Country Life Reloaded – On the Trail of August Strindberg

August Strindberg: “Why do you hate the city?”

Old man: “Because it deadens the land. It is like the lion’s cave. All paths lead to it, but none gets you out. It is like a tumor, attracting all useful bodily fluids and spouting pus in return.”

27idestrindbergmaleri_5161 August Strinberg, Wunderland (1894) 

This short dialogue between the writer, August Strindberg, and the old man is found at the beginning of Strindberg’s report, “Among French Farmers,” created between 1886 and 1889. Today the impression one gets in large cities has a different momentum: toward the country! Many are tired of the big city and want to turn their back on it, just for the weekend or forever. Yet the movement from the country to the city is ever-increasing, still today, still in Germany. Currently, over 70% of Germans live in cities and by 2030 it will be 80% of the population. What is this statistically oppositional urge to go rural all about?  Where does this need come from? And what does it all have to do with Strindberg’s 19th century report?

August Strindberg, the prominent Swedish writer, traveled over 100 years ago to live among French farmers. Out of curiosity and wanderlust but also to find out what the idea of progress was all about. “Is development just a progression through time, or is it also progress for the happiness of humanity?” Strindberg wondered.

At that time industrialization was on the rise, a consequence of which was the idealization of country life. In the first part of the report, Strindberg describes the observations he made of a Scandinavian artist colony in the village, Grez-sur-Loing. Only in the second part of the books does he travel through France by train. Strindberg proceeds with painstaking precision, describing exactly what he sees (or wants to see). To this effect his observations seem very distanced at times, and the farmers hardly get a chance to speak. He approaches his objects from the outside with the eyes of a researcher, while hardly trying to see the farmers’ world through their own eyes, looking much more for the confirmation of his own perceptions. Strindberg devotes himself to the “petit cultivateur,” the French peasant farmer, who he sees as the man of the future – true to the motto, “humble but mine” – most importantly, farmers are able to feed themselves and their families. The image Strindberg paints stands in opposition to the new agriculturalists who, little by little, were beginning to grow according to industrial standards, following the capitalist as well as socialist creed of progress: “up or out.”

strindberg_mysingen August Strinberg, Mysingen (1892)

How are things looking in 2015? Was the old man’s answer right? Are the city and its development the enemy? And are today’s urbanites, similar to Strindberg, searching for a country life of their own imaginings? How much of this is perhaps romanticizing?

We confronted the filmmaker, Lola Randl, the artist, John Dekron and the literature scholar, Christiane Nowak with quotes from Strindberg’s report. Randl and Dekron created the documentary series, Landschwärmer, and live in the German Uckermark. Nowak is involved with the Sterngartenodyssee in Berlin, a co-op of organically operating businesses. How would they respond to the old man who hates the city he calls a tumor?

John Dekron: “That’s how it is. Why should the old man use something he doesn’t know? Something he doesn’t understand anything about. Nobody needs anything that was just invented. Nobody needs the internet, the telephone, a car or books before it’s all been invented. Until they become objects of cultural value. Once you know about it, once it is of some use, then you really do need it. At least then you know what you’re missing. And once you have all of that, most likely in the city, then you’re glad to have a spot in the country you can go to get away from it all.

Lola Randl: “Now there’s the country you have to fit into a very full schedule. And it’s there to do less and de-stress. And the weekenders love that so much: that you can really relax here… But they don’t have anything to do with real life in the country.”

Dekron: “They maintain houses. And many craftsmen here work mainly in weekend homes. So it’s not really that busy here. Of course in popular places, especially among urbanites, it is pretty strange when the caravan disappears on Sunday.”

Christiane Nowak: “I am not engaged with Solidarity Agriculture because I’m tired of the big city. On the contrary, I think the Community Supported Agriculture profits immensely from the big city, as there are many people in close proximity to one another who organize alternative sustenance together. In the country everyone has their own garden and cooks themselves, which means less togetherness. Mutual support is a mark of the city and comes the moment I need it. And I think both poles are good: the networks, the new ideas and joy of experimentation in the big city – the fresh air and the vastness of the country. The exchange between the city and the country is important.”

landschwärmer11Still from Landschwärmer

The desire to go rural or simply for more rural life in the city overcomes those who already have everything in the city. This yearning is directly linked to the actual, oppositional movement from the country into the city. This longing to go back to the land exists at all because more and more people live in cities. Everybody wants to go rural except those who are there already – they want the city. Lola Randl talks about it like this as well, “that you treat yourself to being in the country. Rural people who no longer have work here will continue going to the city, while high-strung urbanites set up their lives in the country as they have imagined them.” John Dekron claims our affluence is responsible for this phenomenon: “that we can afford – and want – a nice metaphor for a self-sufficient existence.” Even the idea of self-sufficiency is finding its way into cities, sustained by urbanites who bring their rural experiences back with them. This is how trends such as indoor farming, urban gardening and the overall desire to know where our food really comes from originate. In this respect urban and rural life are converging. A lot of potential for new ideas and encounters, right?

This positively affects projects such as solidarity agriculture, as described by Christine Nowak,  which bring city dwellers together, people with similar interests. What do the people who actually live in the country think about this urban to rural movement? Lola Randl was wondering the same thing: “What does the land get out of stressed-out urbanites with trunks full of specialty foods driving to their weekend homes just to avoid everything and everybody out there?” That’s another story.

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