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Journey to the End of the World with Joanna Pocock

Joanna Pocock interviewed by Claudia Bruno.


I met Joanna Pocock on the occasion of the Festival of Italian literature in London, which took place at The Coronet Theatre last October. Joanna was a speaker on a panel that focused on ‘Journeys to the end of the world’. From that point we had a long conversation that began with her book Surrender, which won the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize and was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo in May 2019. Surrender was published in the United States by House of Anansi on April 7, 2020. A short version of the following conversation appeared in October 2019 in Italy’s national newspaper Il Manifesto.

3:AM: Surrender, the title you chose for your book is so strong and at the same time so fascinating. At a time when societies are totally overwhelmed by the ‘myth of success’, many people see this term as carrying a negative meaning. Using it as a title could be interpreted as a call to give up our struggles, whatever they are. But by going deeper into the reading we can see that it’s not that easy, there’s something more, something we didn’t expect. What meaning do you entrust to this word?

JP: As I was writing the essays that became Surrender, I didn’t know they would end up as a book. My husband suggested that some of my writing could be woven together under the title ‘Reclamation’, which I really liked. Then as I got further into my subject and found myself in the woods in Washington State at the Ecosex Convergence, which was called ‘Surrender’, I realised this was the name I was looking for. We humans need to surrender to nature, to submit to the Earth before we can treat her properly. I also like the subtext here of the Buddhist idea of surrendering. There is strength in not fighting things but in seeing them for what they are. If you fight the answers to your questions, you will never solve them. Surrendering can be a form of resistance in that it can be in opposition to the myth of success and growth and mindless productivity. The word has many meanings. I like that.

3:AM: At the beginning you tell how the process that led to the writing of this book overlapped with a peculiar period of your life — you mention ‘mid-life crisis’ and the term ‘ennui’. Something, you explain, we do not have to situate necessarily in the middle of life, but that often appears simultaneously with a point in our lives when we realize that ‘we have more past than future — the known is eclipsing the unknown’. It is a kind of feeling that we are all destined to experience sooner or later, what has it meant to you?

JP: For me facing mid-life has been double-edged. I see it as a time of ‘surrender’. As we get older, we need to accept ourselves and our mortality, while simultaneously not giving in to nihilism, fatalism or despair. I also see this time in my life as a kind of last chance. I feel more energetic now than ever because I am aware that I have less time on the planet. I was a bit of a flâneuse in my teens and twenties. I felt I had all the time in the world to make work, to party, to socialise, while also trying to fight corporate forces, which in the 1980s were really gaining in power with the Thatcher-Reagan alliance. But now I feel there isn’t much time for what I need to do creatively, politically, and for the Earth. Whatever time I have left, I want to use it wisely. I see mid-life as an opportunity to dive into the things that matter to me. What is the alternative?

3:AM: The journey you tell in Surrender is in more than one sense a journey to the end of the world. Not only because it is strongly related to witnessing the death of your loved ones (your sister previously, and then your parents), but also because it’s a journey through the American desert, the towns that have survived natural and human disasters, the burning forests of the West, the polluted rivers and all the wild creatures that tried in every way to colonize your body, the places where you slept, and so your dreams and your imagination too… That’s the Wild West, baby — one would think — but you realize pretty soon that you hadn’t come ‘to seek your fortune, to pan for metaphorical gold or to discover that fabled western self-reliance’. I was escaping, you write ‘yet I was also seeking something. I just didn’t know what it was’. Did you find an answer at some point?

JP: I didn’t find the answer, but I found many. I realised that for me to feel sane, I need to be absolutely connected to land, to the seasons, to the food I put in my mouth, to the ground I walk on. But the danger in this way of thinking is that it can lead to some very reactionary thinking, to a kind of unwitting conservatism which I absolutely reject. However, without being connected to the natural world, I feel unmoored. I think we all do, whether we realise it or not. The problem I am having now that I am back in London is that in a city like this it is almost impossible to feel that connection. The land in Montana helped me see both the power and the fragility of the Earth — she can kill you with cold or heat or lightning or flooding but she can also nurture you. In fact, she is all we have. This knowledge found an outlet for me in Montana through writing. There is still so much to be fought for in the American West. Donald Trump and his administration are rolling back most of the protections for land and water. Public land is being sold off for private interests, for fracking, mining, and oil and gas extraction. I am more determined now to fight for what we have left wherever I am living. It’s all one fight.

3:AM: ‘Of course I am a prey. We all are. And so we should be . . . . We are prey. It was this thought that allowed me to see my new home through a different lens,’ you acknowledge after having a chat with an anti-trapping hunter encountered by chance during a break in a bike ride in the rain. What has changed since then?

JP: I grew up in Canada which is full of wild animals and wilderness and yet my childhood was a suburban one. After university and then art school, I worked as an illustrator and a designer and so I gravitated towards big cities like Toronto and London, and even New York and Boston for short periods, where there was lots of work. I thrived on art and being part of the cultural fabric. But when I was living in Montana where I couldn’t hop on a bus and be at the National Gallery or Tate Modern in half an hour, my focus shifted. I looked inside myself rather than outside to shore up my sense of self. And by doing so, I came to see my smallness — a smallness I had escaped when I left Canada. I was able to touch base with a wildness inside me that I had exiled myself from. Witnessing my father’s death was also part of this. The mystery of life and death are so entwined and in our sanitised world we forget this. But I came to see my smallness and my wildness as the missing ingredients in my life. It makes me feel happier and more centred knowing and accepting and even surrendering to the fact I am prey. There is a humility in this idea which I think is really important. Imagine if those in power could see themselves as prey, we would be living on a very different planet!

3:AM: The encounters you had along the way truly tested the ideas of ‘wilderness’ and ‘domestication’ in so many ways — I am thinking of Katie Russell and the scavengers, and of course of the sacred hoop of Finisia Medrano (a person full of contradictions), and of all the different people and communities you met during the journey (the rewilders, the ecosexual convergence, the Three Percenters). But I’m thinking also of what you felt when you saw the wolf cubs in Yellowstone National Park or the buffalo hunt with Buffalo Bridge, or mapping the rivers of Montana and discovering what your inner landscape looks like. From the wilderbabe to the need for rethinking motherhood, from Lilith to Annie Sprinkle, through the pages you contribute to build a wide profile of what a wild woman could be and represent. Now that you’re back in London, what does it mean to you to cultivate wilderness? What about life in our cities/Babylonias in the time of climate changes, where even our children are ‘consumers before being kids’?

JP: Gosh, that is a big question! I think it is almost impossible to cultivate much outer wildness in a big city. Yet, we are all free to develop our inner wildness. Our interior landscapes are for us to rewild with stories, myths, ideas, political and personal intentions. No one can stop us from that. Yet, it is difficult to do so in cities where our connection to nature is so tangential. But in the writing of Surrender, I tried to escape this binary between the utopian or romanticised wilderness and this jaded view of the Big City. In these essays it was important for me to linger and explore a way of navigating a space somewhere between this binary. I think, however, finding a closeness to nature is so important for children and yet in big cities, most of them are seen as either a nuisance or a receptacle for advertising. My daughter, who is twelve now, sees enormous billboards very close to where we live, plastered with young women in lingerie telling her what a girl or woman looks like. She sees ads for the latest technological gadgets which promise that these things will make her life so much better, and so on. In a sense, she and so many young, big-city children are being brainwashed. They spend so much time in front of a screen where they are sold a life. They don’t live life; they consume a simulacrum of a life. It makes me incredibly sad. At the same time, my daughter and her friends go on the climate marches and they care deeply about the planet. But I keep coming back to this idea of schizophrenia as the normal state of our world. On the one hand, kids are protesting the eco-cide that is going on, yet they are buying fast fashion and iPhones. It isn’t their fault. They are children. It is our fault. We have allowed this situation to blossom through the idea of exponential growth. We will never solve the climate crisis until we start giving back to the Earth more than we take. Yet, how to get that message across? I don’t have an answer to that.

3:AM: I found the way you deal with the menopause interesting. It seems to be still taboo in our ‘civilized world’…

JP: That’s one thing I was hesitant to talk about, but ended up going into in Surrender, because, well there is a political dimension to the aging of women which is pertinent. Women are told to tame it, to stop it, to keep our bodies within the bounds of a proscribed sexual desirability. We must be either sexy or maternal. But what about this other space we inhabit once we are no longer sexy or able to be mothers? I wrote an essay about the menopause and it became very clear from my research that the medicalization of the menopause was funded by pharmaceutical giants. I was shocked by what I read. But, no one tells you this. I had so many women approach me after I wrote this essay — women who wanted to discuss this strange liminal space. When you let menopause rage and you reject the drugs, it is so much more interesting. There is so much knowledge and wisdom in letting our bodies go a bit wild, a bit crazy, totally uncontrollable. It isn’t always pleasant, but it is always fascinating to listen to what nature is trying to tell us. I should add that there are some women who do really struggle and find the drugs helpful and I am not demonising them at all, but I think our desire to drug our bodies is somehow connected to poisoning the Earth. Maybe finding that wildness inside us can help us allow the Earth to be more wild. Yet, more and more children are being diagnosed with depression, hyperactivity, told they are born in the wrong body, that they have the wrong temperament, the wrong shape and they are being given pharmaceuticals like never before. We seem to be poisoning every living thing. The corporate world loves to make us feel inadequate in order for them to sell us what we need to be ‘adequate’ in their eyes. We have lost our connection to ourselves as much as we have with the natural world and this is affecting children very badly. We need to rewild childhood and remove it from this axis of consumption, just as we need to remove womanhood and motherhood from the axes of consumption.

3:AM: Born in Canada, you left London after 25 years to move to Montana with your husband and your daughter (and then Oregon without them two years later) without knowing for how long you would stay. You wonder about staying or going several times, you question where you belong, and you write about the different forms the Russian language has of the verb ‘to leave’, depending on whether one intends to return; and about the Welsh word Hiraeth (the longing for a home you can’t return to or which never existed). ‘I have always been more at home being nomadic than I am being settled, floating rather than landing,’ you say at some point. And later, ‘I do not come from one land; I come from many, which makes this nativist idea of being connected to place problematic. I am torn between finding my place and not believing that such a thing even exists’. You tell us about a ‘domesticated Europe’: do you think Europe is the home we can’t return to? How did you manage coming back to London just as the UK was about to leave the EU?

JP: I did once feel at home in London, but I am not so sure anymore. I do think about moving away and finding or creating an off-grid community sympathetic to making art, writing, growing food and planting seeds. My husband doesn’t feel at home in the British Isles and it rains so much! He isn’t British — he was born in London but his father was Cuban-American and his mother is from Trinidad. I am more English than he is with my family roots in Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland. There is something about this land here, the shades of green, the blustery wind, the rain that suits me somehow. Yet, I think in many ways my husband and I are similar in that we don’t believe that there is one place that we belong, nor do we believe, like some people, that you always end up returning ‘home’. I think we are both searching for a place where we can make our work and give something to the Earth and find like-minded people. The environmentalist, writer and farmer Wendell Berry says one must find a place where one feels embedded. ‘Our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land,’ he writes. That state of being is what I am looking for. But, I am still floating. I haven’t landed yet. Maybe I never will.

3:AM: At different stages of your story you quote Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, a book she struggled to write being paralyzed by the deep conviction that writing had become an irrelevant act in front of a changing world. You recall that she eventually succeeded in completing it by ‘coming to terms with disorder’. Maybe, you say, ‘in these words lay an answer to the conundrum of how to live with the constant reminder of a dying planet. Perhaps in order to move forward, to avoid wallowing in despair, one had simply to come to terms with disorder. Forget about the patterns we are programmed to find in nature; tune into the chaos’. What role did writing play in this process for you?

JP: I worried about quoting such a giant of literature. I adore Didion’s writing. And yet, I decided to include it because her words were ringing in my ears. Writing Surrender was a cathartic event for me. I am not strictly speaking an activist, nor is Surrender a manifesto that can provide answers. But I am interested in exploring how humans can connect to nature and how we can feel part of it and how we can create a healthier balance both with our bodies and our minds. I was afraid that if I went too deeply into the subject of mining, land rights and some of the more convoluted historical underpinnings, it might put people off. And yet, the only way to really explore the personal questions I try and answer, is to look at them through the lens of politics and history. ‘How have we got here?’ is a necessary question before moving on to ‘and now what are we going to do about it?’ Working on the manuscript with Jacques Testard, Fitzcarraldo’s publisher, was a wonderful experience. He encouraged me to take the time to write some of the more difficult stories, like the narratives around mining, which to me were some of the most difficult to research. I felt in the writing of Surrender and while living in Montana that I really was wrestling the chaos I had been feeling for years into something manageable and something that was almost making sense of it all. The book is strange in that it encompasses so many subjects from mining to menopause and yet the links are all so obvious when you think about them. Making these links and putting them to paper has been cathartic.



Joanna Pocock photographed by Dinah Wood.

Joanna Pocock is an Irish-Canadian writer living in London. Her writing has notably appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation and on the Dark Mountain blog. She was shortlisted for the Barry Lopez Narrative Nonfiction Prize in 2017, and won the 2018 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for Surrender. @joannaofottawa

Claudia Bruno is an Italian writer and journalist living in London. Her writings have appeared in the national newspaper Il Manifesto, in literary magazines and collections. @millebollebru

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 3rd, 2020.