Edgelands: Journeys Into England's True Wilderness

Exploring the bastard countryside.

In his influential 1973 study, The Country and the City, Raymond Williams suggested that the distinction between rus et urbs, which dates back to classical times, was no longer valid - and that nor had it been relevant for some time. Between country and city, there now existed
a wide range of spaces and settlements where newer forms of habitation and livelihood transfigured the landscape, displacing the pastoral idyll. In the same year, Richard Mabey's ecological polemic The Unofficial Countryside adopted a similar stance. Both these writers knew
that since the 19th century, these in-between spaces, whatever people chose to call them, had carried political and ecological warnings, as well as possibilities.

Williams remained preoccupied with the meanings of this "border country" throughout his life. Meanwhile, the anarchist Colin Ward and the sociologist Dennis Hardy jointly researched and celebrated, in a series of books, the imaginative nonconformism of life "on the margins", where they found plotlands, allotments, caravan sites, camping grounds, smallholdings and children's hiding places, as well as outposts of artisan industry.

In France, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and later Georges Perec were similarly intrigued by the life of what Hugo termed the "bastard countryside". Hugo wrote that "to observe the city edge is to observe an amphibian". In his journalism, Perec frequently wrote about places where the conventional hierarchies of livelihood, work and play were turned upside down.

Today, there is once again interest in exploring the tracts of "slack nature" that surround our modern towns and cities. These areas play an increasingly important role in conserving biodiversity, now in sharp decline as a result of industrial farming in the countryside and the widespread conversion of front gardens into carports in the cities (along with patio makeovers round the back).

In their divagations into England's "true wilderness", the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts bring an engaging sympathy to these uncertain spaces, despite starting off a touch gracelessly. For reasons best known to themselves, they take their distance from certain "tree climbers", "swimmers in standing water" and "so-called psychogeographers". Why? Fortunately, what follows is a collection of sharp-witted vignettes of the badlands, dedicated to the redemptive spirit of these maligned places. Like their hero John Clare, they have found their poems in the fields.

Farley and Roberts eschew the standard form of landscape writing - as pilgrimage or quest - and present their material as a gazetteer of generic types: paths, dens, landfill, ponds, sewerage, wire, bridges, ruins and woodlands, among other objects. "No ideas but in things", as William Carlos Williams put it.

These brief essays are a pleasure to read, though some are more successful than others. The authors are far happier and more intensely lyrical when writing about orchids and owls, willowherb and warblers - along with the ecologies of waste, decay and entropy - than describing retail parks, motels and golf ranges. If you want a critique of the latter, both Paul Kingsnorth and Owen Hatherley have done this better recently in, respectively, Real England: the Battle Against the Bland and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain.

The essay on landfill - at Salt Ayre near Lancaster - celebrates this poetics of contingency in a riot of thick description: the writers evoke the great artificial mountains of forgetting, where "beneath our feet lie over 50 years' worth of decomposing material, unknowable subterranean shiftings and settlings, slow collapses and fermentations. Grease and bone, paper and wood, glass, metals, solvents, rubber, dyes, fly ash, fat-trap waste." Here they also document the disposal of a 40-foot fin whale, buried with the aid of a crane and an excavator. As with sewage farms, power stations, scrapyards, mines and quarries and the ruins of former factories, these reminders of the underlying forces and processes in our way of life are usually out of sight and out of mind. One is reminded of John Berger's observation that it is "space, not time, that hides consequences from us".

Yet many former landfill sites are now enjoying an afterlife as wildlife conservation areas and bird sanctuaries, as at Clare's Swordy Well in Northamptonshire, now known as Swaddywell Pit. Farley and Roberts observe with delight that "Clare's orchids are still evident [here], and in abundance: the meadowland where the tip was capped is carpeted today in bee and pyramidal varieties. There is wild carrot and yellow wort. Grasshopper warblers reel in the sedge and undergrowth; common darter, four-spotted chaser, emperor and black-tailed skimmer dragonflies cruise in the air."

Writing on gardens, Farley and Roberts revisit the history of the picturesque, eliding modern garden theory - which makes ambiguous distinctions between the ornamental and the natural - with "rubbish theory" and its metaphysics of waste, surplus and what the anthropologist Mary Douglas called "matter out of place". They apply this notion to the world of birding, where, as they point out, rare sightings occur largely because the "matter" in question is in the wrong place. The chapter on woodlands relishes the story of a species of whitebeam discovered in a Devon layby and formally named Sorbus admonitor, in acknowledgment of the "No Parking" sign nailed to its trunk.

It is precisely because conventional categories go wildly astray in these edgelands that they are so freighted with implications for the way in which we inhabit the world - the way we screen out forms of life and elements of the natural world that don't fit with established notions of what an ordered society looks like. In some ways, the edgelands also represent a failure of politics. The film-maker Patrick Keiller once suggested that because we no longer have the power or energy to imagine a better world, we now poeticise dilapidation. Or, as the French writer and politician Jules Renard observed: "As a mayor, I am responsible for the upkeep of rural roads. As a poet, I would prefer to see them neglected."

Poets have long found metaphors or symbols for the human condition in such troubled places: T S Eliot's Waste Land is an archetypal example of this. Farley and Roberts also cite lines from writers as various as W H Auden and Philip Larkin, Roy Fisher and Kathleen Jamie to add testimony to their treatise. Poets are indicator species of this terrain.

The authors write about taking photographs, but none of them is published here. It would be fascinating to know why they decided not to include images, given how much attention photography has brought to these sites of contemporary ruin and unmanaged natural succession. Both Farley and Symmons Roberts write frequently for radio, and many of these essays succeed wonderfully as prose poems. One suspects we shall be hearing some of them soon, as well as being able to read them on the page. There are strange kinds of beauty to be found in these "untranslated landscapes", though for many they are still the places where the wild things are. l

Edgelands: Journeys Into England's True Wilderness
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts
Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £12.99

Ken Worpole is a writer, environmentalist and senior professor at the Cities Institute, London Metropolitan University

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants