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2 June 2022

The myth of England’s rural idyll

The countryside is not a peaceful refuge from urban life, writes Vron Ware in Return of a Native, but a place haunted by the violent upheavals that have shaped the modern world.

By Phoebe Braithwaite

Vron Ware’s Return of a Native: Learning from the Land opens at a crossroads. Wandering down an unkempt lane that runs through a seemingly random patch of countryside, Ware is met by an antique signpost complete with an O-shaped finial that tells her she is in the gorse-smattered scrubland of Hampshire’s Pill Heath. One of its posts points towards her childhood home, the hamlet of Wildhern, one and three eighths of a mile away.

But she soon finds that one of its posts has been sawn off in an apparently random act of vandalism. “The finger pointing west isn’t there anymore. It’s as if someone has simply hacked it off.” This sense of the familiar becoming strange, even threatening, recurs in Return of a Native, which takes a plot of north-west Hampshire for its psycho-geographic inquiry into the meanings of rural life. Departing London to visit her elderly mother, Ware’s journey prompts her to see afresh the patch of countryside that is her place of birth.

This crossroads is also metaphorical. The book is drawn onwards by different sorts of crisis: in dairy farming, affordable housing, soil quality, the destruction of natural habitats. “As I stand here counting the red kites, in awe of the skylark as it sings its head off ascending vertically above the corn, I also feel a pang of hope that life can come back and the ground can recover, and that the damage done over centuries might be reversible,” Ware writes.

Readers may feel that they, too, are met by a sense of crisis. In this context, the book reads like a surreptitious set of clues. Faced with the prospect of ecological catastrophe, the unaddressed sources of Brexit, the “systematic immiseration” wrought by austerity, a political climate evermore degraded, with morbid symptoms of so many different sorts, Ware reroutes these large-scale issues through the ecological prism of this “nowhere-in-particular place”, marshalling what she calls a “slow ethnography” to suggest a different kind of care and attention as a counter to our etiolated age.

A large and even unwieldy work, Return of a Native evokes a commonplace book – scrapped-together bits of magpie knowledge trace the process of understanding one’s experience. Each of its ten chapters offer a snapshot of Wildhern and the land that surrounds it. These chapters are headed by a small drawing of a striated field (we assume Ware is the artist, as on the cover painting) and an inset contents page outlining the associative connections to come, proceeding to examine, for example, local land ownership, corporate holdings, rural riots, women’s work, imperial underpinnings, freak killings, country lore, and the transformation of agricultural practices under industrial capitalism. What emerges from its circuitous excursion into this past and present place is a study of how we arrived at this juncture and where we go to now.

Through the archaeological tranches of its history, Return unravels a “hackneyed perception of rural England” from a place that makes no claims to being special. “There’s little that is spectacular here,” Ware writes. “It’s more of an on-the-way spot.” The rural is recast not as some neglected backwater, picture-postcard totem or remote idyll kept clear of modernity’s smoke and bellows, but as a real place of the present, thoroughly imbricated in the ongoing processes of what, in Ware’s terms, it “took to became modern”.

In 1951, the Festival of Britain commissioned a series of guidebooks on England’s counties, edited by the poet Geoffrey Grigson, which were designed to showcase a nation “alert, ready for the future”. The volume on Wessex, written by Grigson himself, defined its ancient kingdom as “the primal heart of England, if not of Great Britain”. Wessex “broadly face[s] the great thoroughfare of the Channel. They beckon across no great width of sea to France and continental Europe.”

Ware notes that Grigson couldn’t decide whether Wessex was in fact the heart of the country. “The heart is not in the centre of the human body,” he went on, and it did not become a national economic centre, hobbled by a lack of iron in the soil and rivers too narrow for commerce. Still it vied for arterial centrality, as Grigson saw it, because of Stonehenge and Avebury – “the primeval St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey of England-before-the-English”. Grigson cited Henry James’s excursion to Stonehenge in the 1880s – except he misquoted James, burnishing his sense of awe by taking his impression of its “pathless vaults” out of its more sceptical context. Ware, with typical exactness, pares back this historical swagger: for James it was also “a hackneyed shrine of pilgrimage”, and that, as Ware writes, “was decades before the Visitors’ Centre was even an idea on someone’s drawing board”.

Like Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the scrubbier hamlet of Pill Heath and the landscape Ware describes – sarsen stones at Winchester Cathedral, “coconutty flowers sprinkled among green thorns” – have their own hidden rhythms, rhythms more deeply enmeshed with those of human life than we moderns like to admit. Return drives into these depths. As Henry James observed: “There is something in Stonehenge almost reassuring to the nerves, if” – for Ware that “if” is crucial – “you are disposed to feel that the life of man has rather a thin surface, and that we soon get to the bottom of things, the immemorial grey pillars may serve to represent for you the pathless vaults beneath the house of history.”

The sheer materiality of this book – its interest in the soil’s acidity or municipal bureaucracy – will be too much for some readers, but it is also central to its meaning: getting to the root of things is a painstaking activity. Towards the end of Return, Ware is puzzled by the number of planning applications near Pill Heath that falter due to the protection of bat habitats. The conversion of a disused chapel into a dwelling, for example, is held up not because of local opposition but because the common pipistrelle – Pipistrellus pipistrellus – was seen entering the roof gable.

Sifting through the endless minutiae of local governance, Ware reflects that this degree of detail can feel overwhelming. The world is too thoroughly mapped; “there are too many threads to weave together in a tidy plait”. At the same time, this threatening prospect poses a great provocation to human agency. Can we rise to the democratic challenge that confronts us? Are we up to it? What tools do we need? One of the texts Ware rallies to her cause is David Wengrow and David Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything, with their insight that agriculture co-existed with hunter-gathering in ancient societies, meaning that people changed the way they organised their communities on a yearly basis. Like the divine right of kings, capitalism, as Ursula Le Guin had it, is something we make, and it can just as easily be unmade.

Return also seems pitched towards quarters of the left that herald the emancipatory potential of rampant technological advancement. Ware draws her more organic approach, attuned to motions and textures of nature, against the machinic logics that govern our lives as citizens. As in the epigraph she takes from Adrienne Rich, theory is not simply a practice of abstraction but “a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over”. It is in this spirit that Ware tells the story of mass agricultural production as one of depletion. As Marx wrote in Capital, “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.”

Revisiting the gory process by which human remains – whether faecal matter or their bodies – have been recycled as fertiliser, as well as the various gimmicks masquerading as nutritional innovation – Justus von Liebig’s Extract of Meat, fortified “humanised milk”, a process known an “chickenisation” after Arthur W Perdue opened a hatchery of fast-growing hens in 1925, or today’s impossible meat from soybean leghemoglobin – Ware finds this “nowhere-in-particular place” enmeshed in the web of globalisation. In 2019, for example, robots in one of Hampshire’s automated Ocado plants malfunctioned, caught fire, cost 800 jobs and £98.5m.

This patch of Hampshire is also a microcosm of England’s broader post-colonial melancholia. Whether through the role of local landowners, the Pollens, in the enslavement of people in what is now Guyana, or in Nigel Farage’s hate-stoking publicity stunt in Hampshire’s Barton Stacey, this place is thoroughly implicated in the post-imperial matrix of modern Britain. Ware is at pains to understand her “nativity” from this perspective.

Return of a Native was written twice, revised over the past year more than 20 years after its first draft in the late 1990s for publication. Accordingly, its semi-ethnographic conversations with inhabitants of Ware’s hometown, with Sheila Webb, Frank Dyer and Roly Clark, go back to these decades-old cassette recordings and show how drastically this environment has changed.

For all its forensics, there are moments of exultation to be found here, arriving without fanfare – in the purpling of turnips, the turn of the seasons, the partridges, the yellowhammers, the rooks. Held together by a restrained autobiographical glue that tells of her mother’s ageing and her father’s earlier decline, it conveys its sense of loss while refusing to succumb to Luddism, sentimentality and nostalgia. A paean to what Raymond Williams once called “our vital associative life”, Return of a Native tugs at the untold filaments that tie who we are to where we come from.

The genre of nature writing – to which this makes a novel and uneasy contribution – has burgeoned in recent years. But where Robert Macfarlane’s Underland or Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing are concerned with the lyrical life of extremes, Ware’s Pill Heath is avowedly more subdued, more parochial in kind, a desolate, acid-earthed, gorse-covered place recorded in prose. And why should that moniker – parochial – be pejorative, it asks: the parish has its lessons too.

[See also: How nostalgia fuels the culture wars]

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