Book Review of Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness

edgelands book review Edgelands are the spaces outside of towns and cities that play host to a rough element. Largely considered no-man’s-land, they too deserve attention, Marion Shoard argues. Two poets respond to the call.

The term edgelands was coined in 2003 by Marion Shoard.  She wrote, “The expanses of no-man’s-land which have sprung up on the margins of our towns and cities play host to a mix of uses characteristic of our age. Rough and ready in the naked functionalism of their edifices and in the lawlessness and vigour of their natural vegetation, these places are unappreciated by the arbiters of landscape taste, but they too have their story and their needs. The time has come to give these ‘edgelands’ their due and recognise them as landscapes in their own right.”

Answering Shoard

In their book Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have done what Shoard requested, presenting a non-fictional celebration of these marginal spaces.  Perhaps, like the process of identifying our own personal limits and boundaries, beginning to understand what happens on the outskirts of our habitable spaces will help us to love and understand these edgelands better, rather than simply regard their rag tag spaces as necessary evils.

This book handles an extraordinary breadth of subject matter with individual chapters that cover different types of edgeland spaces or characteristics, including subjects such as wasteland, dens, landfill, sewage, wire, ruins, piers, mines and bridges.  The writing is not encyclopaedic, more a meditative contemplation, often drifting back and forth within and in-and-out of the declared topic to wander off at a tangent.

The art of the edge

The authors pose the question (and then go on to answer it by example) of how exactly poets can cope with barbed wire fencing and IKEA car parks without becoming prosaic?  How do the metaphors we use about journeying fit in with post- and pre-industrialised spaces?  If Robert Frost regretted missing the path “less travelled by” then the authors characterise their own spiritual path as “a track worn down by dog-walkers and schoolkids, on the outskirts of a north-west English conurbation.

It would start on scrappy grass, then weave its way through a copse of feral trees.  Every now and then a makeshift den or tree house can be seen, or a water tower looming where the trees peter out.  Charred bonfire patches crop up on one side or the other, and the sky is overcast above.”

The book takes many other examples from art,  literature and music to illustrate its thesis: from Marilene Oliver’s sculptures featuring text messages, through the poetry of Philip Gross about communication mast platforms and Keith Arnatt’s photograpy of rubbish to the music of The Fall about container drivers.

There are also painters whose work represents the edgeland landscapes of England, including David Rayson and  George Shaw.  Perhaps we need these artists to moderate some of these landscapes for us, to be able to see their peculiar beauty.  The struggle to perceive is one that the authors document when they describe the act of searching, as adults, for present-day dens that match those of their own childhoods, “…you are aware of how differently you see this world, how you can no longer get your eye in, or realise the imaginative potential in what you see.”

There are plenty of fanciful imaginings of potential in this book.  Self-storage facilities as shrines or temples of contemplation to escape from consumerism rather than spaces in which to store its excesses. Rats are considered as possible communications repeaters, murderers guilty of disposing of their victims to landfill, commuters capable of plucking herbs in the ruins of supermarkets. It is a co-written book, presented in a singular first person plural voice but that ‘first person combined’ voice is not an impersonal one, rather it is something highly individualistic.

At one point the authors list, like verses, the wild flowers that flourish on the wasteland of different cities, following each stanza with the constant refrain of exactly the same array of shopping chains that exist in all locations.

Out of sight, out of mind

“Rubbish is part of the texture of edgelands….The edgelands become a place of forgetting, never more so than when they are used for dumping or for landfill.”  Graffiti and litter are recurring themes in this book, but often they can be swallowed up and hidden by colonising wild plants.

The authors are insistent that edgeland spaces are transient places, always subject to change.  “Edgelands ruins contain a collage of time, built up in layers of mould and pigeon shit, in the way a groundsel rises through a crack in a concrete floor open to the elements.  They turn space inside out….Encountering the decay and abandonment of these places is to be made more aware than ever that we are only passing through; that there is something much bigger than us.”  They also argue that edgelands are some of the most biodiverse environments in England.

In some ways the spaces that fight out the battle between humanity and nature are those in which flora and fauna are taking back for themselves. The former landfill site, Salt Ayre, Lancaster became ‘an unplanned ecosystem’. Gulls established a large colony, attracted by edible rubbish.  Human scavengers settled there too, for what profits could be made, and Salt Ayre once even provided the final resting place for a forty-foot fin whale that had been stranded in Morecambe Bay.

Swaddywell Pit, Peterborough, once a dump is now a nature reserve. “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 the air….Insects and birds and wildflowers are not interested in aesthetics.  All that matters is a biological opportunity.”  Of course, unregulated dumping is no friend to the environment and examples such as some Lebanese landfill sites show what a threat it can present.

The edge of the world

This book is about very English landscapes and spaces.  The mention of “true wilderness”  in the title reminds us that many so-called ‘rural’ spaces in the United Kingdom are closely managed. Woodland is often intensively planted for timber; the National Parks and designated long-distance footpaths are controlled and maintained for leisure purposes; watercourses are strictly managed to maintain levels, supplies and prevent flooding.

Of course, the authors are writing about the edgelands of a country which is not at war with itself or its  neighbours. In times of conflict, some unoccupied, boundary spaces can become far more contested and politically charged, such as the Iraqi Marshlands.  However, the concepts discussed in this book and the device of closely observing and recording could be translated and applied to any country at any stage of development.

For example, the book quotes Jimmie Durham describing the Arkansas of his childhood in the 1940s-50s, “…towns still had edges, no-man’s lands, that were not yet the surrounding farms…where the city’s refuse was casually dumped, so that the edge of town was not a ‘natural’ place. There lived racoons, opossums, rats, snakes, bobcats, skunks, hobos who were in fact outlaws(not homeless street people), families of African Americans and displaced Indians. All of us, shunned by the city, used the city’s surplus.”

It would be fascinating to read similar narratives that chronicle the edgelands of the Middle East. How much of their sights, sounds and smells would be similar and how much would differ from those of England’s edgelands.

For example, the idea of ‘allotment’ gardens for growing vegetables is a very British idea and the plots are often situated in archetypal edgeland spaces.  But a very similar 21st century Urban Farming movement has emerged from Detroit and spread throughout the United States and internationally.  Today there are urban farming movements in both Israel and Egypt and it is the “waste ground, rooftops, industrial ruins, lost spaces” that become fruitful growing places in cities and on their edges.

Whether urbanisation and industrialisation is expanding, has reached a steady-state, or is in flux and decline, there will always be outer edges and frontiers where settlements meet untenanted and unworked areas of land.  It is to be hoped that Shoard’s challenge to describe these environments will be taken up in the Middle East and around the world.

Reviewer Pauline Masurel is a gardener and writer who lives in the United Kingdom near Bristol.  She is a regular reviewer of fiction for The Short Review website and has reviewed books for Amateur Gardening magazine.  Her own short stories have been published in anthologies, broadcast on BBC radio and featured online.  She was a runner up in the 2010 Chapter One International Short Story competition and is a member of the storytelling group Heads & Tales. More about her own writing can be found on her website www.unfurling.net.

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