The new pastoral

We no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven
-Thoreau

Watching apples being pressed on Apple Day at the superb Museum of English Rural Life in Reading it occurred to me that in many ways the organic invasion of our urban realm has undergone a stirring renaissance. Apple Day was setup by Common Ground an internationally recognised organisation founded by wild swimmer and writer Roger Deakin, it is dedicated to linking nature with culture by fostering localism and creative endeavours. Apple Day celebrates the fruit’s unique place in our heritage from cider making, ritual and tradition to the cultivation of orchards. Common Ground’s wider remit includes an effort to map the distinctiveness of place with intricate hand drawn parish maps, curating curious exceptional locales of historical note.

This locality resonates with the work of writer Jonathan Raban, in his cult 70s book Soft City he penned “The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.”  Common Ground’s soft city is one imbued with vibrant localised life. Popular culture has recently been awash with an injection of greenery featuring a resurgence of gardening shows, of populist rural television from Countryfile, of eco’ make overs and docile pastel coloured escapes to the wild, of rambling and camping (albeit glamping for people too posh to erect their own technical canvas shelters). Newspapers are now stocked with keen foraging articles, crafting, knitting, baking and farm kitsch.

These environmental dreams can perhaps be regarded as part of a wider longing to return to a nature mythos and there are groups who are committed to a much more concerted reinsertion of foliage into our cities and lives. Guerilla Gardeners sow seeds and cryptoforests on ragged urban plots, Transition Towns seek a balance between urban and environmental living and high profile architects have attempted to kickstart a resurgence in viridian parks for example New York’s ribbon like High-Line project. Radical environmental groups such as Reclaim the Streets have even occupied grimy motorways, drilled opportunist holes in concrete and planted spindly trees. Author and eco builder Dan Price describes this pursuit  as part of a yearning to a pre-civilised balance and muses “you can live a life of freedom, one in harmony with the rhythms of nature, and your own internal rhythm and creativity”.

parking-day-2011

Guerilla ‘parking space’ from Parking Day.

The Victorian Poet John Clare now celebrated as a nature lover, was regarded by his contemporaries as an eccentric abandoning life to enter an asylum in Epping Forest, however he produced a body of work embracing this fledgling halcyon desire to return to a romantic eden. In ‘I am’ he wrote- “I long for scenes where man has never trod; A place where woman never smil’d or wept; There to abide with my creator, God, And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept: Untroubling and untroubled where I lie; The grass below–above the vaulted sky.” For Clare the scenes represented an untainted agricultural utopia, pastoral as gothic bliss, an escape from Victorian morals and contempt. Iain Sinclair in his book Edge of the Orison which followed Clare’s insane pursuit of his long dead lover out of Essex into his beloved magical embrace views this idyll as part of a quest for feral secrets. He writes “Clare is hungry for it, books, the knowledge his mother believes to be a kind of witchcraft”, the rhythmical nature thus is a powerful other to be conjured and revered by residents.

The new pastoral is an attempt to reconsider our root and branch relationship regarding nature within the urban sprawl, of a soulful desire to embrace Thoreau’s longing for a natural heaven and to fabricate our soft city with flora and fauna at the heart of its tangled pathways. The Dark Mountain Project quotes Robinson Jeffers in their manifesto, describing this critical and necessary rebalance as a pioneering drive towards “Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things”,  we welcome once more our intimate relationship with the chlorophyll powered co-inhabitants of the liminal city.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent, stirring writing – how observing an event/practice can relate to so many other areas of knowledge, but more importantly, to depths of feeling.

    I keep attempting Soft City, now I am going to have to attempt a concerted effort. Surely that title is from Inger Christensen’s IT, although I can find no dedication in Raban’s book.

    So many riches here.

  2. That’s very kind. for me I think it is all just a feeling, I can only hope to string together fragile thoughts to make a pattern. Raban is thoroughly good, though I fear Soft City has dated somewhat. His travel book (in a way all of his books are about voyaging) Passage to Juneau is bewitchingly amazing: part boat trip following the northwest frontier of Canada and Alaska, part detailed history book and part slow destruction of his marriage. I will now go away and pursue Inger Christensen! BTW i’m afraid i’m far too poorly informed to comment on your lyrical Danish post!

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