Another of the Emma and Liz Reads books (if you want to find them all, click here or on the category in the category cloud), much shorter than “Square Haunting” so it only took us a couple of months to get through, a chapter or two at a time. I acquired this as part of my June 2021 Christmas and Birthday Book Token Splurge (on Bookshop.org as the Heath Bookshop didn’t exist to splurge in then); I did save it as it was our Read Together List, and I’m pleased to say that I have now read and reviewed all the books pictured here (part-way down the post) bought at the same time.

Jini Reddy – “Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape”

(24 June 2021, book token splurge)

I wanted to invoke something – for some life force to make its presence known to me – and the wanting of it felt like a kind of lovesickness.

Had I been a die-hard conservationist or scientist or maybe grown up on a farm, I’d have likely laughed myself silly at such notions. But those things hadn’t been a part of my life. Instead, what I’d had was Hinduism and atheism by osmosis and then ordinary-growing-up secularism but with a yen for magical things. Call me sentimental but I wanted something more than to walk through an alluring landscape and admire its beauty. I wanted somehow to be more porous. I didn’t want to be burdened by needing to know the name of every bird, creature, tree and petal. No, I wanted something else, something a bit Other and a bit mystical even – the seeking of it was what truly excited me. (pp. 11-12)

In this early quote, travel writer and seeker Reddy lays out what she thinks she wants and really encapsulates the book that lies ahead: she’s seeking something but she’s not sure what, it’s not in her traditions and she doesn’t want naming conventions and conventional knowledge, and she’s going to get the most out of the act of seeking. To be fair, this is quite an honest portrayal of the book.

Reddy, a person of Indian heritage via South Africa, who was born in Britain but lived in Canada for a big chunk of her life, looks at Britain through Othered eyes, and searches for something, she’s not sure what, all the time aware of her Otherness. Quite a few reviewers on Amazon were bothered by her finding racism all over the place: I didn’t feel that was something to disbelieve or criticise – who am I to undermine someone’s lived experience, for a start? – and there was some powerful stuff about needing to have all the right kit when exploring the deep countryside while inhabiting a Brown skin so as not to be patronised or insulted, which reminded me forcefully of the issues the Muslim hikers’ groups have had in the Lake District.

The problem Emma and I had with the narrative was more that she was so very impatient, expecting to have a mystical, special experience, to bond with her guide, to find the hidden location of a well or tree, immediately, and getting what can only be described as grumpy when that didn’t happen. There’s a really uncomfortable chapter late on in the book where she takes a friend to Lindisfarne and they fall out – said friend being someone going through cancer treatment at the time and perhaps deserving of a bit more understanding.

Also, and I do take the point that I might be being defensive about my own culture, she was really dismissive of British traditional culture like religious iconography, even the most basic, in churches or old country habits and beliefs. To be fair, she seemed not very rooted in any cultural or religious traditions, not just those, describing herself as a “citizen of nowhere” with no deep-rooted traditions to follow, but it felt quite dismissive, while expecting the reader to be interested in her yearnings towards some kind of unformed mysticism. But then she wasn’t keen on the Glastonbury Zodiac or ley lines, either (I got quite excited about the Zodiac and lines, taking me back to old mystical readings of my own and my ancestral lands of the West Country, which I think surprised Emma a little!).

There were some lovely descriptions, humility and clarity and interesting places and land art, and Reddy frequently describes well her feelings of being isolated from all the groups who usually experience – and write about – nature:

I often felt too conventional for the pagans, too esoteric for the hardcore wildlife tribe, not deep enough for the deep ecologists, not logical enough for the scientists, not ‘listy’ enough for the birder types, not enough of a ‘green thumb’ for the gardeners. (p. 13)

although both we and she eventually thought she might be better off relaxing and doing her thing (I call myself a birdwatcher though I am by no means ‘listy’, for example).

As we travel through the book with her, she does “learn to listen” and by explaining her quest to different people, refines and defines it. She finds places where she feels serenity, and I have to stress as a final point that it is just great to have travel and nature books coming out that are by non-traditional travel and nature writers, i.e. a (self-described) Brown woman with multiple heritages behind her, exploring Britain in her way and asking questions. More power to her for that, even if the book wasn’t perfect.

We did agree on these main points, so enjoyed agreeing, discussing and wishing her a happier time. Our next book is Adam Nicolson’s “The Sea is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides”. Do let me know if you’ve read and reviewed this one, though!