Thursday, 5 November 2015

BEYOND THE PALE. Rewilding Psychogeography.

As a change from poetry, but related to it, here's an article I wrote about that wide-ranging and imprecise activity, psychogeography.

Beyond the Pale.
Rewilding Psychogeography.

Beside an old church in the pretty village of Rudston, in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds, a vast needle of stone, said to be the tallest single megalithic standing stone in Britain, bursts out from the earth and pierces the broad sky.

For me, this monument, which I have always referred to simply as The Stone, has strangely powerful resonances. Those people who have a more than averagely finely attuned sense of place know particular spots like this which, for reasons either conscious or subconscious, have a deeper psychical and psychological association than their surroundings. It is these that psychogeography is concerned with: discovering those points where each individual – and from that, each different community – engages with intimate aspects of our environment and records the impacts that occur. For the Situationist, Guy Debord, one of the creators of the modern concept of psychogeography, these relationships happen primarily in an urban setting, lately reaching out to the edges of the city with books such as London Orbital  by ’the godfather of psychogeography’, Iain Sinclair, and Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands. Will Self moved the bar up a few notches when he walked from London to New York and recorded the experience in his Psychogeography. But for me, as a writer who gains most of his inspiration whilst out walking in the countryside, I have always found those profound, acausal connections that seem to hit you in the pit of the stomach, happen beyond the pale of big urban settlements. Looking into the history and developments of psychogeography, however, there are clues that its roots do, in fact, stretch beyond the city limits. Merlin Coverley, in his book, Psychogeography, hints at this when he says, “…as soon as one looks beyond the narrow context that gave rise to it, it becomes apparent that psychogeography is retrospectively supported (or undermined) by earlier traditions and precursors that have been neglected or wilfully obscured.”, adding, “…this sense of an eternal landscape underpinning our own has been termed genius loci or ‘sense of place’, a kind of historical consciousness that exposes the psychic connectivity of landscape…”.

In 1955, Debord, whilst paradoxically admitting to the vagueness of the whole concept of psychogeography, defined it as, ”…the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals…”. It is coincidental that in the year he made this statement, Professor W G Hoskins published his seminal work, The Making of the English Landscape, the first definitive explanation of how our surroundings have developed across the centuries. It reinformed the way we engage with the landscape, both physically and emotionally, inspiring Oliver Rackham’s The History of the Countryside and later Francis Pryor’s The Making of the British Landscape.

I begin with The Stone as a pivotal point not just because of the impact it has on me, but because of its long historical and topographical significance in the landscape where it stands. It is the quintessential landmark, in that it marks an area of land that was of particular importance to those who erected it. It marks a place where man’s own views and burgeoning psychological constructs met and harmonised with raw nature in a very particular way; it marks a time when he began to see and develop the surrounding landscape as a place that was sacred – a place that he adapted to record time itself, not in days, months or years, but in generations, using the resting places of ancestors as way markers for successors. These philosophical themes of time, history and society, which Debord himself tackles in his Society of the Spectacle, and Michel de Certeau, in his 1988 The practice of everyday life, calls "a symbolic order of the unconscious", became an integral and essential part of everyday life and, when viewed with the appropriate receptivity, still resonate across the ages.

To a casual observer, The Stone stands in the churchyard. This is, of course, a misinterpretation because it was erected here three thousand years or more before the church, whose presence ensures that its continuity as a sacred place remains unbroken across time and religious interpretation. On the tops of the rising Wolds that surround it, barrows that hold the bodies of different generations look down upon it and these in turn can also be viewed from it and from the four or five ceremonial cursuses that spread like spokes from the axis of The Stone. The true significance of this place - its real psychogeography - for the people who erected it does not, however, come from land but from water. We are told by those who know such things (such as Mike Williams in his Prehistoric Belief and David Lewis Williams and David Pearce in Inside the Neolithic Mind) that water had a special sacredness for our prehistoric ancestors, and The Stone marks the corner where an itinerant and mysterious stream, known as The Gypsey Race, turns abruptly from flowing due south, to continue its course directly eastwards, towards the sunrise and the mighty North Sea.  This intermittent and irregular watercourse is believed to owe its coming and going to underground reservoirs and it bursts into flood seemingly regardless of recent rainfall. This gives it a magical property which is demonstrated by the number of significant prehistoric sites along its course, of which The Stone is the most prominent. The name Gypsey is derived not from its itinerant nature, but from the old English 'Gypsia', meaning to suddenly spring into life.

So The Stone represents a psychogeographic midpoint between the prehistoric wilderness and the modern world. Go beyond The Stone and you cross a threshold and begin to venture outside the pale of civilisation and ever backwards into the depths of the wilderness itself; not just a physical wilderness, but a subconscious one that only the visionary and the dreamer seek to penetrate. Peter Ackroyd, in his lecture entitled The Englishness of English Literature, suggests that there is a persistent visionary thread of English consciousness and that it is “….possible that within our sensibility and our language there are patterns of continuity and resemblance which have persisted from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond that.”  Far beyond that, I would suggest. In fact, it stretches back millennia and right into the heart of the landscape even before it was settled. In his New Science, the 18th century Italian theorist, Giambattista Vico, said: “This was the order of human institutions: first the forests after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.” And, at the time when we were moving from forests to huts, when our human impact on the landscape was becoming visible and permanent and, instead of being subjugated by the natural world, man was seeking to impose his control upon it, a relationship with our surroundings was developing that was, millennia later, to be reinterpreted by those who had escaped the relentless grip of the academies and the tyranny of logic as psychogeography.


Although its origins go back even before writing itself – back to the prehistoric images, carefully inscribed on the walls of dark caves - the tenets of landscape psychogeography are embedded in a rich legacy of our literature, from Beowulf and Piers Plowman  to the works of P D James and Bill Bryson - not just the ‘nature’ writers such as that perennial wanderer and commentator, Richard Jeffries; the prodigious perambulator, George Borrow; the supertramp poet, W H Davies; and early ecologist, John Stewart Collis, but also the likes of Thomas Hardy, the Romantic Poets, the Bront√ęs, Rudyard Kipling, A E Housman, Laurie Lee, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes -  look on practically any eclectic bookshelf and you’re likely to find evidence of some kind of psychogeographic influence.

It’s through the works of these and a myriad of others that we can understand how people have always engaged psychologically with the landscape and the wildness of the natural world. Henry Thoreau didn’t just go back to nature to live in the Walden woods, he provided a detailed account of his action, thoughts and feelings. Wordsworth did more than tramp across the mountains and fells, he allowed them to sink into his own psyche and re-emerge in the words and phrases that make his poetry so inspiring. Ancient landscapes and their psychic associations to the modern world are inseparably entwined in the prose and poems of Edward Thomas and lying just below the surface of the land and the subconscious in the novels of John Cowper Powys. When his beloved countryside is parcelled up by enclosures and he is denied access to it, John Clare goes mad.

Hoskins starts the first chapter of The Making of the English Landscape by praising William Wordsworth’s Guide through the District of the Lakes, “...for poets make the best topographers…”, thus immediately creating a link between landscape and literature. Hoskins’ book was, in turn, revered by writers such as W H Auden.

Poets probably make the best psychogeographers as well. Wordsworth is a classic example of how the psychological influence of his surroundings was profound and fundamental to his thinking and writing. From his childhood he keenly felt the influence of nature. In The Prelude he writes:
 “…………..for I would walk alone,
          Under the quiet stars, and at that time
          Have felt whate'er there is of power in sound
          To breathe an elevated mood, by form
          Or image unprofaned; and I would stand,
          If the night blackened with a coming storm,
          Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are
          The ghostly language of the ancient earth,
          Or make their dim abode in distant winds.”

This is reiterated, later in life, in Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey:

      “………………….For I have learned
      To look on nature, not as in the hour
      Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes   
      The still, sad music of humanity,
      Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
      To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
      A motion and a spirit, that impels   
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things.”

The nature writer and poet, Edward Thomas, before he was cut down in the trenches of World War l, found not just the broad landscape but its minutiae enthralling and an antidote to his bouts of chronic depression. In his piece, An Old Wood, published in the collection, One Green Field, he describes the onset of evening:

 “….the rich blue evening comes on and severs me irrevocably from all but the light in the old wood and the ghostly white cow-parsley flowers suspended on uneven stalks. And there, amongst the trees and their shadows, not understood, speaking a forgotten tongue, old dreads and formless awes and fascinations discover themselves and address the comfortable soul, troubling it, recalling to it unremembered years not so long past…”

In Haymaking, echoing Wendell Berry’s claim that, “Nothing exists for its own sake, but for a harmony greater than itself, which includes it.” he brings together the essence of a rural landscape with its timeless combination of the works of man and nature in the quiet way at which he was so adept, transferring the picture in his mind onto the page:

“…………………………………….All was old,
This morning time, with a great age untold,
Older than Clare and Cobbett, Moreland and Crome,
Than, at the field’s far edge, the farmer’s home,
A white house crouched at the foot of a great tree.
Under the heavens that know not what years be
The men, the beasts, the trees, the implements
Uttered even what they will at times far hence –
All of us gone out of the reach of change –
Immortal in a picture of an old grange.”

The environmentalist/writer, Richard Mabey, also used the healing properties of the countryside when depression laid him low. In Nature Cure he explains that:

“Turning down that road less travelled, I can’t any longer duck the questions which have been so unsettling me for the past few months – and in a more general form, I suppose, for much of my life. Where do I belong? What’s my role? How, in social, emotional, ecological terms, do I find a way of fitting?”

The answer is not quite as he expects:

“The idea was to submit to nature, to hope that it would ‘take you out of yourself’…..What healed me, I think, was almost the exact opposite process, a sense of being taken not out of myself but back in, of nature entering me, firing up the wild bits of my imagination.”

Today, as it always has, the psychogeography of the British landscape still exerts a profound influence. Although it has few areas of actual wilderness that are untouched by humans, there are still many wild places in Britain. Ever since the first of our ancestors cut down a tree to build a hut, our destinies have been intertwined. Sometime nature predominates, sometimes man, but ideally there should be a balance. In the preface to his The History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham says:

“The ordinary landscape of Britain has been made both by the natural world and by human activities, interacting with each other over many centuries. …..In the last century [by this he means the 19th] people (that is, writers) often thought of the country as the world of Nature in contrast to the town. The opposite exaggeration now prevails: that the rural landscape, no less than Trafalgar Square, is merely the result of human design and ambition……In reality the countryside records human default as well as design, and much of it has a life of its own independent of human activity……With many features, such as ponds and hedges, it is still not possible to say where Nature stops and human activity begins.”

Jonathan Bate, when discussing the theories of T W Adorno in his excellent book, The Song of the Earth, sees it in a different way:

“Nature only appears to be not man-made…..Air, trees, rocks, grass, water and so forth exist, but they only become ‘Nature’ when they are mediated by human consciousness, when the subject makes them its objects of attention.”

Martin Heidegger looks at it from yet another perspective:

“What seems natural to us is probably just something familiar in a long tradition that has forgotten the unfamiliar source from which it arose. And yet this unfamiliar source once struck man as strange and caused him to think and to wonder.” 

For novelist John Cowper Powys, it was “…the fatal force of Inanimate Objects over human destiny…” and he illustrates this to great effect when, in A Glastonbury Romance, he spends seven pages describing the effect that Stonehenge and its environs have on the main proponent, John Crow.

All this could as easily be termed phenomenology as psychgeography – as Christopher Tilley does in A Phenomenology of Landscape - but it shows that our psychological relationship with the countryside is as personal and immediate as it is with towns and cities. For urban psychogeographers like Debord it was a movement, practiced by groups who had the same – or at least similar – values and ambitions, often overtly political: Situationists, Lettrists, Surrealists, Unitary Urbanists. Rural pyschogeography is usually more of a solitary pastime. Post Debord – and especially in more recent years – psychogeography, although not necessarily under that name, has been undergoing an exponential and ineluctable spread back into the countryside, with visionary individuals like Richard Mabey; my much-missed friend, Roger Deakin; Robert Macfarlane; Jonathan Bate; George Monbiot and many others at the forefront. These, whether they like the mantle or not, are the new rural psychogeographers and they are encouraging more and more people to reconnect with their landscape in a meaningful way. It is these writers, and those unnamed individuals who engage daily with the countryside in a thoughtful way, who are testament to the words of Heidegger, echoing across the ages:

 “The song still remains which names the land over which it sings.” 


Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, Les Livres Nue, 1955.

Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography, Pocket Essentials, 2010.

W G Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape, Hodder & Stoughton, 1955.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, 1984.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Translator: Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984.

Peter Ackroyd, The Englishness of English Literature: The Collection. Ed. Thomas Wright. London: Vintage, 2001.

Giambattista Vico, New Science, Penguin, 1999.

William Wordsworth, A Guide through the District of the Lakes, Francis Lincoln, 2004.

William Wordsworth, Complete Works, Delphi Series, 2012.

Edward Thomas, One Green Field, English Journeys, 2009.

Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, North Point, 1983.

Edward Thomas, Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, Faber & Faber, 2011.

Richard Mabey, Nature Cure, Vintage, 2008.

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside, W & N, 2000.

Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Picador, 2001.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Translators: John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, 1978.

John Cowper Powys, Wood and Stone, Village Press, 1974.

John Cowper Powys, A Glastonbury Romance, Macdonald, 1966.

Christopher Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape, Berg, 1994.

Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, Editor and translator: Julian Young, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

No comments: