Bucolic is a word that to my ear always sounds as though it should be used to describe people who are far from well: ‘we were expecting it, just before he died he had a bucolic look about him’, ‘blimey, you don’t half look bucolic’, etc. Of course it means quite the opposite and points to a world of countryside fecundity and pastoral idylls. My misapprehension of bucolic as describing ill-health is partly due, I would guess, to its phonic similarity to the word bubonic. Close in sound, distant in meaning. But perhaps the phonic similarity does suggest some instability in our truck with the countryside or at least how that countryside is often experienced.
My very first, and very vague, memory of wild nature (at the age of about 2 or 3) is a hollow tree that stood on the edge of a wood near where we lived. Perhaps I don’t really remember it so much as remember being told that this was a tree my sister and I loved. We called it the Owly tree, for reasons I can’t fully remember (perhaps an association with Owl in the Winnie-the-pooh stories). Many years later I visited this tree to see if it brought with it a wash of involuntary memories. Instead I was confronted by a small stumpy tree which looked rotten. It was also by the side of a fairly busy road and had the distinct tarnish of a petroleum-exhaust glaze. [In the mid-1980s I was living in Barnes in London and went to visit the tree that Marc Bolan crashed into when he died. It had become a shrine kept going by his many devoted fans who placed purple ribbons and sorrowful sentiments all over the trunk of the tree. All the ribbons and cards looked filthy with dirt and pollution.]
For many people growing up in some form of peri-urbanism, this is the sort of commerce we have with the countryside. When as a child I could go out-and-about by myself, my friends and I used to go to a place that we called the Volcano. It was a sloping patch of bare earth in a scrub of woodland. It was magical to us and became our den. We thought of it as extensive, untamed, remote. In reality it existed as a strip of woodland between a main road and a housing development. Like a lot of such places there were signs of peripatetic existence: a fire, some empty cans, a newspaper, the odd piece of clothing. Such signs of occupancy conjured-up the romance of a vagabond life, but they also looked like the scene of a peculiarly nasty crime.
The artist Stephen Willats gets something of this instability in a series of photographs he produced in 1978 for his book The Lurky Place. Willats offers us views of scrubland and unfarmed fields that could plausibly fit an idea of the picturesque. Yet these are landscape littered with signs of a life: a used paper target; the wheel from a pram. To describe this life as bucolic would be wrong unless the describer was caught in the misapprehension that the word could describe a rural world that was closer to fetid than fecund.