Isolation Read # 87

Time spent deep in an activity, deep in the woods, deep in exposure, deep on the surface of an ocean, deeply in love – in these wild places with wildness in the heart the self is absent.

out there…under the tremendous

walk with heart open

Published in 2018, edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe and Camilla Bernard, this fine and necessary book describes itself as “An anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art.”

The guiding principle of the book was to attempt to answer the question “What would a woman’s narrative of wild adventure look like?” In doing so it acknowledges that there are “many ways to express the creativity inspired by being outdoors.” Despite the wonderful trail-blazing contributions of Nan Shepherd or Christiane Ritter, to name but two, the vast majority of our tales of adventure, of wilderness, excitement and even survival, have been male stories, with men as the narrator and the subject / hero, such that ‘the outdoors’ has become seen as very much a male space in which women are not expected to appear, feel / are threatened if they do, are often sidelined or curtailed when they do, with their experiences being viewed through a male / patriarchal prism – female adventurers referred to in relation to their marital, maternal status, for example.

This book joyfully throws off those shackles and broadly and unapologetically goes for it.

The nature of anthologies is that you dip in and out, start at different points as the mood takes you; sometimes a narrative or a poem that didn’t strike you one day, will hit the mark squarely on another; on other days all you may wish to do is look on the visual art or the cartoons, by-passing the written word entirely. In that spirit, and in no particular order, I found the most affecting contributions were those by: Tara Kramer (a meditation on the “emptiness” of the ice fields she worked on for months); Jean Atkin’s Eglwyseg Day – a poem of a walk, broken into tiny snapshots of specified time, demonstrating that idea of a poem being the capturing of a moment: “[1.53pm] path divides into two green trails. We know / we have chosen the right way…“; Alyson Hallett’s poem When I Lived in a Small; Paula Flach’s Oh, in which she catches herself by surprise ‘noticing’ her gender after exhausting days of hiking and sheltering from torrential rain in her tent on a beach in Norway; Lily Diu’s tale of astonishing endurance, Running on the Roof of the World; Helen Mort’s precise poem The Climb, which with its repeated re-starts, reassessments and readjustments mirrors the physical act of climbing a rock face (or at least, as this non-climber imagines it); or perhaps, Lilace Mellin Guingard’s short, strange road trip, To Reach Green Before Dark, which contains the following arresting passage:

The common, unfamiliar ground visible outside the truck cab and in small slabs of mirror soothed, like a good book found at a party where your ride’s in the back room with the host’s best buddy, her purse full of condoms and the car keys.

There are pieces that attend to a tactile, or sensorial relationship with the outdoors, less commonly explored: Claire Carter’s To Followyou placed this rock in my hand / and closed my fingertips over it // softly unclothed / where your hollow has grown cold / I wake and wake again / into dark“, and Imogen Cassel’s Last Night I Dream we Walk up to the Point Again, being good examples. There are some pieces that hover around the ‘finding myself’ or ‘being reborn’ spiritual end of the telling, these are less to my taste but that’s fine because these are not my tales, my experiences; these are by their nature, individual accounts. Other pieces chart life-changing moments, such as Maria Coffey’s Leaving Protection, in which she and her partner finally move away from their coastal home of many years, from a smaller island beyond Vancouver Island, while still others reflect on overcoming challenges of all shapes an sizes, including one who helps her daughter bunk off school for a day’s climbing!

If I am going to chose ‘a favourite’, then I am going to choose two: Cath Drake’s Snapshots from the Camino de Santiago and Katie Ives’ sublime Unmapping. Drake’s long collection of “haiku-like” poems, step across the pages and sections of this book, relentlessly and triumphantly as any one of the pilgrims must do. Along the way they notice the minutiae of long-distance walking that may be missed in other, less-measured modes of traversing the landscape. They are cleverly used as mile-posts in this book, or if you prefer, as rest-stops, refreshment breaks – that place not at the top of the hill, but nonetheless, where you rest, look around, and maybe take a drink before recommencing:

From their messy stick nests / on each stone church in each village / storks ring their flat bells

A wheelbarrow climbs / to the flags of Manjarin / swishing with water

Ives’ shifting, alluring piece on climbing at night, sides with the “… climbers, poets, flaneurs and foot travellers“, who seek the unmapped routes, the unrecorded trails and stories, who eschew the well-lit path, instead seeking a more private communion, where in the quoted words of John Porter “What we gain is a bit like dark matter.” Or, in her own words, “to let go of boundaries and definitions…that unexpected gift of extending myself…believing that by sheer exhaustion and by wonder I might encounter something like grace.

In a way, one thing this collection shows, is that whatever the world thought of them – and indeed if it ignored them or tried to stop them – women have just got on with being outdoors, whether that be running, walking, kayaking, swimming, climbing or working, and revelling in all that that entails. The book is an unquestionable, uplifting success.

As Lee Craigie says in her opening line, “The usual parameters no longer exist.

The book is available from: – and you should buy it.

(It is only proper that I declare an interest: Paula Dunn is my partner, while Helen Mort is a good friend, none of which prevents their contributions being anything less than delightful and inspiring)

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