Rural idylls: The cultivation of decline

Posted by RDN under Mind & body / On art / On books / Politics & campaigns on 22 December 2016

Much – probably most – modern creative work deploys the rural  as emblematic of the fragile world which man has wounded. I want to map some of this rural declinism, and counter it. In this it follows traits and tropes which have dominated countryside writing for millenia.

The rural scene has for millennia represented three main themes. Firstly, it offers a scene and a way of life which are an antidote to the urban, the civilised, and (for the Elizabethans and other medieval writers) the court. Secondly, it is fragile and under threat by man and modernity. Thirdly, the continuum from the untouched wilderness to the cultivated garden or orchard has always been important (though in my submission it has almost reversed its meaning over the years).

I accuse much rural writing, perhaps especially in our time, of being misanthropic. It posits mankind, and even farmers, as over-weening, thoughtless, and destructive. It is true that even very old literary tropes where highly selective in their admiration, but mostly there was room a view that mankind at his best was a very high order creature.

Indeed, the majority tradition in country or Pastoral literature has seen rustic man as a proper handmaiden to both Nature and God. From Pastoralist Greeks and Romans (Virgil) and Renaissance types (Spenser), one sees an anti-urban escapism everywhere, but it is not misanthropic. The countryside and farmers are framed as a useful metaphor with which to bash the cynicism of civilisation, the urban, and the commercial. But man and women – Adam and Eve, transfigured as shepherds and growers – are allowed some decency.

We see shards of these ideas in the late 18th and early 19thC Romantics as they began their anti-urban, anti-technological, anti-commercial move to create a dreamy medieval fantasy of the peasant as the watchword of everything noble (as fisherman or shepherd or villein or craftsman) as against the enemy Industry (which included agricultural improvement). It is telling that the Elizabethan tension over Enclosure (railed against by Edward Bond’s Bingo) is repeated in the founding narratives of the National Trust, as my great-great uncle (he was some such, on my father’s side), the Reverend Claude Rawnsley, broke down sheep fences in the Lake District, in the name of the ancient, supposed freedom to roam. (And later, we have the Sheffield movement and the Freedom to Roam, of Howard Hill.)

I think it is fair to say that the Romantic tradition wrapped up so many antagonisms toward modernity, technology, even progress as a whole, that what had been historically a very limited use of the rural as a metaphor with which to criticise (oh, OK, to critique) civilisation became more negatively and even stridently misanthropic.

I do not suppose that this was intentional or remotely programmatic; but it happened.

There are rich peculiarities in this scene. The British New-Romantics of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s were the more interesting because they were both old-school Romantics of a broadly Wordsworthian, Ruskinite kind but also – signally – Moderns and often Modernist. In Spencer, Ravilious Snr, the Nash’s, Piper and Sutherland we see the industrialised horror of war unable to dent excitement (sometimes highly ambiguous excitement) in the industrialised destruction (not least of countryside), and indeed requiring the ultra-modern in expression if it is to be expressed at all.

In the Pastoral whether pre-classical, classical, medieval or modern, shepherds have always been valued (see the New Cumbrian James Rebanks on his quad bike and his worldwide social media and literary successes); farm labourers are esteemed (see the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry or George Ewart Evans, or Akenfield); dog-and-stick men are prized (see Ravilious Jr’s photos). But there is writing which is better at celebrating the purely yeoman, without  much emphasis on the organic or free-range: for instance, George Henderson’s The Farming Ladder is a Samuel Smiles account of an agricultural career, and all the better for it. And John Stewart Collis’ The Worm Forgives the Plough is rare in showing that farm-labouring was not especially ennobling.

With the exception of Stella Gibbons and Cold Comfort Farm and a few others  most novelists and memoirists and ruralist intellectuals lean back on their mossy banks, make daisy chains of the columbine, tug on their smocks and suck a straw, and turn off any vivid sense of the world or even of ecology as they resist economic, social and educational progress unless it is anti-capitalist and – more or less – figured as the result of soft-left, liberal green romances.

The majority tone was elegiac and much of it mournful not merely of habitat loss, or suburban encroachment, or consumerist sheds to produce or sell food, but of something more widely cultural. Memory, loss and identity are the triumvirate of this Weepy Ruralism vein of thought and feeling.

It may be that the Industrial Revolution produced not merely an exodus from the countryside’s squalor, but an intellectual sense of exclusion from its violated and diminished charms. The town came to resent the country rather than eulogise it. Freedom to Roam (mentioned again), The City and the Country, the books of Marian Shoard and George Monbiot, all quite variously reinforce an impression that one should now mourn a prelapsarian countryside and they want it back, and access to it, the better to roll back a wrong. Thus, Monbiot’s Feral is a counter-insurgent blast. (Its title also purloins a favourite word of approbation of mine, which I resent.)

Hardly surprising either that the agricultural writers who are most reckoned now do not celebrate progress, but are inclined to mourn it. Graham Harvey and Jules Petty write as though it was clear that intensive farming is obviously bad and we must retreat from it. I hope the efforts made by Charlie Pye-Smith and myself in our Working the Land – it was his, really – are more richly nuanced (though my positions have hardened rightwards more than Charlie’s since then).

Alongside rural and agricultural writing we find The Edgeland and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson adventures. These are accounts of the marvellous hinterlands between town and country. They are eulogised as having a scruffy richness. The best of them – which is the worst, in a way – were sometimes created by capitalist neglect and they will stay peculiarly glorious until capitalism comes back for another bite of profit and tidies them up. They know abandonment , the value of which is unknown to the accountant but may be known to his children as they seek adventure in these updates of the wartime -where the foot and mind of post-war Baby Boomers roamed for a while. George Monbiot would like to re-wild the countryside, but these in-between hinterlands are not exactly wild. They are, indeed, actually feral, as a domestic cat might be –  wild in an effective but not necessarily committed way, perhaps as an exile. I love this line of thought: I have always looked for the gaps in geography or timetable where I might feel free. (I wrote a large, confused piece for the Independent in the ’80’s, called – I think – “The Smile Zone”, on these matters. The editor, Andreas Whittam-Smith said he liked it for its anger, and even then my heart sank a little. I thought I was being elegant and eloquent rather than furious.)

You will see how I am drawn to the liminal, and find it wherever ordinary rules do not quite apply, not lawlessly or dangerously, but fruitfully. I do not need just the wilderness, or just civilisation, but want more: somewhere I can discover, not adventurously or bravely or cleverly. But somewhere, nonetheless, where I can safely venture, as a child through a hole in the fence and out on to forbidden quarries and oily waste tips which present tumbling danger, or copses where tinkers, druggies or perverts may lurk. One can find them all over the place.

Somewhere, Roger Scruton (a hunting man of parts) describes the travellers’ horses grazing under a flyover as the real countryside, and to say that is to capture exactly what I mean. These are the creases in the maps of civilisation, where there is something productive even though the contours and names have been worn off. Some countryside is like that, and I like it a lot. I don’t like it more than well-tended fields or soggy grazing, but I like it a lot. I do, however, rather resent its being written about and becoming a Radio 4 adaptation. How can I be any sort of pioneer if my off-map pleasures – even the type of them, let alone actual cases – become set-books?  But more constructively I say: I don’t decry much of the industrialised landscape, whether it be mechanised farming or a city-scape of steel and glass. I like scruffiness, but that doesn’t mean that I can only use it as a declinist metaphor for some rottenness in the order around it.

A last word on this, for now. The American mind seeks wilderness (as in, say, Aldo Leopold) as a place to travel and camp, the better to recreate the pioneer. For Englishmen, such pioneering was even more controversial: the English went for out and out colonialism of foreign lands, some of them with civilisations which were obviously of quality even to people whose view of such things was classical rather than romantic. That may be why the English imagination (as Patrick Keiller perhaps realises) is happiest with the ideas and thrills it can derive from Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson, but in which our heroes don’t have to confront the Noble Savages amongst whom they disport. Thus, Swallows and Amazons: adventures near to home, explorations in mild exigency, journeys with picnic outcomes, a night under canvas within reach of a parent’s call.

A big, slightly different, strain of countryside and outdoors writing is now more purely intellectual. It is broadly Chomsky-ite and it has to do with reclaiming not just rural spaces but the brain-spaces The Man wants to steal. The rural scene is (as is the High Street) mourned for its new sameness and that is captured in the way the young deplorably no longer know not merely the common name for plants, but more importantly the local one. An ecological  or entymological crisis has become cultural and etymological. Richard Mabey has been in this camp: his taxonomies are verbal as much as floral. Robert MacFarlane is the new kid on this block.

Clifford and King, with their Common Ground charity (with Richard Mabey on the masthead), sought not merely to identify local difference, but also to recreate it where it had worn thin. They wanted to re-embroider the frayed tapestry of rural life. There is both real merit here, and a curiously kitsch, or precious feyness. It was on a par with the nationalism (the over-heated nationhood) which the Welsh or the Scottish have had to invent or re-invent for themselves. It has similarly linguistic manifestations: a new motorway must have signs in a forgotten or strenuously revived language which must be forcibly inculcated in locals at the expense of the English taxpayer and in defiance of his imperialism.

I think I can unpick why I like to know the provenance of food, by farmer and farm, but dislike the Local Distinctiveness movement. The former tells me about the person to whom I have a pleasant debt and to whose business I have helped prosper; it shows me a picture (sometimes literally) of the places and animals which nourish me. The latter, in brief, is too much open to the charge that it is the reverse of what it seeks to be: it is an artificiality, and a construct. I do not mind when old things – names, or habits – get forgotten or fall into a museum status. I would rather that the redundant slips away, in preference anyway to having a countryside curated to death where it stands.

So I resist having the countryside become a library of our fantasies and a map of our self-consciousness, in the way that Hugh Brody made the Arctic into a Map of Dreams.

The countryside is already and rightly a place of sanctuary and pilgrimage. However, we may over-lard this role. We see brand new shepherds’ huts as little hermitages.

In much rural writing, the countryside becomes a place where a man of sorrows (forgetting the world, and by the world forgotten), the man despised and rejected, can find healing and perhaps redemption. I think reading Gavin Maxwell, Robin Lockley, Stewart Collis and Michael Deakin may embody or flesh out this idea, but I have yet to spend the time on them which would make me sure either way.

As with the hinterland writing, I am drawn to this withdrawal and healing stuff. But I have to watch myself. Nolli me tangere lurks there. The countryside can become the place where people who are failing, or won’t face life, or are trivially escapist, can go and sulk, or feel smug, or all sorts of things it might be better if they did not. In any case, these writers may well do harm if the young soak up this stuff and think that is what the countryside is like, and what it’s for.

I prefer the countryside as a place, certainly of pilgrimage, but also of challenge and adventure, or even mere idleness. I like to see athletic Lycra in the rural scene, and at the same time I would like to learn to linger.

I was always moved by Richard Mabey’s depiction of an aesthetic and conservationist ideal which emphasised not the rarefied or the special in Nature, but the ready availability of the commonplace. Likewise, I have always responded well to the riff of modern childhood loss which attends the sheer lack of muddy, wet and cold mucking about chosen by generations of earlier rural, urban and suburban children. Tedium drove us to opt for discomfort. Likewise, we were driven to read only after we had tired of watching raindrops fall ceaselessly down our bedroom window panes.

I have had various goes at sketching some of the ways in which Nature has been seen and used as a spiritual resource, and what I seek to make of it for myself.

In Fools For God I wrote how monks have had various approaches. In the 3rd Century, anchoretic monks went into the desert to find the necessary silence of the non-urban: here, they felt, they could hear God and suffer enough to allow Him in, unpolluted by the seductions of political power, undistracted by the human. There was a purifying awfulness there. There was also the misanthropy of the elect.

By the early medieval period, Cistercians went into the ghastliness of the moors and mountains, the better to do God’s work in bringing agriculture and profit to places which were otherwise going to waste. This was where a man could actively roll God’s project forward, in full modernity. (And their Abbots jived with political power as valued advisers.)

By the mid-20th Century the Cistercians had become all sorts of different types. There were those who went to the mountains of Colorado and eulogised the bare, snowy peaks. And there were those in Spain who took to intensive farming of chickens. And there were those in Scotland who took to suckler beef.

These trends, by the way, were sometimes mirrored in art. Pre-Enlightenment art took a populated, soothing Classical or Christian landscape off the shelf (derived from literature or cliché or in the rural and ruined scenes of Italy or Greece). The Picturesque, in particular, is a secular response (we might call it Modernist, were that not too camp a play) to a new interest in the wild and untouched Nature brought about by improved transport, increased contact with the primitive abroad, and by a scientific understanding that everything in Nature had its role.

In Life On a Modern Planet I tried to describe the spiritual and psychological – as well as the practical – merit of our coming to a proper appreciation of the power of man’s intelligence to make life better for his species, within an understanding that Nature had existential value, and provided ecological services as well, and had inviolable rules (if only we could discern them).
But throughout the book, my intention – not properly expressed, perhaps, but better expressed than it was in other books of roughly its sort – was to find the spiritual merit in mankind’s working with Nature.

All through history, there has been a shifting debate about where the true loveliness and remedial power of Nature lies. But we have very seldom deprecated man’s role as we are tempted to today. There was the ancient figuring of Eden or Paradise as a man-made garden or orchard and these had special merits compared with either city or wilderness. That enduring image was subtly transmuted into an understanding that the field and farm had immense merit as well. Nature was ambiguous. A man of god would be in a special relationship with wild birds (who might feed him or with wild animals (who would find peace lying by him). But the Wild held horror right until the Picturesque and the Sublime. Now the countryside is propagandised as all sorts of things, but almost all of them mistakenly disparage important aspects of the human.

Here I am, a pilgrim who takes great pleasure in the rural scene. I no longer much want to make arguments one way or the other. It may fall to me to write poems about the countryside and I shall be interested to see how I go about it.

I do not want to succumb to the clichés which I see around me. I do not want to resist what I can magpie-find in the work of others. To bend things about a bit: I do think the examined countryside (like the examined city) is a good place in which to explore the examined life. We’ll see how I do.

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