There’s no running water here.
I mean, I can’t find it.
I’ve always lived near running water.
That’s what I said to my tutor, attempting to explain why I had been so infused with misery whilst studying his course, and subsequently, why I’d failed it. I said it, and then I realised it was true. I hated living in that city. Or, I hated living, whilst I was in that city. But I never noticed why.
Earlier in life, I failed a module of Geography coursework. We’d been sent on a field trip to the parkland Malvern hills, asked to peg out squares of string and count the elements inside of them. Something to do with soil, I think. The weather was superb: blue sky, warmth, little jags of cloud. Everything was golden. Have you been to the Malvern Hills? They peal (like bells peal) out away from under your feet, swooping down greenly to the industrial spots below. Trees are short and thin but craggy, old, grass is short-clipped in that “sheep live here” way. Bilberries grow in little shrubby mats, and heather too, and their gnarled stems look like ancient roots. I’ll tell you who had been to the Malverns: Tolkien.
It was 2002 and I was pledged to The Lord of the Rings. My total lack of interest in the novels and the franchise, such as it was, was swept away with 2001’s Fellowship of the Ring. Sure, I watched it because Elijah Wood had been very compelling to my younger self in Flipper. But that curly mop & cheekbone combo wasn’t what drove me to read the trilogy six times between the releases of Fellowship and Two Towers. What was it? I didn’t ask.
I know what it was, now. It was the same as the reason why I produced no work on that Geography trip. And very little on the second, extra-curricular catch-up visit. It wasn’t the story, which is unforgivingly linear. It wasn’t the characters, who I’d be hard-pushed to describe outside of function. It wasn’t even the second-hand thrills of nobility of purpose, or deadly adventure. It was the extensive array of setting! It was the landscapes. It was the expansion of self that the evoked environments allowed me, the atomic wonder and dangerous, deep-down fizzing that sensing large-scale arenas causes. I dream of those stone kings standing watch over the Rauros falls. What drew me to The Lord of the Rings, over and over until the yearning felt wrong and dry, was freedom to roam in beauty. Natural seamlessly combined with nurtured, as far as the eye could see, and as far as the foot could take. “I am a hobbit”, I thought, instead of “there are four types of grass in this pegged square”. “This landscape tells me that I am a hobbit and I can walk as far as I need to, if I need to. But I can sit right here in the crook of this tree, if I like, too. I am a hobbit who doesn’t need to be in control of my life. I am an elf at one with the woods. And the air.” I breathed very deeply. I felt like I’d escaped at last. School? No! No thank you.
Only half of me is embarrassed that I wrote my elvish name, in elvish, with a biro on a piece of shed bark. I buried it with three feathers at the food of a silver birch, rowans at my back, and mulch scent in my nostrils. I was so fulfilled.
The peaceful, apparent necessity-to-me of this landscape I’d arrived in was not something I could bring myself to forsake. Categorising the elements of this extension of my inner self, to the specifications of a teacher who only wanted me to prove that I could do things that thousands of people before me had done too, for no reason beyond the formation of that proof, was not something I could understand. Break what I’ve only now found? The idea had no chance to compete. I wasn’t watching myself, so I didn’t know I was so burnt up with longing for environmental meditation. I was just “being”, blissful in my ignorance of what I was after, or why. I wasn’t aware that I was gulping down geography, holistically, (I thought I was gulping down “fandom”), because we don’t really talk about how scenery affects hearts and minds beyond the squarest, oldest ways. Those are rather forbidding, to a child who believes in Cool. I didn’t know what I was doing, I certainly couldn’t articulate my need to appreciate the landscape (ew, sad), and so I was unable to consider why other tasks — like doing my assigned, life-impacting, GCSE work — might hold importance of their own. I could not remove myself from the most immediate of perspectives. This is a facet of living with anxiety, but it’s also a symptom of intellectual stagnancy, or rust. If we don’t think about things, if we don’t make sure to notice the fabrics of our comfort, how can we acknowledge or address them when they’re under- or over-fed and causing us problems? The only choice becomes ignore my distress, as I did at university, or ignore the rest, as I did at school. Neither works. They both just make you crazy. If you’re crazy, you’re a harsh environment for yourself.
Perhaps a lot of us are better on the ball than I am, or with the mental make-up to avoid a battering by environmental sensitivity. Nevertheless, environments are used in stories, often, and just like a psyche a story relies upon the factors of its scaffold. I didn’t understand me because I’d wasn’t paying attention. Can you understand a story, fully, if you don’t pay attention? Can you appreciate it as well as you might? I grew up walking, with no obstacle, to a grass-banked stream or river on a whim, whenever I felt like it. I didn’t pay attention to how accustomed I was to it — I fell into misery for missing it, with not a clue that a thing was missing at all. Do you get all a fiction is offering if you don’t consider the choice of environment? The weather, landscape, season, fertility, that its people inhabit and interact with. Consider the focus of my last piece at Loser City: Top of the Lake, set in a place called Laketop, where half the story or more couldn’t function without the wilds of New Zealand mountain forests. You could tell a story about a runaway girl in a city. You could tell thousands. But you couldn’t tell Top of the Lake. What if Tui was found ready to walk into traffic? What if there was no lake there at all, just an empty, dry gravel pit? Would the tension stay balanced? Would the sound texture change? How much worse would it feel to watch?
Comics reader. Tell me how Scott Summers would have dealt with the loss of Phoenix without the open Bermuda seas or the snowy fields of Alaska. Tell me how Supreme: Blue Rose would have made malignant, abortive realities seem dreamy without drawing the scratches into the air? Would Billy Johnson and His Duck Are Explorers work better for you if they ran through an identifiable lost culture’s ruins? Would you rather read The Walking Man if it was set in your home town? Does Doll: The Hotel Detective actually rely upon the unique physical vagaries of hotels and their impact upon the service industries?
Don’t sweat it, actually! I am fully planning to tell you about these things. I hope you’ll be listening. What kind of chair will you be in?
Claire Napier is the rock that drops on your head; she’s known for giving bad men bad looks. This is the first in a series of writings Loser City is sponsoring. If you like Claire’s writing, you can find more of it at Women Write About Comics, where she is the Features and Opinions Editor. Want to support Claire’s awesome writing? Check out her Patreon or get at her on Twitter at @illusclaire.