Book Review: English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Under the Christmas Tree this year was a wonderful gift from my mother, English Pastoral by James Rebanks. Rebanks is a farmer in the Lakes district in the UK, an Oxford graduate and an expert adviser to the UNESCO on sustainable tourism. You might be forgiven for thinking what is the relevance of this book for a small hobby farm half a world away, but this book captures many of my frustrations with ‘conventional agriculture’ and provides guidance for me in our journey on the Rock Farm.

Rebanks opens his book with a memory of riding with his Grandfather as he ploughed his fields. When he was old enough, his Grandfather started sharing the traditional farming techniques used on a mixed rotational farm. Rebanks loved his apprenticeship, and learnt the old way of farming that had been largely unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years.

As a young man, he witnessed his Father struggle with the lure of modern agriculture. With the drive for efficiency, farms started to grow in size. Fertilizers and high yielding pasture, along with specialised farms replaced mixed farms. This modern miracle increased yields enormously. But it came at a cost, and rested uneasily with Rebanks and his father.

A watershed moment came when a young woman, Lucy came from a local river conservation charity. With some simple changes, Lucy showed how the water courses running through their farm could be returned to their more natural state. And she had funds to help pay for the fencing that would be required to make it happen. Small changes made more natural areas in the farm, and Rebanks realised he was now a guardian of these wild spaces. This first step changed Rebanks as well as the farm.

Rebanks is a realist. He knows the future of farming lies somewhere between the vast industrial scope of broadacre agriculture with its intensive feedlots, and the small scale mixed farms. He is concerned with the increasingly binary arguments that place farmers at odds with environmentalists. He knows that the old style of farming is hard work. The health of animals and plants is hard work, and requires constant vigilance. I am reminded of the words of Allan Savory who believes all problems stem from poor management.

The idea that land must be either perfectly wild or perfectly efficient and sterile is unwise and blinding; it is a false and unsustainable simplification. When we despair and reduce our world view to black and white – ‘farming’ is bad; ‘nature’ is good – we lose sight of vital distinctions and nuances. We make every farmer who isn’t a saint a villain. We miss the actual complexities of farming, the vast spectrum between those those extremes and the massive scope for nature friendly farming that exists between them.

What I really enjoyed about reading Rebanks’ book was his descriptions of the land and all that lived in it. It was once said to me that a farmer’s footsteps are the best fertiliser. Rebanks embodies this, with his delight in the detail of his farm. He takes us on constant journeys around his farm, and shares the magic of sighting a barn owl in the hunt, the rising of the sun above the mist at dawn, the gentle cow nursing her new calf.

The more I learn about it, the more beautiful our farm and valley becomes. It pains me to ever be away; I never want to be wrenched from this place and its constant motion. The longer I am here, the clearer I hear the music of this valley: the Jenny wren in the undergrowth; the Scots pines creaking and groaning in the wind: the meadow grasses whispering. The distinction between me and this place blurs until I become part of it, and when they set me in the earth here, it will be the conclusion of a longer lifelong story of return. The ‘I’ and the ‘me’ fades away, erodes with each passing day, until it is already an effort to remember who I am and why I am supposed to matter. The modern world worships the idea of the self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noise age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue.

This book is beautiful. It is shocking. It has challenged me to take time to get to know the detail of our farm. The wild things that live here, the changes of the seasons, the flowing of the grasses. It has also reminded me that our farm is a luxury. It is a hobby that I love, but I don’t stay up at night worrying about how I will provide for my family.

It seems the lessons of half a world away are equally relevant here too.

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