by Tom Pow

Villages of the Damned

September 4, 2009 | by Tom Pow

TWO YEARS AGO, I was in Edmon-ton, Alberta. I was sitting in a cafe on Whyte Avenue, feeling a touch melancholic, when I opened the Edmonton Journal and came across an article about a dying village in the district of Leon in northern Spain. The village was called Villabandin and, according to the article, parts of the area in which it was situated were as depopulated as the Sahara. The youngest of Villabandin’s twelve inhabitants was 58, the oldest 91. The last time a baby had been born there was more than thirty years ago.

Nor was Villabandin alone. Many villages throughout mainland Europe, I read, were similarly dying. I felt an immediate connection. This one perhaps sprang from a long childhood association with the Highlands of Scotland, once a victim of drastic depopulation. As indeed was the South West of Scotland itself, where I have now lived for thirty years and whose three counties of Dumfriesshire, Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire experienced proportionately greater loss from emigration in the nineteenth century than did the Clearance counties. The article was also a call, delivered in a snow-flurry in the North American continent, to revisit a Europe I’ve been criss-crossing for forty years and to see it with fresh eyes.

One year later, I was on the road walking towards the village of Villabandin itself. My aim was to write poetry and prose pieces which explore the cultural and natural ecology of dying villages in Europe. In the course of the year, I’d travel to northern Spain, central France, southern Italy, Eastern Germany, Bulgaria, central Russia and the Peloponnese in Greece – in other words, to some of those places in Europe most affected by depopulation.

But at this particular moment, at the start of all my peregrinations, an old woman was walking towards me, out of Villabandin, dressed in black. Perfect, I thought, old woman, dying village, and I reached into my bag to have my camera ready, before we stopped and had a brief conversation. But no, she was sure she did-n’t want to be photographed; she’d break the camera, she said.

“A shame,” I said, “I’ve come a long way to be here, to see Villabandin. In fact, I first read about Villabandin three thousand miles from here” – and I produced the article from the Edmonton Journal and opened it up for her. “Ah,” she said, neither up nor down, “that’s me” – and she stabbed a finger at the main photograph. I took this serendipity as a sign that I was in the right place at the right time. But it’s only recently that I have begun to see a relationship between the plight of Europe’s dying villages and the Enlightenment.

Arthur Herman, in The Scottish Enlightenment, outlines the following core Enlightenment belief: “Fundamental to the Scottish notion of history is the idea of progress. The Scots argued that societies, like individuals, grow and improve over time. They acquire new skills, new attitudes and a new understanding of what individuals can do and what they should be free to do. The Scots would teach the world that one of the crucial ways to measure progress is by how far we have come from what we were before. The present judges the past, not the other way around.”

Embracing such a view of progress, and the rational thinking on which it was based, led inevitably to the growth of towns and cities, places where prejudices could be challenged, through education and through demonstrations of advancement: the march of industrialisation, the growth of privacy, of free time and of disposable income. Moreover, in the nineteenth century, cheap grain produced in America and in Eastern Europe might have meant hardship in the countryside, but in cities it meant cheap food – which in turn meant money for jam, cakes, clothes, and so the start of consumerism. Eric Wolff in his seminal monograph, Peasants, coins the term “the ceremonial fund” to denote the income necessary to support the rituals and ceremonies vital to the cohesion of the community. One of the ironies of progress, as we have experienced it in the last thirty years, is that, as our consumerist “ceremonial funds” have grown exponentially, so the cohesion of our communities has decreased. And that, in many ways, is the story behind Europe’s dying villages.

We need a few statistics to get a sense of the changes we’re talking about. In 1850, 85% of French people lived in the countryside and, as late as 1886, over four fifths of the population were described as “almost stationary”. Graham Robb, in The Discovery of France, argues that many of those people wouldn’t have any identification with France at all. If asked where they came from, they would name only the village they inhabited. Similarly, in Russia, in 1851, 95% of the Russian population lived in the country. A global statistic which indicates the extent of the sea change in the last 200 years is that last year, for the first time in human history, people living in cities outstripped those living in the countryside.

Here is a brief selection of other statistics to give a sense of the demographic changes in Europe:

Europe will lose 41 million people by 2030.

Europe is home to 22 of the world’s 25 lowest birthrate countries.

In the former East Germany, the number of elderly people will increase by a third and those under 18 will lose 40% in the next 18 years.

Between 1995 and 2050 Italy will have lost 28% of its population

Between 1980 and 1990, in rural areas in Greece, there was a 56% decline in births. lBulgaria’s population will fall by 35% by 2050.

Demographic data is of course variable – as are statistics for fatalities in war and numbers for immigration and emigration. The above statistics have been gathered and checked against a number of reliable sources, including the CIA World Fact Book and the Council of Europe’s Recent Demographic Developments in Europe. Both of these sources are regularly updated.

But what does this Europe of depopulating villages look like? On my travels I took photographs. In them – viewable at www.dyingvillages.com  – you will see crumbling Spanish villages and collapsing Italian hilltop towns, the broken and rotting carapaces of Russia’s wooden houses, the abandoned brickwork of eastern Ger-many and the interruptions of boarded up desolation that mark a drive through central France. In each place, the few villagers – at times, the one or two villagers – will be initially quizzical in their looks, surprised by your interest. However, though the world is drifting from them, they face their fate with remarkably little hostility or bitterness.

And in the countryside itself? Walking back from Villabandin to the small hotel at which I was staying in nearby Murias de Paredes, I passed a field where, too far for a greeting, a man and a woman were turning the hay. In the richness of the diminishing afternoon sunlight, there was a sheen on the waves of grass; the fields glistened, watery. The anthropologist, Tim Ingold, in an essay collected in The Perception of the Environment, coined the term taskscape for that “ensemble of tasks” that a landscape demands of those who work within it. In these fields, in the emptying valleys of Omana – as in much of Europe – the taskscape has become frayed and its acts appear to be ones that are more solitary than “mutual[ly] interlocking”: hay being turned or gathered, a net being spread over seedlings, the herding of a few cows.

And clearly we are prepared to give less and less to the taskscapes of Europe. In Italy, for example, where the birthrate of 1.2 is the lowest in Europe and where 70% of farmers are over sixty years old, one third of Italian farmland is currently fallow. The implication of course is that the European landscape which so many love – the intensively cultivated, shaped landscape encapsulated by the German word, Kulturlandchaft, is changing. Scrub is returning, the forests are reclaiming agricultural land. The continent’s forest cover has expanded by almost 10% since 1990, and now Europe has more forest than at any time since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And with the forests, packs of wolves have returned to eastern Ger-many, crossing over the River Neisse from Poland, causing fierce debate between hunters and conservationists.

The reasons and the effects of rural depopulation can be painted in broad brush strokes: falling birthrate, ageing population, abandonment of the countryside for the prospects of the city. I imagine that, to anyone of a certain age, the statistics I have given above won’t have come as a major surprise. Whoever took part in a harvest forty years ago will know what a rich and human experience it was compared to the fully mechanised affairs of today. But, in detail, the reasons and effects of depopulation vary subtly from country to country. In Russia, for example, the fragmentation of the Soviet Union led to the immediate collapse of the collective state farm. Nine out of every twelve villages died. The ones which survived were these  where the leadership embraced entrepreneurship and convinced the villagers that only through hard work and minimal wages could they eventually prosper.

In the old East Germany the fall of the Berlin Wall led to a mass migration of women seeking opportunities in the west. The educated male population left too, leaving a new underclass with few prospects and few women in an ailing economy. This ‘masculinisation’ of rural areas accounts for the rise of the Far Right in the form of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP) in much of  eastern Germany.

So who else is left? As Grassic Gibbon says in  Sunset Song, who are the last of the Old Scotch Peasants? In Spain,where I started my journey, in Omana, I found Alberto. If you drive high above the Omana river valley onto the altiplano, you’ll find him herding cows. For three months of the year, he lives in the village of Valbueno completely on his own. “Just me and the cows,” he said. Alberto became emblematic to me of the problem of depopulation as it nears its end point. I began to wonder what will happen to Alberto when he gets old? Who will look after his herd after he’s gone? What legacy at this stage can he possibly leave? The poet, R.S. Thomas, made such concerns his theme, as he pondered the Welsh hill farmer, whose field

“…is his world, the hedge defines The mind’s limits; only the sky

Is boundless, and he never looks up.”

The marginalisation of the peasant or the villager (for our purposes, the terms are generally synonymous), like Alberto, is nothing new. Certainly, to a cosmopolitan population touched by the Enlightenment, the view of the peasant was unremittingly hostile and condescending. The French, in particular, appeared to have had a loathing of provincial peasant life. In From Peasants into Frenchmen, historian Eugen Weber describes the disgust for the physical and mental world of the peasant felt in eighteenth century France; for “the savage instincts born of isolation and misery.” Manuals of etiquette were sold by pedlars advising how “not to walk like a peasant or eat like a peasant.” And Weber writes that well into the nineteenth century, “village midwives kneaded babies’ skulls in an effort to give the little round heads of peasant babies the elongated skull associated with intelligent city folk”.

In Russia also, the peasant was described as an inferior form of life – unthinking and brutish. Chekhov’s short story, ‘Peasants’, painted the rawness of the village environment, but censors took strong objection to what they saw as the “too black a picture [the story] paints of peasant life”:“They put the samovar on especially for the guests. The tea smelled of fish, the sugar was grey and had been nibbled at, and cockroaches ran all over the bread and crockery. The tea was revolting, just like the conversation; which was always about illness and how they had no money.”

And indeed, what kind of thinking did the peasant have to offer to combat the onslaught of the all-knowing Enlightenment? Proverbs perhaps. Proverbs could encapsulate peasant experience and wisdom. Here are a few of these drawn from France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

When we have nothing left, we will have nothing to lose.

A scalded cat fears even the cold water.

To get his hands on the money, a man will marry a bear.

A man would rather swallow his teeth than his tongue.

Pretend you’re a sheep, the wolf will eat you up.

Swineherd in this world, swineherd in the next.

And a personal favourite: Don’t fart higher than your arse.

Such proverbs reflected local experience and knowledge, but they also shaped what the historian Robert Darnton, has called mentalitees, the thought-processes of those who relied on such formulations. Crudely, we may oppose the solidity of peasant thought with the fluidity of Enlightenment enquiry.

In Russia, one of the folk arts most responsive to peasant life was and is the chastushka. A chastushka is a short Russian folk song. In the villages of the Kostroma region, a request to hear a chastushka drew the same knowing smiles from all the old women I asked. Many claimed they only knew indecent ones and one old woman dodged the request to sing by claiming, “These teeth aren’t for singing any more, only swearing”. Chastushkas are often compared to limericks for their memorability – four rhythmic, rhyming lines – but actually we have no equivalent in our culture for something which reflects shared and immediate experience in the way of the chastushka. It was a song so widespread that at one time it was easily adapted for the dissemination of revolutionary belief:

“There are no rustic lads any more. This is the way we have decided the question:

There is no village, there is no countryside,

There is only the prosperous collective farm.”

But the original chastushkas show, as do the proverbs, a suspicion of the outside world, a relish for the villagers’ own humour and sexual exploits. They also focus on that brief moment of romance that a village life allows:

“It is sad for me, a young girl,

To sit by my little window;

My heart longs for the handsome youth,

I am weary of looking out of the window.”

One of the great ironies of peasant life is that, while they were and are reviled, villagers are often charged with keeping the soul of the nation alive. The Russian village is identified as the harbinger of the Russian soul. To many Russian traditionalists, such as  the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the disappearance of village life is modern Russia’s central tragedy. The preferred Russian term is ’emptying villages’ and Russia, which could lose up to 50 million people in the next 50 years, has no shortage of them. In fact, the statistics are mind-numbing: 11,000 villages and 290 cities have disappeared from the map of the Russian Federation. 13,000 villages remain on the map, but they have no inhabitants. 35,000 villages, of Russia’s 155,000 have fewer than ten inhabitants. By some calculation, it is estimated that two villages disappear in Russia each day. “Our villages are dying, and so is Russia,” proclaims the avowedly Christian novelist, Vassily Belov. “We cannot accept this, because it means the spiritual extinction of the nation.” The cry is heartfelt and desperate and yet, as I said at the start, the dying – emptying – of these European villages is the result of inexorable social processes over two hundred years. The quotation from Herman with which I opened this essay, ended, “The present judges the past, not the other way round”. In that light, the nineteenth century, as Gillian Tindall claims in Celestine, her vivid study of a French village, is often seen as a series of staging posts on the way to the present. Progress unfolds for us like a drama whose climax we have been privileged to witness. Yet the French historian, Fernand Braudel, has claimed it is possible to look at chronology from the opposite end and to see the past not simply as a prologue and preparation for the present, but the present as evidence for the persistent survival of the past. Certainly, I think we can agree that our present may involve an embedded dialogue with the past, as well as a sense of our disengagement from it. In other words, historical processes are porous – traffic flows both ways.

For example, the limitations of the village-dweller’s world are still in many respects a fact of his or her existence. In the period of the Soviet Union many villagers were not able to travel outside their villages as they lacked the necessary documentation to do so; thus knowledge of the outside world was and remains limited. In the village of Karabanova in the Kostroma region, the priest Father Georgy told me how he had secured some money from American Lutherans and from Irish Catholics to renovate his small church. These denominational offerings had been greeted with some suspicion by Father Georgy’s Russian Orthodox parishioners. To them, Christianity and Orthodoxy are synonymous terms, in a way that Catholicism and Protestantism and Christianity are not. Father Georgy’s parishioners will still say to him, “The Bible is a Russian book isn’t it, Father? Jesus was a Russian, wasn’t he?”

Similarly, the fiercely circumscribed and suspicious world of the villager that the chastushka frequently embodies still survives in the present. In Pays Perdu (Lost Land), published in 2003, the French novelist, Pierre Jourde drew on his experiences of the childhood and the adult holidays he took in his father’s birth and burial place, Lussaud, a tiny hamlet of twenty-five inhabitants, a thousand metres above sea level on the plain of the Auverge’s volcanic landscape. He changed the names of the main protagonists and the dates of all the essential action, but he did not transmute his raw material enough for the villagers not to be able to recognise themselves and their forebears. In this “Outer Mongolia”, as Jourde termed it, the gods were called “Alcohol, Winter, Shit and Solitude”.

“Alcohol entered into the blood,” he writes, “it bred there, it broke up the family, you could see traces of it in the faces of the children. It prescribed destinies, you conformed to its imperatives, with fatalism, without taking pleasure from it, nor really forgetting.” Pays Perdu revealed stories of adultery, disability and death; it described, as Weber had put it, while writing of the eighteenth century, “savage instincts born of isolation and misery”.

Jourde’s novel is framed by a winter journey the narrator makes for his father’s funeral. This framing provides the opportunity for him to reflect on his experiences of the village, its inhabitants and its secrets. The secret which caused Jourde maximum problems – the revelation of a clandestine affair – is perhaps weighted by the fact that it comes at the story’s end. It is designed to be the most affecting revelation in the novel.

Parisian literary critics, with the metropolitan prejudices of the centuries, saw the novel as a fascinating revelation of La France Profonde. Not so, the raw material who, once the substance of the work had filtered through to them – the book was stocked in a village some kilometres away – reacted with anger and hurt. Jourde, aware of mounting discontent, sent letters to all villagers, saying he had changed names and dates and that, “You mustn’t look to it for an exact representation…I’m proud to be from Lussaud.”

Jourde’s next visit to Lussaud was in July 2005, at the start of his summer break from his university lecturing post in Grenoble. Six villagers arrived outside his house and began shouting insults. Stones were thrown, then punches. His children were called, “Dirty Arabs!”

Jourde and his family fled.

Three women and two men, one the sev enty-two year old who had discovered, through the novel, that he was the progeny of an adulterous affair between neighbours, were given two month suspended jail terms and fined.

Should Jourde have been surprised? He had taken care, he might argue, to disguise names and dates; but he must have realised that public interest, knowing his background, would look on the novel as a roman a clef. Surely he could not have underestimated the villagers of Lussaud to the extent that, having the key at their fingertips, they wouldn’t shift the novel’s component parts, till the actual names and the time-lines were restored.

What Jourde seems to have thought is that it was all right for him to shit in his backyard, as long as he screened the outside world from the exact personages involved. But what the villagers of Lussaud clearly took such exception to wasn’t simply the newsworthy revelations, but the depiction of their lives. The legal representatives put it economically. While the magistrate stated: “All Pierre Jourde has done is to describe the solitude, the pain, the promiscuity,” the villagers’ defence lawyer told the novelist: “You write about their lives and their vices, you do not look for what makes them tick. You manipulated them. You played with them.”

Jourde’s case demonstrated once again that this is a challenging group and a challenging situation to write about. So why give yourself the grief? Well, one reason would be that, from the evidence of my own eyes, within ten years many of the villages I visited will be no more. John Berger wrote in the introduction to Into Their Labours, his trilogy about peasant life: “In western Europe, if the plans work out as the economic planners have foreseen, there will be no more peasants within 25 years.” He wrote that in 1990. Do the sums. Tellingly, Berger describes the deserted village as “a site with no survivors”. It is indeed a very bleak view.

“Of course, there’s nothing new in all this,” someone advised me at the start of my investigations. “Dying villages, dead villages – people have been writing about them since Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village right at the start of the eighteenth century.” There’s nothing new in writing laments for their inhabitants either. Patrick Kavanagh, in his despairing but magnificent poem, The Great Hunger, wrote about the central role peasants have had in Europe’s cultural history: “Without the peasant base civilisation must die,/Unless the clay is in the mouth the singer’s singing is useless”.

It does appear though that the “peasant base” is fatally eroded; that the centuries old decline of our rural depopulation is markedly accelerating and that many villages throughout Europe are approaching what we might call “the end game”.

And yet, my experiences of these villagers was not a bleak one. I found people – mostly women, mostly old – who were full of warmth, humour and generosity. The qualities necessary to survive in a dying village are resilience, self-sufficiency, independence, a sense of humour, and a sense of rootedness in a value system that is under constant threat. Like Rima, who I met in the all but deserted village of Kozino. She had left school at thirteen and had started work immediately in charge of two oxen delivering milk. It was her late husband, a tractor driver for the collective farm who had brought her to Kozino. When I asked her why she stayed on in the village alone, she said, “This is the area where I was born. I like village life. And I’ll only leave the village when I’m so old that I can’t do for myself.” In the way people talk now about farmers being custodians of the countryside, so Rima was a solitary custodian of village life.

And what might be the word that best expresses the values of village life? There is a Russian word, dushevnost. It is what the village women told me they had in the hardest times, making the hardest times bearable. Dushevnost. It is one of the great untranslatables. Its root is dusha, the soul, and it carries the meaning of having warmth in your attitude to people. A warmth that includes the prospect of unselfish help. Dushevnost. “There is no word so sweeping,” wrote Gogol, “so torn from under the heart itself, so bubbling and quivering with life, as the aptly uttered Russian word.”

Let us hold dushevnost in mind as we consider an extract from The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: “It is a remarkable paradox that, at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life…Having come to the end of what higher material living standards can offer us, we are the first generation to have to find other ways of improving the real quality of life.” The Spirit Level maintains, “The evidence shows that reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us.”

In short, in addition of course to political will, we need more dushevnost. For where progress in material terms – one of the measure’s of Enlightenment success – has run aground, we need other measures to take us forward and maybe we’ll find traces of them where Levin does at the end of Anna Karenina – “in the very holy of holies, the depths of the country.”

This thought brings me back to my last connection with the Enlightenment. Robert Crawford tells us in The Bard, his new biography of Burns, that in Ayrshire, in the Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton, they would debate topics “in line with Scottish Enlightenment preoccupations”. Questions such as, “Whether is the savage man or the peasant of a civilized country in the most happy condition?”  In times when questions, concerning what constitutes happiness and what is the road to happiness, are being put seriously into the political domain for the first time in many years, perhaps those surviving in Europe’s dying villages – for all the harshness and limitations of their lives – may have something to say to us.


In The Beginning: New and Selected Poems

Tom Pow
Polygon, £12.99.
ISBN: 978-1-84697-122-8

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