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.
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