‘Earth’ is feminine in all the languages I know, and the deities of earth are goddesses. Earth, water, moon are goddesses, while air, fire, sun are gods, though there are exceptions, aspects of fire which are feminine, rain which is male when it fecundates earth. And for the Tibetans the sun is a goddess. Probably my identification of sun and sky above as male and the earth beneath as female stems from the Mediterranean tradition.

Earth is our mother. Earth is a woman, I am a woman and I identify with her. I feel her pain when she’s crushed and hacked at, and her teeming repose when she’s left to her own devices. I want to protect her, look after her, create with her.

It’s not rational, and it’s probably a kind of hubris, but I wanted to create a realm where she would be allowed to breathe and recover from overuse, where human intervention in her growth would be on lines she herself suggested and all signs of human presence would merge into her scenery without dissonance. The obsession remained with me a long time and cost me many opportunities for a more normal life, and relationships too.

I only understood quite late what I was trying to do; it was not a conscious decision. Maybe my sense of exile from a place I must try to recreate began in childhood, when I was taken away from my British countryside to suburban New Zealand. New Zealand’s landscape was and is marvelous in its own secretive, unpeopled way, but it never replaced to my senses and in my imagination the woods, fields and lanes, the flourishing, eccentric gardens of England and Wales. On a visit much later in life I was surprised in an old churchyard in Wales by an attack of uncontrollable sobbing at the loss of my birthright. Of course almost nothing of what I remember from that long ago childhood is left and none of it belongs to me.

The land itself pointed that out to me when on the same journey I climbed the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny. I set off in sunlight and as I approached the summit clouds came rushing up and it started to hail. I sat down anyway on the stone marker and ate the apple I had in my pocket, but looking round the whole wide view I realized I didn’t know the name of any other mountain, valley or even village. As soon as I started to descend the sun came out again. My old aunt, who prided herself on being a Celt, said “The mountain rejected you”.

Other places were kinder. I saw dragons on the rocks below the cliffs at Parrog. I went to look at the earthworks which are all that are left of my grandmother’s family’s ancestral castle at Nevern, and met a man measuring the vibes with a dowser. “Can you feel it?” he asked. “This is one of the two most evil places in the British Isles.” I didn’t hesitate to say I was a descendent of the Bowens. They were one of the West Wales families that never submitted to English rule, which I suppose is why they were given such a foul reputation. Rebelliousness and an attachment to earth seem to go a long way back in the family and I was happy to belong to their fierce company. After that I thought of the hail on the Sugar Loaf as a greeting from the mountain.

Anyway, England is far behind me now, except for sporadic visits to London which in recent years have made me realize more than anything else how poor I am on a European scale, though I’m not badly off in Venezuela.

My first bungled attempts to create an earthly paradise occurred in Tuscany. I escaped from New Zealand as soon as I had sat the final exams for my B.A., and after a couple of years hitchhiking round Europe and working in the winters in London (one year I made notes on Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and stuck them all over the walls of my small rented room), I decided to stop in Florence. I was lucky enough to find a job typing the diaries of Bernard Berenson, recently dead, at his splendid Villa I Tatti in Settignano, and should have settled down to enjoy the rest of my twenties without worries; but then I met José and life became a series of crises. I hardly remember a day spent with him without stress.

When we returned to Italy after the Venezuelan interlude, I bought with a small inheritance a stone farmhouse at Spazzavento, in the hills off the road from Florence to Pistoia. The house – two rooms downstairs, two up and a stable – was just right for our family of four and we had several hectares of land planted with olives and vines, which we kept up. There were other peasant houses nearby and woods behind. It should have been perfect, and it looked idyllic to envious visitors, but there was no peace for me.

I was lonely there. When I had to face the choices I’d made, I discovered I was not ready to give up other ambitions and other loves and settle down to being wife and mother in a secluded place. I wanted to write, and tried at odd moments to start a story, but I couldn’t concentrate; and I would have needed to think hard and long about where I wanted to go as a writer to produce anything worthwhile. I did catch a few poems. I daydreamed a lot of the time instead of being aware of my family and the beautiful place. José was similarly frustrated. After a while the money ran out and it became clear that one of us was going to have to go down and work; and since I had more opportunities, as a secretary-translator, and I still believed it was up to me to serve José’s talent (and that in time he would become successful and famous), it was me that went. That meant a long drive twice a day and returning late in the afternoon to find José in a bad mood because he hadn’t been able to work and the children miserable because he was impatient with them.

It took a couple of years for the situation to become unlivable, and then we had to go back to town. I sold the place so we could make a new start. It hurt and when I start to remember it still hurts.

And not only losing Spazzavento in the end. I regret not having lived it while I was there. I regret the kittens I drowned, days old already, because they seemed one thing too many to deal with; I regret the little donkey that stood so long in the stable while we just threw hay at it twice a day that the rope started to dig into its neck; I regret not being kinder to the children, specially my little girl, that I’d never had time with free of tension. I regret not making time to play with them and enjoy their childhood (I do remember walks together, with spring flowers and in autumn mud). I regret not realizing that their father was treating them far worse than I imagined. Now I’ve woken the memory again I want them back, I want all of it back, I want those years over again, and that can’t be. Who will forgive me, how can I ever be forgiven?


Spazzavento poems

This winter the cold
grows round me like a world
restored, the rain and leaves
falling spread certainties
mislaid, and the shifting sky
remembers even joy.

White on white
a pigeon sits
on piled snow.

Wine pours red
into clear glasses
and runs over.

A charred cauldron hisses
under blackened beams.

The stricken pig
bleeds on the snow
and squeals its life out.

Some kinds of rain
silver and tangy
make holes in mind.

The children float in their sleep.

Outlines waver
as men walk damp
streets between washed
rock walls.

Roots in me of
perennial dreams quicken
pushing up lyric images
to compete with daylight.

Spring is arriving.
Camouflaged in rain
and grey daylight signals
still prod. The war and
catastrophes everywhere can’t
quite contain hope –
the leaves will come at least
and to me a few poems
and José’s hay fever.

Mowing the grass again
I came on one of last year’s
thoughts under an olive,
and swung the sickle at him
and cut my finger.


A couple of years after José and I separated, I went (with the children) to live with a beautiful young man – a musician and ‘male muse’ – in a big old stone house he’d rented high on Monte Morello above Florence. The young man disappeared the afternoon I moved our things up there, saying he was going to buy a newspaper, and didn’t return till nearly a week later, after which he always came and went erratically, but his presence was less necessary than the place itself. The countryside was luminous, I worked on making the house comfortable inside its raw stone walls, people visited; the outline of a matriarchal haven was in place. Then I came home one day to find a dead bird on the front doorstep; apparently our free way of life was offensive to the peasant neighbors to the point where they would threaten us. And soon after the owner of the house came to say he had other plans for the place and we had a month to leave it.

The children and I were luckily able to return to the flat we’d had in town, but I felt displaced. While we were up on the hill, someone had given me an owl in a cage and someone else a python I kept in a Tuscan baker’s chest that opened at the top. It was as if my involvement with the goddess realm had attracted her emblems.  Both these creatures had to come to the apartment with me, and added to my sense of confinement and alienation. Perhaps I was a little mad at that point.

I was also very tired. I had to work harder and harder to keep up with the children’s needs and our expenses. I often worked at conferences or offices during the day and then translated till late into the night. I had a car crash, not my fault, that winter, and had to do all the shopping on a bicycle, while friends took the children to school. One day in the spring of 1974 I realized, quite suddenly and with a feeling of surprised release, that I couldn’t go on living in Italy. By the end of the year we’d moved to Venezuela and I’d been given a job at the Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida. I have to be grateful to that university. I worked there till I was sixty and retired, and it gave me a lot of free time and many chances to travel as well as a quite adequate salary, which continues to be paid as a pension.

One thought on “MY EARTH MYTH

  1. Rowena, it is wonderful to be able to read all your beautiful writing, in one place. Your stories are immensely moving. So lived, so raw, so intense, so wise and innocent at the same time. I am privileged to have had you cross my path. Hugs!

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