Somewhere between the city and wilderness is an in-between zone, one which the poets Paul Farhey and Michael Symmons Roberts call “Edgelands.” This isn’t the ideal, pastoral wilderness we see pictured on the front of postcards or read about in classic literature, but a rougher, unacknowledged alternate dimension — neither urban, nor properly rural — where nature and the artificial mingle and overlap.
Edgelands are all around us. In Britain there are thousands of miles of derelict waterways and canals. There are two and a half thousand abandoned train stations and there is almost enough unused train track to encircle the planet. There are old shabby trails neglected by everything but the ever encroaching wilderness. Next to and between the overgrown canals and ghost track are the motorway margins and graffitied underpasses, as well as a multitude of retail and business parks, with their artificial lakes and rivers and designated picnic spots.
Despite being much larger, America also has its fair share of liminal spaces (Alan Berger calls them “Drosscapes.”) There are the interstitial regions between airports and their huge satellite parking lots, newly dilapidated shopping malls, swathes of highway fringes and lost roads to nowhere. The automobile in particular is responsible for the creation of many an edgeland, as highlighted by J.G. Ballard’s novel “Concrete Island” — a postmodern reimagining of Robinson Crusoe that takes place entirely within a strip of vacant land lodged between intersecting motorways.
Cloud Gardens, recently released in Early Access, is all about these kinds of overlooked bastard-outskirts. Every level offers a compact diorama — a ribbon of tarmac, a pocket of concrete, a slice of wasteland. You’re asked to plant seeds and overgrow the place, returning life and color to an array of overly grey scenes. There are desolate car parks, crumbling motorway sections, junkyards and landfill sites, and even little electric sub stations. Eventually your little edgeland might even look beautiful — which is what Farhey and Roberts were always interested in: replicating the Romanticism of Coleridge or Wordsworth, but with our unwanted concrete-laden regions, instead of just the mountains.
Environmental Storytelling (in a Literal Sense)
One of the most important details in Cloud Gardens is that in between all the gardening you’re also given piles of human-made objects to plop down. Old tires, traffic cones, shopping trolleys, broken washing machines, satellite dishes, air conditioning units, even rusted cars and entire shipping containers. Placing these energizes nearby plants, encouraging them to grow and fill the space.
In this respect Cloud Gardens, like edgelands themselves, is all about hybridity. You can arrange all of the artificial clutter to your liking, creating little imaginative scenes that might give clues as to what happened before the point of abandonment. Every time I play, I precisely position the garden tables and chairs the game gives me into little groups, placing empty beer bottles and soda cans besides each imaginary, invisible person. I rest broken television sets and boomboxes on plastic foot stools facing them. Sometimes things end gently for the people that came before, other times my mood is more chaotic: I pile rusted cars and kitchen appliances into great pyramids and scatter rubbish indiscriminately before trying to cover it all up with carpets of moss and creeping vines. Here, I’m involved in the environmental storytelling.
Cloud Gardens recalls debates around the concept of “rewilding.” Much of the world’s land, especially in places like Britain, has been disfigured, chopped down and paved over. This has obviously been devastating for biodiversity, but arguably also for our sense and consciousness of the world. Rewilding then, is all about replanting and reintroducing wildlife to geographical areas, but also into our lives, opening our eyes to the wonder of the natural world and enhancing our relationship with it.
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The Great Outdoors
What’s apparent is that Cloud Gardens’ dreary, mundane edgelands are a kind of wilderness too, at least by the time your plants have finished blooming. This fusion of nature and artifice calls to mind an anecdote told by the Scottish Geographer, Fraser MacDonald. In a fantastic article he wrote that questions some of the assumptions we make when discussing rewilding, he tells the story of a BBC wildlife photographer who visited his home in the Outer Hebrides and asked him to move his bin from the road outside as it was ruining his perfect landscape shot. As this anecdote illustrates, our conception of wilderness, “The Great Outdoors” (as opposed to the uncapitalized, regular, boring outdoors), is in itself an artificial fabrication.
One of Fraser MacDonald’s key arguments is that there’s a massive amount of background human labor that goes into beautiful landscape scenes. Wilderness is a category of our making, and while we’re reintroducing animals or plant life, there’s no reason to brush aside signs of human existence. It’s long been known, for example, that Britain’s iconic rolling hills, which the Romanticists so loved to write about, were a much more modern product that involved processes like intense deforestation and heavy sheep grazing. Oftentimes, the pastoral wilderness depicted in postcards are no more natural than landfill sites.
The genius of Cloud Gardens is that unlike the BBC photographer, it works to incorporate the bin. It integrates human waste and turns it into something productive. Within its mechanics are a kind of salvagepunk manifesto, in which human-made objects are repurposed and placed down in order to strengthen the scene and encourage nature to grow. In this respect, it’s not just about returning to the wild or papering over human elements, but about coexisting. After each burst of gardening, you place down more objects, back and forth until you’ve created something new and beautiful.
Rather than shouting about how the “Earth is healing! We’re the virus!”, Cloud Gardens understands that humans and our rubbish are now a permanent part of the ecosystem. We’re buried deep within the Anthropocene, and there’s no easy way to remove the scars. While originally damaging, something productive can be made of artificial things. There still exists the possibility of beauty, for all our crap to be productively mixed up alongside nature in a new, more integrated way.