Joanna Pocock’s Surrender opens with the author’s ennui at approaching fifty, being on the cusp of the menopause and tired of seeing piles nitrous oxide canisters in the gutters and the “threadbare and dull” pubs of East London. After considering various options and with seemingly zero fuss, she, her husband and daughter leave the city for the American West, and move to a town called Missoula in Montana with one suitcase each.
When I started reading the book, I was staying on a mate’s sofa between homes and at a stage of therapy where I permanently felt like a bottle that’s just been shaken, all my sediment floating around. I wonder if that explains why Surrender hit me so deeply: in part at least, it’s about our anxiety at living in a liminal state, existing between places and not knowing where we belong, and also the idea that we might live in that way forever. I found myself reading at cold, dark bus stops between SpareRoom viewings, leaving a flat where I had thought I was going to build a home with somebody, to move in with a group of strangers. Looking back, I should have felt much more scared of never finding my place, but instead I felt weirdly comforted. When I read, “I am torn between finding my place and not believing such a thing exists” I fold the page corner down.
During Pocock’s first Christmas in Montana her mother dies, followed swiftly by her father. Her relationship to writing has become fragile, and Missoula has started to remind her of her hometown Ottawa, about which she has complicated feelings. All the while she is searching for purpose and joy but not entirely sure how to find it. To find out more about the people who live there, she signs up to an introductory course in wolf-trapping. As a vegetarian she has no interest in killing animals but is curious about the community and, somewhat unsurprisingly, they bristle at her as she does at them. Realising her default position towards anyone who wants to trap an animal is complete and utter incomprehension, she starts dreaming of the wolves, described beautifully in one of the most visceral passages in the book:
somehow, mysteriously, my interest in wolves increased. My dreams were full of them running silently through trees at night. They run for reasons we don’t understand, travelling huge distances… I was seeing silvery forests in the night and grey and black wolves and pups in their dens. I was also seeing deer jumping over fallen trees in the forest, stopping for a moment to sniff the air, only to be pulled down in a bloody mess by an alpha wolf. I could now understand those around me who spend their lives watching wolves, studying them, thinking about them and their place in the stories that come from this land.
This whole time I had my eyes and brain trained on the wrong subject. I was no longer fascinated by the trappers, but by the trapped. I decided to start focusing not on the predators, but the prey.
The author then starts to look at those who understand the wilds of America in a different way, and have the skills to live off the land. Here, we meet people living ‘on the hoop’ – re-planting as fast as they’re eating.
The biggest personality Pocock meets, Finisia, is brisk, impatient, and hard-nosed. Anyone not living that life is labelled with the derogatory term ‘terracidal’ and basically written off: while others have tried to start classes and teach those from outside the community to learn more, Finisia has no such inclination to do so. In fact, far from being a utopia of good conscience, the life sounds as miserable as it is fascinating — Finisia is barely scraping by in extreme privation, digging hard earth for roots. There is a wonderful subtle nod to the fact that a lot of our ideas about being ‘close to the earth’ while we live in cities are in fact just marketing ploys. “Life on the hoop was a way for Finisia to live according to her conscience – not as a way to lose weight or brighten her smile or expand her ancestral skillset.”
As climate change gets harder to ignore but still no one really knows if and how we can solve it, I increasingly feel like everyone I know is in the process of deciding exactly where they sit between their anxiety about the future of the planet, and how much they are willing to change or sacrifice. And the problem is captured neatly here: while Finisia’s way appears a lot more useful than imagining that you’re having any impact on the earth by buying tiny jars of hemp parmesan for £6, leading lives that are abjectly miserable doesn’t seem a viable solution either.
Joaquin Phoenix was widely ridiculed on social media during the Oscars, as he claimed to ‘do his bit’ for the environment by wearing the same tuxedo all awards season, but I wonder if at least some of the nervous energy around pillorying him was misplaced anxiety that his meaningless gesture was simply a mirror to all of our meaningless gestures. There is no longer any doubt that whatever we are doing is not enough; and yet, we still have to do something.
This problem, this contradiction, is explored in Surrender. While Pocockreads Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in the book, she says:
In order for her to work at all, she would have to ‘come to terms with disorder’. Maybe in these words lay an answer to the conundrum of how to live with the constant reminder of a dying planet.
With apocalyptic imagery abounding, Pocock gives fascinating insight into people who are preparing for “serious social, economic or planetary disaster.” She talks about them stockpiling food, water and medical supplies, and differentiates from religious and non-religious ones (aka “Preppers”).
The variety of non-religious Preppers is incredibly wide-ranging, from those who believe that bio-terrorism will finish us off to those who see natural disasters as the endgame…
Drawing a comparison with those she meets living in the wilderness the way our ancestors may have done, she finds interesting similarities, along with their key difference:
Both schools of thought share a mistrust of the system… I don’t feel I can exist at either end of these extremes, but Lynx, Finisia and Katie Russell all share a sane view of the Earth as something to tend with a vision of a future on the planet. I don’t think the Preppers imagine much beyond their own survival.
In looking into these communities, the author seems able to move through the world with more curiosity than expectation, and this comes across as the interesting nuggets are presented with clarity, compassion, and trust that it will, eventually, become a cohesive narrative.
I thought a lot about surrender as I swam, watching my breath steam out in front of me.
I remember that I’m not settling forever. That if it doesn’t work out, I can leave. That I’m moving in a direction, but I’m still between this and the next thing. That nothing is forever, anyway.
Since August, I’ve been swimming outside once a week. I discovered the pleasure in summer and didn’t want to give up when September hit; in the water I feel free and strong, and I was keen to see autumn in, to witness the flattening of the light bouncing off the pond water, to watch the leaves turn rusty and roll up. I wanted to keep standing naked in the company of other women, to feel part of a tribe that soaped our cold red skins afterwards and talked about how lovely it was.
Suddenly it was December, and even with an impending house move taking up my free time, I still wasn’t ready to give up swimming. In fact, the opposite.
I thought a lot about surrender as I swam, watching my breath steam out in front of me. I had always thought the word sounded so defeatist, but the book had given it a whole different slant. What if it wasn’t about giving up at all, but letting go?
The second part of the book represents quite a big step-change, in that Pocock and a friend of a friend go to an ecosexual convergence (seems halfway between a conference and a festival) called Surrender.
Based around the idea that ‘sexuality can be a powerful source of personal, social and ecological transformation’, Pocock says:
I first came across ecosexuality while reading about Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker, feminist, stripper, artist, writer and activist, reputedly the only porn star with a PhD… the ecosex festival had grown organically out of Annie Sprinkle’s mission to make sex less shameful and environmentalism more sexy.
Pocock takes part in the activities – workshops, pathworks, meditation, talks – and seems to work hard to put whatever cynicism she is able to one side, while keeping her head screwed on, which is a pleasing perspective to read as you feel like you’re getting a glimpse of reality but not from a complete outsider.
During a consent workshop, she weighs up the emphasis placed on consent culture with the possibility that it might place undue responsibility on those avoiding rape/abuse, rather than seeing it a power imbalance in society. She takes part in a pathwork meditation to invoke her ancestors and has a vivid vision of a relative older than her grandmother giving birth. She confides in one of the teachers there that she’s been told more than once that she’s psychic.
Towards the end of her experience there, she seems to hold onto her status as an outsider by standing under a tree while the rest of them dance, but she realises that what they’ve done has felt radical, in both forward-focus and love of humans.
What I had been living for these five days was not some nostalgic hankering after the past, but a desire to imagine and create a different future…. Ecosexuals are not trying to recreate some lost Eden, but are instead imagining a whole new one, with a new kind of society better suited for survival. Unlike so many ecologically based movements, this one is not misanthropic – it celebrates humans, rather than wishing them dead for their ecocidal ways.
A book of conflicts, Surrender deftly spans woman against self, woman against humanity, woman against nature and woman against the world, bringing each into focus in new and interesting ways, and conveying the importance of the environmental problem we face without whipping up an anxiety with nowhere to go. I feel like Surrender is also a book about survival, with a worthwhile acknowledgement that the decisions about how you want your life to be are not unconnected from how you want the world itself to be, and an idea that not pretending you sit at the top of the food chain, but somewhere in the messy middle, can be incredibly freeing. We’re all fallible and fragile and ready to fall.
Now it’s February. I’m still worried about climate change and I’m still worried about how little I’m doing about it. I’m still settling into the new house, getting used to the rhythms of those five new heartbeats. I’m still swimming. Every week, I lower myself into the water from the steps, feel the coldness of the water up my legs and body, turn to face the pond, and let go.
Alice Furse is a book publicist based in London. She has written a novel, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and a few short stories, and also reads a lot and runs a monthly book group. Can be found retweeting stuff Kathy Burke says @alicefurse