Caught by the River

Jini Reddy and Katharine Norbury in Conversation

Katharine Norbury | 1st August 2020

Earlier this week, Jini Reddy’s Wanderland was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing. A deeply personal and gloriously engaging account, Wanderland follows Jini’s footsteps as she travels in search of – quite simply – magic.  The kind of Earth magic that was captured in the Irish Metrical Dindshenchas, and in the approximately 500 year old White Book of Rhydderch and Red Book of Hergest, though the stories they conserve are at least a thousand years old. The magic that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien detected and celebrated in the natural features of the land. The magic perceived by Evelyn Underhill. But Jini isn’t following in anyone’s footsteps. Because, as with all mystical experience, the magic she is seeking is the magic of direct revelation – to enter into a relationship with something beyond the tangible world. Setting aside the usual methods of negotiating a landscape, Jini instead follows her heart, that extraordinary lodestar, and decides to trust it, and the places in which she finds herself, implicitly. Sometimes she runs into dead ends, sometimes she is terrified. But if we accept the notion that the world that we see and can measure may only be a portion of what is out there, and that time and space are not the only possible dimensions, then surely anything can happen, and it quite often does. Jini’s faith in the natural world, and its ability to surprise, is matched only by her tenacity and fire as a pilgrim, and there is both an extraordinary honesty and emotional bravery in her journey. So where did the idea for Wanderland take root? 

Jini Reddy, photographed by Emelie Persson

KN: Tell us about your background, Jini, where did your interest in the natural world come from? 

JR: When I was seven I moved to Canada with my parents from Wimbledon. We arrived in the Laurentian mountains in a blizzard. I still remember our home, on the edge of a village – more of a settlement, really and our backyard was a snowy wilderness. A year or two later, we were living in a Montreal suburb and the St. Lawrence river ran past my street. We were very near some rapids and I used to go there pretty much every day when I could.  And the Canadian seasons are so defined, so characterful, so much a part of life, it’s impossible not to feel connected to nature while never actually consciously thinking ‘oh, yes, nature.’ We had a garden too, a lovely one full of vegetables. And my Dad was really into fishing. So maybe it goes back to my childhood. My Indian parents grew up in South Africa when they were young. My mum lived in a rural setting for a part of her childhood. She would talk about mangoes and guavas and papayas growing in the back yard, and foraging and fishing. Not for fun, but because she and her brothers and sisters needed to eat. 

KN: What led you to write this book? 

JR: It grew organically. On my travels I’d had opportunities to meet people from indigenous cultures.  These were brief encounters, but meaningful. And I was always struck by the way that for those I encountered, a deep reciprocal relationship with an animate nature was a perfectly natural thing. I found this fascinating and I wanted to know if it might be possible for someone like myself – someone who isn’t gifted in this art of deep listening or who didn’t grow up in a world where a belief in a sentient nature was a widespread thing –  to get a glimpse of this sort of communion. The desire ran deep. I also had an uncanny experience atop a mountain in the Pyrenees – that’s in the first chapter of Wanderland – and that piqued my curiosity too. On a practical level, I wanted to go on a journey, or a series of short journeys over the course of a year, and see what might happen if I travelled with this intention at the forefront of my mind. I’m not saying I wasn’t interested in the physical beauty of wild landscapes — of course I was and am, and find that soul-nourishing, and that is present in the book too — but I was a seeking a more spiritual dimension to my roaming. 

KN: You talk about wanting to connect with ‘the magical Other’ in the landscape – can you explain what you mean by that? 

JR: I think I was really seeking to connect with the Divine in the landscape. Some kind of sentient, all-knowing force in nature that might want to acknowledge my presence, if I acknowledged its presence. I mean I can’t draw a picture or define it any more clearly that. A  presence,  a wild unseen presence that I trusted (and do trust) exists. It’s very hard to write or talk about these things, because written and spoken language is not the language of the heart or the spirit! I know some will think I’m romanticising nature, and anthropomorphising, but that’s just how it looks through a rather narrow Western lens.  Also, I  know very well that nature can be cruel – floods, and famine caused by drought, for example – and the predator prey relationship in wildlife, plus  my mum grew up with poisonous snakes in her back garden. But ultimately you have to follow your curiosity and your heart’s desire, even if people are going to be dismissive or sceptical. I care a lot less what people think now.  I think I found my voice writing the book.  

KN: You refer to Thomas Berry in one chapter – can you say a little more about him and his beliefs about the earth and nature? 

JR:  Thomas Berry was born in 1914 in the U.S. (he died in 2009) and was an influential figure in earth-based spirituality. He was a thinker, a scholar, a cultural historian and I first read about him in an anthology called Spiritual Ecology. I don’t know his work in-depth, I just liked what I read, although once up in Scotland I briefly met an American who was a Berry scholar and was absolutely passionate about his teachings. 

As I understand it, Berry saw humans as just one expression of the earth and believed that in order to heal the earth, we need to recognise the sacredness of every other expression of the earth, be it an animal or a tree or a bird or a flower etc. He believed that all of us together form a ‘symphony of species’, and that we’re all just part of a sentient Earth celebrating herself through us. He believed that behind the appearance of natural phenomena was this intelligent, animate, sentient force, a cosmic world full of mystery and power. He felt that if we could see that there is both a visible and a cosmic world we’d have a far richer and more meaningful existence. He believed that in the West, we’d lost our connection to this deeper reality of things, and that we lived in a world in which little was sacred or holy, so it was easier to destroy the earth. 

KN: Have you always had a fascination for the spiritual? 

JR: I’ve always been interested in magic and mysticism. My grandfather on my mother’s side, who I never met, used to perform exorcisms and I have Indian aunties who are healers so it was always ‘in the air’. (My father was a psychologist and avowedly rational.) I’ve always been open to the supernatural and I’ve enjoyed reading about, and have at times been interested in learning about altered states of consciousness. 

KN: Was there an episode, or an experience in the book that you felt to be transformative? 

JR: When I went to Iona, there was an unfolding of synchronicities that just felt enchanting. I’d made no plans, but trusted that I was drawn to going for a reason. On the train up I had an email from an acquaintance in Bath, a landscape energies expert who said that if I was going to Iona I should look for a temple in the land and that I should ask myself in what dimension this temple existed. I was really excited and thought ‘That’s it, I have my mission!’  I spent four days trying to find and reach this temple, and asked around a lot, and each time I was met with resistance. 

So I let it go and just enjoyed the island. I mean it’s a beautiful island. Then on the last day in a café I bumped into an American woman I’d met briefly a few years earlier at a conference. We got chatting and I  sheepishly told her what I was up to. She suggested we try to find this place or whatever it was together. As we left the café, she bumped into a woman she’d not seen for a couple of years. This woman was going for a hike. Unbelievably, she was hiking to…this land temple.  My jaw just hung open. And she offered to take us there…I felt a deep awe and wonder, the sense that on some mysterious level that has nothing to do with the rational, I’d been heard, that the sincerity of my desire had been acknowledged by some animate force of nature, on the island. It had a powerful effect on me, expanded my field of perception — and that is something that I carry forward.


Wanderland by Jini Reddy is published by Bloomsbury.

The winners of the 2020 Wainwright Prize will be announced on 9th September — more info here.