Book Review

Surrender by Joanna Pocock

big post on privilege, re-wilding, ageing; a phenomenal read

Written mid-July

It’s been a while – too long – since I last read a Fitzcarraldo Editions book.

I have several, unread, within my entire-bookcase-plus-six-piles of unread books, and knowing their books are almost guaranteed to be a treat, I often leave the Fitzcarraldo texts I have until I know I need a hit of something good.

I needed a hit of something good.

This book, Surrender, was published in 2019 and is written by Joanna Pocock, and it was the first book to win the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize, which is kinda an “open submissions” period.

Surrender is exactly the kind of book that I adore and exactly what I had hoped it would be although – as I’ll probably discuss below but maybe won’t because I’ll likely get distracted and fail to engage with the book properly – it’s a bit wilfully blinkered when it comes to discussion of class and privilege.

What Surrender does offer, though, is an engaged and full-on exploration of pretty hardcore re-wilding and pro-wilderness groups, as well as a personal discussion of menopause, ageing and the fallacy and emptiness at the heart of the nuclear family model and its absence of viability when confronted with the reality of irrevocable environmental collapse.

I mean, that was the message I took from it, but pandemics aren’t really conducive to reading and thinking. Well, for me, they’re not.

///

The title of the book comes from the name of an “ecosex” festival that Pocock attends in a chapter towards the end of the book, though – don’t get excited, perverts – her trip there is pretty chaste.

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OK, it is now the next day.

Recently, I’ve become absolutely fucking terrible at keeping this blog up to date.

It’s a strange time.

I have a lot of things to think and say but the process of editing the pleasure of regret through its proof stages has been emotionally draining, though I think (thankfully) that’s over now. Maybe. Who knows?

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Surrender is exactly the kind of thing I love. Informative non-fiction with a personal narrative and essayistic digressions. Phenomenal stuff.

Pocock writes about the two years she spent living in the middle of nowhere in Montana (USA) and how, whilst there and elsewhere in rural America, she became involved in various re-wilding projects, most strikingly with a project run by an activist named Finisia Medrano.

Medrano (who has, sadly, recently died) worked towards the reinvigoration of “The Hoop”, an ancient, circular, migratory route followed by some indigenous groups before the ravages of colonialism and privatisation/commodification of land. Living on “The Hoop” (which Medrano did for 35 years!), people would follow herds of buffalo (I mean bison) on their migratory route of hundreds of miles, eating various vegetables and fruits that sprouted at the appropriate time in the circuit, making sure to replant seeds and ensure the simple continuation of the journey.

Medrano, however, has been criminalised and imprisoned and suffered much at the hands of law enforcement, because it is illegal to “seed on federal land”.

Her plans to return indigenous, edible, plant life to inland America makes her, technically, a criminal. Which is absurd, of course it is. And it is this feature – and the narrative largely occurring in the USA – that leads to the strange union of completely disparate and otherwise incompatible political camps in the pursuit of environmental conservation: Pocock meets the hippies one would expect to be clamouring for environmental protections (i.e. white people with “dreadlocks”), but she also encounters a lot of hard right libertarians who are deeply suspicious of any government activity and any attempt to control how people interact with the land and the plants and animals that live on it.

Pocock explores and demonstrates the hypocrisies and inconsistencies within global environmental movements and how limited is the potential change without a mass shift to sustainable “off-grid” living, though this in turn is only possible if there are mass genocide or human extinction events, or – at the very very least – the complete slaughter (or full “reeducation”!) of the capitalists who resist and prevent change. (NB: these capitalists are not just landowners and politicians but the poorer people who have been indoctrinated by right-wing media to deny their self-interest.)

Many environmentalists on the left teeter on the edge of eco-fascism, and lots of environmentalists on the right openly embrace it.

Our planet is not sustainably farmed, the resources of our planet are not sustainably used.

There is waste and destruction and exploitation and entire economies deeply rooted in utterly non-essential actions and transactions.

Efforts to evoke the immediacy of the problem tend to get sneered at because the changes we need to make are difficult changes, and they are changes that will not happen without massive, international, structural change, and that will not happen without mass, likely violent, protest movements and full idelogical revolution.

The right wing environmentalists, though, do not want a government to “tell them what to do”: they don’t like the pollution in their rivers and oceans and forests, but they believe that land is something to be exploited and perhaps respected, but certainly not treasured.

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It is easy to read a book like Surrender and feel cynical and hopeless, especially in contrast to the personal development Pocock goes through during the years of her life that the narrative covers.

Re-wilding and time spent in the wilderness is, of course, magical: I love to travel, too, I love to hike and get lost and – a crucial concept in Surrenderfeel like prey. But there are too many people with bad intentions, with corrupt priorities, who would rather amass personal power and personal control rather than shift society to a point where the world can be improved for everyone, human and otherwise.

I loved reading Pocock’s gorgeous descriptions of national parks and the bison and wolves and other animals within, though I found the pro-meat diatribes of some of the rewilders distasteful.

I could see myself joining one of these radical collectives when I’m older, if – like Pocock – I achieve the material, middle class, safeties and securities that would allow me to do it.

I’ve “dropped out” of society and gone travelling for months at a time twice in my life, and the idea of it happening again in a few years’ time doesn’t strike me as impossible, unlikely or unwanted. But that is because I’m demographically similar to Pocock, and I know that.

I have two degrees, have my second book due for publication soon (pre-order now!), I have lived in Central London, the middle of Barcelona and am currently based in the trendy, gentrifying, part of Toronto. I’ve been to multiple continents, to California and Cuba and Alberta, to St Petersburg and Athens and Istanbul. I have been a tourist, I will be a tourist again, and being able to be a tourist is a distinctly privileged thing to be.

What a lot of texts like Surrender – and environmental movements more generally – fail to engage with is how does one move towards greener living without the money or power to do so.

Unless you own a house with a big roof for solar panels or a garden big enough for a windmill, you cannot choose the source of your electricity, and moving away from electricity is an ask that seems impossibly big for most people, as too would be the removal of running, heated, water.

No air-con, no central heating, no fridges, whatever.

We all rely on the comforts of the world we’ve created, and the global masses of people – who live much less pleasant lives than the globe-trotting itineraries of middle class white progressives like myself – are being asked to give up a much higher percentage of their comfort than we are. It reminds me of that Pulp line, “If you called your Dad he could stop it all.” Obviously, not everyone of my milieu literally has a literal rich father (I certainly don’t), but lines of credit are easy to come by, and – as was proven when I was in need of help in the Summer and Autumn of 2017 – so too is community care, if the people in your community have the time or the space or the money to spare to help.

Without removing the demand for cheap consumer goods and for the raw materials that make electronics, environmental collapse remains assured. But life is still going to be immeasurably shit for billions of people, whether they have a laptop or not, and asking those people to give up their fridge or their phone or their TV or their bible or their polyester clothes or whatever is much harder than someone like me, or Joanna Pocock, choosing to sleep outside without a tent while listening for wolves for a few weeks every year.

Even just a small amount of privilege works in such a way that it allows people to achieve the things we dream of, to get the things we fantasise about.

Maybe not all of them, but some of them.

I am the son of an unskilled factory labourer from suburban Worcestershire, and I have had a poem published in an anthology with the fucking Poet Laureate. That’s amazing. But I’m a white, masculinised, university-educated person whose work has been championed by other people like that to get to the stage I’m at.

Would I have had the moderate “success” I’ve had if I had been a visibly disabled person of colour whose father was unemployed, instead of the step (or two, maybe) above that which he was? I do not know these things and I never will.

We cannot remove the privileges we have and we cannot, no matter how hard we try, understand what it is like to live without them. But that effort, that trying, is the thing that fucking matters.

I think my work is good.

I think my writing deserves the level of very mild success it has had, which is considerably more success than I’d ever anticipated tbh.

There are plenty of mediocre white masculinised people with more success than me who definitely don’t deserve it, and though I cannot take their success away, I can continue to use this space, my space, as a place to explore, recommend and praise work from a diverse selection of international voices.

It’s not much, but three thousand views a month means that this blog does have some, albeit minor, value.

Re-wilding and big changes to avoid environmental collapse are important, as too is the eradication of conservative social norms, and Joanna Pocock’s Surrender is a great text exploring these issues from a compassionate and – pleasingly – conflicted space.

To heal the Earth, though, we must work together. But I just fundamentally fear that there are too many pricks on the planet for that to happen.

One day, maybe, I’ll learn a little hope…

1 comment on “Surrender by Joanna Pocock

  1. Hi there,
    A friend sent me your review of Surrender and I wanted to thank you for engaging with it.
    One correction: my book was the first winner of the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize to be published, but the third winner of the prize overall. I know it’s a small thing, but I wanted to make that clear as the other two winners should be acknowledged!
    It’s interesting that you concentrate on the idea of privilege. I don’t think we can ever understand how privileged or not another person is from the outside. But, I do thank you for taking the time to read Surrender and for sharing your thoughts on your blog. It means a lot to me that people are engaging with the issues in the book which you outline so well.
    And say ‘hi’ to Toronto for me. I miss that city.
    Best,
    Joanna

    Like

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