Gardening Arcadia: racial and national identity at Sting’s The Lake House

Daniel R. Smith

I remember reading somewhere that the political economists of the nineteenth century, on whose reading we owe Marx’s labour theory of value, considered England as one big farm. While I forget who said this, the significance of the statement couldn’t be more telling of how we conceptualise ‘labour’ or human creative practices in general. When we are creating we are bringing something into being, but we are doing so from the raw materials we have been granted: on the one side is person, on the other the materials they builds their life out of, human species being as Marx liked to say. Going on this fashion, Marx writes:

“The taste of porridge does not tell us who grew the oats, and the process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave-owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist.” (Marx, 1994:280)

The problem that the consumption, or negation, of human creative activities – labour – not telling us of their conditions of production or cultivation is crucial: it appalled Marx, as it did Hegel before him. The limits of human creative potential are infinite under capitalism, but the finitude of their distribution and immersion on the worker is the brutal consequence. The exponential increase in production through the division of labour, and the vast distribution of resources and material expansion of everyday life, is contrasted with brutal exploitation on the other side. Furthermore, the existential conditions of their production are not considered when consumption, i.e. the negation, as Hegel calls it, is the sole end and arbiter of successful activity, the desert of production.

While Hegel’s and Marx’s day may be gone, the importance they paid to the problem of consumption, or the desire for consuming (negation), of labour has clear relevance. And clear relevance in the case of the original source material for the labour theory of value, the fields of England.

In his new book, Consuming Race (2014), Ben Pitcher asks the question: “Could it be …that our parks and gardens are under-recognised barricades in the struggle for racial equality?” (Pitcher, 2014:125) Pitcher’s rhetorical statement arises after an interesting discussion of the current fashion for ‘natural gardening’, the desire for the fields and gardens of our nations to grow naturally, as the soil so desires – the raw materials of the earth, it seems, provide the English gardener with the instructions for what flowers to grow, what labour over, if you will. All is in aid of ecological goodness. And yet Pitcher recognises that in this claim to naturalness, the selection and acts of cultivation itself is a project of exploitation and exclusion of others – but not in terms of wealth and the misery of workers as Hegel and Marx explored it, rather racial (alongside national and class) dominance. Pitcher evokes Bauman’s classic statement about the ‘gardening state’ in Modernity and the Holocaust where the modernist project is to root and clear out ambivalence and maintain conceptual harmony among peoples, places and practices.

The act of natural gardening, suggests Pitcher, is equally exploitative and violent as other forms of negation, the desire to consume. In Britain, the intersection of whiteness, national identity and the practice of gardening all act as symbolic and material practices to ‘root out’ the ‘other’. Pitcher claims:

“there is a specific affinity between native plant and animal species and the group of people for whom the possession or ownership of the nation has, in the popular imagination, invariably defaulted: that is, white British people.” (Pitcher, 2014:122)

The efforts of gardening in British cultural life and imagination is itself an act of forgetting the social conditions of production in the desire for consuming, the oats rather than the conditions of their sewing. We want to witness the fields and let them, aesthetically, exclude others in their consumption. And there is a strange oxymoron at work: to make a garden natural, the gardener – the labourer – has to negate his or her own presence, as Pitcher points out (ibid). The use of ‘the nation’, as the bridge between people and territory, labour and the earth, is the third term which allows this oxymoron to be negated at a higher level of abstraction.

Thinking about Pitcher’s claims I have been reflecting on my own current experience of not just gardens but the Garden of England, Kent: my walks in the countryside, my viewing yellow rapessed fields from the train – and where my imagination goes. It goes to Sting’s album Ten Summoner’s Tales, especially his song ‘Fields of Gold’. Speaking of this album and song, Sting states:

It is nice to have somewhere to orbit, when you travel as much as I do. To have somewhere you can think of as home: a place that has a few of your books, a painting, a favourite armchair. Its nice to have that, it makes the frenetic life of travelling a little more sane. My wife and I and our young family, we moved to Wiltshire, near Stonehenge, beautiful old house, 400 years old, surrounded by fields – barley fields. My idea was to make a record there, and that house and that environment, became a constituent part of that record as much as a guitar or piano. (Sting: Sting’s Inspiration)

The Wiltshire home, The Lake House, that Sting purchased is a Grade I listed building and the gardens are Grade II listed. As much as Sting’s songs are aesthetically about fields of gold, they are also about a certain vision of white, British identity. And this identity is a rustic, archaic naturalness that he identifies as ‘home’: this is home in the domestic sense, but also what is in the national imagination as a ‘British home’, an ideal and beyond aspirational – almost utopian – home. It is the Arcadian fantasy: natural, socially harmonious and calm.

Ashcombe_House_Somerset

Adam Nicolson’s Earls of Paradise (2008) is the source of my claim here. Writing about the Earls of Pembroke who lived also in the Wiltshire countryside, not too far from Sting’s Lake House, he acknowledges that the passion for self-sufficient farming on the chalk land downs, the economy of game and the parkland that surround the house contained not only the whole community but also the order of social relations: the grades of the social hierarchy were all manifest in the order of the estate, the land, garden and parks:

“You are now within striking distance of the Pembroke’s house at Wilton. As you approach, their Arcadian world thickens around you. You meet first a 300-acre wood called the Hare Warren, which the sixteenth century Pembrokes fenced off from the rest of the downland to preserve it for the hunting of the hare, and then the wall of the 600-acre park that surrounds the house.

Both warren and park were as much designed to exclude as to contain. The hares and the park’s fallow deer were kept in by their fences and walls but the intention was to provide a heightened and privileged world from which others were shut out. The park was pocket pastoral. Arcadia has always been an act of luxury, an expensive and comfortable version of wildness, wildness somewhere kept wild but made lovely. …That is its [Arcadia’s] central paradox: its peace is achieved through a form of violence and imposition. It relies, at its heart, on acts of exclusion.” (Nicolson, 2008:17)

Crucially here Nicolson’s description of the aristocratic estate, when read in line with Pitcher’s analysis of British gardening and Sting’s fantasy of home around the Wiltshire barley fields and Lake House, provides a clear example of how the labouring to produce a desired consuming or consummation of national identity is inherently violent, symbolically and materially.

Notes: 

See the film of Sting performing Ten Summoner’s Tales at the Lake House here

Sting’s wife, film producer Trudie Styler, talks about her perfect weekend spent at The Lake House

Update 06/05/2014

I have just found Oxford classicist Robin Lane Fox’s book on gardening in Waterstones. It is called ‘Thoughtful Gardening‘. It opens with a discussion making and thinking similar to that which I evoked with regards to Marx and Hegel, but this time through Wittgenstein. Fox has been the gardener of New College Oxford since the 1970s and claims that flower gardening there has aided his philosophy to gardening: thoughtful gardening is about ‘thinking’ how best to please the plants, how to make them grow, and use one’s scholarly life to enchance the growing on seeds. Yet it is interesting that a lot of the sources come from aristocratic and gentry gardens and gardeners… Et in Arcadia Ego.

 

References:

Marx, Karl (1994), Selected Writings, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Ltd.)

Nicolson, Adam (2008), Earls of Paradise: England and the dream of perfection, (London: Harper Collins)

Pitcher, Ben (2014), Consuming Race, (London: Routledge)

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