Miriam Lancewood tells how an early adventure with her mother lit a fire in her heart, and led her to an unconventional life in the wilds of the South Island of New Zealand.
I think I was about six or seven years old when I had my mother just for myself for one night. My father took care of my sisters and while all the other children were at school that Wednesday morning, my mum and I were striding out of our little village – past the old church and past the school-square where the leaves of the big old oaks were slowly turning a beautiful red colour. All our camping gear for the night was in a cart with four wheels, which we pulled behind us – over the narrow asphalt road between acres of freshly plowed dark fertile Dutch soil, where the corn had just been harvested. Grey clouds were gathering and the first drops were falling heavily on my yellow hat.
‘Mama, it’s going to rain,’ I said, worried.
She looked down at me with an amused smile. ‘We have a raincoat, we have a tarp over the cart, and we are not made of sugar, are we?’ She laughed at my worried face.
In the afternoon, blisters made walking painful for me, so my mother lifted me on top of the wagon and I had a free ride while she pulled the heavy cart behind her. I looked at the back of her muscled calves. ‘I hope I never will get such big calves as you, mama! They look like balloons. They might pop one day!’ She laughed so hard, she had to stop walking. ‘Don’t you worry, little Miriam, one day you will have exactly the same legs as I have!’
In the late afternoon we saw in the distance a flock of geese. In a perfect V-shape they were gliding through the air. The northern wind carried their soft honks towards us. ‘Look, they’re migrating, they’re leaving Holland!’ mum exclaimed. Her hand was shielding her eyes from the lowering sun. ‘Where are they going?’ I asked. ‘They’re flying south to Africa, where it’s warmer.’
‘Are there mountains in Africa?’ ‘Yes, on some parts on the coast.’ ‘I want to go to Africa too! But you’ll have to come too, will you come, mama?’ ‘I promise I’ll visit wherever you go, okay?’
In the late afternoon we reached a quiet, unsupervised government campground on conservation land. We roamed the forest for some branches, to light a small fire. ‘Are we allowed a fire, mama?’ I asked wearily. ‘We might burn the forest down!’ ‘Oh, look how wet everything is!’ she replied with a grin. ‘Don’t be so scared, liefke. There are just too many rules in the world, if you are going to follow every one of them, you’ll die of boredom.’ ‘You surely can’t die of boredom, can you?’ ‘Yes, you can, and that would be a very sad and unnecessary death.’ ‘Are there no medicines for it?’ ‘I don’t know. Maybe lighting a fire is a good medicine. It will chase all the bad spirits away.’
The forest was silent and it felt as if we were alone in the entire world. In between dark trees, we could see many swift bats darting from tree to tree. When we grew cold, we crawled into our sleeping bags. ‘Are you warm enough?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Oh, I like this so much; walking with all our gear and camping with you in this tent.’ ‘So do I,’ she replied. ‘It’s so enjoyable – so simple.
The next morning we began our return journey, and the day after I was back in school with the normal routine. These yearly treats in the autumn were an experience never to be forgotten. My mother’s love for nature and simple living became mine from an early age. Her enthusiasm and energy, I seem to have inherited too.
Like the geese, I left Holland when I was old enough, and it was in India where I met a courageous New Zealander. Since the day I met him, we have lived an authentic and free life. Peter carried me into the unknown, and helped me to see what doors would open if we trust our intuition and randomness.
In the last six years we have lived in the wilderness of New Zealand. We are moving around nomadically, sleeping in a tent or small hut, cooking on a fire, and I’ve learned how to hunt wild animals for food. Our life in the wilderness is slow and every task takes time. A simple cup of tea requires collecting wood, lighting a fire, water from the river and waiting for it to boil. Yet all these daily chores are enjoyable and make our life rewarding.
Together we live spontaneously, without diaries and calendars, clock, or days of the week – these feel to me as though the future is already predetermined and imprisoned. I have learned to choose freedom and embrace insecurity, and to let go of fears that make me want to control the natural flow of life.
Without electronic distractions, there is much time for contemplation. For me, nature is like a clear mirror; it has shown me who I am – including my anxiety, fears and restless, disturbed mind. In this timeless world I see that in the eyes of death, there’s no security to be found in possessions, in money, people, family or society. I have learned that there’s only security in the Living. Nature is the living. It is also the real world in which we were all born. The wilderness is the world of order, and by living peacefully in the purity of nature, the mind slows down, heals, becomes flexible, learns how to endure, and learns how to love.
In my book Woman in the Wilderness I have told the story of our years in the mountains of New Zealand. I’ve described our adventures, the beautiful days and the ugly moments, the joy and fear, the endless rain and blue skies that follow, and the wonderful meetings with people we met in the wilderness.
For every cup of tea I have to light the fire. I begin with some grass and little twigs. Slowly the flame becomes stronger and catches on bigger branches. Then the heart of the fire establishes: the fire gives warmth and light and becomes a joyful companion. Maybe, if you read this book, you too will feel this fire in your heart and want to step out of the known, and into the unknown.
Watch Miriam discuss her book with The Morning Show here, and hear a discussion of her fascinating story on Conversations with Richard Fidler:
Watch Miriam Lancewood introduce her book below: