The OF Blog: Reflections on weird, almost surreal rural 'scapes

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Reflections on weird, almost surreal rural 'scapes

Earlier this week, while I was reading the recently-published English translation of Dung Kai-cheung's Atlas:  The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (if I fail to write a formal review in the near future, let me note in passing that this is a book that most fans of Calvino's Invisible Cities or most of Borges' work or Michal Ajvaz's The Other City (among others) will enjoy), I found myself reflecting upon the weirdness of certain landscapes.  Books like Atlas do a remarkable job in recasting the lines, blocks, and other geometrical shapes of cities into something that is layered with history and with partial and near-total erasures.  There is something "unnatural" about certain cities, as there often is this sense of "wrongness" about the scale of some buildings or the abnormal linearity of some streets that bisect each other.  A lot of weird and surrealist fiction (in addition to the vaguely-described 'urban fantasy') rightly takes urbanity as the starting point for the strange and mysterious. 

Yet I have long felt that sometimes too much emphasis is placed on cities.  Perhaps it is because I have lived much of my life in a semi-rural Southern exurb of Nashville, Tennessee, but I often find rural landscapes to contain more potentially "weird" elements than cityscapes.  If you take a leisurely drive through certain regions (the American South in my biased opinion being better suited for this than most other areas), you may encounter haunting images such as this:

The past two generations have seen a huge sea-shift in the local economy.  Due to successive waves of crop busts, barns such as this one pictured above were abandoned.  Note how quickly it has been overtopped by the invasive kudzu plant.  There is something almost terrifying about this image.  No matter what we build, no matter the intentions of its builders, things quickly decay and are swamped by nature here.  Yet in many of the contemporary fictions that I read today, there is a relative underuse of this sort of imagery.  Or what about this common sight below, that of the closed country store:

There is a history to be told within its rotting planks and peeling paint.  The little weather-worn US flag stuck into the split side of a leaning pillar.  The beaten tin awning serves as mute testimony to the wearing and tearing of weather and time.  Every time I pass such a store, house, or barn, I envision ghosts inhabiting them, forming a substratum that goes deep into my native region's past.

This picture is of the Glass Mounds, near Franklin, TN, or 30 miles from where I grew up.
Yet there are even more layers.  Scattered throughout the land, there are large and sometimes tiny little hillocks, some obvious as burial mounds, while others are mysterious.  Did the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee bury cachets or bodies in the region, or are these remnants of garbage heaps from the early 19th century, as white settlers began to move into what is now the Tennessee River Valley?  On cold days and long nights, as the shadows peep through the trees, it is easy to imagine the past being resurrected before one's very eyes.

I am aware of the 19th century Romantics using ruins and desolate, rural landscapes to convey images of yearning, loss, and obliteration.  Yet today I find myself wishing there would be more who would utilize rural 'scapes, both the physical and the cultural/historical, when creating narratives that seek to plumb the depths of our dreams, fears, and nightmares.  Maybe it's just that there aren't many regions outside the American South (somehow, I don't believe this to be true) that contain such a plethora of haunting images.  I know I cannot read a William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor tale without seeing decay, both in the buildings and in the human spirit, on display.  Yet their fictions are not usually considered to contain many (or any) similarities with weird/surrealist writings, despite the potential found within the descriptions of the native landscapes and their effect on the natives. 

Maybe I'm overlooking something.  Maybe someone can point out recent use of the rural 'scapes as a counterpoint to the urban landscape representing elements of human society and identity.  All I know is that now that autumn is looming, I find myself thinking more about the inherent unsettling decay of the landscape around me.


Trishb said...

I can't think of a recent USian example off the top of my head, but Jo Walton's landscape in Among Others did conjure that sense of abandoned, yet once lived in places for me.

Your bias may be Southern, but there are many such places in upstate NY and around the old New England mill towns that have the same eerie resonance. Perhaps it becomes more prevalent at the edges shared by humanity and wilderness.

Hélène said...

Reading your post from France, it made me realize how much these landscapes are part of a given situation here. It's not that we feel the "weirdness" no more ; I think we live with it to the point that it's an integral part of our Weltanschauung (I'm afraid my English is failing me here).

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, my bias is indeed Southern, as I think I admitted, but the upstate NY and NE mill towns would certainly fit. Didn't that setting inspire some of Lovecraft's fiction?

Hélène, I suppose that with the layers of ruined farms and decayed towns that much of the "Old World" would have developed over the centuries, that there would be more integration with the ghosts of the past than here in the US, where in so many parts, there isn't much "history" at all outside of the South, New England, and maybe a few scattered spots. We raze artifacts from our past too readily, I fear. Maybe that's part of the reason why such ruins can spook us.

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