Wild Women: Zion Lights meets Jay Griffiths

The first things I notice about author Jay Griffiths are her gentle spirit and analytic mind, mostly because they seem like contradictory traits, but in Jay they are refreshingly complementary. There’s also a saying about how some people become authors, while others are born them, and I think that Jay falls quite clearly into the latter category. Like many of the world’s most passionate writers, she learned to read at a very young age, and remembers that she “found words fascinating, from puns to the words in stories and the daddy-long-legs words like ‘monofluorophosphate’ on the back of a tube of toothpaste”. Her love of words and knack of recognising patterns of language and of linguistic roots give her the unique and incredible force of writing power that fills all of her books.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Jay’s work. But on top of that Jay and I have something unusual in common, which is that although we are both from the city – Jay was born in Manchester and grew up just outside London – we have both always been called to the wild. So where did this city-born girl find her power as a wild woman? Jay remembers a clear experience spent in nature: “Snowdonia happened. When I was 16, two youth group leaders took a small group of us camping and climbing and walking in the deep midwinter, in the mountains. It was snowing, there was a complete white-out at one point, and it was, for me, utterly overwhelming and intoxicating. I remember thinking: This, this is where I belong.” This is also a theme that is explored deeply in Jay’s book Wild, which originally came about after she explored the concepts of wildness and wild time in a previous book, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time. Both of these works had a profound impact on me, not just because of the content and explorations of other cultures, but also because of the powerfully distinctive style of writing that Jay possesses – both poetic and analytical, dreamlike storytelling that is rooted in language. It’s a book that calls us city folk home. Wild is split into five sections based on elements, which are Earth, Ice, Water, Fire and Air, and ‘Wild Mind’, and like many other fans of this book, I love the idea that ‘wild’ is a mindset as well as a landscape.

Wild also played a crucial part in helping to shape the rewilding movement that is sweeping the UK. On rewilding, Jay says: “I think it’s utterly brilliant, and important, not least in the sense that the human spirit is wild and needs wilderness. It is also a way of viewing wild animals as having an inherent right to their lands, and to the relationships established in those lands. Rewilding also makes it clear that wild land and wild creatures must be allowed an existence further than simply use-value to humans.” For those who are disconnected from nature, Jay advises: “Plant seeds. Remember the dreams of your childhood. Nurture your own nature.” I prod her for more advice in this area, and she says: “People should listen attentively to what their own spirit tells them, and to learn to unravel those inner needs from the impositions of this society. I would be so happy if my work, on time and wildness and childhood, combined, made people think more carefully about their intuitive knowledge of what is vital for the psyche.” I believe it does.

And Jay stays true to what she tapped into. To unwind she does “Almost anything outdoors: walking, running, swimming, cycling, riding and best of all skating. Not on ice rinks, but skating on frozen lakes in the coldest winters. One year, some friends and I went skating by moonlight, in evening dress raided from charity shops, and lit a fire on the shore, and some people brought food and wine, and others brought musical instruments, and it was unforgettably beautiful. I played ‘The Blue Danube’ on my old school recorder, but I mostly did it on the far side of the lake because I was unconvinced that it added to the beauty of the evening – but I enjoyed playing it.” And there is something she missed from the list – Jay tells stories, enriching and connecting stories. In Wild she tells the stories of people and their connections to the wild. She travels to the Peruvian Amazon, the Canadian Arctic, the Indonesian Ocean, the Australian bush and the mountains of West Papua to live with the traditional societies there and to escape a period of deep depression.

I ask Jay whether rewilding applies to parenting too, and she talks about some of the Indigenous societies she has spent time with: “I was struck by the way in which typically in Indigenous societies children seem far happier than in non-Indigenous societies. Many people – anthropologists, travellers, historians and missionaries – have been noting this for generations. It made me curious as to how Indigenous philosophy underpinned an attitude to childhood and children that is very different from the European/American attitude. It seemed to me (and many others) that if children are able to have a decent experience of nature, they benefit significantly as a result. Children don’t need vast and trackless wilderness, but they need something green and close by, and also the time to play there. Studies back this up, and I have used a lot of those studies to argue my case, because sometimes it is important to ‘show your workings’ by being conscientious about your research, and transparent about it.”

So, what can we do to rewild our children here and now? Jay’s advice here is practical and grounded: our children need the outdoors. “Pay no attention to scare stories in the media involving stranger danger. The chances of your child being abducted by a stranger are vanishingly small. If you left your primary-school-aged child outside, says childhood expert and ex-mathematician Tim Gill, how long would you have to wait before that child was likely to be abducted and murdered by a stranger? Two and a half million years.”

Jay recently finished a book called Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression, on a topic that is close to her heart. She touches on some of this depression in Wild and calls Tristimania “partly a personal account of a severe episode of manic depression, but it is also a book that explores some of the cultural facets of this state of mind, and my sense that it is governed by Mercury, the god who gives his name to mercuriality, which is such a hallmark of this condition”. I anticipate it with relish and have no doubt that it will be inspiring even though it’s such dark subject matter.

Finally I ask Jay who she is inspired by. She tells me: “Anyone who lives by courage, who lives by love in the widest sense, anyone who has grace sufficient to treat the world gently and to call any creature they meet ‘thou’ in spirit if not in word.” By these standards, I am most certainly inspired by her. Read her books, and I think you will be too.

Zion Lights is the Contributing Editor of JUNO.


First published in Issue 43 (Spring 2016) of JUNO:

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