock perfectly, to redirect the water on the dirt road that links them and their neighbours to the town. A neighbour, a loud man in a 4×4, pulls up and an altercation begins. He has been shoving aside her rock dams with the tractor he is using to bring the road into abeyance with brute force instead, undoing hours of her hot heavy work. He says he is sorry for spoiling her pretty rock gardens.
Pam tells me she hates people, loves the earth. Did she move to the desert to run away from or towards people? She chose this piece of land because it needed love. But she also sends her tendrils outwards; she runs her home as a land restoration learning centre, teaching the vigorously tender work of laying rocks, shaping earth.
There are no islands; we are implicated by the wider world. In hand with this is the question of living in severed bliss at the same time that Trump is eroding native land rights and shrinking wild spaces, the UK having already saturated them. Making a claim to the seclusion and individualism that has always been the privilege of men, at the expense of other female and non-human allies, who suffer the brunt of patriarchy equally if not more.
Sleepless in the straw-bale house because without seeing her I know she is there. Strange how you can feel poison in the room, a heavy pendant around the neck. Suspended still on her silken trapeze, in the ceiling corner a metre from the bed, black widow. From the shine of my head-torch she slinks into a small hole tucked into the corner, shying away from the light like she knows she is for darkness. She moves in a similar slow way to the tarantula; as if speed might give her away or debase her.
To my surprise, I slip into the nonchalance of exposure immediately. In fact there is something comforting in the way I can feel her emerge by darkness, and the vividity of her blackness is beautiful; that she warns you, asks for respect but asks it gently.
Redwoods are only found in California and one small valley in China, but they used to span the planet. Their thick bark is almost impervious to fire; could they be a tree to survive the inferno then, now that California is burning? Natives of the coast knew how to use destruction to nurture, burning the trees to remove excess foliage, which causes severe fire if uncontrolled. They lived seasonally inside living hollow trunks.
A forest fire decimated the surrounding land but stopped at the peace pole, which marks the boundary to sacred Native American land, now under the care of Elena. She offers it as a safe space, for California’s fire victims, for LGBT souls, and she holds the space open for the Native people, who for whatever reason found themselves having to sell it.They have traditional ceremonies here still, and keep a close relationship with their caretaker. Women and two-spirit people are invited to an Inipi ceremony. I probe fears of appropriation, but we were invited, and the ceremony will be lead by Lakota women.
The ceremony involves sitting inside a dome made from willow and hides, with hissing rocks, the ancestors, in a central pit. Lakota and English prayers and songs are said in the cleansing hot darkness. It is a purification ceremony; heavy trauma is channelled around, but we are burning down to nurture. We pray for individual traumas, some of the others so intense I can’t stop crying, and earth traumas. It is dreadful and hopeful. The fire keeper tells us as we crawl out of the tent that we are brand new babies. Inipi means to live again.
I come across a story in Elena’s library. It tells of a hairy old lady who is questionably human, who collects bones to sing over them. And as she sings over the bones, they begin to flesh out, the muscles of the dead creature that grew them gather together, and the animal’s form becomes erect, a skin and then fur forming, tail unfurling like a waking fern, shudders passing through the creature as its lungs unstick and raggedly fill with air, wheezing like an accordion. It opens its eyes and runs away towards the horizon. While running, its hind legs elongate until it is no longer able to run quadrupedal. Its forelegs bend at the elbows as its fur drops from its skin. And then it is a laughing woman, and she runs naked through the forests, the deserts, the forests, and never stops running.