I grew up in Greater London, on the edge of Epping forest. In those precious years of early childhood, when the imagination is blooming, I had free rein to roam the forest floor, treetops and fields. I was the barefoot Boudica of my own imaginary Queendom. Unshackled by any notion of neatly dressed, frilly femininity, I was encouraged by both parents to lose myself in the wild world while the landscape of my own internal world, the narrative of who I would be, was newly forming.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that twenty years later I find myself in an ongoing love affair with travel and exploration. In the same way in which kittens will bat and tumble one another in practice for the alpha dominance of adulthood, my newt-hunting in the shrubbery and scaling of oak trees has prepared me for a life of seeking meaning in new cultures and indulging my curiosity. Once upon a time I infused the seemingly-limitless scenery of the woodlands with stories of adventure and magic, but even now I find that there are channels of creativity in me which I only have access to when I am immersed in nature.
In fact, for a long time I didn’t think of myself as a creative person at all. Throughout my teens and into my early twenties, I studied and worked and lived in cities. I immersed myself, instead, in the comforting hive of humanity, the glorious tributes to imagination found in the architecture of cathedrals and modern medicine. I found a sense of belonging in the collective effervescence of nightclubs. It wasn’t until I decided to take a year out at 24, a break from a career which would otherwise have seen me burn out spectacularly, that I visited South America for the first time and found myself barefoot in the wilderness once again.
On one of my first long-distance bus trips, an experience which I had anticipated being a torturous test of patience, I had a moment of revelation. It was night time and we were somewhere deep in the state of Parana, the darkness outside the window was so absolute that the sky was a luminous complex of galaxies and with both seats to myself I lay down, my toes on the cool glass, and watched myself paddle in them as we flew across the country. All that night, wide awake, high on the lucidity and the strangeness of thoughts which came flooding through my mind, I remembered that once I had lived a life which was bound, body and soul, to the earth. I remembered that biology was not just a subject I had studied, not just a career I had chosen for the intellectual stimulation, but instead that biology in every magnitude is a spiritual interaction with the very essence of life. A born atheist, I had always felt myself to have a strong sense of faith in the ultimate progress of existence, but I had struggled to define what I meant by that, even to myself. Until, that is, I felt the sublime divinity in surrendering myself, quietly, to the great outdoors.
That’s when I began writing again. In Latin America and Asia I came to love those long bus journeys so much that I would become sad when twenty hours had passed and I knew I only had two more to go. Even when I returned to London, I would keep a notepad close to hand and when I was on the nightbus or the tube, trailing half-sentences would drift into my mind, gifted to me by the Gods of creativity. Movement had become my muse.
Now, I live on the road. I left home indefinitely nearly two years ago and have been travelling ever since, from New York to Costa Rica in a battered van named Serena and now around Australia’s vast continent in her junk-yard foster sister, Allegra. It is a land abundant in wide horizons. Nearly three decades and ten thousand miles from when I began my life, I have learned to start journeys differently. I settle into the stilling of my limbs and give my mind all the space within sight to open into. I find that when I lay out whatever I am contemplating along the ridges of distant mountains, pour it into their valleys, I am able to work through it creatively, whatever it is, as we descend and ascend and traverse the ridges which hold it. I have learnt about the fleeting nature of my own moods and burdens by watching tropical storms gather from obscure smudges of rain-threatening grey to huge, howling, sun-darkening entities which barrel towards us as we barrel towards them. To pass through and realise their impermanence is exquisitely empowering.
I have discovered, as I have travelled across this beautiful planet, that in the same way in which light energy becomes food which fuels our bodies kinetically, there is an organic creativity in the world which nourishes me and keeps my pen in motion. To think that rampant imaginations are something we grow out of in childhood is akin to saying we grow out of our sweet tooth, when in fact we simply realise as adults that it’s best not to eat bourbons for supper. But there’s an evolutionary reason why we crave sweetness- it’s so that if we pass a bush heavy with berries, we don’t miss the opportunity to fill our bellies with abundant, calorific fruit. Well our imaginations, too, are senses, innate and undeniable. We use them not just to interpret the world as it is but to dream up the world we wish to inhabit or, if we’re lucky, to create unique realms in our minds which when shared offer others the chance to escape there. The apple which hit Newton on the head and supposedly inspired him to theorise gravity was not only acting according to the laws of physics, but also the universal law of creativity.
Maybe one day I will want to put down roots in one place and draw up fresh ideas from whatever well I find there, maybe not. Maybe I will always feel most grounded when I am transient, eyes as wide as the horizon, waiting with all the time in the world for words and paragraphs to wing past so I can catch their tails and wrestle them onto the page.
Jane Hopkinson is a writer, scientist and traveller. She is currently developing a range of eco-friendly products. Check them out @bornandbounduk on Instagram.