Saturday, 14 March 2015

Kei Miller - The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

A new collection by Jamaican poet Kei Miller; a dialogue between a map-maker, seeker of rational order and cartographical truth, and a rastaman, for whom the landscape, its names and landmarks weigh heavy with history, sufferation and spiritual hope.

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (extract)

The cartographer:
... My job is to untangle the tangled,
to unworry the concerned ...

The rastaman:
... the mapmaker's work is to make visible
that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquest of pirates, like borders,
like the viral spread of governments.

The cartographer:
... No - what I do is science. I show
the earth as it is, without bias ...
... I aim to show the full
of a place in just a glance.

The rastaman:
... draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw you a map of what you never see
and guess me who's map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?

What the Mapmaker Ought to Know

On this island things fidget.
Even history.
The landscape does not sit
as if behind an easel
holding pose
waiting on
to pencil
its lines, compose
its best features
or unruly contours.
Landmarks shift,
become unfixed
by earthquake
by landslide
by utter spite.
Whole places will slip
out from your grip.

Miller, K, 2014. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Carcanet.


Burning Spear - Slavery Days:

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Light the paths you want to roam

Well I'm going

Back to the country

Up on the mountains

Up on the rising side

(Street Song - Thirteenth Floor Elevators)

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake

I've recently watched A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, Jeroen Berkvens' 2002 documentary that I came across via the Dangerous Minds web site. Like his music its gentle and melancholic, with contributions from his family, friends and fellow musicians. One key voice is Joe Boyd, who produced all three of Drake's albums, the meagre sales of which on release surely contributed to his untimely death at the age of 26. In his memoir of the folk-rock scene of the late 60s and 70s, White Bicycles, Boyd asks: "As the sixties drew to a close, who would have predicted that the end of the millennium would see Nick's music so much more prominent than that of the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, John Martyn or Sandy Denny?"    

I was particularly taken by the opening aerial footage of the countryside around his home village of Tanworth-in-Arden. For some reason it had not occurred to me before that this was only a few miles westwards across Warwickshire from Kenilworth, the town where I spent my childhood. Warwickshire is one of those Midland England counties that its easy to overlook: overawed and torn asunder by Birmingham and Coventry at its northern edge, in the shadow of Costwoldian Arcadia to the south. But linger along its tree lined lanes, forded streams, stout middling sort farmsteads and undulating fieldscapes and Warwickshire is quietly memorable and substantial, much like Nick Drake's music. This is, after all, the Forest of Arden of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Here is the full 48 minute film to enjoy:

Rob Young articulates well why Drake has such a hold on those of us (legion now, sadly pitifully few when he was alive) who find his music a particular touchstone for English pastoral melancholia in his treatise on Albion's soundscape, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music:
"A former friend and musical partner, Ross Grainger, described Drake as a 'modern pagan' long after his death, recalling conversations about Gaia theory, Stonehenge, ley lines and supernatural forces. Drake's songs may be full of natural images - rain, sun, moon, sky, ocean, sand, trees, roses, thorns etc. - but nature was no panacea either. For Drake, human fate was linked to the relentless round of the seasons - summer bliss must shade into autumnal age and regret; then comes the killing winter. His songs trace eternal cycles, natural revolutions, the turning of the year and the seasons, but with an awareness that repetitive motion can become a treadmill."  

At some stage, when I have managed to justify the outlay as necessary cultural enrichment, I hope to buy a copy of Nick Drake: Remembered For a While, the recently published Drake compendium and artifact. Andrew Ray provides a good flavour of the book on the Some Landscapes blog.

In the meantime, here's a mystical, bosky version of The Cello Song, recorded for the John Peel 'Night Ride' session in August 1969, in which to bask and be transported to the Forest of Arden at dusk, in the company of Orlando and Rosalind, Corin and Silvius:

Monday, 16 February 2015

Towards a new landscape aesthetic

"There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts.  ... my body has to be on the move to set my mind going ... to free my spirit, to lend a greater boldness to my thinking, to throw me, so to speak, into the vastness of things." Jean-Jacques Rousseau  
If I was to sketch out a day spent engaging with landscape and place to realise a wide range of phenomenological experiences and responses of mind, body and spirit - maximum topography - how would it look? Well, in the spirit of Rousseau, it would be an excursion on foot of course (if lacking the epicness of Werner Herzog's trek from Munich to Paris as chronicled in Of Walking in Ice, the ethos of letting oneself drift, 'a falling forward becomes a Walk', would be the same). But not just any walk, variety and unpredictability would be the key. So maybe it would commence in an urban setting; the grittier the better, with the right mix of post-industrial decay and renewal and diverse architectural styles, juxtaposed with a sheen of surface functional banality to expertly peel back, revealing the layered temporal stories behind the bland facade. A detour would be made into a stalwart and defiantly Amazon-baiting second-hand bookshop with a capacious 'topography' section and a number of musty volumes purchased, something antiquarian, something to saviour from the 60's or 70's and a long lost nature writing classic. City would morph into country as suburb, urban green space and anarchic edgeland are navigated - both a route-march along a harsh, litter-strewn and anti-pedestrian roadside and a meander through an oasis of unexpectedly lush and mysterious greenery would feature in this liminal, transitional phase.

As the countryside authentica is reached, guidebook spoon feeding would be disdained in favour of more spontaneous route-finding, perhaps using an antique Ordnance Survey map and attempting to trace nineteenth century topography on the ground. Along the way some reminders of harsh rural realities would no doubt be observed: a sighting of baseball-capped men digging for badgers, improbable fly-tipping, maybe a suspicion of dogging. But a number of viscerally profound moments would also be experienced. Catching the eye of a fox or deer and joining in a lingering stock-still stare. Sensing lives lived and gone whilst rooting around a ruined farmstead or water mill, where unidentifiable rusted ironware or the colours of a cracked tile become refracted relict reminders of the past. A feeling of magic in the air as wind and light switch and shift, changing the mood of the tree- and field-scape. As the gloaming hour approaches and fatigue sets in, having clambered up a rocky stream-bed and scrambled through holloway undergrowth in Rogue Male style, a hill-top clearing would be chanced upon with views over several counties as shadows lengthen across endless fields, as pylons and rail lines and infrastructure become magical objects of gaze. A good place for a night's wild camp. Sleep would be fitful, muffled nocturnal (spectral?) sounds invading thoughts of the day's encounters, accompanied by a soundtrack of wyrd-folk, pastoral electronica and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and readings from Reliquiae (a journal of old and new work spanning landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism). 

During the walk ambulatory clear-headedness would provide space for musing on a range of landscape-related topics whilst the miles were clocked-up: the links between the Parliamentary enclosure of common land and present day urban-rural division, how is an innate knowledge of fungi and wild flowers achieved, would Edward Thomas have favoured Nick Drake or the Incredible String Band, and such like. Along the way observations, smart phone photographs of arresting or unusual features and vistas and appropriate quotes from the landscape canon would be tweeted to an eclectic and discerning band of followers; observations and visual representations of the day to be later blogged or instagramed and debated on-line, perhaps included in a talk at a left-field festival, conference or pub social, or even forming part of the content of a crowd-funded book.

What would this mash-up journey into landscape immersion represent? Would it just be the ploughing of a mildly eccentric lone furrow? Creating an irrelevant line made by walking in the spirit of Richard Long, ephemeral self-indulgence whilst the real heft of landscape discourse and reality swells elsewhere: local campaigners mobilising against unbidden corporate uniformity or statist grand plans; photogenic academics revealing the results of their research through television series and tie-in book; exciting plans underway for the return of the wolf and rewilding nirvana; hip new ruralista's setting up boutique bunkhouses, offering foraging before breakfast, coasteering followed by artisan bread, craft ale and star gazing. Would this be just another example of a wannabe Self or Sinclair, strong on effort and perspiration but lacking their esoteric vocabulary or ecstatic sneer?

Or is there something in the wind, a fresh approach that this imaginary excursion partly encapsulates and, in fact, also links the other activities cited above. Perhaps not new ideas or concepts (the basics were all birthed in ancient Greece or long before), nothing that could be labelled a movement or a philosophy (the times are too post-modern for anything so quaint); but maybe an emerging coalescing - an alliance - of varied ways of thinking about, of looking at, of experiencing our spatial surroundings; their past, present and future. An antidote to the narrow focus that has often been the Achilles heel of much landscape discourse, characterised by a lack of cross-fertilisation between different disciplines and areas of interest (and often the absence of a feel for the range of emotions that being out in a landscape triggers). An echo of the view of Christopher Milne, searching for a personal philosophy and to find his own path away from his famous father’s shadow as outlined in The Hollow on the Hill, taking a lead from Richard Jefferies who “could be on one occasion the naturalist, observing and recording, and on another occasion the philosopher-poet, sensing and dreaming. One does indeed need to be both, for the one complements and enhances the other”. 

If there is the prospect here of a new aesthetic approach to landscape, then its worth pondering what components, however tangentially, combine to provide its origins, form and quintessence; to trace the foci and ley-line linkages (and talking of the ley, Alfred Watkin's The Old Straight Track (1925) is an example of what we are getting at here. The central ley lines theory of the book is eccentric, discredited, farcical - but that's not the point. As Robert Macfarlane's introduction to the 2014 edition unfurls "... the ley vision - with its mixture of mysticism, archaeology and sleuthing - re-enchanted the English landscape, investing it with fresh depth and detail, prompting new ways of looking and new reasons to walk").

“With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct but all suddenly present.” Raymond Williams
Interestingly, to discover this new vista it is necessary to go back, back to multiple pasts. Landscape as a mirror for reflecting on humanity's relationship with and manipulation of the natural world has deep antecedents; and its the mingling of these temporal layers of envisioning that is of interest here. The late 1960's and early 1970's seem to be a particular touchstone, a launching off point for a more eclectic approach to landscape; and not, I think, just thought of as such because I was born in the midst of this period and have nostalgia pangs for a time that never was as golden as it seems from this distance (my earliest memories of sitting in sunlit meadows are untroubled by the realities of Enoch Powell and industrial strife). Of course, this was a time of seismic societal change in culture, politics and economics, in the way people lived. And contemporary representations and responses to landscape and sense of place reflected this, though at the time without any conscious esprit de corps or awareness of common threads or interest. 

By way of illustration a seemingly amorphous and random collection of landscape aesthetics from the period might include: the sense and scenes of a decaying industrial infrastructure central to films such as Get Carter (1971) and Kes (1969); John Betjeman's televised elegies, in the teeth of the march of modernity, to disappearing or seemingly threatened features of England's architecture and landscape, typified by A Bird's Eye View (1964-1969) and Metro-land (1973); a triptych of cult folk-horror films, reinterpreting themes of a rural pagan past: Witchfinder General (1968), Blood On Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973); an empathetic, ecologically aware, less sentimental and more anthropomorphic engagement with nature as exemplified by the writings of Richard Mabey and J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine (1967); a new and more accessible discipline of landscape archaeology emerging from its high academia landscape history and historical geography roots, with practitioners such as Mick Aston and Christopher Taylor keen to range between study and field; the pastoral folk rock and psych-folk stylings of the likes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Incredible String Band, Waterson-Carthy, Shirley Collins and Vashti Bunyan; and, of course, foregrounded at this time was a general back to the land, 'good life' strand of counter-cultural hippiedom. All are examples of reinterpretation or reappropriation of the past in a time of great change, sometimes in a somewhat reactionary or idealistic way, often breaking new ground.

It is perhaps only with the passing of time that the paths between these varied perspectives can be navigated and identified as a loose network; a pattern that can be plotted and pieced to provide some kind of cohesive narrative. And a rich seam revealed at the heart of this new landscape vision is the heuristic weirdness just below the surface of even everyday and seemingly tamed terrain - Deep England (and Deep Wales, Deep Ireland, Deep Scotland, and, well, Deep anywhere). Back to the 70's polestar and two cultural artifacts, from many examples, serve to illustrate. The 1974 BBC Play For Today Penda's Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, is now much exalted, talked and written about; remarkably so given that it is not available on DVD and so rarely seen. A British Film Institute release with comprehensive and thoughtful accompanying booklet has become de rigueur for such treasures and will surely come. In the meantime impatience has been salved by the publication of a pamphlet, The Edge is Where the Centre Is, marking a rare screening of the film in 2014 on the anniversary of the death of the Ango-Saxon King Penda in AD 655. Found within is a synopsis of the story by Rudkin himself, which could serve to represent and encapsulate many of the themes essayed here:
"In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, a clergyman's son, in his last days at school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away - his parentage, his nationality, his sexuality, his conventional patriotism and faith...
Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills, he has encounters with an angel, and with a demon, with the ghost of Elgar, the crucified Jesus, and with Penda, England's last pagan king. In the final image, he turns away from his idealised landscape, to go into a world and adulthood with a value-system more anarchistic now, and readier to integrate the contradictions of experience."
David Gladwell's film, Requiem For A Village (1975) has received the BFI treatment. As with Penda's Fen, and with echoes of William Blake and William Morris, Requiem is a meditation on societal change in the countryside that combines, in Rob Young's words, "the contradictions of an English radical tradition in which opposition to the encroachment of 'the scrape' (ie capitalistic development) is instinctively aligned with a more conservative will to preservation" with "an attempt ... to show the coexistence of all things in time". The images in the film of the bodies of villagers from previous generations rising from the grave, reawakening the village past, are a reminder of the supernatural and hauntological undercurrents that have always effected perceptions of the landscape: "we had eyes for phantoms then". A theme also taken up at the time in television productions such as The Owl Service (1969), based on Alan Garner's influential book of the same name, Robin Red Breast (1970) and Children of the Stones (1977).

Once this terrain has been surveyed and mapped, other features and relics that provide signal traces, from before and since, can be unearthed, excavated and added; the layers enriching the sense of commonality and communion. Who would be the historical Arch-Druids that have formulated this stratigraphy? An irrelgular yet inspiring collection of mystic topographers, antiquarians, Utopians, visionary poets, folklorists, landscape historians and archaeologists, and proto-psychogeographers; often linked by their divergence from accepted norms and doctrines. 

Musing on landscape is as old as humanity - countless un-named, unknown shamen and sears must have held their tribes in thrall with vivid stories and imagery inspired by the flora, fauna and topography of their surroundings long before even Vergil and the Classical poets came on the scene with their flourishing tales of magick, milieu and mind: "Happy too the man who knows the gods of the country, Pan, and old Silvanus, and the sister Nymphs". Through dark days and into the Renaissance the flame was carried by the likes of John Leland, driven to madness by his topographical quest; Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of St George's Hill, their doomed attempt to establish a 'Common Treasury' of land for all; and Sir Richard Colt Hoar and the empirical antiquaries "speaking from facts not theory", birthing archaeology whilst pillaging barrow and chapel.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

'And far away a mountain zone ...'

"And far away a mountain zone,
A cold white waste of snow-drifts lies"
Speak of the North, Charlotte Bronte

The new year's first encounter with a snowscape, and its the exceptional array of colour that fixes in the memory: the white and grey shades of the snow and sky a counterpoint to the tawny russet and sodden green of the hillsides. The winter sun seems to bring urgency to its brief displays and, filtered through cirrus and mist, its light pulls the life up out of a landscape that could otherwise appear drab and dormant at this time of year. 

Here in the Black Mountains the snow line is above about 300 metres; thick, dominant and drifting on the tops and slopes facing north and west into the weather front, more fleeting and peripheral on more sheltered ground. Long views become visions of coalescence: if not exactly the Antarctic vastness of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, there is the same "tendency of snowy earth and sky to merge into one mystical opalescent void with no visible horizon to mark the junction of the two".   

Up on the Pen Allt Mawr ridge, in Edward Thomas' 'great silence of snow', the whiteness is satisfyingly deep and proper; every footstep crunching in line with our childlike expectation of how snow should be, innocent of slush and dirt and imminent waning.

One of the many joys of a landscape visited by snow is the shape-shifting quality it can bring to familiar features.

The stone of a usually welcoming summit shelter, now a threatening ice-bound realm.  

A fallen tree cloaked in snow, with strangely human lines; from the mind of Andy Goldsworthy.

A trig point looming out of the cloud becomes a thing of ghostly sentinel reassurance amidst the enveloping whiteness.
Though walking in wintry conditions requires care and knowledge, in the words of R.S. Thomas snow feels no pity, it can also be a welcoming host; on heather uplands the thin dotted green or black path lines on the map become gleaming white high ways on the ground, illuminating the route ahead. This snowy benevolence enhanced by the boot tracks that give confidence of the right path taken (assuming a lost soul is not being followed). On this occasion the hard stamped marks of a fell runner anticipated my route, the same circuit completed in reverse.


And, in this far away mountain zone, how does it feel? It feels like I don't ever want to come down.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Sharron Kraus - Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails

Cold and damp January days require an appropriately melancholic soundtrack and I've recently been enjoying Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails by a new find, Sharron Kraus. Sparse and, dare I say, ethereal, the album is inspired by the landscape of the Elan Valley in Mid-Wales, a place to which Kraus regularly returns and feels a longing for whenever she is away: hence the naming of the first track, Hiraeth, the beautiful Welsh word for the call of the land. Of recording the album in the valley, Kraus states that "I feel like I've travelled back in time - into my own memories and into the past - or into a land of faery". The titles of the other tracks, some including field recordings of birds, streams, waterfalls, wind and rain, continue this sense of place and memory:

Cadair Idris
Candlemas Moon
Winding Road
Dark Pool
Y Fari Lwyd

According to Kraus' web site, "As well as drawing on the folk traditions of England and Appalachia, her music is influenced by gothic literature, surrealism, myth and magick". Alongside another current folk favourite similarly inspired by the landscape and folklore of rural, upland Wales, Tincian by 9Bach, this sounds good to me. I look forward to discovering more of these sounds - of dulcimer, drone, recorder and harp - with echoes of the American psych-folk of the likes of Espers and Richard Skelton's and Autumn Richardson's landscape-inspired music, words and imagery.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Dig: a bleak midwinter read

No end of year list this. Just a short recommendation of a short, stark and arresting novel: a bleak midwinter read.

The Dig is Cynan Jones' fourth book, but the first that I have found. It is the story of two men who's lives are ingrained in the cold, sodden fields of the hill country of mid Wales; one a recently bereaved sheep farmer, the other a single-minded badger-baiter. The language and tone of the narrative is sparse and bleak and matter of fact, reflecting the landscape in which the two protagonists edge towards their, seemingly inexorable, fated confluence.

It is clear where most reader's sympathies will lie: with Daniel, the farmer bringing new life at lambing time, sleep-walking through the long hours occupied by memories of his dead wife, rather than the un-named big man with his dogs and his barbarous occupation. But this is an unsentimental picture of rural life and both men are of the land; making a living through their knowledge and understanding of the animals they share their days with. Indeed they are both in some way trapped in their existence in the fields. Of the big man we are told: "He was too much of an instrument to change what he did".

The writing of Cynan Jones has been compared to the visceral narrations of landscape, of nature that characterise the work of Ted Hughes and Cormac McCarthy. I was also reminded of God's Own Country by Ross Raisin, rooted in the North York Moors and the words of its upland anti-hero narrator. The cadence of the writing, seemingly awkward at first, draws the reader into the landscape, pulls you away from the passive gaze of an outsider. 

Reading the book reminded me of two of my own observations from earlier in the year; brief glimpsings that unsettled, and have stayed with me. The first was on a local walk, during a cold and glowering late winter morning. Resting at a field gate affording a fine wide-screen view, I was drawn to the sound of dogs and men closer to hand. Down-slope at the fields edge (the field in these photographs) I surveyed a pick-up truck, its occupants digging in the bank running along the boundary, accompanied by insistent barks. I did not linger, was not seen. But I had seen them and wondered what their labours were in this lonely spot. Perhaps renewing a fence or clearing scrub? This was not the view I came away with though. There was something malevolent in the air. Had I happened across badger-baiters? was the question that nagged for the rest of the day.
A contrasting day and location in the summer: waiting at a rural level crossing in the Aire Valley, North Yorkshire and the only people disembarking into the sunshine from the two carriage diesel unit are a rag tag band of teenage boys; track-suited hyperactivity - lads from the estates of Keighley or Bingley or Bradford, maybe Leeds I surmised. As we waited on opposite sides of the crossing gates their exuberance was a striking counterpoint to the reticent village halt that had just accepted them. Equally frantic dogs accompanied the boys, one of whom carried a wooden box in which his ferrets lurked. As the gates lifted the gang unhesitatingly and knowingly climbed the nearest four bar and raced across the large field adjacent to the station, their released dogs filling its space. Space that minutes earlier had been the benevolent preserve of their prey, gambolling rabbits. I carried on my way as a passing local resident dialled the number of the field's owner.

The Dig gives voice to such encounters at the sharp end of rural life. The story dissects our cosy view of the countryside to reveal the unbidden and often unspoken darkness that lurks at every gate post, in every copse, atop every hill. A reminder that harsh, hard lives and deeds bleed into the landscape still.

Friday, 12 December 2014

I see winter coming in

A December walk from my East Bristol city-suburb front door, through the green places of Fishponds, Frenchay and Stapleton. The images speak of Emily Dickinson's words: 'there's a certain slant of light, winter afternoons', and I see winter coming in.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Where is the (human) life of the fields?

After a two month lay-off due to a ruptured Achilles tendon I am glad to be back out roaming again. A day of late autumnal brilliance led me to a favourite place, the hidden combes below the hamlet of Cold Ashton: a becalmed swathe of deep England happy in its steeply contoured obscurity. I’ve been afoot here for a decade, at least twice a year. Absorbing the solitary serenity it occurred to me that I could hardly recall ever meeting or even seeing another human being on these numerous wanderings, once away from the road. To be in a long settled and wrought landscape, a stone’s throw from Bath and Bristol, in a densely populated country and have the place to yourself – acres of splendid isolation - is a curious thing. There is much to gain from wandering alone – time to think, away from the clamouring noise of everyday life – but this got me wondering existential thoughts about the very idea of my lone occupation of such places.

How we, the neo-landless masses, interact with landscapes outside of the narrowly prescribed to and fro of our immediate living, working, leisure and travel environments is something to ponder whilst out on an unshackled walk: even the most lowly cottager of pre-urban society would most likely covet our home comforts but be at a loss to understand how little of the land around us we actually have a stake in through common rights and custom. Such thoughts bring land ownership and legal rights of access into sharp relief, as well as the artificial lines that are often drawn between the rural and the urban. These themes are at the heart of two recent media articles: Prince Charles' comments in Country Life berating the loss of connection between urban dwellers and rural life (apparently unencumbered by the irony of a beneficiary of enormous inherited wealth and estates admonishing the descendants of those driven off the land by poverty or coercion for their lack of understanding of the countryside); and Simon Jenkins' article on threats to the rural landscape as he comes to the end of his term as Chair of the National Trust. In their different ways both seek to reinforce the view that the countryside needs more 'protection' from development and change. This is in many ways an admirable sentiment, as is Jenkins' view, mirroring a current campaign by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, that the pressures on the housing market should be primarily met by developing brownfield and derelict sites in urban areas. 

However, in seeking to preserve the rural landscape in idealised form there is a danger that it becomes an ossified version of itself; notwithstanding the fact that efforts to defend and conserve landscapes in this way, through designation, campaigning, management schemes and so on, necessarily have to focus on those deemed to be of most value, thereby leaving swathes of less heralded countryside at the mercy of intensified agri-business and mission creep urban infrastructure. The binary problem of a concentrated but spreading urban population, culturally adrift from its high status (and high cost) rural hinterland can only be exacerbated if this is our only response to developers and businesses who see the countryside in terms of pound signs. 

Curiously, one of the more optimistic sounding conservation movements of the moment, rewilding, may only add to this problem if followed to its logical extremes (and the rhetoric of some of its advocates seems to be worryingly fundamentalist in tone, with vague exhortations to 'control' human population and immigration). There is certainly significant scope for returning parts of the landscape to a more self-willed natural state - thereby enabling flora and fauna to reestablish a less anthropocene dominated ecological balance. Though rewilding surely has its place, it should be remembered that, in Asa Briggs words "...nature and culture - the latter a word derived from the land - are inextricably entangled in Britain as a whole" and if human engagement with the environment was even more highly concentrated in the urban (and suburban) realm to enable the wild to reassert itself elsewhere then the landscape - and our relationship with it - would be all the poorer.

As the images from my recent walk shown here illustrate, much of the rural landscape is remarkably depopulated, like a Hardy-esque scene 'swept by a spectral hand'. This is at odds with the received wisdom of a crowded, densely populated island where it is no longer possible to find space or tranquillity. In fact in pre-modern societies, though the total population was much smaller than today (cities of any significant size having yet to develop) it was more evenly dispersed, with hundreds of residents in even the most remote parish or township; the shouting and unruly swains, shepherds, woodsmen, maids and gypsies of John Clare's poetry-social commentary. Even in Richard Jefferies time, the late nineteenth century, as he traces the course of a spring-born brook through 'the life of the fields' in Wild Life in a Southern County the wildlife and natural history that he observes are in the context of a highly peopled environment - in field, wood, farmstead, hamlet and village. This pattern of settlement, allied to the fact that the majority of the population were engaged in working the land in some way, meant that today's rural backwaters were much busier places. To give an example, on my three mile route along the hushed valleys around Cold Ashton there can be seen grassed over terraced strip lynchets indicating medieval land under the plough, the ruins of a mill and its silted up pond, woodland intensively managed as coppice until recent times, an abandoned farmstead and numerous tracks and holloways that are now verdant footpaths or overgrown but would have been well used thoroughfares. This pattern could be replicated on a similar short walk in pretty much any part of the British Isles (and would in fact be magnified in many upland areas, often haunted by the memories of even more dramatic abandonment and desertion from prehistoric times through to the early modern period). 

Does this matter? Is it simply an inevitable consequence of processes steadily advancing ever since the first furnaces of the Industrial Revolution were stoked? 

I think, to misuse Rachel Carson's famous phrase, these silent fields do matter. At the conclusion of his treatise on the relationship between the rural and the urban in English literature, The Country & the City, Raymond Williams shines a light on the powerful pressures exerted by capitalism leading to "a simultaneous crisis of overcrowded cities and a depopulating countryside". This remains the nub of the problem; how it can be challenged is the conundrum. Of course I am not advocating a developer's charter to concrete over the countryside, far from it. But perhaps if the concept of 'localism' is to be more than hollow sloganeering then it could be a bulwark to provide room for people, including those from the town looking to renew their links with the land but lacking the City salary or pension to purchase a hobby farm, to re-establish a foothold in the furlong, the coppice, the hillside trod. This means enabling people to build livelihoods, homes and communities in a rural setting, from the bottom up; sometimes this might make, for instance, the Cotswolds look a little scruffier (and upset the coach-bound countryside voyeurs), sometimes it might not work or be unsightly, but what's the alternative? Disconnected populations corralled into brownfield site ghettos whilst the wolf roams a returning wildwood unhindered, in earshot yet far away; and farm managers tend their spreadsheets, a robotic workforce tilling the land. 

If we are to move beyond the long-running position of stasis in the relationship between the wider population and the physical environment in which they live, if G.K. Chesterton's "people of England, that have never spoken yet" (as proxy for people everywhere) are to be awoken from their deep coma of complacency, fatalism and inertia and move beyond reductive visions of the country versus the city, then we could make a start by telling our social history like it really was: the landscape as much a setting for radical transformations as apolitical continuity and conservative evolution. The real story of why and how people left the land, how common land rights and responsibilities operated (and their limitations), how enclosure revolutionised the landscape and "in taking the commons away from the poor, made them strangers in their own land" (as outlined in E.P. Thompson's Customs in Common), and so forth. This is not about looking backwards - yearning for a golden age that never existed. To quote Thompson again "We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities".

So, can I glimpse a possible future in which I would be able to wander these valleys and pass by numerous small communities, their endeavours part of the daily rhythm of a landscape in which they had a stake, freed from wage slave dislocation from their surroundings? Would these green images be enhanced by peopled colour? Wonder at the beauty to be found in the countryside untempered by the melancholy thought that I am merely observing the relics of human activity and there is no one here to enjoy it but me. Perhaps this sounds a little too like Thomas More's Utopian Republic; the idealised pastoral socialism of William Morris in his novel News From Nowhere. Well I'm a dreamer, and maybe that's no bad thing. What thoughts a walk in quiet country can provoke.


Briggs, A. 1987. A Social History of England. Penguin.

Clare, J, 1990. Selected Poems. Penguin.

Hardy, T, 1998. Nobody Comes in Everyman's Poetry: Thomas Hardy. Everyman.

Jefferies, R, 2011. Wild Life in a Southern Country. Little Toller.

More, T, 2003. Utopia. Penguin.

Morris, W, 1993. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. Penguin.

Thompson, EP, 1993. Customs in Common. Penguin.

Williams, R, 2011. The Country & the City. Spokesman.