This is an exclusive excerpt from Jini Reddy’s new book, Wanderland.
‘In south-west London, trying to make sense of it all – not just my father’s and sister’s deaths, but what felt like a total failure to make anything stick – I’d gravitate like a homing pigeon to Holland Park. It brought me back to the me I once was: the me who had loved her London publishing job, the me who had shone, even the me pre-grief.
I went there every week, religiously. I’d exhale once I got through the gates, race to the Kyoto garden, throw pennies in the wishing well and pray grimly to the carp, wander around the Henry Moore sculpture and up and down the leafy, wooded trails behind the cafe. In this place, my pain was bearable. Why was I so stuck? I’d ask myself over and over. It wasn’t fair. I was in a nightmare I couldn’t wake from. I figured my life as I knew it was over, with the best years behind me. I may as well face up to it.
Little by little, my attachment to Holland Park waned and I discovered Wimbledon Common, a mere bus ride from where I now lived. I’d stomp moodily through the wood to the Windmill cafe, sip tea and weep and wail and plead with the gods. Where were they, anyway?
Walking out my shame at having absolutely nothing to tether myself to – no job, no partner, no home of my own, no father or sister – was becoming a habit.
On my walks to the Common, I’d pass the tall iron gates to Cannizaro Park and one day decided to take a look. The park was hidden behind a stately country house hotel and was more of a landscaped garden with woods and extraordinary trees – the kind of park you felt you couldn’t just turn up at in your slobby, holey leggings. At the bottom was a winding path where in season the rhododendrons flourished and the towering redwoods, birches, maples and horse chestnut trees arched or twisted and generally invited you in in defiance of the human code of formality the surroundings seemed to dictate. Every step I took was a prayer. Sometimes I’d wrap my arms around the branch of a tree and beg the tree for help. I was desperate. I prayed and prayed. And eventually things did change. By some miracle, I began to get work as a journalist. I was giddy with joy and relief. Through work I roamed and had adventures I ’d never dreamed possible. I turned into a travel bore – the worst kind. If someone asked me how I was, I’d simply tell them where I’d been or where I was going. My identity was tied up in names on a map.
And then I began to ask myself what it was that was missing. Because something was. On my travels, I’d yearn to go off piste, away from people and into wilder places, sometimes in countries unpopular in the West. I wanted to meet the local medicine woman or man, not just for the magic and the mystery of their calling, but because on some level, I sensed they’d accept me because I too did not fit in. Such encounters would almost never feature in my itinerary, carefully cobbled together by a conventional minder or well-intentioned PR. And if they did, editors would too often weed out any references to them in the features I wrote, even when I pleaded with them. ‘It’s sentimental fluff,’ said one breezily, his cut-glass, public school accent brooking no argument. End of. But, oh, the thrill of meeting someone who’d talk about the elements or the sky or earth or tree or a peak or waterfall as if it were a special friend or part of a clan of mysterious, sentient beings. In my book these indigenous people weren’t sentimental – they had vision. My heart would leap and inside I’d be screaming yes, this.
But what exactly was I seeking? What was this thing that ran deep that I hungered for? It had to do with the natural world and with landscape but also something more. It wasn’t a forensic thing. It wasn’t a cold, detached, indifferent, objective thing. I walked and reflected and clutched at wisps of half-formed thoughts. I delved into the world of spiritual ecology, tried plant medicines and made friends with shamans (long before they became shorthand for a brand of consumerist, urban hipness – insulting to the genuine healers I knew). I dabbled, dipped a toe into arcane practices and took a vague, non-scholarly interest in the writings of nature mystics.
Around this time, I finally discovered the woods at the end of my street and the lake beyond it. I’d walk up there a few times a week and learned the names of the waterfowl from the information board. I got to know the ornery coots, the Egyptian geese, the moorhens and the mallards, male and female and the Canada geese with their exuberant runway landings and take-offs. Air Goose, I called them.
After my time by the lake, I’d turn back up the woods and head home, calmer and with a stronger sense of edging towards something. I just wasn’t sure what. Or maybe I was too afraid to voice it, to say: ‘ I want to go deeper, I need to go deeper. To tread a more mystical path. ’ But in the end I had to. My parents, born into the sharp end of apartheid, had struggled and taken heroic, courageous steps so that life could be better for their children, so that I could choose my beliefs and my path, so that I could walk in freedom. To not claim this freedom would be dishonouring them as much as myself.’
Extract from Wanderland, published by Bloomsbury Books.
Copyright ©Jini Reddy, 2020
Jini Reddy is an award-winning author and journalist. She was born in London to Indian parents who grew up in South Africa, and was raised in Montreal, Canada. Jini has a degree in Geography, an M.A. in English Literature and a passion for writing on travel, nature and spirituality. Her byline has appeared in The Guardian, Time magazine, The Metro, The Times, Sunday Times Style, The Sunday Telegraph, National Geographic Traveller, BBC Wildlife, Resurgence & The Ecologist and other publications. Her first book, Wild Times, was published in 2016 and she is a contributor to the forthcoming Women on Nature anthology.