In ‘The Long Field’, Pamela Petro examines her ties to a corner of Britain

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Almost 40 years ago, Pamela Petro arrived in Wales to complete a masters program in the integration of words and images. In her classes, she examined everything from illuminated manuscripts to films. She had recently graduated from Brown University, where she had studied both writing and art in a self-designed major, and she wanted to build on that.

Today Petro, who lives in Northampton, is an established writer with a number of books and numerous essays and journalism to her credit, and she is also a photographer who earlier this year exhibited some of her work at the APE gallery. But perhaps more than all that, she is a certified Cambrophile: Wales has changed who she is and given her, as she puts it, “a sense of my place on the planet”.

A New Jersey native who has lived in Northampton since 2000, Petro has made over 30 trips to Wales, written numerous travel articles about the country and authored ‘Travels in an Old Tongue’, a book about Welsh speakers around the world. whole and his own efforts to learn this difficult language. But her latest book, “The Long Field,” is perhaps her ultimate tribute to what she considers a second home, even though she doesn’t live there.

“The Long Field”, which received high praise from critics in the UK when it was released last fall (by Toller’s little books), is a difficult book to characterize. It is part memoir, part selected study and observation of Welsh history and culture, and part travelogue.

However, Petro’s meditations on absence, loss, love, longing and language are woven through the book and loosely connect its various sections – and how his studies in Wales ended up altering the trajectory of his life and redefining his idea of ​​home. .

In a recent interview, Petro, who also teaches creative writing at Smith College and Lesley University, described how her first trip to Wales – the one she took with her parents in 1983 when she was preparing for her classes at St David’s University College in the small town of Lampeter – gave her the feeling that she knew this land in an intrinsic and unspoken way.

“It was all comfortable,” she said. “I saw it in the landscape, I felt it in the history I was beginning to learn, and after that Wales became my place…my deep place, my geological place.”

The Welsh word Hiraeth (pronounced HERE-eyeth, says Petro) has no exact English translation but is roughly equivalent to “homesickness”. Petro notes that a more literal translation of Hiraeth means “long field”, but explains that the most accurate definition is “to be aware that something is missing in the present moment, something that you aspire to in the future or that you miss in your past”.

Hiraeth is a central theme of “The Long Field”, as is another Welsh word, cynefin (pronounced kun-EV-in, says Petro), which describes the feeling that you somehow know a place even though you’ve never been there before. Petro has known both Hiraeth and cynefin in Wales, and her book is in part an attempt to explain how this particularly wet little corner of Britain, where sheep outnumber people, evoked both feelings in her.

The Welsh landscape of windswept and often treeless hills, mountains and fields played a big part in his attraction to the country and his sense of Hiraeth, Petro said: “You have these long, ribbon-like hills, with open views, which are analogous in some respects to Hiraeth. You always look forward to what happens on the next hill, the next horizon.

Tying all of these different parts together is a challenge, and as such, “The Long Field” doesn’t offer a conventional narrative. It goes back and forth in time between young and adult Pam Petro, exploring her youth in Verona, New Jersey, just outside of New York, and her relationship with her longtime partner, Marguerite Itamar Harrison, a teacher of Portuguese and Brazilian studies. to Smith.

Different threads and eclectic tangents can emerge in each chapter. In one, Petro examines “The Mabinogion”, a series of seminal Welsh folk tales from the 12th-13th centuries. Then she draws connections between a particular tale about an ancient Welsh kingdom, Dyfed, which mysteriously disappears, and memories of her childhood misfortune that evidence of Native Americans who once lived in what became her hometown had long since been swept away.

Petro says she started “The Long Field” around 2012, developing it from an earlier essay, and originally conceived it as “a book for Americans about Wales “, which would include first-person narration but nothing deeply personal. But in 2016 she said: “I was at a crossroads…Everyone was saying ‘You have to be in the book’, but I was resisting it.”

Then came a strange experience when, having arrived early to visit her mother at a nursing home in Connecticut, she set out for a walk around a pond near the facility, only to be met by a rather odd elderly woman – not someone. an associate in the house, Petro says – lean out of a car window and ask, “Are you looking for Pam?

Petro, confused, said “I a m Pam,” to which the woman replied, “Well, Pam just passed by and said she would be out walking around the pond, picking up rocks…. If you hurry, you can catch up with her.

Petro found no such person there, and when she returned from her walk, this other woman was gone. The meeting upset her.

“I thought, ‘I just got into a metaphor. I’m looking for myself — I wanted to speak to my younger self… I’m absent from a book about absence. I had to put myself in the book.

Where land and story are intertwined

It was a turning point, as Petro explores how she and Marguerite met as young women, at a time when same-sex couples were considerably less accepted (they had to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell ” approaches with his mother and father, writes Petro). She also recounts surviving an Amtrak crash north of Baltimore in 1987 that killed 16 people and left her with severe physical injuries and emotional trauma that took months to heal.

Feeling herself on the fringes of society only brought her closer to Wales, writes Petro, given the country’s “outsider” status for centuries as a virtual colony of England. From the 1500s, Welsh was banned from courtrooms and other government places; until the mid-1960s, road signs were only in English.

And in the 19th century and even into the early 20th century, schoolchildren who spoke Welsh in class were caned and had to wear a wooden sign around their necks labeled ‘WN’ (Welsh Not).

Petro also explores the harsh history of coal mining in Wales, in which England viewed the region’s abundant reserves as something to plunder, and generations of Welsh men did back-breaking and dangerous work. She looks back at the Aberfan town disaster in October 1966, when a coal company’s negligence led to rubbish piled high above the town plunging downhill during heavy rain, burying a school of town; 144 people, mostly children, died.

But in the end, ‘The Long Field’ is carried by Petro’s evocation of the Welsh landscape and climate, the independence and spirit of its people, and the way its history and stories are woven together. In the ground.

“In Wales, like few other places I have lived or travelled, land and storytelling are inseparable,” she writes.

The book offers sparkling descriptions of this land. Welsh pasture grass “perhaps because it is usually moist and reflective … burns with luminescence, as if it were a source of light upon itself”. The light, billowing mists, writes Petro, are the “particular specialty” of Wales, like “damp ghosts prowling the garden… actively, ceaselessly seeking, this way and that, whatever they left behind”.

There’s also a lot of humor here, about things she’s not passionate about in Wales, like the lack of central heating in a damp place. Her partner, from sunny Brazil, also found the Welsh climate lacking on one particular visit: “Marguerite asked me if I could tell her, without laughing, that the sun actually shines in this miserable god-forsaken place. . .”

Petro will return to Wales at the end of the month to teach at a writing seminar, the Dylan Thomas Summer School, where she is co-director, and she says she is also talking to some US publishers about the release of an American edition of “The Long Field.

Would she want to live in Wales full time, if she and Marguerite could make it work financially and socially? Not really, says Petro, who has also been to Brazil with his partner.

“We are able to triangulate between [Northampton], Wales and Brazil, and I love that feeling of being in between. But Wales will always be a central part of my life.

More information about Pamela Petro and “The Long Field” can be found at pamelapetro.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected]


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