A few years ago, Joanna Pocock left her home in London, England and headed to Montana in the American West on a gut feeling.
“I guess I am one of those people … I very often make decisions based on gut feelings rather than intellectual thinking,” she said in an interview with ARTSFILE
“My husband and I felt that, as we had reached mid-life, we needed to get out of our rut. He was adamant that we move to the U.S. and my stipulation was that I got to choose where.
She picked Missoula, Montana. It’s a university town of some 74,000 people near the western border of the state.
“I had never been there,” Pocock said, “but I liked the sound of it. I was curious and up for an adventure.
“For myself and my husband this was less about being there because we didn’t know what we would find there. It was more about leaving the known and embracing a specific unknown.”
The story of her time in the West has been captured in a book of essays called Surrender: The Call of the American West (House of Anansi).
Pocock has a strong connection to environmental issues and concerns. That awareness offered an added incentive for the move which last two years. She was back in London at the time of this interview.
“I wanted to live somewhere where I was closer to the land. I find it very hard to give back to the planet living in a city. Obviously I recycle and do the things that good people try to do, but it’s one thing to not damage the planet and it’s very different to try to physically heal the planet. That’s hard to do when surrounded by concrete.”
As well, the taste of the West still lingers for Pocock.
“I have found it very difficult being back in London. I find myself very much pining for the West. Politics aside, there is so much wrong there, but the more there is wrong the more opportunities you have to try to make right.”
Pocock didn’t head west to write a book. It was more of a personal journey of regeneration. She was actually at work on a novel about incest and the Athabaska tar sands.
“I finished the novel and a writer I got to know in Montana read it and said it wasn’t working.” She says she agreed with that assessment. But, “I didn’t really have anything else to do so I just started writing essays because I felt really moved” by people she met.
The West has always produced characters from the mountain men of the 19th century to the writer and truth sayer Will Rogers. The people Pocock met were equally unique.
She witnessed an annual tribal bison hunt near Yellowstone Park, where she met a scavenger community honing ancient skills. She joined Finisia Medrano, a transgender ‘rewilder‘ who for many years has been living as a hunter-gatherer on what is called the “hoop.” Medrano migrates from south to north across the plains and back again as the seasons produce new crops. Pocock attended an annual gathering called the Ecosex Convergence where people who place their relationship with the earth above everything else gather. She attended a workshop led by the Rev. Teri Ciacchi, a sexologist, priestess of Aphrodite, and holistic spiritual healer in the Living Love Revolution Church.
Pocock doesn’t intellectualize things and that left her open to meet and connect with some pretty-out there folks.
“I met a guy at an anti-trapping fundraising event I went to. He said he loved being out in the wilderness because it was one of the few places where he wasn’t the top predator.”
That has stuck with her. “There are very few places now where humans can be in danger from a predator. In the U.K., things can look a bit wild but nothing is going to eat you. That’s actually a great thing. But it also changes your entire relationship to the Earth.
“There is a kind of humility that has been lost because we aren’t prey. We see the land as something to conquer and make safe for ourselves. Actually I don’t think it should be safe for us. I think we need to keep the earth a little bit wilder and that might make it a bit more dangerous.”
Her book took shape over time, but, Pocock said, she didn’t really realize it at the time.
“I didn’t set out to write Surrender. I didn’t just sit down with a book in mind. It was an organic process. I started with a bunch of essays and when I came back to London after two years in Montana I looked at the essays and realized I might have a book.”
Each essay naturally moved to the next. They were all based on people with extreme relationships with the land, she said, whether it was trappers who wanted to harvest furs and kill animals or river reclaimers wanting to make rivers healthy again or rewilders like Finisia.
“It was all about people who were very close to the land one way or the other.”
She sent a rough draft to an an editor with The Dark Mountain Project, which is a collective of writers, thinkers and artists who write on the Earth and the environment.
“I have written for their blog. I asked him if he thought this was a book. He said absolutely.”
What tied it together for the editor, Nick Hunt, was Pocock’s personal journey. There is a lot of personal reflection in the book about things she was encountering in her own life.
“I worried about that because typically I don’t write about myself. I was also dealing with the fact that I am an aging woman. Women age kind of behind the scenes. they don’t age in public. It was a daunting thing to say I’m in menopause, I’m not fertile any more. I am changing and here we go.”
“I felt the counterpoint between my own body and the Earth was actually an important one.”
In the end she put vanity aside.
It was a good choice. Her essays won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize in 2018 and the book was published in the U.K. in 2019 and in Canada in the fall.
“I have been writing for 25 years and I’m not new to it, but I am new to people being interested.” It will be released in the U.S. in 2020.
She said she feels a “bit sad revealing these people’s lives because they feel precious. I don’t want to sensationalize what they do. But by showing these efforts are possible maybe we can move people towards that.”
She said that when she started she was “just doing it for me. I was genuinely fascinated and I wanted to know. I had no idea there was going to be a book. I just know that I thought it was important and they moved me.
“Some of the people met on that journey were incredibly suspicious of me. They found the fact I was interested somewhat alarming.”
Since publication some of the characters have given her their blessing such as Teri Ciacchi.
Pocock is a long way from Alta Vista and her Ottawa beginnings. She left at 17 and moved to Toronto where she studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design. She graduated and worked in Toronto for few years with Books in Canada where she led a redesign of the magazine and won an award.
Meanwhile her life got a bit intense and she decided to move, this time to London, England, where, after a few trips home and back again, she settled and met her husband.
“When I get an urge to do something, I just have to do it, it seems.”
That drive takes her to strange and wonderful places.
Now she is pining for Montana.
“I would like to go back. Maybe someone will read this interview and give me a job there. There is a spirit in the West that I really respond to. There is a feeling of possibility and a live and let live attitude.”