Integrity does not come from intellect or eloquence or poise. A lack of intellect or eloquence does not make truth any less true. It might make it less poetic, but not less true. Something of Erin’s young experience which includes boredom and suffering and curiosity felt true, even if she does not care to package it in carefully curated, intellectual, self-admiring language.
Erin, the fictional 19-year old protagonist in Abi Andrews’ debut novel, is brave but conflicted, irritating but thoughtful, pouring out ideas whilst speaking gently. Erin embarks on a journey that takes her geographically from the Midlands in the UK, to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.
Her home “will shape shift into each new place I stop to sleep.” Steering by conceptual stars, she traverses climate change to Mooncups, nuclear war to vulnerability, technology to Inuit mythology. And by way of humans the journey navigates from Henry Thoreau to Rachel Carson, Bear Grylls, Carl Sagan and beyond.
From a general patriarchy to specific distillations of it like Mansplaining and #MeToo, women - as they have done for a long time - are saying no to the stories they have been told about themselves, about power, about nature.
There are other ways of existing, there are other ways of approaching life. The book starts from this point, setting out to challenge the archetype of the rugged male explorer and the way they think. “[The men] must have been bored with their afternoon of dramatic hardship, so bored that they were ready to transcend it already and instruct us on how to be in communion with it successfully (as many Mountain men are prone to do).”
But is a woman going into - or identifying with, or even mythologically becoming - the wilderness a convenient continuation of the patriarchy, where women and the natural world can be cared for, owned, plundered or raped? Is it about the idea of exploring, dominating, taming? Erin never fully answers these questions, but she’s aware of their presence.
Searching for non-dual truths
The book is built on ideas that are non-dual, vastly intersectional, and highlight the non-constant complexity of life, which cannot always be ordered, or made productive and focused.
Speaking as someone who co-leads a charity - and writes, and walks, travels, coaches, loves, and has piles of books everywhere to greedily and vicariously be able to live even more life - I know it is hard and yet brilliant to immerse in kaleidoscopic life, to try and understand truth and how things fit together, or see whether they need to be taken apart.
Recounting the individual colours she could see on a sun-soaked mountain range, Erin could be describing the book itself, or experience of life more generally: “Take a step back they come together and make something breathtakingly complete.”
And if I in my 30s feel this, then how much more younger millennials who try and bear this complexity out at lightning speed on Snapchat and Instagram and who knows where else? Do complexity and truth even fit into their language?
Yes, they do, even if the language is sometimes too fast, or short form, and even if it’s not poetry and even if some people don’t like that.
I have listened to Emma González, the American activist who has spoken out movingly and eloquently in the wake of recent school attacks in the USA. Her comprehension and her voice come not because she is eloquent, but because her experience and her words match, they are simply true.
Integrity does not come from intellect or eloquence or poise. A lack of intellect or eloquence does not make truth any less true. It might make it less poetic, but not less true.
Something of Erin’s young experience which includes boredom and suffering and curiosity felt true, even if she does not care to package it in carefully curated, intellectual, self-admiring language.
This crystallised something I have been feeling for a while about nature writing more generally – I immerse in it, enjoy it, yet sometimes come away feeling I’ve had an experience with something beautiful but ‘other’ to me.
I have had an experience of a writer, and beauty, and learning, but I have not necessarily entered into it with them, got dirt under my nails, been asked questions, been challenged to make it all mean something.
Nature-man Thoreau himself said: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Erin, and a rising tide of real-life young people who know about and care about so many things are perhaps now saying, ‘Rather than status quo, than conformity, than structures, give us truth, or let us find it ourselves.’
This, for me, is what the book did. Thoreau also said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” Erin stands up to live, to question, to probe. That is her concern.
Rewilding our ways of thinking
The many-colored themes and ideas in the book are themselves painted on complex and overlapping canvases – of feminism, in an age of wilderness, but a wilderness that has been warped as it becomes embedded in the Anthropocene.
Erin moves through this complex landscape. “It took a long time for things to get this complex and tangled and each of us is woven into this tangle inextricably.”
I enjoyed immersing in the ideas that the book explores sometimes more so that the first-person narrative that moves the journey along – for me, this narrative would have felt more palpable if the emotions were more actively opened up out of the page.
The Word for Woman is Wilderness is filled with humour and seriousness; interweaving ideas that in many other books would have a hard time sitting together, and then making that non-dualism part of the purpose of the book. It asks us to rewild not just our landscapes, but our words and ways of thinking about nature and so many other things.
Elizabeth Wainwright is nature editor of The Ecologist. She co-leads the community development charity, Arukah Network, and is based in Devon. Twitter: @LizWainwright. The Word for Woman is Wilderness is published by Serpent’s Tail.