For our fourth assignment, we were asked to write a 2000 word critical review about one of the aspects of landscape practise that we have encountered during the course.
I chose to look at, the book, “Edgelands – Journeys into England’s True Wilderness” by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts and why it has been so well received and inspiring. I was first introduced to the chapters “Wire” and “Power” from the book in exercise 2.6: Edgelands. To look at, the book is nothing special. It is about 20cm tall, paperback and with its dark cover and an image of a dead rabbit or, on the older version, a rubbish tip, it is barely noticeable on a bookshelf. However, if you were to ‘Google’ “edgelands” the first page of results are either where you can buy the book or reviews of it. The book is about exploring and celebrating the edgelands “as places of possibility, mystery [and] beauty” . However, what exactly are the edgelands? In 2002 Marion Shoard defined them as the “apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory where town and country meet”. Personally, I would have described the edgelands as the borders of our towns and cities, where you would find industrial estates, car garages and landfills.
When you think of the English landscape, you immediately think of fields dotted with sheep and the paintings of artists such as Constable and Turner. However there is so much more to this landscape and there are parts that are a lot less idyllic.
When I first saw we had to read it, I didn’t think it was that appealing especially as the chapters we were asked to read were basically about barbed wire fencing and power stations. However, the more I read, the more intrigued I became. So much so, I ended up buying the whole book, thus began my interest into the concept of the edgelands.
The authors, both successful poets in their own right, have joined together to create a series of 28 essays, which they hoped would “do for the neglected edgelands what Coleridge and Wordsworth once did for mountains and lakes”. By pooling their talents into a single voice, they have created a smart, witty and thought provoking look at an area of the English landscape which is often overlooked and taken for granted. However they are not the first to venture into this realm and the main title of the book “Edgelands” was not coined by the authors themselves but borrowed from environmentalist, Marion Shoard.
During the course of this essay I propose to explore the question: What is it about this book that makes it so formidable?
To begin with, I wanted to dissect the title of the book. In the introduction to the book, Farley and Symmons-Roberts discuss Alan Berger’s Drosscape and of the issues he had with defining the urban and waste landscapes of North America. He came up with a number of different names such as ‘junkspace’, ‘negative space’, ‘urban sprawl’ and ‘edge city’ to name but a few. However I dislike the derogatory thoughts, which these names evoke for me. They do not seem to sit as well as ‘edgelands’. As previously mentioned the term was coined by Marion Shoard and has a certain ring to it, the places that fit into the ‘edgelands’ category often lie on the boundaries of our cities and countryside. Personally, I feel that the ‘edgelands’ are the places that do not want to be claimed by anywhere/anyone, they are the places that are necessary but no one wants to see or are shunned by society (until they are needed), much like an under stairs cupboard which is usually home to things such as the vacuum which is useful but you wouldn’t want on display.
Another part of the book’s title that struck me as a little odd was the idea of the ‘edgelands’ being a wilderness. Wilderness is defined as ‘a wild and uninhabited area left in its natural condition’. This again has connotations of abandonment and that they are untouched/undiscovered by man, yet some argue that wilderness is a human construction and that the ‘concept only exists in the minds of humans’. There are a number of arguments as to whether the ‘edgelands’ can be considered a wilderness such as, the fact that it is man-made. For something that is man-made, it is assumed that because every aspect is planned to the last detail. However, as with all areas like this, as quoted in Jurassic Park, “Life cannot be contained, life finds a way”, nature inevitably finds a way to take over. This can be in the form of wild animals or wild flora or even the “organic” sprawl of man-made debris (rubbish, abandoned appliances etc.), either way, they can all be hard to control especially if the area is not looked after.
While reading the chapters “Wire” and “Power” for exercise 2:6, I found the book was easy to read and very relatable. The mixture of poetic descriptions, well-chosen quotes and enjoyable anecdotes helped to break up the text, thus making it less formal and easier to digest. Due to its content, the book has proven to be a useful text in many educational fields such as photography and art, English Literature, Geography, Cultural Studies, History and Architectural studies. But what sets it apart from other degree level texts, which are usually filled with academic jargon which may not be easy to understand, is its enjoyable nature.
Some of the anecdotes and descriptions of places used within the book are actually quite funny or at least raise a smile. However, the other side of this is that there are stories that could have easily been left out, such as the conversation Farley and Symmons-Roberts have with the receptionist in the chapter “Pallets”. Within this, they note that the young lady at the desk knows most of the people who arrive at the pallet yard but doesn’t know them and proceed to document the conversation as if her questioning of them being there is strange. This, to an ordinary person would seem peculiar, however with the chapter being positioned towards the end of the book, the reader understands the how’s and whys behind this trip and knows a little of the authors’ personalities. While reading this part, I found myself wondering, what the importance of this conversation was and if it is necessary, why is there no follow on? To me, it feels as though this is just a page filler.
It is also a useful book within environmental science, waste management and psychogeography. This is because it can give an insight into the thoughts and opinions of the majority of the general public and it proves a good basis for exploration because there is so much variety to be found. Again this proves the versatility of the book.
The authors also describe how the more they travelled the more they admired the edgelands and this really does show within the book. My own opinion of edgelands has changed since reading this book too. Previously they were just a part of the town that you had to pass through quickly on the way to the more idealistic parts of England like the quaint villages and rolling fields. However after having read the book, I realise that the edgelands are much more than that. They are useful, even essential. We spend so much of our time travelling in our cars between our landscaped housing estates to our offices and supermarkets that we do not appreciate how close the edgelands are to the places we normally inhabit and the breadth that the edgelands covers.
Farley and Symmons-Roberts use words to paint quite vivid pictures of the scenery they discover, however even with mentions of particular artists and photographers; there are no images within the book. One could speculate that they were either not given permission or have not sought permission to use any works by the artists they mention. However, the descriptions they use allow the reader to visualise their own local “edgelands” or at least imagine their own pictures of the places the authors visited. Inviting the reader to do this adds to the relatability of the book, everyone knows areas like this close to them. The lack of images, to an artist or photographer, could also be used as a spring board for personal discovery and image making. It has certainly encouraged me to go out and explore the edgelands of my hometown.
Another reason why it has proven so popular could be down to some impressive reviews and backing from authors and publications such as Robert Macfarlane, The Guardian, The Times and The Independent to name but a few. It was also well promoted at the time of release, March 2011, through reviews and high profile readings and discussions by Farley himself. The range, from psychogeography to English literature to environmental science that is covered within the book meant that along with the mainstream reviews, it also garnered attention from publications such as “Architects Journal” who described it as “generously interdisciplinary”. While the majority of the reviews are positive, there are aspects of the book, which some were less than impressed with, for example, Robert Macfarlane remarked of the book in The Guardian “Brilliant in parts, but confused in others. A book which, in its inconsistent, undecided texture is entirely in keeping with its subject”. Macfarlane also states “In the end, the love shown for the edgelands is too strong”. I did find that sometimes the descriptions of the areas appeared to romanticise the edgelands too much, by doing this they make them appear much more magical then they actually are and as Tom Fort remarks in The Telegraph “To notice the edgelands is to risk ruining them. They must be left alone”. By creating this book and detailing the edgelands to such an extent, there is a risk that local councils and environmental agencies may feel the need to change these areas to make them more aesthetically pleasing to the eye and attempt to contain or restrict the activities which currently take place within them in order to make the edgelands more a part of either the towns or countryside. However, it is these differences that make the edgelands what they are. By changing them so they look prettier, they become something else, something that we will then need to define in other terms.
The authors also acknowledge that the edgelands are a perpetually changing environment and instead of avoiding this, they fully embrace and acknowledge it. They do this by giving the reader a general view of the edgelands and only elaborating on the more integral parts that make up the edgelands such as cars.
In conclusion, this book is more than a rambling about an aspect of the English landscape that some see as just a blot on the horizon. It offers an insight into the importance of our edgelands and makes us think about the part people play in shaping the “wilderness” of England. As the book describes the edgelands as such an integral and broad part of our landscape, it is easy to see why it can relate to so many aspects of educational and environmental thinking. Each reader is able to adapt what they read to their own areas of expertise. To conclude, due to it relatability, immense detail and foresight, it seems “Edgelands-Journeys into England’s True Wilderness” is set to become a firm favourite for future generations.
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 Jurassic Park- 1993 (film) Directed by Steven Spielberg Amblin Entertainment