December 5, 2022 / Kameel Karim
The soil and soot taste familiar. You and I have lived here before.
In November of 2020, Google searches for the term “cottagecore” reached an all-time high. The COVID-19 pandemic had been ravaging the world for almost a year, and millions pined from their bedrooms for landscapes of pastoral virtue; for gingham skirts and jars of berry preserves; for the idyllic comfort of scattering chicken feed across the floor of the coop, one hand kneading at the pleasant ache in your lower back, looking out at an endless expanse of green.
It was a daydream patched together from ancestral memory. going to drop out of school to herd cattle on the argentinean pampas, I texted my friend. She responded, i’ll come visit when i have enough successors to look after the fruit orchard. We laughed, and that was the end of it. Never mind the fact that our predecessors had lived like this for thousands of years, and that the mastery of agriculture had reshaped the trajectory of human evolution. We had assignments due at 11:59. Someone, somewhere, retweeted a picture of Lirika Matoshi’s viral strawberry dress.
Cottagecore, like any aesthetic curated by the internet, is a romanticized collage of images cobbled together from disparate sources and baptized by users’ wishes to invent someone new. Being online in any capacity encourages the fabrication of a persona, especially if your accounts are public and even more so if you create content. Lovecore, cowboycore, fairycore. You paste heart stickers on your face and drape yourself in blush pinks to assume the glamor of Cupid’s children. You armor yourself in boots and leather, shivering in anticipation of the lawless adrenaline infused into old Westerns, or you brush your collarbones with glitter and replace your skin with gauze in a bid to be seen as ethereal, atemporal, delicate.
Adopting a few keywords to describe your personal brand, therefore, facilitates not only your algorithmic recommendations but also the process of connecting with people whose interests align with your own. Your every profile is a means of inventing and reproducing the person you’d like others to believe you are.
Where cottagecore stands apart is that it speaks to an essential truth of our societal infrastructure. Whether or not we are the ones tilling the earth and milking the cows ourselves, it must be done. The metropolitan bubble can’t persist without this enduring labor, this ritual care.
Yet we who reside in cities continue on in our rhythms of banality, for as much as we collectively idealize the experience of spiritual connection with the mother planet, so too do we intrinsically categorize this yearning as fantasy. Capitalist systems position urban lifestyles as the practical standard and rural lifestyles as a whimsical ideal. The educated upper class float through glass high-rises or work remotely. Performing manual labor, therefore, they view as an anachronism only realistic for the poor, the hungry, and their forefathers who have passed.
Our “real” lives demand the sum of our attention from the moment we learn to speak until we can speak no longer. Maybe this is why we spend the duration of them anticipating our return to the earth.
The Fault in the Mountains
Waiting in the wings of the desire to run away to a nondescript cottage in the forest is the quieter, darker wish to become a ghost. Cottagecore isn’t just idealistic: it’s selfish.
Villages and townships exist because of their residents’ obligation to one another. If one raises goats, another welds metal, and a third might trade his fresh-caught fish with both of them. When that kinship is stripped away in pursuit of anonymity and simplicity, rural life is flattened down to snapshots. You set a steaming meal on the table, but the chairs are always empty. You plant roses in the garden, but they waste away without anyone to pick them.
Junji Ito explores the repressed, sometimes sinister shadow of that longing to get away via his short story, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.” In the exposition, people across Japan flock to the site of an earthquake that split open Mt. Amigara after seeing on television a number of holes tailored exactly to the contours of their own bodies. The protagonist watches in horror as individuals strip nude to enter the eerily perfect cutouts, overtaken by an urge to seek out what’s destined to be theirs. Ultimately, even the protagonist succumbs to the mountain’s allure, and researchers months later are horrified to discover the bodies of those lost to the fault emerging — unrecognizably contorted, but unmistakably alive.
This desperate compulsion to enter the fault despite its forbidding nature illustrates man’s desire to return to the earth. At a glance, the holes offer nothing that civilization does: no comforts, no community, not even the promise of life. However, these factors may actually comprise the bulk of the seduction instead of detracting from it. Within the depths of Mt. Amigara, the pressures of the world external are stripped away. There is no obligation to labor and no fear of loss. In idealizing cottages, in aching for the mountains, we ask: what if it were enough to just — have been?
As popularized by the emotionless, empty “void” in internet culture, the requirement of contributing to one’s surrounding society pulls in its wake a persistent exhaustion. However, escaping to the woods to live secluded from urban politicking is only two steps shy of flinching away from company altogether. The cost of solitude is silence — and, as Ito reminds us, perhaps our humanity itself.
The Wild and Precious
To live in the world, you must wear a thousand faces. Every interaction holds you up to the light and attempts to see through you. Interpersonal relationships breed expectations. Your supervisor expects you to put your head down and work through the weekend; your mother wants you to go to church. In prayer, do you find respite, or is speaking to God like writing an email?
In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver admits, “I don’t know what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle…”
Oliver ponders idleness not as an example of failure or a sin to be avoided, but as a mode to which to aspire. She rests in the meadow and admires a grasshopper, content to spend the rest of her day doing nothing more. In the late-stage capitalist battle royale that the world has since become, the final two lines of the poem (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”) have been repossessed and appropriated by the “grinders,” the “hustlers,” and the wicked who never sleep. Oliver’s ode to serenity and repose is a carcass mutilated. The value of life, which the poet originally admired as sacred by virtue of only existing, is transposed to quantifiable measurements: salary, promotions, clicks, reposts. A pious family and a picket fence by age 30. A legacy by retirement.
However, just as there is no success and fortune to be had after death, neither is there the simple joy of feeling the breeze on your face. While the void offers escape, it holds no kindness. Even cottagecore, with its pointed emphasis on self-subsistence, rejects the veneration of leisure. The possession of one life is marked as lamentable rather than a wondrous gift.
We spend the limited time we are given pursuing benchmarks of our own creation. Yet, for as long as the human race has persisted, so too have empathy, community, and tenderness. To be alive is not inherently a challenge to put your neighbors to shame. Instead, you can share with them the satisfaction of cultivating a lush, heavy fruit, and the concrete reassurance of the soil on which we stand.
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” reflects Oliver. And if this is the case: isn’t our own pleasure of the essence? To be debauched in the warmth of the sun; to be drenched in green; to return to the earth, who loved us first and longest. ■
By: Kameel Karim
Layout: Ava Jiang
Layout: Ava Jiang
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.