The soils of the North Carolina Piedmont, where I live, are some of the oldest in the world. They were tuckered well before tobacco exhausted them, back when these low slopes and soggy bottoms were home to ginseng and giant sloths. (A sharp-eyed walker will still find occasional ginseng.) I just learned this fact, and it struck me as incongruous. The red clay and occasional sandy plateau here feel recently ripped from the kiln of creation, maybe not born yesterday, but, say, maybe eight times as old as the cul-de-sac developments that score the terrain, and maybe four times older than the ancient log tobacco barns that sag in second-growth forests amidst interstates, malls, and bicycle paths.
Around the same time I learned about the age of the local soils, I was reading two books: E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, the vivacious doorstop study of ordinary people’s political and cultural agency during the Industrial Revolution, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, a deliberately out-of-focus fantasy novel concerning trauma and collective amnesia in an imaginary post-Roman Britain. These very different books share the quality of taking place in an ancient-feeling landscape: although neither author makes much of it, both can set a chord vibrating with a stroke of a place-name, with the evocation of a hill or fen.
Thompson’s book is nearly the antithesis of picturesque and sentimental landscape writing, but in it geography is never more than a sentence away: a standard bushel measure originates in the North Devon Agricultural Society; laborers calling themselves the Regulators imposed a “popular price” on provisions in the Thames Valley, in Abingdon, Newbury, and Maidstone; in Nottingham, women streaked a half-penny loaf of bread with red ochre and affixed black crape to symbolize “bleeding famine”; the body of ex-soldier Thomas Spencer, who led Regulators into Halifax from surrounding villages, was flanked by miles of mourners when his funeral cart followed the Calder Valley upstream to his home and burial place. These examples come almost at random, from just a few pages of more than eight hundred.
This steady rhythm of place-names and terrain infuses a chthonic, earth-born quality into the human action he details. One time he comes out and says it. Writing of Dan Taylor, “a Yorkshire collier who had worked in the pit from the age of five and who had been converted by the Methodists,” who “built his own meeting-house, digging the stone out of the moors above Hebden Bridge and carrying it on his own back” and went on to walk 25,000 miles to preach 20,000 sermons, Thompson concludes: “he came from neither the Particular nor the General Baptist Societies: spiritually, perhaps, he came from Bunyan’s inheritance, but literally he just came out of the ground.”
Actually, everyone in Thompson’s story feels as if they came from the ground, and had some of it clinging to them, with its defining chemistry, coloring, and scent, in the moment of their decisive acts. Without saying so (not more than once, anyway), Thompson manages to conjure up that most un-Marxist and un-academic thought, that the land itself was somehow aligned with the populist and radical ancestors of English socialism.
Ishiguro does, too: the landscape his protagonists cross in search of their own misplaced pasts is washed of detail by general amnesia and made unfamiliar by sword-and-sorcery details. But its blankness is poignant, suggestive rather than simply dull, because one has some feel for the richness, past and (relative to Ishiguro’s Arthurian world) yet to come, that the amnesia occludes.
What is covered up in Ishiguro’s telling is everything that is effortlessly present to Thompson’s: places, and people’s habitation of them as a source and form of memory. Such habitation is, to use a phrase, a very present absence in Ishiguro’s England. The forgetting is terrible, the empty space unsettling, because of the knowledge that there was, and would be, so much to forget.
Clearly I have changed the subject. Or, rather, these two books turned the topic away from soil science, because what makes Thompson and Ishiguro’s England(s) seem so ancient has almost nothing to do with geology’s deep time, and everything to do with geography’s human resonance. The significance of these terrains is in how richly they have been imagined, narrated, and remembered.
This can be quite anachronistic to the literal story: John Clare, Thomas Hardy, and William Wordsworth are all part of the present absence in Ishiguro, and provide some of the resonance in Thompson’s place-names, whether or not the colliers and crofters could have known them. This resonance doesn’t depend on all of these poems and novels being housed in one’s own mental library: it is partly a product of well-founded faith that others are holding these references in their minds, that all knowers of a place could contribute, stone-soup-like, to build around its naked name a circulating flow of recollection and evocation, across all social layers and kinds of experience, and deep into the past.
To my mind, the most apt memorial to this joint-and-several mental habitation is the footpath. Typically, no one made it. Often, when you use it, you have it to yourself. Although a few paths are associated with pilgrimage or conquest, most are pedestrian in every sense, the landscape trace of everyday work and sociability. Why is this path here? Because people needed to get their sheep to pasture, needed a way to the stream, needed to get to the neighbors in order not to be so alone. The path memorializes what otherwise would have no memorial, would be forgotten the next day, is so unmemorable precisely because it would be repeated the next day, or the next week. And that entirely forgettable repetition is why it becomes indelible in the place. This kind of memory is the sum of habitation.
War memorials do not sum up long habitation, but try to corral the meaning of its traumatic disruption. In his short Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln spoke of the dead as “dedicating,” “consecrating,” and “hallowing” the battlefield. Maybe; but this feels monstrous to me. Maybe there is an impulse to treat violence as sacred because what it would say about the world if it were mundane – Latin mundanus, of the world – would be too awful.
Ruins, too, are something different from a record of slow habitation. Because they come from somewhere else – sometime else – and because they are fragments of the world that made them, they are uncanny, intrusions from a different order, marks of discontinuity. They do not fit the pattern of habitation. They defy concrete and ready understanding.
In this sense, we live among ruins. Our roads, suburbs, and malls break the terrain that holds them, and depart from its past uses, as dramatically as a Roman aqueduct or Moghul ruin breaks the pattern of a leafy suburb. An alien past, an abrupt present: each intrudes in the same way on what surrounds it. But the alien past is forever being eroded and shrunk. The abrupt present expands its ruins.
There is a scene in travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines in which an aboriginal Australian, traveling by car across the Outback, sings quietly at a pace too fast to be understood. He is reciting a song of the landscape, made to guide, accompany, and entertain a party of walkers, reciting the origin myths, the uses (edible plants, watering holes), and the routes among the places the car is passing. In much of the United States, the situation is just the opposite: the memory and stories of landscapes were formed, first at the pace of imperial expansion and frontier settlement, then at the speed of the train and the car, now from the window seat of a plane. The scale is too big, the resolution too loose, for dense associations. Where E.P. Thompson’s rabble-rousing ex-soldier went up the Calder Valley to be buried, we might send a hero back to the Midwest, or to Texas – a region, an attitude, but not quite a place.
I am told that sometimes the demented find their way home from wandering even when they no longer know who they are. A sense of where you are survives a sense of who you are. Apparently it is more elemental than identity, that most basic term in our culture and politics.
But footpaths, those records of the implicit, communal sense of place, are all recreation and nostalgia now. What most of us have left is a landscape that might have been designed to defy being held in mind, and so to seem always recent and fleeting. It is a landscape of fragments.
One compensation: in fragmented places, the eye seizes on detail in lieu of pattern. I can take you to a silver beech where I recently found a lone morel, and a northern red oak at the top of a short, steep slope, that both catch the light in a certain way -in the late afternoon and the early morning, respectively. Between one suburban road and a utility easement is a patch of watercress that grows strongly by February, even in a cold year. There are a few weeks when, on one high flat, the papyrus-like beech leaves are the only sign of the last year’s life, and they glow like a paper lantern, as if lit from within.
These glimpses do not yet make the place feel whole or familiar. But maybe if I forgot myself, they could still help me find my way.
Jedediah Purdy: A way with rebar.