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On the Edge of Wonder

by Christopher Page

The village of Ash, not far from Dartford in north-west Kent, has a suitably apocalyptic kind of name. Ash is an ordinary English hamlet, tending to the obscure – its Wikipedia entry has only three lines. It is not even the most prominent settlement called Ash in its own county. It contains a parish church, a few houses and farms, a golf club and, of course, a caveman. It was here that Clive King set his classic 1962 children’s book Stig of the Dump, a story about a boy who, exploring a chalk quarry near his grandmother’s house, finds and befriends Stig, a survivor apparently from the Neolithic era. The pair’s various adventures include repairing the roof of Stig’s den with jam jars and vacuum cleaner parts, saving a fox from the Boxing Day hunt, and raising a standing stone on the top of the North Downs. King’s novel has aged well in its likeable humour, liberal social attitudes and playful anti-establishment disposition, that is, in all respects but one: very few British children growing up in the 21st century would ever be allowed anything like the license to roam that Barney enjoys, the time and space to wander the countryside, get into scrapes, stung by nettles, or find cavemen, without ceaseless adult supervision. Stig exits on the margins, and, overlooked by all save Barney, comes to embody the landscape he roams – wild, tangled, unpretty. Slowly though, we come to understand that, treated with attention and understanding, Stig provides access to something magical, something truly extraordinary: an understanding of the natural world that gives a deep poetry to the familiar, domesticated landscape of the Home Counties.

Stig, then, is a quintessential creation of the “edgelands”, the liminal, overlooked zones halfway between town and country – quarries reclaimed by vegetation, canals deserted by the trade they were built to promote, motorway embankments, brownfield sites, scrubby suburban woodlands, pylons, pallets. They are a world away from the experiences eulogised and elegised by the writers more immediately associated with the British landscape –Wordsworth and his supposedly unspoilt Lake District, its ‘awful’ crags and ‘sublime’ vistas; Edward Thomas’ paths and hedges tinged with melancholy, or the darker energies of Ted Hughes’s rain-battered Yorkshire Dales. Barely an inch of English countryside hasn’t been artistically represented in some way, and yet this creative attention has a double effect, both eye-opening and blinkering. The best of these artists offer new ways of seeing a landscape, but such repetitive study is all too easily numbed by cliché – the “whaleback” hills, or “vivid” sunsets. This dulls our sight rather than making us see anew. But Edgelands are a blank slate. These landscapes are paradoxically defined by our lack of attention to them, spaces glimpsed from the train window or hurried through at dusk, not often the subject of art or poetry as almost every other aspect of the British landscape has been. Yet, slowly but surely, the edgelands are entering the national consciousness.

In film, photography, poetry and prose, the overlooked rural-urban fringes have recently found themselves in sharp focus. Perhaps the first to discover, or reclaim, the edgelands were the psychogeographers – writers like Iain Sinclair and, latterly, Nick Papadimitriou – whose works are characterised by a species of close historical and geographical attention to marginal spaces, and the compulsive linking of seemingly disparate spaces, concepts and events. Reading Sinclair’s 2002 London Orbital, which documents a journey on foot loosely following the M25 ‘to find out where it leads’, is like having your vision inverted. Suddenly, the transit zones through which one has passed a thousand times, the underpasses and concrete bridges, cat’s eyes and field verges are thrumming with layers of history, seething with half-forgotten memories and bursting with wild flowers. A light is switched on and a whole swathe of Britain is uncovered right beneath our noses. And many other artists, across different media, bring a similar vision-altering quality to the edgelands environment. The films of Patrick Keiller infuse the fields, waste ground, and industrial sites of England with an eerie, poetic significance. Beauty is found where previously none could be seen; and this in turn encourages attentiveness, and an awareness of the fragility and flux in which all landscape exists – surely valuable qualities in a century of unprecedented environmental degradation.

Children’s literature has, of course, always revelled in the overlooked, and, as such, has found a fitting venue in the unsupervised edgeland landscape. Think Brendon Chase by ‘BB’ (real name Denys Watkins-Pitchford), the 1944 story of three brothers who go feral, and live for months in a den in the titular woodland, trapping squirrels and fish for food, evading capture and wearing animal skins. The heroes of this book return to nature, and to their own nature as creatures of the wild woods. Yet these woods are very much edgeland: a feral space defined by human interaction with it, rather than an ancient fairytale forest. Brendon Chase itself, then, is an ordinary patch of English woodland made extraordinary by the attention and love the brothers give it. They reclaim it from its marginal status just as Sinclair’s walks attempt to reclaim suburban London. Nature here is not merely a picturesque backdrop: it is something to be engaged with viscerally, sometimes harsh and minatory, never simple or easy to understand. And though some of BB’s protagonists’ activities – trapping rare butterflies and ransacking bird’s nests – are ‘to a modern sensibility’, in Philip Pullman’s phrase, ‘worse than advocating hard drugs’, still the overwhelming sensation one takes away from Brendon Chase is one of joy, of rediscovered delight in the natural world, and beauty in unexpected places.

As Robert Macfarlane notes, in his essential 2015 study of the imaginative state of the British landscape, Landmarks, we are losing our natural vocabulary. This issue made the headlines earlier that same year, when the Oxford Junior English Dictionary removed dozens of words associated with the natural world from their updated edition, replacing them with the terminology of the virtual and the electronic – “attachment” for “acorn”, “broadband” for “buttercup”. Macfarlane was one of 28 prominent authors, including Andrew Motion and Margaret Attwood to warn, in an open letter, of the dangers of this decision. But of course, as noted by an OUP spokesperson after the controversy, ‘dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used’. Certainly, landscape-literacy and nature-knowledge are at an all-time low, with only 10% of children regularly playing in natural areas and a staggering 40% of children, according to a 2012 National Trust survey, ‘never playing outdoors’. Barney’s modern-day equivalents would likely be found not in the overgrown chalk-pit that Stig calls home, but another North Kent chalk quarry: Bluewater, home to Europe’s sixth-largest shopping centre.

Strangely, these warnings come at a time when British writing about landscape and the natural world has never been more popular. The so-called “New Nature Writing” boom has propelled writers like Helen Macdonald, Robert Macfarlane and Patrick Barkham to (relative) literary stardom. We seem to be grasping for greater involvement in the natural world just as we appear in danger of losing it forever. In August 2016, a think tank attached to the International Geological Congress suggested that humanity’s impact on Earth’s environment was so profound that a new geological era needed to be declared – the Anthropocene, the era of the human. In such an era, historical modes of thought on place and landscape, ideas of the “pastoral”, the “natural” and the “wild” (as a synonym for “unspoiled” or “unaffected by human action”), are fundamentally troubled. In many cases, they become inadequate to describing the interaction of people and landscape in the 21st century. And certainly, the Romantic pastoral feels a world away from Helen Macdonald’s startlingly dark, emotionally punishing account of attempting to train a goshawk in H is for Hawk (2014), or Amy Liptrot’s remarkable The Outrun (2015), which details the author’s battle with alcohol addiction in the context of her move back to a family croft in the Orkney Islands. Here, nature is far from the picturesque or purely therapeutic – it engages with people in strange, unpredictable ways. Its insights are chastening as well comforting, and its coexistence with humanity is troubled and uneasy.

Clearly, art and literature alone will not halt what is the greatest crisis in the history of humanity: that of climate change, unsustainable growth and environmental destruction. But they can, at least, draw attention to that which we risk losing. In this grim context, the new kind of work being produced by young British non-fiction writers does something exceptionally important, in helping to reenergise our intellectual and emotional relationship to nature and the landscape spaces we inhabit. Nature, in the view of the best of these new authors, is not something out there, a great sublime system into which humans can barely hope to intrude. But it acts on, and in, lived human lives in a multitude of unstraightforward ways, both consciously and unconsciously. The edgeland landscape acts as physical signifier for this kind of writing – newly “discovered” and defiantly post-pastoral, but still premised on the idea that in representing something or somewhere, one can more fully understand its value.

The Anthropocene is here to stay. Britain is one of the few nations hitting its pledged emission targets – but even if every nation, developed and developing, were to adhere to their Paris Convention on Climate Change reductions, the Earth’s temperature would still rise by over 2°C – enough to cause catastrophic flooding and widespread desertification and famine. On the 19th May this year, news broke that the Global Seed Vault, a repository of the world’s plant life buried deep within a Spitsbergen mountain in Svalbard, and designed to be essentially apocalypse-proof, had partially flooded due to melting permafrost. Scott Pruitt, the new head of America’s Environmental Protection Agency, is a known climate change sceptic. Stig’s chalk pit is now a golf course. In the face of such a crisis, merely attempting to find new systems of thought, or a newer and more flexible natural aesthetic, can seem futile. But increasing appreciation of nature not only as something far away (pandas, penguins, or polar bears), but as a phenomenon rich and present throughout our familiar daily lives – in train stations, pockets of suburban woodland, grass-roots pushing through the cracks in the pavement – encourages a fuller awareness of that which we all stand to lose this century. Only through loving nature can we possibly care enough to take action to save it, and edgelands, and the writers and artists who have portrayed them, encourage us to pay attention to, and to love, the local and specific. They reinvest us with the vocabulary to articulate, to truly look at what we see around us; and enable a newly childlike wonder at the things we see. And wonder is the first step toward action.

CHRISTOPHER PAGE reads English at Hertford, when not earnestly explaining his (supposedly) 'method' acting in nightclub queues.


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