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Heart Stood Still by Miriam Sharland

Miriam Sharland felt unsettled, although she had lived and worked in New Zealand for 17 years. She was making plans to fly back home to England for good when suddenly and unexpectedly, in 2020, Covid made travel impossible. In Heart Stood Still, her eco-memoir, she recounts how having to stay put for another year in her house in the Manawatū, changed her life. 

Covid caused me to pause. I’d never considered myself part of nature-never, really, stopped to consider myself at all: I was too busy moving forwards, or sideways, or backwards, rather than just stopping and looking at where I was now.

In Māori history, an explorer called Hau first beheld the mighty Manawatū river. Its beauty took his breath away and his heart stood still (in te reo heart is manawa, tū is stand). Hence the title of her book. But it is also a metaphor for Miriam’s own journey. To fill the hours, she spent much of that year walking and cycling her way around the Manawatū. In lyrical prose she artfully tells how she stopped and really looked closely for the first time at the fauna, the flora and the landscape. It made her deeply appreciative of the beauty of the natural environment, of how fragile our ecosystem is and how we must fight to protect it.

Heart Stood Still is a series of personal essays that follow the four seasons. Autumn is about soil, fungi, and fruit. In winter, the focus is on water, stars, and stone. Then comes Spring with blossom, birds, and wind. Finally, in summer, trees, weeds and insects are featured. Into her narrative, she has also skillfully woven memories of her English childhood, historical anecdotes, and Māori stories.

Wary of catching COVID-19 at the supermarket, she strives to become more self-sufficient. She becomes an enthusiastic organic vegetable gardener, forages for mushrooms, and collects windfall fruit. In the Pātaka kai ( community pantry), where locals generously share their surplus produce, she reciprocates by sharing hers. Although she lives alone, she feels supported by her community.

After reading about insect Armageddon, her desire to protect insects grows apace. She decides to stop mowing her front garden to create a wild area as a haven for insects, although she does draw a line when there is an ant invasion in her house.

At the end of the year, she is free to fly back to England but the chance to explore her local area has awakened her to its beauty and fostered her sense of belonging here too.

She reflects on how earlier that year, she had gone to view the feeding grounds of the kuaka/godwits in the Manawatu River Estuary, who every year fly non-stop from their breeding grounds in Alaska to Aotearoa to escape the harsh Northern winter. The godwits would be leaving soon too. But they would be back. They belonged to two places. Could that be the way she could live, too?

As I followed her on her journey, I was captivated by the way she looked so mindfully at the trees, the birds, and the landscape, and how much this lifted her spirits and was an antidote to the unhappiness and loneliness she initially felt during lockdown.

It also made me want to revisit the Manawatū region and discover some of the hidden gems she describes, such as the Massey Arboretum.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Otago University Press       



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