Recently, I wrote a tweet regarding a book that I value highly – I mentioned the book, and the fact that I read it at a pivotal time in my life; it helped me to climb up and out of post-natal depression (PND). The book was The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. A small confession would be that I had read it when it was first published, just before my daughter was born. I read it again as I recognised how low I had become; I knew I was desperately unwell but I also desperately wanted to get better. It was a ‘comfort blanket’ to reach for something familiar and re-read it, yes, but it had more impact on second reading, it tugged on my sleeve, begged me to venture back outside, wanted to show me that there was more to life than twisted worries, deepening sadness and seemingly endless regret.
I was touched by the number of people who ‘liked’ my tweet. Not hundreds, by any means, but enough for me to start thinking. I’m not sure why, at that moment, I stepped up to talk about something that I’ve only recently learnt to admit myself. And what was it about The Wild Places that had that effect when I was so down?
I was 29 when I had my first child. A few years previously I’d had a traumatic experience when, in the 9th week of pregnancy, I was rushed into hospital with a suspected ectopic – for those who don’t know, this is when the baby is growing in the fallopian tube instead of the womb, and it can end gravely in some cases. Once in hospital, surrounded by white walls and white sheets, with a multitude of flickering screens, I was told it seemed I actually had twins – a heterotopic pregnancy – one in a tube, one in the womb. Neither survived. It was hellish. I was young, terrified, and never fully understood what it was I was going through. So, several years later when my daughter was born healthy (albeit slightly early), it was a huge relief.
But there was another issue at hand. After her birth, I was placed immediately on watch for puerperal psychosis – a very severe form of post-natal depression – for reasons I won’t go into here. Once again, I put up my most fierce blockades: there was no way on Earth that was happening to me. This was my wee girl, my chance at being a mum, my chance of doing a good job. I was utterly determined. Of course, it was luck rather than sheer determination that I was ok. I didn’t fall ill after the birth – after a few days in hospital I asked to go home, and they let me (under the supervision of home visits).
That winter I don’t remember a lot, other than lots of crying (from my daughter, more than me), breastfeeding round the clock and watching the herons along the shoreline on the edge of the city from my living room window at 4am. We were delighted by our scrunched-up, balled-fisted, screaming newborn, and head-over-heels with the little character that began to emerge after the first few weeks. Christmas was magical, the snow fell, we took her out into the Pentland Hills behind Edinburgh and showed her frost-edged leaves and soaring birds of prey. I told her about extinct volcanoes (you know me, geology had to get in there somewhere); showed her crystalline fragments of rock, told her about the lines and fractures and layers and colours that made up the landscape. She was six weeks old, but I couldn’t wait to start teaching her about the world and all it encompasses, from microscopic to massive scales.
The problem was, she was a terrible sleeper. First few months, fine, you don’t expect sleep. But as the weeks fell into months and months, and more months, both myself and my husband started to suffer. You can’t function on less than two-hour blocks of sleep as an adult. It’s impossible. Tempers frayed, accusations hurled, exhaustion and anger split the carefully-knit bonds we had created over years, and particularly over the previous 12 months. I began to dream horrendous things, hallucinate, wish and hope that I was anywhere but where I was, burn myself because my hands were shaking over cooking dinner, smash things… I often hid indoors, I was terrified of getting hurt or of something happening to my little girl; I began to blame everyone but my own body for what was happening to me. I felt my own hormones and emotions shift inside, play up, spin out of control on all levels. I felt like a total failure; to a certain degree my behaviour was such that I was failing as a mother; I let so many loved ones down. In short, my entire world crashed and I felt I had absolutely no control over myself, my actions, my words, thoughts or emotions. It was downright scary, and to this day I’m not quite sure how I survived it.
In many ways, I became the antithesis of my younger self; inverted, folded in, furious.
As a youngster I was forever climbing trees, bent-double submerged in hedgerows, slip-sliding along coastal rockways and edgeways, wonderfully, horribly exposed to falling from crumbling cliff edges. My childhood and young-adult self was carved out in fields, in woodlands, along beaches, kissed by soil and salt. I wrote a poem recently to try to capture fragments of these streaming memories*; for that fluidity of movement, freedom, lack of care was the perfect antidote to a childhood home part-restricted by worry and undefined sadnesses.
I used to see my world as full of spaces, of absences, of empty moments forever altered because of who or what wasn’t there. Now, I try to invert those spaces; instead of focusing on loss, I focus on what is there. Simple, perhaps, but lifesaving. This is, I think, where The Wild Places comes in; it focuses on spaces that are inherently still wild, be they on epic or miniature scales – and many are easy to find in everyday life if you just open your eyes and focus in. From the opening chapter, which leads us off into a woodland on a city boundary, and me into the edgeland woods of my childhood hometown, Macfarlane takes his reader up and out of the ordinary world, and encourages us to see the natural world anew with fresh, all-seeing eyes. His focus reminds me of a bird of prey – almost literally – flying high before telescoping in on minute, fleeting details. High up a tree, high in the mountains, crouching low over clints and grykes in a limestone pavement, scouring the countryside; he gently coaxes and nudges the reader to go and look at wild places from a different perspective.
I found, gradually, that MacFarlane’s words began to filter in, soak in, sink deep. In my head I followed his lines of description to the supermarket and back with my daughter in her buggy; stopping to watch a bird flick for worms on the wasteland near my flat, or to study the needles and berries on the sea buckthorn bushes along the shore-front. My father told me once that whenever he felt low, or uneasy, or stressed, he would walk until he could find a ‘big sky’; whether that was high in the Scottish mountains or just up the nearest sand dune or sandstone tower in the town, he found solace in the blue-grey-whiteness of empty space and the wind on his face. I never really understood what he meant until I’d hit rock bottom with PND. One day, I took his advice. I took time out from family and drove to Ben Ledi, one of the closest big hills to Edinburgh. I marched fiercely to the top; the weather was awful. I couldn’t see anything but grey swirling mist for the last few hundred feet, and I was soaked with drizzle. I loved every second. With all the efforts I had made to rid myself of pain, anger and sadness in the preceding weeks, I suddenly felt the maddening haze begin to lift a little. I let various regrets go that day, at last; shouting them into the mist and watching as they fell away and tumbled down the sides of the mountain. It was like shedding a skin (or several). Peeling back layers to find what really made me tick again.
And what makes me tick? My mother teaching me all the names of all the birds, and myself poring endlessly over bird books, drawing them, cataloguing them, filing them away so I would always know them; my father’s intense love of the night sky, the Northern Lights and walking; my grandmother’s love of stories and poetry and recitation; my fascination with geological science, landscapes and landforms; reading, writing, drawing, taking photographs; teaching and learning and remembering those who have inspired me and drawn me out when I’ve curled up like an ammonite and forgotten how to engage with the world.
*‘On the curve of the North wind’ by L. R.
First published in the Twisted::Colon Anthology, September 2017
Hawk above sails high
On the curve of the North wind.
Weetabix rolls, barrelled to stand stock still on hillsides,
Cast long shadows in the low sun.
Crows stalk the stubble
Of this tableau, frozen in deepest winter.
I loved the emptiness of frosted fields
As a child, where I ran full pelt across uneven ground;
Pockets full of crushed leaves and acorn cups.
And as a teenager, where I learnt to escape
The anguish of my still-forming self
By searching the rim of woods, fields and hedgerows
For rare birds and holly berries, mistletoe and honesty.
And as an adult, where the wind fragments
Lingering shadows, sadness and stress
Frost-lines them and carries them away.
In my head I name all that I see as I walk,
Running the sounds and shapes of words over my tongue,
Relishing in their warmth and familiarity,
While pink-footed geese pick over furrowed ground
And a burnt-orange fox skirts the edge of the woods at dusk.
Other blogs I have written / contribute to include: http://twistedcolon.blog & https://writinglandscapes.wordpress.com