How Clover Stroud’s striking memoir The Wild Other made Victoria Pownall question what place wildness and women hold in the age of Instagram.
After a difficult and tumultuous period in my life, I wanted to seek out more challenging and wilder experiences to push myself out of a rut. After reading Clover Stroud’s ‘The Wild Other’ I started to question what it means to be wild, and if I could truly have the same experiences as Clover did today in the internet era. In a time where Instagram shapes careers and trends, has wildness changed forever? I recently spoke to Clover and apparently, not all hope is lost.
It was as spring of 2017 drew to a close that I discovered Clover Stroud’s beautiful and candid memoir ‘The Wild Other’. I had just moved back home to England from France and it signalled the end of an especially turbulent, exhilarating and ultimately exhausting year of my life. Those last few months had been tough for me and my mental health consequently suffered under painful comparisons to other people and anxious thoughts that seemed only to say one thing: ‘Are you doing enough?’ It was during that time that I pushed myself to find new and challenging situations both in the city and in the wild, sometimes pushing myself too far. Even though I was enjoying and in need of these experiences, in my cloudy headspace another less satisfying inner trend appeared. The notion of how my life looked crept slowly and concretely into the back of my mind. I became more aware of my online presence, wondering if these ‘wild’ experiences were enough and if I could regulate and aestheticize my experiences for outside validation. My thoughts became abstract; I wanted to find myself in unconventional places, meeting new people, letting myself go whilst still knowing what category this experience would fall under and how it would look the best. It was trying to fit yourself into a box when you don’t know its shape. Bending and pushing yourself towards places and people for reasons you don’t really understand.
I returned to England questioning these ideas and trying to get myself into a better place to start university again. At that time, I remembered a review of ‘The Wild Other’ that I had read in the newspaper a while back. It described a memoir, where a woman dealing with the intense trauma of her mother’s riding accident (which left her comatose and needing intensive care for over 20 years) sought out wild experiences in an attempt to feel alive, and to heal. I bought the book and devoured it in two days, soaking up Clover’s stories of Texan rodeos, forest raves and of horse riding through the remote Russian mountains. As I read, I wondered whether I could truly experience wildness to the extent she did. I had many questions on my mind when I contacted Clover. Is trauma a pre-requisite to ‘authentic’ travel? Is true adventure impossible in a tech-obsessed society that commits us to share our every move? I wondered if the places she visited could have given her the same escape from her mother’s accident if she had grown up today. Would she have been able to experience these new landscapes and people in their full rawness, or would her experience have been diluted amongst the hundreds of other stories found online? And would the places she found have been demystified against the surge of articles noting, for example, the ten wildest and undiscovered spots of Ireland or Russia? Perhaps her wildness would have been constricted and regulated by the aesthetic pressures of Instagram, which can portray wild experiences as only valid (and profitable) when set up in a certain, visually pleasing, form. The contrast between our two time frames became clear as she tells me ‘I didn’t know if cowboys even existed back then. Now I follow plenty of them on Instagram.’
It is clear that the world Clover grew up in and my own are very different. Whereas she explored without any supervision or online peers to compare herself with, today these images are everywhere. Online, the images I found of wildness and wild experiences were highly aestheticized and flat. Type #wildwomen or #sheexplores into Instagram and the top hits comes up with repeated motifs: An attractive white woman who after quitting her job is now sponsored by bikini and smoothie companies to post regular and scripted posts in ‘exotic’ lands. I agree with Clover when she described these images as ‘highly dissatisfying’ – who is engaging with these perfect, scripted and ‘materialistic’ images? Under these hashtags, pictures of curly-haired women in the forest and obviously some sexual content are also found. Yet the images I found most in abundance, and most confusing, were of white woman in indigenous costume quoting some vague spiritual quote on them being daughters of the Moon. Hey, maybe they are. We do not need another article shaming women for what they post online. Yet, these images intrigue me. Are these images shaping how we define wildness, is it even something that can be defined? And do these sanitized, whitewashed and culturally appropriative images fairly represent and encapsulate all woman’s experience with their own wildness? Probably not. Being inundated with images to unpick seemed mentally unhelpful at this time. Therefore, I decided to delete my personal Instagram and tried to spend less time online. It was an attempt to clear my head of these aesthetic pressures that followed me as a form of self-regulation. I wanted to see more authentic experiences.
It is worth noting that quite a few female adventure memoirs (‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed for example) are contextualized by a devastating loss, and then a turn into the wild in an attempt to recover. I therefore wondered if trauma is a pre-requisite for ‘authentic’ adventure, and if it gives us a deeper understanding of the natural landscapes that surround us. I have never experienced anything close to what Clover did; can I still find the same experiences? When I contacted Clover she primarily told me how although her trauma was the catalyst, a kind of ‘tragic alchemy’ that led her into these wild places, it was not the only reason. The main link between the accident and her wild experiences can be seen through horses. Her mother had had an appalling horse-riding accident, and horses then became a ‘passport into a different world, like the racing world and the gypsies and the cowboys and then the most extreme with these Russian horsemen I was living with.’ Yet Clover notes that her wildness was there before her mother’s accident:
‘I don’t think it was just the accident, I think I had a natural desire to live in this unprescribed and messy way, in the most emotional way possible. So I think I would have always have gone on some kind of adventures, but then I had the catalyst of very very intense trauma and family breakdown that threw me out there. My wildness is driven by emotion, definitely, and it’s driven by a desire to find a sense of home and to kind of assuage the melancholy which lives with me and predates what happened to my mum. It is the way I can connect with that melancholy and find answers to the kind of pain that comes with it.’
For Clover, anyone can feel wild no matter his or her situation, yet she believes that true experiences of wildness are rare and are found when we are pushed beyond our limits. Reading her extremely open accounts of drugs, sex and adventure (none of which had made it to Instagram) was fascinating and reflective of a life led to emotional extremes. Encompassing her life from her childhood until now, she paints a picture of life that was not only wild in its exploration of foreign lands but also its innate magnetism towards these exhilarating physical experiences. I asked her if you need to push yourself beyond societal norms into these extreme physical and emotional states, by taking drugs for example, to be wild. Although she notes that drugs can help you access one sense of wildness, ‘it’s not only drugs’ she says. It’s ‘also about adrenaline and feeling extreme, like orgasm, any place that takes you to the edge’. Wildness for her was trying to access ‘the strongest and most genuine feelings you can’. Yet why are these extremes so important? ‘There’s lots of reasons why it’s important, life is short, I want excitement at its most basic form, I’m driven a bit by adrenaline and a sense of masochism as well’ she admits. Childbirth constitutes another key example. ‘Childbirth is the most thrilling example of it because it’s almost as if it takes you to the edge of life, treading into death. That’s probably why I’ve been so addicted and had 5 children’ she laughs, ‘I completely love giving birth, talk about wild! That’s really fucking wild!’ She notes how trauma, whilst ‘tragic and appalling’ is also the ‘moment when you are forced to be completely present, to just cut through so much of the chatter of rubbish which were surrounded by all the time, to silence that.’ When another ‘appalling trauma’ hit her family last year, she felt more ‘alive, and more awake, I was really forced to go back into what trauma is and how to live with it and how to process it.’ For Clover:
‘Moments of true spiritual growth and enlightenment and understanding are so far and few between, I mean we rush through life just doing one thing, thinking about bettering ourselves , holidays and the next thing, next thing, next thing. Then when you are faced with real adversity and real challenge, and you are forced to confront the darkest and the most painful realities in your life, that’s when things sort of make sense to me. Taking yourself to quite an extreme place just feels fundamentally important to answering the questions about who we are and what we’re doing and what the point of all this is.’
Surely, this constant search for extremes is exhausting? Yet according to Clover you don’t have to push yourself to extremes or travel to desolate spaces to find wildness. Repeatedly, she finds herself drawn back to the Ridgeway, an area of land just behind her house that she loves for reasons that unearth an emotional wildness rather than a geographical one.
‘What I love about it, why I’m drawn there again and again and again, is not because it’s a big empty, remote, desolate spot. It is because it’s an incredibly human place. It’s marked by the chalk horses and standing stones and ancient castles, hillforts, and you get this tremendously strong rhythm, even when you’re up there completely on your own, on you know a Tuesday afternoon in the mist. You get this tremendously strong sense that human beings have lived, loved, sworn, fucked, prayed, drank, despaired, traded, and joked in this area. You get this stamp of human being, walking along this, and living in this area. That’s why I find it really fascinating. It’s not the furthest place humans have ever been to it is actually a place where many humans have been drawn to and have congregated.’
It’s a refreshing sentiment that wildness, and its emotional benefits, need not be found across the globe as Instagram would suggest, but in our backyards. ‘I think it’s really important not to feel like ‘wild’ has to be on an incredible gap year, or that you have to have the budget to fly yourself off to Sri Lanka or that you have to have the balls to travel across Siberia on your own. It doesn’t have to be like that.’ It is also touching to reject the ‘lone-wolf’ ideal, whereby wildness is authenticated by isolation. Not to say solo adventure isn’t worthwhile, yet it has always been the people I’ve met as a result of solo travel that have made it memorable and important. As a perfectionist, it can be difficult to admit that sometimes you do need people and you do need to open yourself up to the support around you. As Francheska Medina beautifully puts it:
‘I was so used to “it will only be done properly if I do it myself”. But that mentality is not sustainable. It is exhausting. […] I’ve called in amazing people who remind me of the beauty of an ecosystem.’
In order to get my mental health back in check I was forced to open up, something that hasn’t always come naturally to me. Yet in rejecting this performance, where nothing hurt and everything was perfect and fine, you start to build something stronger and more authentic inside you. To let emotions out and to connect with other people, that feels pretty wild. Although the landscapes that Clover sought ‘were all in incredibly beautiful parts of the world and were emotionally and aesthetically sustaining, it was the people that were keeping me there and taking me there in the first place. For me the wildness is about trying to find the most genuine, most true, and also the most exciting human relationships. So I don’t really want to travel on my own through remote landscapes.’
Instead, Clover delights in the ‘pockets of wildness and emotion’ that can be found in surprising places. ‘I think it can found by going far off into remote places, but I also think you don’t have to go very far to find it. I’ve always been interested in the areas of cities, found just on the edge of the city, the kind of damp, marshy, often quite scrubby, quite crappy area of land on the edge of the ring road, where the nice socially acceptable Victorian terraces all start. In those underpasses and weird little tracks that sheep might have walked along but which have now got graffiti going all down the edge of them.’ The emotion that she can access in these places reminds me of the emotional mapping we all do wherever we go. When you inhabit a place for however long, different spots start to become tinged with memories of certain people and the feelings you felt at that time. A coffee shop can represent three stressful months of your life in particular; a park can represent a past relationship. There are positive pockets of wildness too in the city. When I lived in Strasbourg, it was not the wild Vosges Mountains that refreshed me and kept me sane. More likely, it was Café Atlántico across the street, where we teaching assistants would drink warm whiskey on -12 nights and laugh off the sometimes traumatic experiences in the classroom. Most groups of friends will know a bar or nearby pocket of countryside that is intrinsically linked to their group. These places are full of unshakeable associations, such as laughter, hangovers, birthdays, break-ups, make-ups and more. On an emotional scale, these spots are just as wild as an Icelandic Fjord or a Yurt in the Mongolian plateau.
After I had returned from France, my friend invited me out to visit her in India. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to get an ‘authentic’ and ‘wild’ travel experience. Whilst we definitely did have some wilder experiences, a lot of it was not ‘crazy’ or ‘wild’, nor more ‘authentic’ in the presence of Shruthi; it was rather a perfect and hilarious change of scene. The walk behind my house, where I often go to clear my head, could be seen as wilder than many places we visited in India because of the emotions locked up into that space. Clover has similar beliefs in relation to her time in Texas:
‘When I was living in Texas, and it’s an incredible environment with massive red rocks on the edge of this canyon; almost exactly like a Wild West film. I remember my sister Nell coming over to stay and her saying ‘Do you think you’ll stay here and get married to a cowboy?’ It was definitely quite a beguiling thought, very romantic, very exciting. Yet, I remember saying to her ‘I do really love it, I love this environment, I feel very satisfied but I know that the thing that makes me feel most at home and makes my heart feel like its pumping and is satisfied is a wet, muddy field in England, with some nettles and some rusting barbed wire. It is the feeling of England as T.S.Eliot was writing about it or Bechmen was writing about it or Wordsworth was writing about it, that’s actually inside who I am. As much as I loved Texas, it would have never have felt truly like home because I hadn’t lived there as a child, or been read stories about Texas as a child.’ In this way, England becomes wilder than cowboys and red earth, as it is full of childhood memories of meals, stories and of course her mother.
Of course, sometimes travel is just for fun, you don’t need to be having a life-changing experience every time you get on a plane. Yet, travelling can feel like a competition nowadays. As we reach out, all trying to find ‘untouched’, ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ places our arrogant need to be the first, to be special comes through. Then, once that place is discovered, we swarm there and then deem it ruined. Does it matter if a place is popular? Do the subsequent online articles on these ‘hidden spots’, or ‘authentic’ encounters make our own experiences feel less important?
‘The thing is, when I was travelling and such, people read Lonely Planet and there was always a kind of trail of places. What’s happened with Instagram has completely magnified that effect. If you used the 10 hidden places in Iceland for example, in the same way that if you read the lonely planet 25 years ago on the 10 best backpacking places in Thailand, I mean you might have an okay time and it might be all right yet I wonder what you miss out on.’
The over-saturation of travel information can be a hindrance, or a help, if for example you have no idea where to start. ‘That’s why I ended up working in places; you won’t have the same experiences, go and find them! When I went to the ranch in Texas, I totally found that ranch by talking my way into places.’ It was therefore in the prolonged trips that Clover found the wildness needed to help come to terms with her own trauma and to feel alive. Maybe if we all try to connect to a place in the same way, new, more real and more exciting forms of wildness will develop for us.
At the end of our conversation, we chat more about the sponsored nature of Instagram and how it is re-defining wildness. Clover asks if I follow her and I do. Her photos are not at all what you would call stylized; usually its family adventures, ponies, and green landscapes. ‘I mean it’s quite muddy, normal pictures nothing is styled as you can see, however you can’t help but edit it.’ She too is aware of how Instagram aesthetics have affected her: ‘Do you think for the people who are doing the whole, sponsored, attractive couple thing Instagram becomes almost like a terrible disease that you can’t get rid of, this feeling of having to live through it, like a virtual reality. Because I do it! I see my children, and I think ‘oh Dash you look great I’m going to take a picture of you’ Dash, he’s so sweet looking but he so so badly behaved and such a massive terror, but none of that side of him goes up. It’s still a version. So in order to take that photo, I’m thinking about the photo and the caption and I hate it! Cos it’s in your head. It’s really hard to get rid of, isn’t it?’
It is unwise to underestimate the influence of Instagram. For most young people, it is one of the first portals we check in the morning. For a growing number of ‘influencers’, Instagram is starting careers, building trends and distributing cultural currency. There is amazing content being shared there. In terms of wildness, accounts such as ‘afrooutdoors’, who aim to ‘celebrate and inspire Black leadership in Nature’ shows how the platform can uplift underrepresented voices. In comparison with the confusing images of #wildwomen, the hashtag #coldwaterswim is teeming with happy, smiling people diving headfirst into thrilling experiences. All that said, when Clover notes that ‘it’s in your head’ she unfortunately reminds me of my tangled headspace when I was ill, and my uncanny ability to read into images online. She still insists that ‘when I think about ways of accessing wild now I just think the best thing would be putting our phone down and go and do.’
Many young people are also concerned about the links between social media use and mental health, as we compare ourselves to not only the perfect, edited, sponsored images but also to the unfiltered posts of people we know. These second set of images can be somewhat worse, as we can analyse further and they can be loaded with emotional triggers. Yet I have personally found that in seeking help and improving my mental health, I no longer find these images overwhelming. Perhaps then we cannot place all the blame on these online platforms. I enjoy seeing what my friends post, finding new artwork and discovering opportunities in the knowledge that online comparison is futile and there’s enough space for everyone to get what they want from life.
As our generation comes to terms with our internet usage, a lot of us are balancing our time online with activities linked to physicality, in order to ground us to this world. This could be finding inspiration online, and then turning your phone off for a day and getting outside. Clover herself was curious about our generation and Instagram. ‘Surely there’s a voice for your generation that is authentic, that speaks up against the forged images that are everywhere?’ Today celebrities on the platform use their influence to raise awareness over mental health issues for example and having a large number of followers now comes with a responsibility towards transparency. Big names will repeat that what they are posting is curated, edit and distorted. Now this idea that our online platforms are just another outlet of expression should be clear, we can post what we want knowing that the real good stuff lies offline. Clover’s appreciation of physicality is truly apparent on her Instagram, where she documents her family life. Indeed, her appreciation of the messiness of life, (especially with 5 children in tow), translates just as well in her Instagram captions, where she muses over and sparks discussion on motherhood, as in her narrative prose.
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Drained. That’s what waiting for one of my children to finish a swimming lesson makes me feel. I hate indoor pools: I can’t stand the noise and the heat and the fact they make me feel like I cannot think or breathe and everything energetic and creative or even sane is draining out of me. As a mother you spend a lot of time waiting (and it is mostly mothers, or at least women, who do the after school grind, whatever anyone else tells us). I don’t mind waiting while they dance, or ride, or sing or dawdle around on a walk. But I really hate the waiting while they swim #notwildswimming #motherhood #everyday #motherhoodunplugged #motherhoodthroughinstagram #drained
At the end of our phone call, the original question behind this all re-emerged. Is wildness, as Clover experienced it, still possible today? Clover says it’s completely possible. No matter how technology has taken over ‘nothing can replace human relationships, nothing can replace the conversation you have with someone on a greyhound bus, or the cowboy you get chatting too, nothing can take that away. The curiosity and the desire to find out about other people and be present to other people… That’s the thing that has taken me into places. So I do think it’s too bleak an idea to think ‘you just can’t find that kind of wildness anymore’ because I think that you can if it’s an emotional state and its real people and its real connections that you’re looking for.’
On Instagram, it is harmful for the main representation of wildness to be white and slim and in exotic locations, not because those women are bad people, but because it devalues the experiences of underrepresented women. It makes people believe that they cannot find wildness because they have never been abroad, or that because they do not fit the stereotype their adventures, their heartbreak and their emotions are less valid. I think the reason why the idea of ‘wildness’ as portrayed by the sponsored, attractive couple is so effective and enticing is that it hints of life-changing experiences, of the chance encounter, of the raw emotions that we seek as a break from the humdrum of everyday life. Yet of course, to find those things you need to get out yourself. Clover’s book affected me because of its raw accounts of those moments where you feel most alive. I asked Clover what a ‘wild woman’ is to her, ‘Um, not somebody who worries about their Instagram!’ she laughs. ‘Somebody who’s present and living deeply connected to their emotional life. And I think that means confronting some of the most complex and unpleasant and painful parts of what makes you human.’ She sighs, apologising for the vague response: ‘it sounds really vague what I’m saying but to feel like you’re somebody who is deeply connected to your emotional life. That feels like quite a wild thing to be now, really, because I think we are often cut off from the essence of who we really are. And I mean of course there’s the excitement of doing stuff that’s a bit out there, such as taking yourself to dangerous places, but it’s also taking yourself to uncomfortable places, taking yourself to places that test you. That also feels quite wild, confronting that stuff, confronting the things that feel unendurable.’ Wildness therefore goes beyond aesthetics and geographical location, it is vague and messy and tied up to emotions. So in asking yourself what wildness means to you, why it is important, then you can definitely explore places as people did pre-internet . In reality, the world is always waiting for anyone who wants to explore it.
Words: Victoria Pownall
Illustration: Mariel Abbene