I haven’t always thought it dangerous to fetishize the English countryside. For a long time, it stood against town as a site for relief, where I might think about some of the things that living and working among people obliged me to think about, a place onto which I could project my fantasies of a quiet life. To do this, I had to accept some of the idylls that have induced a weird fug of ahistorical fancy to settle indefinitely on England—just in order to think that any time I spent there could only be worthwhile, good for me, healthy. But what makes the countryside peculiar is that even historicizing it can’t on its own rescue a personal experience of the space from sentimentality or passivity. There is a risk to writing about it at all. Especially in the wake of Sebald, one could be forgiven for thinking that the countryside is filled with academically minded introverts seeking cultural corroboration for serious feelings that have driven them into this green hush or sublimating an historical tragedy into a ruggedly stoical kind of pastoral.
Maybe it’s a good thing that there isn’t much countryside within walking distance of where I live. Just a set of small fields with a public right of way that forms an agreeable loop around my neighborhood, sometimes running parallel to the busy main road that forms part of a tangle of similar roads in the Midlands; sometimes suggesting a depth of possibility and getting lost that aren’t much compromised by the shortness of the loop. It starts as a path that slopes and curves around the back of a large and beautiful, old-seeming farmhouse, with ornamental timbers suggesting an older style and an undulant sweep of neat lawn. Past a stile, the path runs along a flat column of meadow, with a coppice on one side and pasture on the other. After a small gate, the path curves up onto the pasture, where occasionally you might see a few cows, and then a large rectangular field that backs onto houses and gardens. Here, the path becomes one among several tracks that have been grooved into the land and smothered by tall tufts of grass. The path curves back towards the main road, although some of it leads on into a cultivated field I haven’t yet explored.
Much of the land nearby belonged to the estate of a local aristocratic family whose line ended in the 1980s. The old buildings were nationalized, but long before that, the estate was broken up. Local property developers built houses and then compiled suburbs out of the houses. An ordinance from the Thatcher government restricted development along the road to prevent two neighboring towns from gumming together. Between and around the major conurbations of the area lie the new sites of industry, the Amazon distribution hubs, logistics firms and contact centers that have added an unlovely layer of inscrutability to the surrounding countryside, shutting up large swathes of land inside vast warehouses along with as many people—the fewer the better—as can operate them.
I have been walking through these fields regularly enough for the last couple of years, and during that time, some posts and plastic netting have been set up to establish a material distinction between the garden of the house and the public path. For years, people must have been skirting the edges of that garden. I don’t know how many people trespassed on the land or threatened the house, if anyone did. There were never any plants that might be damaged, just that lawn, rolling up to the winding woodland, although now there’s an additional barrier of untended weeds and nettles on both sides of the fence. I can’t help but take this introduction of an enclosure personally. I resent the implicit suspicion as well as having to traverse a narrow pathway across uneven ground with nettles on either side, though I know this private hurt mirrors the original impulse of the homeowners to erect an ugly and protective fence around their home.
It’s not their domestic pride I mind though. The dominant social practice of English public life is accommodating oneself to the loudly expressed impatience or frustration of others, which usually doesn’t need to disrupt whatever you might be trying to do. In fact, retail has reprogrammed so much of our ordinary experience that not only does the airy genuflection of customer service constitute a professional creed for a great number of people, including me, when I’m in work, but it seems to have reordered our emotional logic. It isn’t that anyone expects to appease an inexplicably infuriated person, more that we try not to respond to one person’s aggression with some of our own.
We much prefer to be surprised by anger, just so we can say it’s an anomaly. We would quite like to think of ourselves as the reasonable ones. Any frustration we might feel or express is justifiable for being so rare. That there might be something to gain from pondering our unreasonable frustrations is a truth that has eluded us to debilitating effect. What I like about walking across this suite of fields is the regular opportunity to forget about the things I want, to decouple expectation from experience.
Part of what I’m saying is that the field is a reliable presence. I see what I always see, though the small herd of cattle might be somewhere different each time, the dog-walkers could be new faces to me, and there are the obvious seasonal changes, though they are reduced to a rough binary of leaves or no leaves. But appearances barely graze my thoughts. Here, I’m able to return to difficult ideas, or phrases from other languages I’m trying to learn, or works of art I’m obstinately out of sympathy with. Before the second gate, I often look up another track which beetles towards the portion of road I live off, over a hillock that rounds the skyline like a hunched shoulder. I rarely take this track because it guarantees only the briefest of constitutionals, and the ground is even more uneven, the light poor. So many excuses! But it does look impressive from where I stand, like a necessary structural adjustment to the landscape.
It’s very tempting to dwell on the aesthetic convenience of places. The art critic Adrian Stokes begins the chapter of his biographical study Michelangelo devoted to the artist’s sculpture by arguing “the ideal way to experience painting in Italy is first to examine olive terraces and their farms, then fine streets of the plain houses, before entering a gallery.” I like this, but it leaves me wondering how you might follow an experience of a scene that might only be memorable because it’s overfamiliar, not because it corresponds to a work of art. I take the walk because it helps me to clear my head, but surely there has to be a way that this space inflects my thoughts while I read and listen from the comfort of my home?
Stokes was a patient and protégé of Melanie Klein, and it was Klein’s account of the infant’s primal oneness with the mother and then aggressive resentment of the mother’s withdrawal that enabled Stokes to construct his theoretical apparatus for understanding the creative process. This he divides into “carving” and “modeling,” really his two terms for an uneasily familiar dialectic between general and particular. Sometimes he seems eager to admit his beloved form is so much more complicated than his frame allows, particularly when he details Michelangelo’s commitment to the art. “He valued in sculpture parts of the rough stone that will collaborate in revealing the particular nude; uncover the emotional process of searching the block; add to depth and vivification; allow the worked forms to suggest both emergence and shelter, a slow uncoiling that borrows from the block the ideal oneness, timelessness, singleness of pristine states.”
One thing I certainly learned from the book was that Michelangelo was original in his appreciation of the seriousness of unfinished work; that he was the first artist to appreciate the expressive potential of untreated material, which must help, if, like Michelangelo, you are obliged to spend months inspecting marble in a quarry at the behest of a pope. But Michelangelo’s discovery, which seems to have relied to some extent on a respect for the temporal distance of Classical art from the fifteenth century, was in no way an act of negation. Far from the polished decay of contemporary work like Basinski’s Disintegration Loops or those abstract paintings where large portions of canvas are left unprimed, Michelangelo’s sculptures were intended to be not only more dramatic, but positively heroic, shrugging off “the oppression of marble weight” and finding vindication in the “disencumberment” that Stokes sees in the famous marble David. There’s something provisional to our experience of works like this. “We despise them a little,” DeLillo says, perhaps because they’re meant to stay around, while we don’t get too many turns at properly appreciating them. We might visit Florence once, if ever. We won’t read even our favorite books that many times. And then there’s the whole range of art (different for everyone) that will always be off-limits to us for no better reason than that it strikes us as boring or defeats us in other really embarrassing ways.
I don’t get sculpture. I can be impressed by it, within the confines of an exhibition, but that feeling doesn’t linger. It’s certainly a weird thing to import into conversation with someone who wasn’t with me when I saw the pieces in question. Neither its history as a form, nor the artist’s visionary intention, which Stokes seems to suggest is at least practical (at one point, he talks about how Michelangelo’s smaller pieces were intended to be handled), feel familiar or even legible to me. This pisses me off, for sure, but I’ve managed that feeling by contenting myself with the perhaps illusory rewards of self-education. I might know nothing now but if I read books that offer some of the resistance of difficulty, I might then be able to liberate further specific articles of sculpture (and I’ll be honest, this is true for quite a lot of visual art in general) from the oceanic, uncarved mass of my ignorance.
I don’t know how I’ll be able to measure the gains of this exercise, or whether gains really matter, but that’s because one especially provocative category of otherness to me includes all the things I can’t engage with. Ethically, I feel obliged to respect that distinction. I won’t talk about individual statues until I’ve read more about them and better understood their making. But so much of experience is organized in this way, and so much of experience is aesthetic. When this otherness maps onto the property bounds in my area, I find myself drawn to spaces I don’t inhabit, and which I can only experience by passing through them or by them. I don’t know what the alternative would be. I definitely don’t want to live between the trees or among the cows. I could wish the space proffered more routes than this simple curving path, that it might allow for experiences other than mere escape from trafficked roads and their endless business of transporting things we consume around and past the parenthetical space of these fields. But I don’t want my walk to extend indefinitely or form a leg of a journey. My presence there is now habitual, but I’m trying not to discover something about myself: That’s as inevitable as it is involuntary, information that yields itself like shape out of stone, or the feeling of home in a place where you probably don’t belong.