This book review of Sharon Blackie’s book If Women Rose Rooted was published in Unspychology’s latest edition on climate change.
As a woman writer, I don’t slag off other women’s books and use the Feminist Fight Club rule of thumb. This book however rattled my cage as it is an uncomfortable hippy read for a trade unionist for whom everything in politics is a chess move. There’s nothing like a Celtic folk story to expose my psychic thuggery.
If Women Rose Rooted is a book about women’s lives and their relationships with the land. There are conversations with contemporary women, mixed in with ancient stories of the cycles of life. There is actual poetry and whole paragraphs on hormones. The blatant spirituality of this book evoked an immature reaction in me. Blunt, concrete, questions to try to put this book into a political position and work out what side Black is on.
Exhibit A: Housing. Throughout the book there are stories of women who have regained their belonging by moving to rural retreats. As someone who doesn’t own anything I’m more than a bit curious where did they get the money? If I could afford a shabby-chic bunker in Gloucestershire, where I grew up, I would go. Right now. But I rent in London and increasingly stare over the abyss of insecure housing. Like most people living in London I can neither afford to stay or go.
I can give you the exact coordinates of the place where I belong. It’s along the river banks and cool woods of the Coln valley. Only problem being is that my entire generation had to leave because the county has become the Florida of the UK. Second homes, retired rich folk, bankers. That’s not resentment, its an important point that this is a part of the country where the rivers are running dry because there is no stewardship along the public and private waterways. To preserve the Coln river would require belonging and the responsibilities this implies, not just owning something.
Exhibit B: Jobs. Nowhere in these radical stories of reinvention is the issue of earning-a-living discussed. Coming from a trade union background that’s a big premise taken out of the meaningful-life equation. As a writer who survives by wage labour these women who have found their voice without finding a basic income are objects of my quite significant envy. It’s also an unnecessary evasion, as environmentalists have under-utilised leverage through the potential for green jobs. Although the trade union proposal for 1 million climate jobs was met with indifference and then a financial blocking by the last government, the reality is that for ordinary folk to really support environmental change the link to jobs is key.
Exhibit C: Husbands. I’ll run the risk of sounding absolutely beaten-up by life, but my next question is about all these husbands casually thrown into the mix of these women’s stories. The contemporary cast are all married. I’m not against marriage but we live in a society where 2 million people stay in bad relationships to keep their homes. Belonging has become a dual income project. I’m just saying that because I think it makes a difference to the credibility of our narratives.
I’m half way through the book clocking up a critique angrily scribbled in the margins and then three things happen.
Firstly, I went to see the Inconvenient Truth sequel. The film is a recap on climate change and a whizz through Gore’s diary of high level meetings and carrying out his training programme. Bad supporting roles for women as professional politicians in the current blow-dry-figure-hugging-n-heals leadership uniform. No frizzy hair or hot flushes here. As the film was shown across the UK on the same night, there was only a sad trickle of debate on social media. Nothing radical happening here, just a bunch of over-40s talking to the usual suspects. The thuggish part of me noted that the tickets were £18 a pop, missing the unavoidable truth that young people don’t have the money to engage with this particular demographic. Worse is the political tiredness promoted in the film. Despite his old school charm, there’s something really dodgy about a political punch line that its our primary responsibility to monitor the psychopaths in power and engage in representational systems. As a response to climate change this falls flat to say that the democratic crisis that feeds the environmental one can only be solved by voting and lobbying. Gore makes the joke that he’s a ‘recovering politician’ as if somehow he was not a key player in the political class that created the conditions for this democratic deficit. In one way this story is too old, an outdated view about how environmental change will come about, but in another way this story is not old enough. For change to take place it will need to appeal to the profound and deep need that we all have for care and caring.
The second thing that happened was the story of a woman being shoved onto a road by a jogger running across a London bridge. I couldn’t stop watching the video of a man casually jogging past another man and then just shoving a young woman randomly into a road, with a bus narrowly missing her head. The story that emerged was that this man was a banker. True or not, it made a shockingly banal and coherent narrative. Nobody was surprised that now the veneer of equality has been peeled off our society, real hatred emerges. I’m guessing I’m talking to the converted here, but its worth pointing out that misogyny exists unchallenged in our society in a way I have never experienced in my lifetime. In one sense we are tapping into previous generations, going backwards rather than going forwards on the equality stakes.
Then these glorious precious months of #timesup and the radicalism of this book hit me.
So, defences down, let me tell you about this book.
The book describes the pilgrimages that we are all able to make in these times when so much is being lost. The chapters describe a primitive journey; of travelling the wastelands, entering the ‘cauldron of transformation’, finding the pilgrims path, entering the enchanted forest and fertile fields, then the mountains. The colours of dark old landscapes that we can return to, to fuel us emotionally and psychically. Stories of the menopause, of love and betrayal. Of the wisdom of growing up, of age.
This is a book that tells stories, to stimulate and provoke the creation of our own narratives within which we can find a home. A place where women are not redundant, if they no longer strive to be represented or believe in having-it-all fairy stories. The book offers new stories of women who found a place to belong and with it a profound reorientation to the earth. Old stories of Celtic folklore, of witches and wise old women. Yes, stories that value old women. A vivid vocabulary of deep wells and dark caves, fruits and of our bodies. Of a maternal love for the planet, caring about what happens next and to the next generation. It is a book that offers a taste of a different way of feeling about our environment. To feel an enchantment, not the rush to formulate yet another strategic campaign.
There are sections of such profundity it’s like taking a bullet.
“Scream if you will, but let yourself fall. We have to let ourselves fall. If we want to become Voices of the Wells, we need to plumb their depths. And in order to kick-start the process of transformation to which we’ve now committed ourselves, we have to destroy old ways of thinking, remove old limits. So grope your way blindly into the darkest cave, let yourself sink to the bottom of the deepest lake. Jump into the black, bottomless well.”
It captures beautifully the drama and the ordinariness of the cycle of life. That things become lost, things die, that learning and change are painful and involve an acknowledgement of the dark stuff of the heart. These sections of the book feel like a familiar walk along the line between depression and the depressive position, a fearful line between despair and hope. A long way from the optimism of popular psychology and the happy-ever-afters.
At the end of the book is a postscript “The Eco-Heroine’s Journey: A Guide”. Oh how my heart sank. As someone who writes ‘Survival Guides’ with a sarcasm health warning, I needed this section not to be a retreat into a psychic cul-de-sac of positive psychology. I’m happy to report that this chapter is safe and useful, no checklists or tick boxes, rather a series of questions for the reader to think about how these epic stages in our journey exist in our own lives. I found it quite helpful to think about how these ancient stories of women’s journeys could be mirrored in my own life. Radical even to think something so desperately uncool, thoughts that you wouldn’t say out loud or on twitter.
This book caught me off guard, back to crying on the tube and staring out of windows during meetings. Back to the brave and foolish emotional journey of psychoanalysis that preoccupied my life until last year. Back to a relationship with depression and a lovingly brutal understanding my own grim story. Back to an acceptance of the blood and guts of bodily experience that underpins our internal and external worlds. Back to a period of burnout after years of activism, and learning through that loss. The realisation that my actual relationship with the planet can’t be fitted into this very limited political model that I learned to navigate. This book speaks to me, that as a woman of a certain age my survival depends on the defence of my capacity to care about the next generation. To keep my heart beating, my blood pumping. To continue to care.
There’s a quietness about whether Sharon has kids that at the beginning of the book I felt was an evasion. By the end of the book I felt this wasn’t the right question. This book is confident. A confident discourse on what it would feel like to be unashamed of being a woman finding her way towards belonging. With or without a mortgage. Some books are both timeless and exactly of their time.
To read Unpsychology click here.
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