English Pastoral – An Inheritance
By James Rebanks Penguin, 283pp, £20
It opens with a young boy sitting with his grandfather on a tractor which is pulling a plough through a small field, in the great wide heartbreaking beauty that is the Lake District. Above and behind them, black-headed gulls clamour for the grubs that the six ploughshares are turning up. The boy is a reluctant participant. He would rather be watching television or at least indoors.
What follows is a three-part elegy: a prose poem, a polemic, a philosophical treatise. It also contains a mixture of memoir, ecological musings, and minute observations of the natural environment, all based on Rebanks’s upbringing in the Lakes. He has a love for his landscape and a dismay at how we have come to be so cavalier towards the world about us. Through the year that makes up the first chapter, “Nostalgia”, the young boy becomes a convert to farming and to his grandfather’s traditional ways as a farmer. Slowly, through Rebanks’s remembering eyes, a boy makes the beginning of a man and comes to comprehend the difficult life that his family lives – and has always lived – and at the same time, the rewards and triumphs that come with a life “lived quietly”.
James Rebanks comes from an old Westmorland farming dynasty. Like many farming families in this sainted county, the Rebanks were not big landowners. In fact, they were barely landowners at all. There were some acres that they owned but where they lived was another family’s asset. Into this farm, lovingly and with age-old instinctive knowledge, they poured their labours. Life was simple perhaps but it was not easy. They did not shop for food and if a crop failed or a cow died, that affected what they had to eat.
Elegiac, beguiling and wonderful as this book is, it contains some startling facts. Some types of cows have been bred to a point where they are not allowed to breed for more than one season – because with each season, the specimen becomes more refined, meaning last year’s cow is old news. Change and “progress” are frighteningly rapid. Old Blackie, Rebanks’s father’s favourite cow, would not – indeed could not – be tolerated in this foolhardy new world. A cow is a dairy cow, or it is bred for beef: the two do not overlap. The population soars and cheap food is the norm. Where in the 1960s, families spent an average 34 per cent of their income on food, now they spend less than a third of that. The price is paid by the wildflowers and wildlife whose habitats are decimated by pesticides, destroyed by combine harvesters, and ignored by increasingly corporate agricultural managers.
The word “polemic” was mentioned at the beginning of this review and there is certainly a heartfelt – and at times angry – appeal enshrined in the book. It is a polemic in the sense that a song can call you to action, that a cry from the heart can resonate. But Rebanks has no single solution. He does not believe in dividing ecologists and farmers into angels and villains. He does not suggest that the old ways were all good. (Indeed, he points back to the plough as being, in many ways, the source of all our problems.) What he does say is that we must be prepared to move away from the monocultural farming habits that have become the norm. He argues that a diversity of practices – a combination of old and new understandings – can and should be embraced.
In the final chapter of English Pastoral, “Utopia”, Rebanks explores what has happened on his farm since he woke up to the fact that “Progress” (the title of the central chapter) was not all it seemed. On a smaller scale, he has taken on the practices implemented with such astonishing results at Knepp Castle in Sussex by the married couple Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree. Rewilding tired pasture, reinstating ancient watercourses, restoring hedges, creating wild margins at the edges of fields that have been made smaller, planting trees – all these are bringing back wildflowers, insects, soil-health. Old habits of rotation, it turns out, do make sense. Yes it is hard – financially speaking, nigh on impossible. Rebanks acknowledges that; but after all, “How much is a curlew worth?”
The book closes with Rebanks sitting on a quad bike with his younger daughter. It is dusk and they watch a barn owl “like a giant white moth” swooping across the valley. The owl dives and seems to disappear, then lifts back up, “a small, shuddering brown corpse” in its talons. Rebanks feels the electricity run through his daughter as she watches. To read English Pastoral is to know a landscape better, to feel and smell a small corner of the Lake District known and loved by the author throughout his life. This is what Rebanks believes we should all be doing – becoming more connected to the land. It is, after all, our breadbasket.