Where the wild things aren’t
Leafing through the St Andrews Citizen the other day, I read a piece about plans to dig up a patch of wild ground - the local preservation trust described it as "an eyesore" - and make it into a "community garden". At first glance, it seemed a minor story, one you might find in any local paper, but I have to confess that it put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
At first, I didn't know why, and I was annoyed with myself for being upset about something so minor and, apparently, well-meaning. It wasn't as if the powers that be planned to pave over this little piece of wildness and make it into a car park. All they wanted to do was cultivate a garden, something I, too, had done myself for years when I worked in amenity horticulture. They were, in short, improving their town and I am sure they assumed that most people would be grateful.
I, however, wasn't grateful at all. I was angry and upset, though it took me a little while to realise that what bothered me most was that word: community. At one time, it was a fairly innocent term, and, in some contexts (on the internet, for example) it still is, but ever since Margaret Thatcher abolished society and John Major waffled about warm beer and cricket on the green, "community" has become one of the most dangerous adjectives in our social and political discourse - so much so, that it is now synonymous with the values and limitations to which I would once cheerfully have referred as petty bourgeois, by which I mean that old desire to tidy, to partition, to homogenise, to profit from and so to denature the world we occupy.
I say occupy, rather than inhabit, to indicate a world of resources, rather than living things, a world we doggedly refuse to leave to its own, wild devices. It is "community" that decides who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out; it is "community" that tells us what is beautiful (well, ornamental, in most cases) as opposed to "an eyesore", and, because "community" is usually dominated by those who like things neat and tidy and tame, the community garden is a clipped, mown, straight-edged and utterly lifeless space, regularly sprayed with herbicides and maintained with noisy, gas-guzzling strimmers and leaf-blowers.
I know that I am overreacting here, but I cannot help feeling upset that this last patch of wild ground could be removed to make way for "paved areas, seating and a life-sized statue of Mary Queen of Scots", which is what the good bodies of the St Andrews Preservation Trust propose.
For me, this land had always been a welcome sliver of anarchy in the overly neatened town where I work, and there have been occasions - walking by in the early evening, say, or on a quiet winter's afternoon - when it has put me in mind of those eerie and wonderfully unsettling images that the Turner-shortlisted painter George Shaw conjures up from a patch of waste ground or a row of derelict garages: the mystery of things returned all at once, if only for a moment, in places where mystery is scarce.
In all built-up areas, even in towns as benevolent as St Andrews, what we need is not more tidiness, but a few indelible touches of inhuman order, permanent sanctuaries for the unkempt and the overgrown, so that we never forget that our real life is rooted in wilderness, in the untidy and the seemingly chaotic, in the urgency of the life-tide around us and in the ever-present beach beneath the street.
John Burnside won the 2011 Forward Prize for his poetry collection "Black Cat Bone" (Jonathan Cape, £10)