Monday 4 October 2021

Guest review by Judith Allnatt: ENGLISH PASTORAL - AN INHERITANCE, by James Rebanks

"In a world trembling at the brink of climate disaster, this is both a timely and a hopeful book..."

Judith Allnatt writes short stories and novels for adults. Her novels have been variously shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature, the East Midlands Book Award and featured as a Radio 5 Live Book of the Month. Short stories have appeared in the Bridport Prize Anthology and the Commonwealth Short Story Awards, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service.

Judith’s latest novel, The Silk Factory, is an eerie story of love and memory drawing on both the Luddite weavers’ rebellions in the nineteenth century and a modern day haunting. She has lectured widely on Creative Writing for over two decades and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She lives with her family in Northamptonshire and is working on her fifth novel. For more information and blog posts see Judith’s website.  Twitter: @judithallnatt

English Pastoral is both urgent in its call to arms for the planet and poetic in its lyrical description of life on the author’s farm in the Cumbrian fells.

The book is structured in three acts. The first concerns the traditional farming that he learnt from his grandfather: rotating crop and pasture, using manure to nourish the soil and harvesting once a year. These were the farming methods evolved over centuries that worked both with and for nature. Spilt grain helped birds survive through the winter and cutting hay once for fodder rather than frequent grass cutting for silage allowed a habitat to survive for ground nesting birds such as curlews.

The second act explains the pressures of a growing world population and the industrialisation of farming: the growing of monoculture crops and the widespread use of pesticides, literally weeding out biodiversity; the spiralling use of fertilizers on soil ever more compacted and degraded; the use of massive machines on huge fields stripped of ancient hedgerows. These are practices that work efficiently to maximise production, but this drive for ever-lower food prices leaves little room for wild things and the cost to the natural world and the climate goes largely unheeded.

The third act explores hope for the future - the equivalent of the ‘redemption’ frequently used at this point in the structure of fiction. It describes James Rebanks’ return to some traditional farming methods. He chooses Herdwick sheep for their hardiness to Cumbrian weather. Belted Galloway cattle are introduced that can stand wintering outside and don’t need to eat silage indoors. Thus at one stroke he removes both the need for multiple crops of monoculture grass and the practice of spreading the resulting slurry: an acidic form of muck that destroys soil quality rather than well-rotted manure, which builds it. 12,000 trees are planted on his land. With the help of the Eden Valley River Authority, river and beck are rerouted and transformed from straightened, dredged, draining channels to meandering curved watercourses, slowing their pace to help protect towns downstream that were previously devastated by floodwater from unprecedented levels of rain. As the river wanders, gravel is deposited and salmon and trout that need gravel shoals on which to spawn return. He documents the otters, hares and owls returning to his land, alongside the rare wildflowers in the meadows. He speaks with equal enthusiasm of micro-organisms and numbers of earthworms - indicators of healthy soil. And what of the curlews? Driven out during the years of losing their chicks to the harvester, they are starting to return along with the swallows and swifts that dive to snatch the flies above muck-nourished fields.

Hung along the narrative thread that follows the farm’s fortunes, are vignettes of farming life: sheep stranded on an island of grass in floodwater, his father’s manic delight in the five yearly gorse burning, a son’s pride in winning a silver shield for being ‘best tup handler’.

The book is beautifully written. Old phrases such as ‘leading in the hay’ are used naturally as a matter of course. (Surely an echo of the thousands of years preceding this mechanical age, when men led horse and cart from field to yard). The face of the fells, changing with weather, the hour and the season is brought alive by the close observation and choice images of the writer.

In a world trembling at the brink of climate disaster, this is both a timely and a hopeful book. James Rebanks demonstrates that his farm is now not just carbon neutral but carbon positive – it is storing more carbon than it creates. Whilst pragmatically recognising that chemical intervention has its place, he makes the case for using traditional methods wherever possible and for encouraging and cherishing farming that improves the land and stewards the wildlife upon it. He points out that big corporations hunt in rural corners for genes in stock or crops in order to breed animals and plants capable of surviving new challenges such as climate changes. Yet, with every small farmer swallowed up by large scale monoculture farming these opportunities narrow and treasure is lost.

Most of us live in towns and cities and have little close contact with the land that feeds us. We buy packaged food from supermarkets and don’t think much about where it comes from or how it is produced. This book turns our eyes in this unwonted direction. What we see is that we can’t afford to ignore issues of regeneration and stewardship any longer, and that what happens to our land has far-ranging consequences for what will happen to our planet.

English Pastoral is published by Penguin.

See also: Wilding, by Isabella Tree, reviewed by Linda Newbery   

1 comment:

dihofneyr said...

I have been meaning to buy 'English Pastoral' after being recommended it by a South African friend! (maybe there is a parallel between the dry kingdoms of the Karoo and Cumbria)Now I will definitely buy it. Thanks for the reminder.