Unfortunately, this is an imaginary letter written by nomadic, wild-living Miriam Lancewood to be read at Wellington’s Verb Festival next week.
Verb opens on Thursday, October 29 and will run until Sunday, November 8. For the showcase event on Friday night, nine writers were asked to write letters with this prompt: “An envelope with your name on it. Your dream letter inside. Who is it from and what does it say?” This is an abridged version of the letter by Lancewood, author of nature memoirs Woman in the Wilderness and Wild at Heart. She imagines a letter written to her 80 years down the track by her niece, Bonnie.
Amsterdam, 15 July 2100
Dear Aunt Miriam,
It has been many years since you passed away. With this new technology, I have an opportunity to send a letter backwards in time.
Here I am, looking down onto a little cobbled walkway in the quiet city centre. I can barely type, for my fingers are slow and painful. I shouldn’t complain though, I recently turned 80 and apart from my fingers I am doing fine.
So it is exactly 80 years ago that you published your second book Wild at Heart. I still have my Dutch translation here. Thank you for dedicating the book to me. Now I’d like to return some writing to you.
Many things, good and bad, have happened in my lifetime. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change have never completely disappeared. We still have raging fires and rising sea levels. The only positive side effect is warmer temperatures in Russia, which are beneficial for millions of acres of fertile land in the west. Russia is now the breadbasket of the world.
Thankfully, the global population has stabilised at 10 billion. We don’t use so many fossil fuels now, so pollution has decreased enormously. Forests have largely regenerated all over the world. Many rivers have been cleaned up, but there are others that have only worsened. They say the Indian Ocean will be polluted for a thousand years and yet the Pacific Ocean is showing great signs of recovery.
Probably the biggest change in my lifetime is the elimination of animal slavery. We now only eat manufactured meat and grow vegetables on old farmland. There are vast areas with wild animals and people who are able to hunt are allowed to catch their own wild meat.
I was one of them. I followed your footsteps and also lived in the forest. Not for seven years like you, but just for one summer. With two friends, I drove to Norway on a mission to learn survival skills. We trekked for days up a very remote valley. We built our camp among the big old beech trees, learned a little bit about hunting and eventually shot a deer. We also caught fish and gathered edible plants.
We had no devices and felt an enormous sense of peace and silence. Those two months felt eternal. We were in a different reality and pondered the idea of Time. In those days the Big Bang Theory had just been overthrown and was replaced by a concept called “Eternal Return”.
Yet we were still struggling to understand a universe without a beginning and an end.
Ever since that summer, I have been thinking about the end-time; the notion of the “apocalypse”. For years I followed reports about pandemics, biotech disasters, deforestation, and nano-plastics in the oceans. It left me feeling depressed. This state of anxiety hindered me from doing anything too radical because like many people around me I believed that the end of the world was near.
Only in the last few years, it has occurred to me that perhaps the end of the world has always been just around the corner. Perhaps it has been a fear since the beginning of time! There is even a word for it: “Eschatology”. Many civilisations speak about the beginning of the world and so consequently believe there will also be an ending. But do we all believe in the end of the world? Is there a belief system here that we are not even aware of? Or is this the product of a universal fear of communal death?
I feel I spent my whole life trying to save the world. It gave me a sense of meaning and purpose. In hindsight I don’t know if I have made any real difference.
If I look at the past from where I am now, I see there have been so many catastrophes and there will always be disasters. But always regional. Flus come and go, wars come and go, fires, the stock market goes up and down … some things flourish and some perish. Just like in a forest, some trees do well, others die. But the world can handle it because it is much bigger than I thought.
All my life, I have been told that humanity is sort of doomed. That everything will only get worse. That humans lean towards evil. That homo sapiens have such potential, but time and time again we ruin it for ourselves and the rest of the planet because we are sinners at heart. Is it true that we have been judged – by a long-forgotten God – and cast out of paradise?
Or is this an escha-lie?
In the garden of Eden, we risked everything in order to eat the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Maybe humans are not good or evil. We are not particularly wise but, rather, curious and clever. We have a ceaseless desire to keep venturing into the unknown. We see the danger and take the risk anyway. Sometimes this causes destruction, other times creation.
Maybe there is no beginning and no end: maybe there is only endless change.
Last year my son took me back to that forest in Norway. We sat down on a log clad in soft moss near a little stream. The water murmured softly. We lit a fire and beams of sunlight touched the smoke that was whirling its way through the branches. We saw a brown squirrel with its beautiful fluffy tail and listened to the call of two cuckoos in the distance. Everything was soft and gentle on that warm summer’s afternoon.
When I looked around, I saw the growing trees and began to understand the problem of humanity. Over the last centuries we have adopted a scientific way of seeing the world. We see everything as if it is unchanging: “dead” in a way. We don’t see the eternal change, we only see a still image, like a picture.
But the earth is living. Everything is growing every second. The saplings are growing, trees are growing, flowers are blooming while I write this. We cannot possibly stop this movement of life! The rivers are flowing from the source, and everything born out of this earth is new and fresh and pure. This is the essence of life itself.
I said to my son, if you truly see this, you never worry again about life on this planet.
He smiled, and looked around. And when he saw the marvel of it, he began to laugh.
So this is my letter reaching back through time all the way to you. Enjoy the time of your life. Enjoy natural wonders. Enjoy the beauty of this world. This pure, living planet is incredible.
Verb Showcase: The Best Letter I Never Received takes place at 6pm on Friday 6 November, at the National Library of New Zealand. Other writers sharing letters on the night include Behrouz Boochani, Mohamed Hassan. AJ Fitzwater, Whiti Hereaka, Michalia Arathimos, Breton Dukes and Linda Burgess.
Lancewood will also share her “wild, inspiring stories” with Susie Ferguson in a Wild at Heart event on Saturday 7 November.
If the green theme appeals, 16-year-old Irish conservationist Dara McAnulty will be appearing at Verb (virtually) on Saturday morning, discussing his memoir Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won the Wainwright Prize for nature writing.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.