Aerg! Eeriness in the English Countryside

April 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

Robert Macfarlane’s essay on the ‘eerie’ in the Guardian Review attests to the current focus in landscape aesthetics on ‘unsettlement and displacement’ which is rooted in two key facets of late capitalism: environmental damage and austerity politics.  The former has resulted in the countryside being considered in terms of what is missing, and a return of the repressed; the latter in a cloaking of injustice through the re-emergence of the pastoral ideal, typified by what Joe Kennedy has described as the ‘cupcakification’ of England.

Macfarlane uses a story by M R James, ‘A View from a Hill’, to describe the phenomenon of ‘eeriness’.  Viewing a landscape in south west England through a pair of binoculars (made using the bones of executed men), the protagonist sees a transformed place: a wooded hill is made bare, topped with a gibbet from which a body hangs; other bodies lie in a cart beneath.  Later visiting the hill, he gets the feeling he is being watched, and flees in dread.

The etymology of ‘eerie’ is not, as I expected, the sensation of unease: it derives from aerg, an Old English word meaning timid or cowardly – and therefore describes a response to that sense of unease: the flight as opposed to the stricken reaction that typifies our comprehension of the horrific.  In this sense, the story’s effectiveness derives not just from what the binoculars reveal – or even the sense of unease the protagonist Fanshawe gets on visiting the hill, causing his flight: it is the implication that something awful might be hidden in every landscape – what Macfarlane calls ‘the skull beneath the skin of the English countryside’.

He argues that the violence committed on the rural English landscape, whether by corporations fracking the shale beds and their CEOs churning moor and meadow with their Range Rovers, or through the cloth-of-gold pageantry of heritage-craft manque baking shows, has led to an increasing interest among artists in the violent turbulence of the Civil War, whose bones and axes lie just beneath the surface of the landscape, and which offers an effective metaphor for current disruptions / dislocations.  I think this is fair enough.  However, I’m less certain about another contention which I think is being mooted within the article, in which the English countryside, as a result of past violence, is in some way inherently unsettling, even terrifying.  He refers to Ben Wheatley, the director of A Field in England, who described in an interview his ‘eerie’ relationship with the Essex landscapes of his youth:

‘somewhere in which violence was always imminent. “There was something in the land-scape,” he said, “that plainly terrified me … If you went out into it you could just be killed.” His comments echo those of Sinclair, who invoked King Lear on the heath: “You’re turned outdoors into something more savage than you are, and you know something terrible is going to happen.” ‘

My sense of countryside was, and remains, a place of freedom rather than threat: the English rural landscape does bear the scars, or wears the wellies and mascara, of capitalism; but my sense of aerg derives from current metropolitan savageries rather than glimpses of the chthonic.

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