Interview: Jay Griffiths on children and the natural world

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Jay Griffiths’ last book was called Wild. It was an extraordinary, freewheeling, and ecstatic roam across the planet in search of wilderness and the people and creatures that inhabit it.

Griffiths took ayahuasca (one of the most potent hallucinogenic drugs known to humankind) with shamans in the Amazon, anchored her boat to an iceberg in the Arctic, and sang with freedom fighters in West Papua. The book took seven years to write, and along the way wiped out all her time, energy, and money.

Thankfully, the adventure was worth it. Wild has been revered by everyone from John Berger to Radiohead, credited with creating a genre all of its own, and hailed as the first great nature writing of this century. It won the Orion Book Award and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. It even cured Griffiths of her depression, thanks to the powers of the aforementioned ayahuasca.

It also spawned her next book, Kith, which shifts from an exploration of landscape to what Griffiths refers to as “the riddle of the childscape”. That is, the question of why children in Britain are so unhappy. “All my books consume me,” she explains from her old house in mid-Wales where apparently the cracks in the walls are so big that “my cat can put its paws in them”. Last time we encountered Griffiths, by the way, she was living in an artist’s shed on the edge of the Epping Forest. She has moved several times since then, and once you’ve gorged on her lush prose, you can’t help but imagine her criss-crossing the country barefoot, a pagan poet plucking berries from bushes, scribbling in notebooks under trees, swimming in rivers in the summer, and skating on lakes in winter. Seriously, she is obsessed with wild skating. There is even a short guide on how to go about it in Kith.

“I don’t write quickly and I don’t want to,” she continues. “I’ve been thinking about this book for 13 years and working on it full-time for five. While I was doing the journeys for Wild I kept an extra notebook with me because I knew I wanted to write about childhood. I talked to people about land and wildness and kept a weather eye open for anything to do with childhood.”

What she discovered, time and time again, was that children in indigenous communities seemed happier than those in Britain. “It’s unmistakable,” she says. “And it’s backed up by historians, anthropologists and missionaries over hundreds of years. Look, there is no particular society that is getting it completely right. But I did notice two very widespread tendencies that seem to have very powerful results. In traditional Amazonian and West Papuan villages and the indigenous communities of Australia enormous closeness is key. Infants are passed from person to person and the notion of the isolated and abandoned screaming baby alone in their cot doesn’t exist. You just don’t hear it. The second thing is the importance of respecting the child’s will. It’s not about giving them everything they want – it’s about acknowledging their autonomy and dignity.”

None of which we appear to be getting right in Britain. Griffiths cites a 2007 Unicef report ranking the UK last among 21 industrialised countries for the wellbeing of its children. She offers other depressing evidence, such as the UN Committee on the Rights of a Child referring to a “general climate of intolerance towards children in Britain”. Not that Kith is an academic argument based on dry analysis of focus groups. Quite the opposite. It’s an impassioned polemic that references poets and revels in metaphor, an idiosyncratic meander through the quirks and delights of childhood (all of which are under threat, according to Griffiths, in our capitalist, consumerist, and risk-averse society), and a cri de coeur for children to be heard, respected, and left to idle in the woods.

“Children say they are unhappy in every language they have,” she tells me. “They say it in silence and they say it in riots. I wanted to look at childhood, not as a way of examining parenting, but as a way to look at how society treats children. It’s not about whether we let the children out to play or not. It’s about how children think, about their sense of themselves, their imagination, and their sense of deep play.”

As in Wild, nature plays a central role. Griffiths is an unashamed Romantic in the Wordsworthian sense, and Kith is as much an ode to nature, in suitably lush, brimful prose, as it is to childhood. The more children are deprived of wild green space (she can’t bear the cultivated neatness of golf courses) the less happy they will be. “It doesn’t have to be vast acres of rolling woodland,” she tells me. “It can be some little scrubby commons. Children don’t need a lot of big green nature. They just need something.

“There is that sense that children have of loving a particular tree,” she continues. “I think being outdoors gives them a sense of tranquillity. The woods are a place where children can go to think. Children gravitate towards these spaces. When I was a child it was nothing more than a scrubby little overhang under a rhododendron bush but it was incredibly important to me. Cities everywhere become so over-tidied and controlled and subject to surveillance. Children want their own dens, which are like cocoons. Any child who has had a den remembers that place, the importance of it. It’s a place of reverie, a state which is so important to childhood.”

Griffiths’ views elicit some pretty extreme responses. For her fans, including Philip Pullman who compares her understanding of childhood to that of Blake and Wordsworth, she is a visionary, a one-off, a maverick steeped in politics and mischief. For others she is too sentimental, too idealised, just too much. Partly it’s the way she writes. You’re unlikely to encounter prose more purple than Griffith’s. “When I was a child I thought I was the moon’s daughter,” she writes in a chapter called “Wolf Milk in the Ink”. Or this: “A nest is a circle of infinite intimacy, a field-hearth or hedge-hearth. Every nest whispers ‘home’, whether you speak English, Spanish, Wren or Robin.”

When reviewing Kith, renowned classicist Mary Beard took objection to what she called Griffiths’ “primitivism”: her idealisation of and desire to return to traditional and indigenous cultures. What does she make of all this? “For a start that is a very offensive word,” she says, referring to “primitivism”. “I find that word so deeply offensive towards indigenous cultures and it’s such a misreading of what I do. It’s just a joke.” She laughs hollowly. “What I’m saying is that this society has a lot to learn from indigenous societies. That’s not to say that we should abandon the fantastic literary tradition that we have. It’s not to say that I think universities and formal education should be abolished. I’m totally in support of the greatest kinds of cultural heritage, wherever that is found. The problem is that it’s set up as some insane dualism. You’re either for modern culture or against it. For heaven’s sake! Read the book. I think it’s also about a very widespread and unacknowledged racism towards indigenous societies. Therefore if you say anything positive about them you’re a primitivist, an idealist, and a sentimentalist. If people can’t acknowledge the wisdom of indigenous cultures, then that’s their loss.”

As for Romanticism, she believes it has nothing to do with sentimentalism and is a fiercely political position. “One of the things the book is arguing for is a form of Romanticism, not because it’s going back to a historical epoch but because it’s a perennial philosophy,” she notes. “It’s part of who we are and how the mind works. You can find these levels of dissatisfaction in so many people. It’s a yearning for something more and it’s not outside of ourselves. It’s within. It’s a yearning for vitality and individuality and a need to not be crushed. The historical Romantics had to counter the deadly utilitarianism around them and I think we are in another very deadly utilitarian age. Yes, I am dissatisfied and I think I have every right to be so.”

Griffiths’ books tend to grow out of one another. She wrote Pip Pip about wrestling “wild time” back from the enslavement of clocks and it led to a journey into wilderness. Then, of course, the landscape became the childscape and she became fascinated by “the will and the wildness of children”. She loves children, though she has none of her own, and Kith is peppered with references to her godchildren and nephews. Her own childhood, growing up in Manchester, was pretty ordinary. “It certainly wasn’t a thousand acre wood upbringing,” she says. “There was a garden and a park and a commons and two grandparents by the sea.”

Does she think being a child was a happier state of affairs then than it is now? Griffiths laughs. “I don’t think any of this is about going back to the past,” she says, quickly bringing the discussion back to Kith. “It’s about things that are deeply within ourselves, then and now. Childhood in its essence hasn’t changed. They all come out as playful as kittens. That doesn’t change. So it isn’t about the past versus the present. It’s about what’s intrinsic to childhood nature.”

• Kith is published by Penguin, £20