Whenever William Cobbett came to a new place, he first tested the soil. ‘The soil, which … appears to be more than half flint stones, is very good in quality,’ he wrote of the land near Hurstbourne Tarrant in Hampshire. That between London and Croydon was poor: ‘nasty spewy gravel’. A little further on, towards the Sussex town of East Grinstead, the land was more to his liking: there ‘it is the genuine oak-soil’, he wrote. In the lean years of the early 19th century, Cobbett, sometimes known to contemporaries as ‘The Ranter,’ made his name as a journalist and agricultural activist. Seen from here he was a protean figure: a radical reformist and an anti-establishment maverick, a democrat and a frank racist, backward-looking, choleric, incorruptible, a nationalist, a patriot. In GK Chesterton’s poem ‘The Old Song’ he appears as ‘great Cobbett’, ‘the horseman of the shires, And his face was red with judgement/And a light of Luddite fires’.
Cobbett practised a sort of metonymy of the soil, English earth standing for England, or at least for what was good in England. He idolised the English farmer, a stout bulwark against what he called ‘the Thing’: the establishment, outward-creeping London, all-pervading Capital; the writer Vron Ware describes him as ‘steeped in that particular brand of nationalism that saw his own kind’ – the English – ‘as being uniquely wronged’. But Cobbett knew, too, the feel of soil between his fingers, knew the reality and the physical potential of soil, knew how this soil differed from that soil, and knew its real worth – knew the people whose lives depended upon it.
Old gods grew from soil. The historian Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory draws a connecting line from the primal Germanic deity Tuisto, characterised by Tacitus as deum terra editum, a god born from the soil, to Tacitus’ view of the Germanic people as ‘true indigens, sprung from the black earth of their native land’, and then on to Richard Walther Darré, the originator of the slogan Blut und Boden, blood and soil, and the purity myths of the Third Reich. Such myths die hard, unsurprisingly, given that the Lord God, as Genesis tells us, formed man of the dust of the ground. ‘What if the truth is in the soil?’ asks the novelist and eco-activist Paul Kingsnorth in his 2018 essay ‘Elysium Found?’. ‘What if we are the breath of the land? What if a place creates a people?’
Kingsnorth – briefly lauded as a novelist after his debut The Wake was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize – made his name as co-author of a thundering manifesto that in 2008 launched the Dark Mountain Project, an on-going collaborative tilt at ‘the myth of progress, the myth of human separation from nature, the myth of civilisation’ (these being the primary motors of what Kingsnorth calls the Machine – Cobbett, as we have seen, called it the Thing). The manifesto, like most of Kingsnorth’s work, has one principal underpinning premise: ‘There is a fall coming.’ The looming shadows of complete economic and ecological collapse inform the Dark Mountain philosophy (which, steeped in dread, mouthing dark prophecies, often feels less like a philosophy than a pathology). It’s hard to read much of Kingsnorth’s work without feeling that, for him, it can’t come soon enough. ‘There is an underlying darkness at the root of everything we have built,’ the manifesto asserts. We are wrong. We are broken. We have gone astray.
‘Elysium Found?’ was written to accompany the launch of Paul Wright’s found-footage collage Arcadia, an artful othering of the English pastoral tradition that fits, at least in parts, into what novelist Owen Booth has called ‘the whole new folklore / landscape / Wicker Man / Witchfinder General / lost Albion / 1970s England movement’. ‘Like the land itself, Arcadia provides no answers that can be comfortably categorised,’ Kingsnorth writes.
What Kingsnorth takes from the film is a sense that ‘this is a magic island’ (‘the island known as Great Britain’, he calls it, and elsewhere ‘aboriginal Britain’). ‘Island’ is as important an element in this construction as ‘magic’. Kingsnorth begins his essay with a series of strange alt-history scenarios in which Britain sees off threats from overseas – the Armada, Napoleon, Hitler – by deploying native magic. ‘Witches from different covens across the south of England gather in a pine grove in the New Forest,’ he writes, ‘draw a magic circle, light a fire and raise a great “cone of power”, which they direct at the mind of Hitler in Berlin.’
‘This is a magic island,’ he repeats. ‘It knows how to defend itself.’
What we are left with, in Kingsnorth’s essay, is a vision of a land defined by its boundaries, by ‘in’and ‘out’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, and therefore by ‘us’ and ‘them’. Kingsnorth has said that he is ‘instinctively in favour of small groups of people running their own affairs’, which I suppose is fair enough, although we might then want to ask what we consider ‘our own affairs’, and whether what I do upriver is any business of the people down. But for Kingsnorth, such questions of national identity have always been characterised in terms of opposition. Scotland and Wales, the Celtic fringes of the island, are, he told the New Statesman in 2016, ‘small countries that were attached to a bigger country’. ‘They define themselves against that. So what does the bigger country, England, define itself against?’ This is not insularity, exactly – it is, in a sense, outward-looking (it is on the chalk cliffs, scanning the grey horizon for foes, smeared with woad, shivering in its rabbitskins). But it is concerned with soil mainly in the sense that soil is something you can draw a line in.
Kingsnorth is happy to play loosely with terms like ‘aboriginal’ and ‘indigenous’ in a British context. He has said that Anglophone culture is ‘just as indigenous … as any other [culture] before it became modern’, a false opposition if ever there was one. Such sentences should give the left-wing reader pause, not least because, as the writer and campaigner Guy Shrubsole notes in his recent book on reforestation, ‘the only white people I’d heard making claims to be “indigenous” were fruitcakes and racists’ – not an unfair assessment (the neo-fascist group Patriotic Alternative, for instance, claims that the ‘English, Northern Irish [sic], Scottish and Welsh’ are ‘the indigenous peoples of the United Kingdom and only they have an ancestral claim to it’). This is heavily loaded language. It may be that for Kingsnorth words like ‘indigenous’ are not so much about ancestral ownership or stewardship as they are a sort of shorthand for those he considers the inheritors of ancient bardic wisdom, the keepers of our legends (Dark Mountain ‘claims a particular role for storytellers… in a time when the stories we live by have become untenable’). But in this he would butt up against the arguments of indigenous rights activists like Rosemarie Kuptana, who maintains that the othering of indigenous thinking as ‘traditional knowledge’ – distinct from post-Enlightment definitions of ‘science’ – is limiting and exclusionary. In any case, however the terms are meant, they come freighted with troublesome meanings.
Such talk is seductive. Even Guy Shrubsole, when exploring the forests of western Scotland, is won over by the ‘indigenous activism’ of the Scots Àdhamh Ó Broin and Alistair McIntosh. In particular, he quotes McIntosh’s ‘powerful argument’ that ‘a Celtic spirituality … connecting soil, soul and society manifestly can and does exist’.
Soil in this sense may or may not be more than the stuff we happen to be standing on, more than the matter of the earth at the point where we happen to live or to be born. In any case, McIntosh – a Quaker academic and author, who was brought up on the Isle of Lewis ‘with one foot in an apparently dying indigenous world’ – returns again and again to the soil, as a basis (spiritual, metaphorical, or in some other sense, never fully described) for mutualistic community. In his 2001 book Soil And Soul McIntosh writes that we, ‘like the earthworm’, are ‘an organism of the soil’. He conceives of a ‘re-enchanted’ world in which ‘soil and soul [are] venerated together’ in a ‘higher unity of nature, God and community’. Reflecting on the 1997 community buy-out of Eigg, the island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, McIntosh declares that the island ‘had to be returned to the soil, to the people of the soil’.
McIntosh is a deeply thoughtful and humane writer but he echoes Kingsnorth not only in his recourse to the soil but also in his preliminary diagnosis: that we, in modern Britain, perhaps the modern West more generally, are broken, sick of soul; ‘the great disease of our time is meaninglessness,’ McIntosh argues – we must, he says, ‘get beneath the grassroots of popular culture and down to the eternal taproot’.
‘Britain no longer has a culture,’ says Kingsnorth. ‘Instead, it has a civilisation.’
‘Civilisation is chromium fittings, radio, love with pessary, rubber girdles, perms,’ wrote Henry Williamson, author of the treasured countryside classic Tarka The Otter and a staunch admirer of Adolf Hitler. ‘Civilisation is white sepulchral bread, gin and homosexual jokes in the Shaftesbury Avenue theatres. Civilisation is world-citizenship and freedom from tradition.’
Hugh Massingham, like Williamson a popular writer on nature and the countryside, as well as being a sceptic of ‘progress’, bureaucracy, rationalism and formal education – and another anti-semite – wrote in 1941 of a displaced populace, ‘uprooted from our homeland, and sickening, withering in our urban pot’. This was one of the overriding preoccupations of England’s pre-war organicist movement (a movement that, not incidentally, interleaved in complex and often contradictory ways with the rise of Mosleyite fascism): that ‘modern man’, the man of the city and suburb, the man with the radio and the telephone, had in some terrible and probably fatal way been cut off from the soil.
Salvation lay in countryside communities. The journalist HV Morton wrote hopefully in his 1927 bestseller In Search of England of a ‘happy country-side … guarding the traditions of the race.’ Progress, civilisation, capital, rationalised agriculture – these were the enemies ranged against the peasant, the land, and the laws of nature.
Comparisons are perhaps unfair. Still, though, we might have questions about McIntosh’s ‘people of the soil’. McIntosh has elsewhere outlined his vision of a communitarian nation: ‘Diversity and differences of opinion will be not just tolerated, but valued,’ he said, ‘provided that, within the wider framework of honouring the spirit of [a nation], they pull towards the greater goal. However, if they violate this, then the organisational immune system can be expected to come in to play. A right balance will be restored between what is central to the organisation and what pulls it off-centre.’
We might ask what this greater goal is, and who says so. We might also ask what the spirit of a nation is, and who says so, and whether in this communion of soul and soil there is a place for those of us who have no concept of a soul, and still less of a god, or for those of us born far from nourishing soil, who have always walked on brick, concrete, tarmac, and have never felt worse off for it, never lacked community, never knew that we were meaningless. We certainly might have questions about this organisational immune system – we might well wonder how it works, exactly, how it comes about, this organic self-governance; who runs it, who oversees it, or to whom it is accountable.
The cultural geographer David Matless, exploring pre-war country leisure movements in his essential study Landscape And Englishness, introducesthe concept of the ‘anti-citizen’, a counterpoint to ‘landscaped citizenship’; generally working-class, and probably a Cockney to boot, the anti-citizen breaches ‘national good form’ by picking flowers, playing records in the countryside, leaving litter, and so on. ‘The encouragement of meaningful access to the country,’ he writes, ‘assumes an unbridgeable and hierarchical cultural geographical divide, whereby if one enjoyed, for example, loud music and saucy seaside humour, one could not and would not want to connect spiritually to a hill.’ ‘An inclusive nation,’ Matless says, ‘rested upon exclusion.’
This premise, I think, marks the extent to which we can reasonably speak of a benevolent nativism. When an ideology founded on insularity, on holding and nurturing what we have, lifts its eyes to a farther horizon – as it must, eventually – then communitarian concerns about fairminded citizenship and so on are forced to budge over to make room for other ideas: non-citizens, foreign soils, edges, borders.
But perhaps there are conceptions of place and belonging, even of a British rural indigeneity, where the local outweighs the general, where here means here, us us and this this, as opposed to not-there, not-you, not-that. Geoffrey Grigson satirised the ‘parish habits’ of British writing on nature and the countryside – venerable habits indeed, even if we only go back to Gilbert White’s eighteenth century Selborne – but there is of course great value in specialisation, in what we might call a vertical rather than a horizontal angle of approach, even where one’s specialism isn’t an insect or fungus or even a habitat but only the ground beneath one’s feet.
Ronald Blythe, the author of the celebrated account of English country life Akenfield, died in January, at the age of 100. In two landmark essays, An Inherited Perspective and The Dangerous Idyll, Blythe – native, inasmuch as one can be, to the countryside of the Suffolk-Essex border – interrogated what it means really to be of a place, a village, a tract of earth. The former begins with the 19th-century rural poet John Clare, and the village of Helpston, Clare’s ‘tiny, yet hugely sufficient world’: ‘When they shifted him out of his parish,’ Blythe writes, ‘he began to disintegrate.’
‘His essential requirements in landscape were minimal and frugal, like those of certain plants that do best in a narrow pot of unchanged soil,’ he says of Clare, then proceeds to the argument that ‘the majority of what are called regional poets and novelists’ choose, as Clare did, ‘the local view’, in return for ‘accepting an element of imprisonment’ as a condition: ‘Their feeling for nature and the landscape of man deepens when it remains hedged about by familiar considerations.’ Blythe describes Clare’s relationship with Helpston as ‘the indigenous eye at its purest’, which seems crucial to Blythe’s conception of people and place. Even at the heart of community, it’s the I that matters, the subjective perspective – and not without good reason, as Blythe, returning again to John Clare in ‘The Dangerous Idyll’, asks: ‘What is a man’s identity? Of what does it actually consist? That self which only he can feel or see? Or the conglomerate of job, address, appearance, class and inherited name by which society recognises him?’
To be a native, Blythe says, once meant to be ‘a born thrall’; poor, anomalous Clare, a poet muttering behind the plough, certainly knew a good deal about the subjugations of individuality associated with class and labour. And yet Clare’s identity – his inner identity, as an artist, yes, but above all as a free man, ‘a soul unshackled like eternity’ – was realised through, and not in spite of, his intense and inescapable personal identification with place.
This is landscape as a personal preoccupation, ‘belonging’ not as a societal good, to be commodified and parcelled out to the worthy, but as a component of a lived experience, idiosyncratic, non-transferrable, perhaps a character trait, perhaps something more like a symptom. We find the same thing, and plentifully, in Blythe himself, and his short essays from the Suffolk village of Wormingford – ‘these pieces,’ Alexandra Harris has described them, ‘which are variously related to sermons, diary entries, letters, prose poems and meditations’. Blythe wrote on his countryside with flair as well as clarity (he was, whatever his theme, one of the great English prose writers of his century), but his insularity was profound. ‘The average home landscape,’ he writes, of ‘traditional’ rural communities, in An Inherited Perspective, ‘entailed more looking down than looking around’ – and this is true of his own work, in a general sense, as seasons come and go, the world turns, and we remain with Blythe in Wormingford, always in Wormingford, with the postmen and woodpeckers and books upon books and church bells and hornets and birds’ nests and a cat – and we are never moved, really, to lift our eyes from the soil. The hope, I suppose, is of seeing, with William Blake, a world in a grain of sand (or, with Julian of Norwich, all of Creation in a hazelnut) – the idea is that by seeing clearly what is close and (seemingly) small we can better understand, even without really looking at it, what is far-off and (seemingly) big. There is certainly more intelligent humanity in a quiet spring morning with Blythe (‘Pear blossom. Six a.m. tea. Matins for a dozen in the chancel. Making my sweet pea wigwam’) than in Paul Kingsnorth’s sweeping dreams of aboriginal England.
The personal is political, of course, and the local can never be purely local. What do they know of Wormingford, we might ask, who only Wormingford know? But there are politics of borders, races, nations, and there are politics of love, belonging, politics of home. They are different even if they can’t ever be entirely discrete. From our beginning, our home place and whatever it is that ties us to it, we can go the first way, scale up our feeling for the soil we know to build a monstrous sort of bastard patriotism (forgetting all we know about scale, proportion, why an oak can’t grow two hundred cubits high, and why no fairytale giant could ever bear its own weight) – or we can use our roots for thinking with, work at finding what is large in the small, and try to flourish in a small plot. There are certainly vast worlds within some important recent works on landscape, place and belonging: Vron Ware’s Return Of A Native and Nicola Chester’s On Gallows Down, for instance (both have roots in the chalk of the North Wessex Downs; both raise the problematic ghost of Willam Cobbett); Amanda Thomson’s Belonging, too. These are examinations, interrogations, of home and home-feelings. Chester in particular describes a hard-earned belonging, one fiercely contested, over and through the course of a life, of ‘anxious stockchecking’ and practical protest (against destruction, erosion, eviction); this is not about happenstances of birthplace, or even, fundamentally, about the place itself, but about what a person and a place can make together, whether they want to or not.
‘The indigenous man,’ writes Blythe, ‘will occasionally look up from his disturbance of the surface of the territory as he earns his living, to draw into him all that lies around him in a subconscious search for transcendence. From childhood on, what he sees, he is.’
Is there a nativism in this? Are there here, too, hierarchies of belonging, right citizens and wrong citizens, foundational myths of ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’? There are, I suppose, claims of possession, as there are so often when we speak of love and belonging (what belongs to whom, and who to what?) – but as rural communities often understand better than the rest of us, with their tied cottages and lives lived on other people’s land, possession is not always a simple question of laws and deeds.
We are shaped by our landscapes. They might be green or grey, wide-open or built-up, they might be here or there or anywhere, we might not have chosen them, we might not love them, we might not even like them, but they shape us, no less than we have shaped them. In this sense we are, as Kingsnorth says, ‘the breath of the land’ – but for one thing that is by no means all we are, and, for another, we are each an ‘I’ within the ‘we’, and by the same token the soil under my two feet is not the same as the soil under yours. Our relations with our home stations in the landscape are not held in common, but are made new by each person and each place; there are as many ways of belonging as there are of loving, or of being loved – as many ways as there are people on the earth.