To Wales, with love: In the ‘The Long Field,’ Pamela Petro examines her ties to a corner of Britain 

  • Author Pamela Petro of Northampton, who also teaches writing at Smith College, talks about her new book, “The Long Field,” at her home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pamela Petro, author of “The Long Field,” a memoir that examines her long love affair with Wales, is seen here in her Northampton home with her one-year old dog, Topaz — appropriately, a Welsh Corgi. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pamela Petro of Northampton, who has written widely about Wales, has a new book out, “The Long Field,” a memoir and study of Welsh culture, history, and landscape. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “The Long Field,” published last fall in the United Kingdom, is “a literary Celtic knot of quite exquisite power,” as one reviewer puts it.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pamela Petro, author of “The Long Field,” holds her one-year-old Welsh Corgi, Topaz, at her Northampton home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pamela Petro with Dominic Williams, her co-director of the Dylan Thomas Summer School in creative writing in Wales. Both are made up with woad, which the ancient Celts reputedly wore in battle, Petro says. Image courtesy Pamela Petro

  • Pentre Ifan, a 5,500-year old dolmen in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Petro says she’d like her ashes scattered in the shadow of this Neolithic monument but that the scatterer “will have to wait for a rare, windless day.” Image courtesy Pamela Petro

  • Brecon Beacons National Park in southern Wales. Petro says she’s long been attracted to the long vistas over the ribboning, often treeless hills of Wales. Image courtesy Pamela Petro

  • Snowdonia National Park in northern Wales provides dramatic views of a storied land. CONTRIBUTED/PAMELA PETRO

  • Pamela Petro, left, and her partner, Marguerite Itamar Harrison, in Wales in 1988.  Image courtesy Pamela Petro

  • A section of primeval woodland in Pembrokeshire, a remnant of trees that once covered much more of Wales. Image courtesy Pamela Petro

Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2022 7:12:06 AM
Modified: 5/14/2022 7:10:17 AM

Nearly 40 years ago, Pamela Petro arrived in Wales to attend a master’s program on integrating words and images. In her classes, she examined everything from illuminated manuscripts to movies. She was a recent graduate of Brown University, where she had studied both writing and art as part of 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 many essays and pieces of journalism to her credit, and she’s also a photographer who earlier this year exhibited some of her work in the A.P.E. Gallery. But perhaps more than any of 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’s lived in Northampton since 2000, Petro has made more than 30 trips to Wales, written numerous travel articles about the country, and penned “Travels in an Old Tongue,” a book about Welsh speakers from around the world and her own efforts to learn this challenging language. But her newest book, “The Long Field,” is perhaps her ultimate tribute to what to her is a second home, even if she doesn’t live there.

“The Long Field,” which received much praise from reviewers in the United Kingdom when it was published last fall (by Little Toller Books), is a hard book to characterize. It’s part memoir, part selected study and observation of Welsh history and culture, and part travelogue.

Woven through the book, though, and loosely tying its various sections together, are Petro’s meditations on absence, loss, love, longing, and language — and how her studies in Wales ended up altering the trajectory of her life and redefining her 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 — one she made with her parents in 1983 as she readied for her classes at St David’s University College in the small town of Lampeter — gave her a sense that she knew this land in some intrinsic, unspoken way.

“All of it felt 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-tie place, my geological place.”

The Welsh word hiraeth (pronounced HERE-eyeth, Petro says) 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 more accurate definition is “being aware that something is missing in the present moment, something you yearn for in the future or that you miss from your past.”

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

The Welsh landscape of windswept, often treeless hills, mountains and fields has played a big role in her attraction to the country and her feelings of hiraeth, Petro said: “You have these long ribboning hills, with unobstructed views, which are analogous in some ways to hiraeth. You’re always looking forward to what’s over the next hill, the next horizon.”

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

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

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

Then came a strange experience when, arriving early for a visit to her mother in a Connecticut nursing home, she set out to walk around a pond near the facility, only to have a rather odd-looking elderly woman — not someone associated with the home, Petro says — lean out a car window and ask “Are you looking for Pam?”

Petro, confused, said “I am Pam,” to which the woman replied, “Well, Pam just came by and said she’d be out walking around the pond, picking up rocks…. If you hurry, you can catch her.”

Petro found no such person there, and when she came back from her walk, this other woman was gone. The encounter jolted her.

“I thought, ‘I have just walked into a metaphor. I am looking for me — I wanted to talk to my younger self … I am absent from a book about absence. I had to put myself into the book.’”

Where land and tale are entwined

That was a decisive turn, as Petro explores how she and Marguerite came together as young women, at a time when there was considerably less acceptance of same-sex couples (they had to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach with her mother and father, Petro writes). She also recounts surviving an Amtrak crash north of Baltimore in 1987 that killed 16 people and left her with serious physical injuries and emotional trauma that took months to heal.

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

And in the 19th century and even the early 20th century, schoolchildren who spoke Welsh in class would be caned and made 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 saw the region’s plentiful reserves as something to plunder, and generations of Welsh men did backbreaking, dangerous work. She revisits the disaster in the town of Aberfan in October 1966, when coal company negligence led to waste spoils piled above the town plunging downhill during a heavy rain, burying a village school; 144 people, most of them children, died.

But in the end, “The Long Field” is borne aloft on 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 into the land.

“In Wales, as in few other places I’ve lived or traveled, land and tale are indivisible,” she writes.

The book offers sparkling descriptions of that land. The grass in Welsh pastures “maybe because it’s usually wet and reflective ... burns with luminescence, as if it were a light source onto itself.” Faint, billowing mists, Petro writes, are Wales’ “particular speciality,” like “damp ghosts prowling the garden … busily, endlessly searching, this way and that, for whatever it was they left behind.”

There’s plenty of humor here, too, concerning things that don’t thrill her about Wales, like a lack of central heating in a damp place. Her partner, originally from sunny Brazil, found the Welsh climate wanting, too, during one visit in particular: “Marguerite asked if I could tell her, with a straight face, that the sun did actually shine in this miserable, God-forsaken place.”

Petro will head back to Wales at the end of the month to teach in a writing seminar, the Dylan Thomas Summer School, where she’s a co-director, and she says she’s also talking with some U.S. publishers about bringing out 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 her partner.

“We’re able to kind of triangulate between [Northampton], Wales, and Brazil, and I like that feeling of being in-between. But Wales will always be a central part of my life.”

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

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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