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Where two kinds of wildness collide

In the second in a series of essays on nature and landscape, Richard Mabey sees a premonition of spr

Psychogeographers, the cognoscenti tell us, have been rebranded less dizzily as “deep topographers”. The BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, is making a film about an aspiring new acolyte, and is asking me if I see myself as one of their company. We’re sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Garden, surrounded by irises and service trees, and I answer, too snappily, no, I’m a shallow topographer. It’s a smart-arsed, irritable reflex at these tiresome abstractions but I realise that I’m serious.

I try to explain how, for me, landscapes are paramountly about their present life, their vivacious, protean, membranous surfaces, not some intangible, semi-mystical motherlode. By lucky chance there’s a visual aid on tap.  From where we’re sitting, the gate of the Botanic Gardens, built in 1633, was intended to perfectly frame the Great Tower of Magdalen College, and form a kind of Age of Enlightenment ley line. The wild card intervened and
the local builders misaligned it by a jarring five degrees.

I was being disingenuous, of course. Landscapes and nature work by a constant juggle ­between pattern and process, chaos and order. Rock meets weather. Evanescent greenleaf generates hardwood trunk. Instinct negotiates with opportunism. Migration becomes settlement. Above ancient seasonal rhythms and inscrutable connectivities, life skits about like a cursor on a ouija board, guided by chance and exuberant inventiveness as much as deep-rooted imperatives. And especially so in spring. Gretel Ehrlich, gazing over the Wyo­ming Hills at flocks of migrating finches, falls
of hail, crashings of orchard branches, concluded that in spring, “the general law of increasing disorder is on the take”.

I get disorderly and fidgety, too, after the months of rutted inertia, and wait for that day in early March when there is a kind of pre-spring overture, when the light seems to open out, lose the brittle clarity of winter sunshine and dust the leafless landscape with the merest hint of pollen. It happened on 2 March this year and, guessing where the action would be, I sped to the vast liminal marshlands of north Norfolk. The atmosphere on the coast was electric. The sky was full of jitterbugging birds, windblown flurries of lapwing, chattering, cantankerous mobs of brent geese, flocks of golden plover, invisible until they turned in synchrony and the sun tinselled the undersides of their wings. I soon saw one reason for their restlessness. A juvenile peregrine falcon, driven by rapacious instincts, adolescent hormones and sheer devilment, was repeatedly scything at 150mph through a shape-shifting plume of starlings – and missing every time. But I sensed another thrill running through the masses of birds. They were poised for their journey home, back to the northern tundra.

Do we still have this restless itch to move on somewhere deep in our own biology? We’re touched by migration, bird migration especially, more than can be explained by the simple associations it has with the new seasons. The pioneering US nature writer Aldo Leopold envisioned the migration of geese as a kind of eco-poetic commerce, the corn of the mid-west combining with the light of the tundra to generate “as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March”. Do the airy, swooping flights of swallows and other summer migrants from Africa, so different from the movements of northern birds, sound faint cultural – maybe even genetic – echoes of that warm southern landscape from which the first nomadic humans emerged? Most of these annual visitors are in alarming and inexplicable decline, and we can have no idea of what we may lose if that link with our origins finally vanishes.

In the summer of 2010, just a few miles east of where I watched the peregrine, archaeologists discovered the oldest evidence yet of human occupation in Britain, a cache of flint tools probably 900,000 years old. They identified the likely makers as Homo antecessor, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who had risked the journey up from the continent to what was probably the northernmost habitable part of the European land mass. Happisburgh, where the find was, is currently falling into the sea, but at that time was a bone-chilling boreal forest like northern Scandinavia. When the bitter 2010 winter struck, we locals took some pride in our antecessors’ gutsiness.

I migrated to Norfolk myself ten years ago, swapping beech-clad hills for windswept flatlands. With hindsight, my journey seems as serendipitous as H. antecessor’s. It was driven by necessity (I’d been ill and needed to move away) but guided by chance – fortunate encounters, tangy memories of once-visited spots and longed-for creatures. Wafted north-east like a speck of spindrift, I ended up in the Waveney Valley, where I’ve lived ever since. I see it as home but not as a place of new roots. It’s not that I now feel rootless but that I seem to have become capable of briefly putting down new tendrils anywhere I go. As Bruce Chatwin argued, we’re more nomadic as a species than it’s politically convenient to admit.

But if I’m less deep topographer than landscape tart, I still have my manor, an entirely subjective parish that encompasses the land within a roughly ten-mile radius of my home. And every so often I beat the bounds, see what’s up, what’s about. I’m not, I hope, laying any kind of claim, just acting out that old warp and weave of nomadic curiosity and territorial affection. I looked up the exact time of the spring equinox the night before: 20 March, 5.40am. And just as one often does with a flight to catch, I woke exactly at that moment. It was barely light and the world looked flat and
lifeless. I imagined the earth enjoying a brief moment of equipoise, just before it began to tilt again. What a hope!

I head west, out into the sand country. It’s a mild, sunny day but the drought is biting hard here. The ditches are empty and the hedges leafless – except that, thanks to another kind of migration, they’re foaming with the white blossom of cherry plum, “fools’ blackthorn”, brought here from the Middle East 1,000 years ago. Much of the farmland here looks as if it’s been imported from a Martian agribusiness. Immense fields are entirely shrouded in moisture-retaining plastic sheets, as shiny as mountain lakes. Bare-earth pig ranches are sprouting everywhere. Pigs in wooden pens, corrugated iron bungalows, canvas marquees like a porcine Glastonbury. Nothing deeper in the topography here than a hog wallow.

I drive past the farm where in February an animal-rights activist filmed the most horrific violence against stock that the RSPCA has ever seen. A few days later the farmer, an honourable and much-respected man by all accounts, killed himself. There has been no identification or even rumours about the workers responsible, but I notice that the ubiquitous billboards, urging us to “Support our higher welfare standards. Buy British pork” are beginning to disappear and be replaced by “Keep out” notices.

A few miles on, I climb over a fence, out toward a big sheep pasture, and hear the heart-stirring bubbling of curlews. I can’t see them, but a buzzard glides overhead. They’re now coming back to East Anglia, after generations of persecution by gamekeepers. Then I turn round and see a trapped magpie frantic in a cage I can’t even reach, and along the barbed wire round it a dozen shrivelling moles, impaled by their noses. Even William Blake might have seen this spot as some kind of psychogeographical axis mundi, where two different kinds of wildness have collided.

This is edgy country, nervous of water shortage, EU regulations and a public scrutiny unlike anything it has experienced before, and I’m relieved to move east and south into the clay country. It’s a gentler, more intimate countryside, with small fields and smallholdings, old lanes and even older echoes. When I first came to live here I was browsing a large-scale map and was astonished to see that all the ancient features – green lanes, wood edges, field boundaries – were roughly aligned in a north-west/ south-east direction. A few local historians had spotted it, too. This fragment of landscape, dating from the Iron Age, has a four-degree tilt to the west. It is invisible from ground level, so how it happened is a mystery. Thoreau had a theory that our species has a ­natural instinct to move in a westerly direction, following the course of the sun.

I follow my own instincts along this maze of lanes, through the village where, in the 1920s, two London socialists defied the local gentry and clergy and set up a community school that lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War. I find thin secluded valleys I’ve never been in before, pass fuzzy commons, snail farms, otter streams, craft studios, a whole magpie ecology blessedly free of a cage. These valleys and wet patches have been the protectors of East Anglia’s distinct sense of identity. They’ve kept the big roads away and people come to East Anglia, not through it.

I end up in one of these miniature flood-plain valleys, where I saw my first local barn owl, that ancient parish familiar. I haven’t seen one here for two years but just as the sun sets one skews out of a ditch. It flies off like the dismissive wave of a white cape, on an incompre­hensible course over a dog-walking green. Barn owls do not fly high, but if it had and had looked down on the parish I’d just circumnavigated, it would have seen a pattern that turned upside-down my glib dismissal of deep topography. The surface membrane, inert, plastic, barbed and private; and, flowing around and through it, these thin meandering ribbons of life, first carved out at the end of the Ice Age.

Richard Mabey’s latest book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile Books, £9.99)
 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue