Learning how not to know
I have taken a risk. The world has not disappeared. In the mornings, I take it for a walk to the harbour, watch seals as they rest in the shallow waters, sticking their rounded noses into the cold, winter air. Our cat, still unsure of this new territory, walks close to my side. In sharing out walks, I learn that he and I are not too different. We both crave the wildness of what is outside. We are both fearful of sudden change. We are both curious. When he discovers the beach for the first time, he runs at the shore, eager to take in all the new smells. The next morning, he begs at the door to be let out, running full-speed down the hill to the bay, only to be met by water. This is not what he expected. Land. Water. Why won’t this new ground stay the same? He looks at me, eyes widened, ears back, and heads home.
Meanwhile, the world of my body behaves as it behaves. Like the cat, I have to learn not to run headstrong into each moment, to test what is there beneath my feet before I land. Twice this week, my body has fallen down the stairs, collapsing itself under an invisible and erratic instruction. I wake up one day, and my body is the shore. I wake the next, and it is the sea. It is the opposite of spontaneity. And yet, it also demands I practice change daily. I am not a fixed point. I am tide, current, rock, seaweed, drift, bottle, sky.
I walk the shore of the bay, treading between the sea-slicked rocks with care, making sure that my feet find the softer, steadier shale of washed up winkles. To tread elsewhere is to slip. Seaweeds pile cling to the edge lines, heaped up by this morning’s high tide. I look and see russet, ochre, deep green. If I look closer, I can pick out bulbous pockets, filigree tendrils, leathery swatches, fat stalks, nubby dots. I know they have names — bryopsis pulmosa, lomentaria articulata, spiral wrack, bladder wrack, sea oak — but I don’t know them yet. This land is new to me.
I am used to being able to point out plants, to name them, to know what to harvest for a cold, what to preserve for a wounded heart. But here, I am lost. I have no names yet beyond a beginner’s eye: brown, red, speckle, smooth. Not being able to name things makes me feel disconnected, uprooted. I feel the losses much more acutely here. In the night, I wake with a ripping ache in my centre, call out for a mother who is no longer here. Will she be able to find me here?
To become lost. To lose one’s name. I describe it as heartbroken, and am immediately challenged by someone who is curious to know how a chosen adventure can feel like heartbreak. My heart is broken open. I walk in an unfamiliar landscape that does not hold my stories, or my ghosts. I must grieve what is gone all over again.
But this is also a breaking open.
I wobble on the stones, slip sideways, steady myself with my stick. The salt air catches in my nose, making me breathe deeper. Each breath carries with it the silence of the sea today, a quiet stillness that holds everything in a pause. I listen, expecting to hear the restlessness of humankind, but there is nothing. The sea and sky have swallowed it all. The soft waves rise and fall away from the rocks. I wonder if it is coming in or out. Tide times, wind speeds, tidal currents. Everything is weather, water, wind, sky. Elemental. Elementary.
To be a beginner, to be a child once more. Not knowing is scary, it feels unsteady, but it is also exciting. I get to see the world as a child again, to learn its names, to find myself again in its rhythms. Slowing myself down, I watch the sea as it rises and falls. I have done this before; I have learned new names. I cannot know it all straight away. I must be patient and wait to see how my body will be shaped by this new place.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Accept the unknowing. Learn to begin again.
Orkney is an archipelago made up of over seventy islands, twenty of which are permanently inhabited, existing in the middle of a meeting point of two waters: the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. The North is cold, connected to lands of ice and myth. It hugs the east of this country, pulls with it gifts of fishing line, polystyrene fish packaging, and broken glass in hues of blues, greens, and browns not yet washed enough times by the tide to be beautiful. The Atlantic offers stranger treasure: sea beans polished smooth by distance and salt; gunnera seeds that take root on the shore, growing into unexpected tropical plants in the chill of north-easterly winds; bottles washed without message over miles and time. My son finds a milk bottle dated 1989, still sealed, the milk lost to the passing of the moons.
A third water exists: the Pentland Firth, a stretch of water that carries warnings and ghosts; crews lost, sailors never found, boats run aground. When I look into this water, I see furious tides, roiling with resistance. This is the sea that washes onto our shore.
We live in a harbour village, on South Ronaldsay. In every direction I look, there is sea and sky. If we want to leave the island, we must cross the water by flight, ferry or four long, straight stretches of road built over the Churchill Barriers. Once constructed to block the German boats from entering UK waters, they have been repurposed as causeways to join the southernmost islands to the main. They are precarious. Each one comes with a precursor. Cross at your own risk. No stopping.
One is subsiding. One is transforming slowly into sand dunes. One is notorious for high-topping waves that crash over the concrete ballast, obscuring visibility and whipping water under the wheels. All suffer from high wind speeds. All are in a state of change. Before setting off, it is wise to check the barrier status report as they are prone to close at short notice, leaving you cut off. Here, the weather is in control.
The second time I fall, I fall up the stairs. I am carrying two cups, concentrating on not spilling the hot tea on the floor. I am trusting my body to take me up the steps without my intervention. My body has different ideas. It relinquishes control and my head slams into the bookshelf, mugs of tea still held in hand smashing on my skull. I cry out, raising my hands to my face, worried what I might find. My husband hears the noise and runs up the stairs from the ground floor, to find me in the floor, face covered, crying as my son cradles me in his arms.
“Mum fell again,” he says.
“Tell me what your body has done?” my husband asks, appraising the scene: smashed teacups, face covered, limbs bent in strange angles. He does not ask what I have done. He knows it is not my action that has caused this, that I am not in control. Like the barriers, my body is under constant review
I live on a small island in the middle of two seas. Navigating this is a daily appraisal of tidal waters, inclement weather, threats of storm; open to potential and sudden, wrenching change. Sometimes, I can travel. Sometimes, I can not. My frustration, my anger, my disappointment at being stopped will not change anything. There is no persuasion, no exemption for importance, no preferential want or need. I must accept what cannot be circumnavigated or controlled.
Its refusal to be certain brings me a sense of calm. I am not an outcast in this landscape. I am not an ‘other’. I do not feel guilty, less-than-worthy of its welcome. Here, the unpredictability of my body feels understood.
The barriers are closed again today. For how long, I do not know. An hour, a day, a week? I know they will lift, that I will be able to travel across again. Just not now. For now, I must accept. And that’s okay. Time to find a quiet spot, pick up a pen, read a book, learn a new name.
January Brew - Comfort Tea
A brew for when you are feeling sad and in need of comfort
dried calendula petals
Combine all the ingredients in a pot. Add boiling water and steep for at least 15 minutes. Drink hot or cold throughout the day.
*I dry these ingredients during summer but f you are lucky enough to have a patch of nettles and autumn raspberries hanging around, you may be able to harvest a few late leaves. If not, you can dry earlier in the year or buy dried herbal ingredients from a supplier. I use G. Baldwin & Co.If you cannot get dried pomegranate blossom, you can use pomegranate fruit, or swap out for orange slices or apple.
Plant of the month - Three-cornered leek - allium triquetrum
Moving to a new home in the dark part of the year is an invitation to watch the world unfold as if for the first time. Although rated invasive due to its tendency to push out the native bluebell, this three-cornered leek was a beautiful find on a blustery day. Edible in place of garlic and onion, it has been used medicinally for high blood pressure and as an insect repellant.
PLEASE JOIN US FOR THE ONLINE LAUNCH
2nd February 2023
7.30 pm - 8.30pm
Hosted by Sam Read Booksellers
I would love it if you could join me for the launch of All My Wild Mothers - hosted by Will Young from Sam Read Booksellers. I will be in conversation with the wonderful author Catherine Simpson, with music from the Bookshop Band.
And if that isn’t enough - there will be a prize draw on the night and a chance to win a signed artist print of one of the book illustrations!
Follow this link to pre-order a copy of ALL MY WILD MOTHERS and book your digital invite to the launch.
ALL MY WILD MOTHERS
2nd February 2023
(pre-order now here)
‘How I want to shelter him, to shield his tender heart, but he is five, and his life has already had its winters. There is nothing I can do to keep him hidden from the weather change, but, like the tree, I can show him that our lives are ringed by the years and their seasons. To survive them, there must be a little hardening. Keep watch though, and you will see that there will also be the return of spring.’
(extract from All My Wild Mothers)
That’s it for now, folks. I love sharing this space with you, but please remember, if you do decide to share any of it, please credit the words and images to me, Victoria Bennett.
Thanks and wild wishes x
How gorgeous is this! Thank you--I love"a chosen adventure can feel like heartbreak. My heart is broken open. I walk in an unfamiliar landscape that does not hold my stories, or my ghosts. " It is exactly how I am feeling at the moment, uprooted, raw, and curious. Orkney has called to me for many years--I have often felt it a wild mother to me!
A very beautiful piece of writing Vik, comparing the unpredictability of the weather with the inability to trust the certainty of your body, none of which you are able to control. It must be so upsetting to find yourself toppled over, tea spilt and cups cracked.
I guess I was very lucky to cycle over the Churchill Barriers that time, with a gentle breeze and the sun warm my face, the skies cobalt blue. I love reading your words from Orkney - a place so dear to my heart.