Wednesday 13 February 2013

Wild utopian trilogy

Three books are occupying my thoughts at the moment; linked by their combination of a contemporary critique of the harsh realities of late nineteenth century capitalism and industrialization with a vision of a back to nature future, albeit with varying viewpoints on what a post-'civilisation' world could hold in store for humanity.
William Morris' News From Nowhere and Other Writings (1890) is full of hope and zeal for a more egalitarian future of rustic utopia. After London or Wild England  by Richard Jefferies (1885) is a much more ambiguous chronicle of the relapse of society into the barbarism of nature. The precursor to, and influence on, both books is also the least well-known, Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), an escape to a ficticious and flawed New World demi-paradise.

So here are some choice extracts from all three*, mixed together in a pleasing if not altogether coherent, and sometimes contradictory, soup: a wild utopian trilogy.

"What is that thought that is come into one's head as one turns around in the shadow of the roadside elm? A countryside worth fighting for, if that were necessary, worth taking trouble to defend its peace.
The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.
From an elevation there was nothing visible but forest and marsh. On the level ground and the plains the view was limited to a short distance, because of the thickets and the saplings which had now become young trees. The downs only were still partially open, yet it was not convenient to walk upon them except in the tracks of animals, because of the long grass which, being no more regularly grazed upon by sheep, as was once the case, grew thick and tangled. Furze, too, and heath covered the slopes, and in places vast quantities of fern. There had always been copses of fir and beech and nut-tree covers, and these increased and spread, while bramble, briar, and hawthorn extended around them.
 It was a monotonous life, but it was very healthy and one does not much mind anything when one is well.  The country was the grandest that can be imagined.  How often have I sat on the mountain side and watched the waving downs, with the two white specks of huts in the distance, and the little square of garden behind them; the paddock with a patch of bright green oats above the huts, and the yards and wool-sheds down on the flat below; all seen as through the wrong end of a telescope, so clear and brilliant was the air, or as upon a colossal model or map spread out beneath me.  Beyond the downs was a plain, going down to a river of great size, on the farther side of which there were other high mountains, with the winter’s snow still not quite melted; up the river, which ran winding in many streams over a bed some two miles broad, I looked upon the second great chain, and could see a narrow gorge where the river retired and was lost.  I knew that there was a range still farther back; but except from one place near the very top of my own mountain, no part of it was visible: from this point, however, I saw, whenever there were no clouds, a single snow-clad peak, many miles away, and I should think about as high as any mountain in the world.  Never shall I forget the utter loneliness of the prospect—only the little far-away homestead giving sign of human handiwork;—the vastness of mountain and plain, of river and sky; the marvellous atmospheric effects—sometimes black mountains against a white sky, and then again, after cold weather, white mountains against a black sky—sometimes seen through breaks and swirls of cloud—and sometimes, which was best of all, I went up my mountain in a fog, and then got above the mist; going higher and higher, I would look down upon a sea of whiteness, through which would be thrust innumerable mountain tops that looked like islands.
At first it is supposed that those who remained behind existed upon the grain in the warehouses, and what they would thresh by the flail from the crops left neglected in the fields. But as the provisions in the warehouses were consumed or spoiled, they hunted the animals, lately tame and as yet half wild. As these grew less in number, and difficult to overtake, they set to work again to till the ground, and cleared away small portions of the earth, encumbered already with brambles and thistles. Some grew corn and some took charge of sheep. Thus, in time, places far apart from each other were settled, and towns were built; towns, indeed, we call them to distinguish them from the champaign, but they are not worthy of the name in comparison with the mighty cities of old time. 

Under the elm tree these things puzzle me, and again my thoughts return to the bold men of that very countryside who, coming back from Ashdown field, scored that White Horse to look down for ever on the valley of the Thames; and I thought it likely that they had this much in common with the starlings and the bleak, that there was more equality among them than we are used to now, and that there would have been more models amongst them for Woden than one would be like to find in the Thames-side meadows.   

Turn the page, I say. The hay-field is a pretty sight this month seen under the elm, as the work goes forward on the other side of the way opposite the bean-field, till you look at the hay-makers closely. Suppose the haymakers were friends working for friends on land which was theirs, as many as were needed, with leisure and hope ahead of them instead of hopeless toil and anxiety, need their useful labour for themselves and their neighbours cripple and disfigure them and knock them out of shape of men fit to represent the Gods and Heroes? If under such conditions a new Ashdown had to be fought (against capitalist robbers this time), the new White Horse would look down on the home of men as wise as the starlings, in their equality, and so perhaps as happy."  
 *Albeit, the Morris contributions are from his contemporaneous essay Under an Elm-tree, or Thoughts in the Countryside rather than News From Nowhere itself.


Butler, Samual, 2006. Erewhon. London: Penguin.

Jefferies, Richard, 1980. After London. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morris, William, 1993. News From Nowhere and Other Stories. London: Penguin.   

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