I was lucky enough to read an early copy of Victoria Bennet’s beautiful debut memoir “All My Wild Mothers”, just published by John Murray Press. I was immediately struck by the way she shows how our care for the natural world is inseparable from our care for each other. This is a long way from the nature writing of the ‘lone enraptured male’ that Kathleen Jamie criticised so roundly. Here, family, community, soil and plants are nurtured together in a memoir that is both tender and moving. Clear-eyed yet lyrical, Vik’s writing shows us how grief and love, worry and delight, health and fragility move through each of our lives as inevitably as nature’s seasons of loss and renewal.
Here she writes from her new home in Orkney:
The Listening Ground
I’ve been trying to get the garden to speak to me since November. Until yesterday, it did not want to reply. Stubborn, like the house we have moved into, it refused to let me in. Wait, it said. There is grieving to be done.
Walking away from somewhere that has been home is hard. Especially when that place is written into a memoir that has just been released into the world. I feel like I am caught between these worlds. Past, present, future, existing in all times and places, and none. I keep experiencing vivid flashbacks of where we used to live. Nothing of any special significance – a hill, a certain bend in the river, a copse of trees, the colour of the spring crocus in the local churchyard. They all tumble in, caught in memory without me even really noticing at the time, the colours and shapes of the landscape woven into the fabric of my being. I am cut adrift, rudderless, rootless, with a house but without a home.
At the time of writing, I knew I needed to try and find a way of capturing what is so fleeting – the moments of our lives that grow and seed and die so fast we hardly notice their dandelion wisps disappearing. Each word, memory, chapter was a seed, a pressed flower between the pages of my life. What grew on the page, grew in the ground outside. Daisy, red campion, borage, meadowsweet. The conversation between rock and page, seed and ink grew as time went on, both helping to heal and grow a life out of broken ground.
And then I left, and when I did, I had to cut the garden down. Social housing requires that everything is returned to its original state. The ponds had to be filled in, the micro-meadow dug out, the trees cut down. It hurt, but it was also something that had to be done. It was time to let go, free fall, set sail.
Aren’t you angry? I am asked. And though I know there is a sadness at the heart of me, I know the answer to that is no. I am not angry. But I do need to mourn, not just for the garden we grew that no longer blooms, but for the years it held; years of childhood, of small hands holding, and old hands planting, and letting go. Always letting go.
It is hard to do. As a mother, I want to hold on, aware that soon my son will grow up and be gone. As a creator, I want to hold on to the words. But both must be released into the world to make their own way. They have their own stories to tell.
Just for a while though, I need to grieve that loss, to make room for the next thing to grow. We hurry on too fast towards the next thing – the next sensation, the next relationship, the next project. No sooner has the book come out, and I am being asked what I am working on now, what I am growing in this new ground. Keep writing, keep producing, keep creating.
I am exhausted, by the move, by birthing a book, by changing a life. I need to be fallow, to fall into the dark. When the Winter Solstice comes and people start to talk about the days lengthening and the coming of spring, I want to hush their insistent words. In contradiction to the outward push of these new beginnings, I instinctively turn inwards, towards the quiet of sea-swell and oystercatcher call.
It is going to take a long time to understand this sea-bound place as home. When the night comes, I am disoriented. I don’t understand the geography of island life. I have no familiar landmarks, no roots in this ground. November slips to December. The Christmas decorations are put up and taken down. January, with all its new beginnings, trickles its way into February, the month of snowdrops and witch hazel and the publication of my new book. I read passages about a garden that I can no longer visit; remind myself that this too began from rubble and stone. March approaches, and with it news. Our old house is occupied by a new family. When I sleep, I dream of slow-walking its raggedy paths to see what is showing through, spy snowdrops, woodruff, lungwort, narcissi.
Someone else will find them now. I left them as a surprise under the flattened soil.
New life. New beginnings.
‘Onto the waiting soil, I scatter seeds, and remember what the garden taught me: when nothing else is certain, it is wise to return to the small things that grow.’
Those are the last words I wrote in All My Wild Mothers. It is time to return.
What is my story now? One of salt and sand and star-filled nights that go on and on? I do not know. And that is okay. Despite the ache in my bones, despite the strange sensation of weightlessness, I catch myself laughing out loud each time the light catches on the water at the bottom of our road, delight bubbling out from within. I fill my pockets with broken fragments of pottery to take home. When the water is calm, my husband, son and I skim stones. We let ourselves play.
At fifty-one, I have returned to bare-ground and from that place, I learn to grow. Because that is the thing: these days are a constant song of life beginning and letting go.
I go into the garden at the back of our new house. The sunshine has finally found its way over the tall chimney stack opposite, casting itself onto the boundary wall. I drag the broken bench into the corner and sit, face upturned, refilling with light. I take my notebook and begin to sketch. Spirals, circles, rings within rings.
The garden has started to speak. I will listen to what it knows.
About the author:
Victoria Bennett is a disabled poet and author, now living in Orkney. Her writing includes non-fiction, poetry and games-based storytelling, and has received a Northern Debut Award, Northern Promise Award, the Andrew Waterhouse Award. A draft of her new memoir, All My Wild Mothers, was long-listed for the Penguin WriteNow programme and the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for under-represented voices. She founded Wild Women Press in 1999 to support rural women writers in her community, and curates the global Wild Woman Web project, an inclusive online space focusing on nature, connection, and creativity.
All My Wild Mothers is her debut memoir.
All My Wild Mothers
Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden
An intimate weaving of memoir and herbal folklore, ALL MY WILD MOTHERS is a story of re-wilding our wastelands, and the transformation that happens when we do.
When the impact of grief, motherhood, and illness force a move to a new build social housing estate in rural Cumbria, Victoria and her young son set about transforming the rubble of the former brownfield site into a wild, apothecary garden. With no money and only the weeds they can find for free, they discover that sometimes life grows, not in spite of what is broken, but because of it.
In contrast to nature writing that shares stories of wild spaces and far off places, ALL MY WILD MOTHERS is rooted in the familiar and forgotten that lies beneath our feet. A memoir of motherhood, grief, and the archaic wisdom of plants, ALL MY WILD MOTHERS celebrates a simpler relationship to nature, and ourselves.