To celebrate the publication of Where? Simon Moreton asked a group of writers and artists to contribute new work on the theme of Grief, Place, Landscape. Today, it’s the turn of Marie Smith, who reflects on how a recent encounter with the Cumbrian countryside reminded her of a complicated relationship with public space, with the city, and with herself, in a time of isolation.
This image might contradict what I am about to write. Or maybe this image is a starting point, an image of where I want to be, or where I am now.
I am currently sitting in a hotel room in Cumbria. I’ve never been this far north, and I’ve never had a solo trip in the UK before, either. For the past year, like everyone else, I have been living a restricted life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several lockdowns have changed how I navigate spaces. I have also spent the past year with my boyfriend, and we have not been apart the entire time.
Yet here I am now, alone, not having conversed with anyone all day, and this moment has led me to question if I am capable of doing anything by myself anymore. Has the pandemic affected my capacity to live and do certain things independently? Back in 2018, I took myself to New York City for ten days, a city I had never visited. I even felt that as an introvert that I would be OK to stand my own company for a long period of time. I knew no-one but I enjoyed myself nevertheless; I met people in bars, managed to negotiate the city with tips from social media. I seemed to be carrying myself on an adventurous spirit that I never knew I had. The days went by quickly, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I felt lonely at times, that I didn’t crave interaction with someone who was familiar to me, that I didn’t get tired of small talk and feeling vulnerable.
Because being a woman alone is dangerous. Anywhere.
I almost can’t believe how brazen I used to be, especially when I was younger walking around South London at night, sometimes alone, and nothing happened to me. Occasionally I would get creepy men making remarks at me, but nobody followed me home and I always got back in one piece. To think of this now makes me feel that I have been able to live. I realise that this makes me lucky, and that I have taken for granted what I had, and where I am now.
Walking around Cumbria today, I have not felt vulnerable. But I still feel that I should be alert just in case; the anxiety of living in London haunts me as I walk through the green and supposedly pleasant land of England.
These historical and rural locations have seen so much change and are now dealing with the ramifications of climate change. Despite this complicated past and present, these places are a solace; they counter what I know and what feels familiar. But I want to challenge this narrative, to not see nature as something to take for granted or, as a place for me to reinforce my own importance; nature came before me and will continue to evolve without me.
But I am straying from the initial topic, of feeling alone and of my search for independence. That was the point wasn’t it?
I’m not quite sure. All of these threads are related to each other in one way or another. So do I feel unsafe in nature here in Cumbria? No; the landscape is nothing for me to fear and I have the comfort of technology to help me if I get lost, or feel that I can’t get help. But I still feel anxious. Why?
It has been a year since I did anything alone for a long period of time and I miss the companionship of my partner. But does this mean that I depend on them for my confidence and place in nature? Although the people who I have encountered have been nice and non-threatening on the whole, I suspect my anxiety is something deeper, due to me being a Black woman. When people smile or say hello, I wonder if they are being genuine, or if they are saying something to check to see who I am or how I will react. This may seem cynical but as a Black woman walking alone in a place that is unfamiliar to her, lived experience suggests this is to be expected.
However, if I don’t dwell on my encounters with other people and focus instead on the place and my relationship with it, I feel that I need to spend more time in nature, in different locations, to work out exactly what it is that makes me feel anxious when I am amongst it.
I realise that this writing has contradicted the peaceful images that I have presented, images made by myself in places that I like to visit to find space, time, and tranquility – all of which exist in London’s bounds. Yet, while I have the best of both worlds, I don’t see myself in London for much longer. But whenever I am out of this environment I find myself struggling to become acclimatised to a landscape, to a place I want to become a part of.
This blog is not about providing a starting and end point. That’s not how life is, and this is not the reality that we live in now. The challenges are complex, nuanced and there are difficulties that I am unable to pinpoint but I know exist.
I don’t necessarily want to reveal too much, but I want you to know that there is a lot happening in my head and at this point I don’t have a fixed idea of what that is or how to start writing about it.
So this writing might seem to be about very little; but it is also about everything that I am wishing, wanting and seeking; a space to feel safe, a space flourish in my independence, a space that I can recognise and not take for granted. I want to be able to feel that my relationship is reciprocal. I’m at the beginning of a learning curve, and that comes with an unclear way of how to define yourself. We are essentially in flux, holding onto to what we know whilst rushing forward to find something to latch onto which really reflects where we want to be.
For now, I see nature as potential; ask me again in another year’s time and maybe then I’ll have a better answer.
Marie Smith is a visual artist and writer, born, living and working in London. She graduated in 2017 with a MA in History in Art with Photography from Birkbeck, University of London. Her photography practice incorporates text and digital and analogue processes. As someone with anxiety/depression, her practice provides her with an outlet to discuss nature, environmentalism, mental health and identity. Read more about her on her website.
Where? by Simon Moreton is out now. A memoir that combines prose, illustration, photos, archival texts, and more, Where? weaves a story that slips and slides in time and geography, creating connections across geographies, histories, families, times, and circumstance.
Where? is available from the Little Toller website, and from bookshops everywhere, including Little Toller’s own, in Beaminster, Dorset.