Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Lisa Wells’ ‘Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World’ introduces trailblazers and outliers from across the globe who have found radically new ways to live and reconnect to the Earth in the face of climate change. Abi Andrews reviews.
Believers begins with a character we’ve met before — Finisia Medrano — a nomadic, trespassing trans rewilder planting edible native foods across the American prairies; seeds for a world to be born from the rubble of ours. Medrano was a central figure in Joanna Pocock’s Surrender (2019) — and both books are superficially similar, in that both are on a search for visionaries living out the anthropocene in the American West. It was my immediate impulse to contrast the two portrayals of the incendiary person that Medrano was, and at first, interview tact on the part of Lisa Wells appears lacking in comparison to Pocock’s virtuoso coaxing of such a trickstery woman. Wells admits early that her failure to sometimes elicit her interviewees may be down to her ‘inexperience as an investigator’ rather than the subjects of her inquiry — but the dissimilarity between these books stems from a different mode of storytelling altogether; Wells herself is a key character in her inquiry.
Instead of posing this as an investigative failure, she writes the vitriol aimed at her by her unwieldy subject Medrano. It is hilariously adversarial when it isn’t plain abusive and proves an effective narrative driver, shaming Wells into facing her environmental malaise in true “suck it up” football coach fashion. “You’re probably as devastated as those woods in Oregon”, spits Medrano, in a voice that to Wells ‘seems to belong to the earth itself’, her mouth ‘an articulate wound’. This has the effect of flying back at those of us going to books like Believers to read about people like Finisia Medrano, while they do the grafting of living beyond despair. The sickness that Medrano sniffs out in Wells is something we catch a whiff of on ourselves. The strength in Wells’ self-professed amateurity as a portrait-maker is that she lends herself as a confidant to the reader, and we trail beside her in a kind of sheepish comradery.
Only, her relatability has its limits. We didn’t all drop out of school as teenagers to enroll in a wilderness survival program and ‘learn the skills necessary to form egalitarian villages on the post-apocalyptic frontier’, where we practiced ‘a high-stepping trot through tall grass called the “deer run”’ and we don’t all know several people who have died falling from tree-sits, or have committed suicide from life sentences in jail for their environmental activism. Her environmentalism is that specifically West-American one of monkey-wrenchers and harsh penal consequences and survivalists of the gun-toting or dandelion-munching kind.
But what is resounding in Believers is its ‘central prophecy’: having reached a civilisational point of no return is our shared story. I may be adding to generational fixation on the part of Wells, presuming to be the only ones to have felt this way, but at large it does seem that GenX/Yers like Wells and myself have come into adulthood at a threshold: between a fringe of people professing the end of times, and “sixth mass extinction” finding its way into everyday conversation. We can’t help but look into the abyss and we might be tempted to give up to nihilism, sit back ‘crack foamies and watch TV all day’. Instead, the yearning Wells feels drags her and she resolves to find the people with the answer to the book’s central question — is there a story worth living into? What is it then? She is not a guide, so much as we are witness to this fervent quest to ‘come home’.
She follows Medrano and her Prairie Faeries — audaciously referring to themselves as ‘terraists’, sewing hillside graffiti with tags like THIS IS FOOD in edible tubers. She meets The Urban Scout, a ‘preemptive post-apocalyptic’ ancestral skills educator and street performer who lights passerbys’ cigs by bow-drill fire. Christians attempting to ‘rewild their religion’, who interpret the bible as ‘an argument against empire’ while practicing ‘watershed discipline’ and others ‘practising resurrection’ by converting vacant houses into homes with edible gardens, literally forging garden tools from molten amnesty guns. A transition town in New Mexico. An award winning professional tracker. An indigenous man practicing Restoration Ecology to bring back a meadow.
These are fascinating and redemptive communities and what unites these people, Wells realises, or perhaps projects, is that they are all ‘land tenders’ — humans who rather than let go of the world have grasped it tightly in their hands, getting involved, manipulating against the damages. Most moving is her conviction that her amiable Portuguese tracker Fernando Moreira is tenderly teaching the lost to find their way home via his tracking. ‘To track is to attend’ and the tracks themselves remind us that ‘All life marks and effects other life’. ‘Just thinking that way’ Wells says, ‘could make you feel less alone’. Like her subjects’ tender interventions on the land, Wells makes tender interventions on her subjects, as involved in her story-making as they are in their world-making. Her observations are often postulations; she confesses, ‘Fernando had no interest in what tracking had to say about the fundamental interconnectedness of life on earth’. It is moving because the will to conviction is so familiar; she is excellent at writing our contemporary craving for benediction.
Species that first populate a landscape after a disaster are referred to by ecologists by the latin rudera. Wells’ environmental forebears had their wildernesses: cathedrals, places for men to periodically worship as Muir said. But for us, wilderness is revealed as one lie born from another: of a cruel wild world, a capitalist fib to keep the masses from defecting from civilisation. Wells turns away from her younger idealism — the wilderness school wasn’t as she hoped, less egalitarian village building, more ‘lord of the flies’, where teenage boys in camo ‘leapt from hiding to drag red sharpies across one another’s throats’.
The Western environmental ethic is undergoing its own maturation (which is, Wells reminds us, going in directions that are not new but ancient and Indigenous) past the idealism of pure wilderness and leave-no-trace relation. Instead, Wells offers us these ruderary communities, leaving their traces in legacy, sifting through the rubble. Restoration is a ‘path back home’ offered to us all. Her adolescent search for a blueprint is our adolescent search; instead, ‘for every so-called end of the world, a thousand smaller worlds must be born’.
‘Believers’ is out now.