Monday 29 April 2024

ENGLISH PASTORAL by James Rebanks and THE FARMER'S WIFE by Helen Rebanks, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"He and his family had tended to see environmentalists as 'bonkers', impractical opposers of farming realities, but now he made the connection between the decline of once-common birds such as lapwings and the prevalence of modern farming methods."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review and was a Costa prizewinner for her young adult novel Set in Stone. Her recent publication This Book is Cruelty Free - Animals and Us looks at our daily choices - what we eat, wear, buy, use, waste and throw away - and how we can choose better for animals and the environment.

James and Helen Rebanks, husband and wife, have each written about the experiences that led them to the small mixed farm close to Ullswater, formerly managed by James's grandfather, where they now live with their four children. James's 2020 book, English Pastoral - an inheritance, which details his conversion to the nature-friendly farming they now practise, deservedly won the Wainwright Prize and was the Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year; Helen has followed with The Farmer's Wife - my life in days. James's book had been on my pile for some time, so when The Farmer's Wife was a reading group choice, I read both.

James's book invites comparison with Isabella Tree's Wilding, and he acknowledges the influence of her project with Charlie Burrell at the Knepp Castle estate in Sussex. As a young man he travelled to Australia, where he saw very different large-scale land management; swayed by the drive to modernise and increase food production, he began to see his grandfather's ways as antiquated. Gradually, though, he saw that this race to higher productivity drastically harms nature while doing farmers no good, either - pushing small farmers off their land and lowering food prices so that producers have to strive harder and harder to make any profit. 

Reading Rachel Carson's Silent Springwhile living on his father's rented farm, was a catalyst for James. He and his family had tended to see environmentalists as 'bonkers', impractical opposers of farming realities, but now he made the connection between the decline of once-common birds such as lapwings and the prevalence of modern farming methods. Mowing grass meadows for silage, rather than later in the summer for hay, deals death to curlew chicks and other ground-nesting birds; removing hedgerows takes away valuable habitat, shelter and food; endless application of fertilisers exhausts the soil, and spraying pesticides causes the wide-ranging losses of which Rachel Carson warned. "This was business-school thinking applied to the land, with issues of ethics and nature shunted off to the margins of consciousness." 

He set himself the task of farming in a way that was not only nature-friendly but that would restore much of what had been lost. He sought the help of specialists, notably Lucy Butler of Eden Rivers Trust who showed him and his father that allowing streams to meander and form pools and wetlands would amply benefit wildlife and flood prevention (as described in Wildings, too). "I've come to realise that we need a small army of naturalists to help us play our part in the restoration of the countryside. There is more to understand about the ecology of a farm than any farmer can reasonably be expected to know." 

Returning to slow, traditional ways has its cost, and for years James took outside employment to support his family. "I'm not sure I'm much good at being a farmer," he writes. "It is overwhelming. I can't get everything done, let alone done well ... Often I get things wrong. The farm makes almost no money, and whatever money it does make, it devours." He readily acknowledges how much he owes to his wife Helen, and to women in general, who do much of the work that keeps a farm and family functioning.

Over to Helen's own book for more of this, with an emphasis on food; she prides herself on providing her family with wholesome, nourishing meals and includes recipes, many of them traditional, in her memoir. There's a lot (too much) about combining the demands of farm admin and domestic tasks with the care of small children: detailed episodes about looking in the fridge for something to cook, tidying toys and negotiating a supermarket with toddlers in tow soon become tedious. But a section on the 'Beast from the East' vividly describes the urgency of caring for animals and keeping the family warm and fed in an isolated, snowbound building, without electricity. When the worst is over and they venture down snow-banked lanes to the main road three miles away, the traffic is flowing freely, making their ordeal seem part of a different world. 

The Farmer's Wife goes back and forth in time, from childhood, through the couple's residence in Oxford while James was studying history there, Helen trying various ways of making a career for herself after finishing an art degree, and renovating a house. Far from giving an idyllic picture of farming life she is frank about rifts and tensions between James and herself at tough times, and writes of the devastation to both their families at the time of the foot-and-mouth pandemic. From Oxford, Helen "could only watch and listen to it all unfold from afar. After a couple of weeks she (her mother) told me the news we'd all feared: there was a contaminated farm nearby, and all our sheep and newborn lambs had to be slaughtered. Dad was busy helping sheep give birth, knowing that they were all destined to be culled and burned or buried soon ... Men that you'd never normally see showing emotion were now filmed with red blotchy faces, trying to hold back the tears for the BBC." In Oxford, "people around me seemed oblivious to it all."

Both authors have much to say about how dissociated most people have become from the food they buy and eat, and the importance of understanding the connections between our choices, farming and the natural world. "We need to be highly suspicious of food that seems too cheap to be true," Helen writes, "because somewhere a field, an animal, a farmer or a worker is paying the price for that." But neither pursues the connections between animal agriculture, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. Although James has much to say about the industrialisation of agriculture he only briefly suggests that eating less meat would reduce the environmental impact of food. Helen is disparaging about plant-based eating and seems proud of her children when they argue with a teacher about the school's introduction of Meat Free Monday. One paragraph particularly annoyed me: 

"The worst farming on earth is acres and acres of wheat, soy and maize grown by ploughing, which creates whole landscapes devoid of nature. These crops are wholly dependent upon synthetic chemicals - pesticides, herbicides and fossil-fuelled fertilisers that are disastrous for the soil, rivers, oceans, insects and birds. Eating 'plant-based' products supports these systems." (My emphasis). 
I felt like throwing the book across the floor at that point. Helen Rebanks must surely know, even if her editors don't, that most arable crops are grown to feed farmed animals, not humans directly. Not everyone who wants to eat meat has access to pasture-fed local produce; most meat bought and consumed in the UK is reared in intensive systems and fed on precisely the kind of crops she deplores. Reducing meat consumption is the best and only way to reduce the need for arable farming on such a vast and unsustainable scale. It's exasperating to see such a staggering piece of misinformation in a book designed for popular appeal, where many readers won't question its logic.
Because of this and other irritations I found English Pastoral by far the more rewarding of the two books, with its lyrical glimpses of landscape, weather and wildlife. "In the biggest darkest pool, clouds of minnows, little trout, swirl around erratically, their bodies scratching scribbles on the skin of the water"; "at dawn and dusk the valley bottom feels a little primeval, with the cattle and roe deer often grazing in a sea of mist"; "the air is heavy with mint, trampled by sheep feet".

One question that goes unanswered is how either James or Helen can possibly find time for writing and all that goes with publication, amidst the constant, pressing demands of farm and family. But both conclude their books with quiet contentment and appreciation of the life they have made. 

James: "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 noisy age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly may be a virtue." 

Helen: "Caring roles in our society are all too often invisible, ignored in the crazy 'look at me' world we live in ... Learning that the word 'mundane' has its roots in the Latin word 'mundanus', of the world, made me see everything through a different lens. To me, caring for my family is, and always has been, the most important work in the world."

English Pastoral: an inheritance is published by Allen Lane

The Farmer's Wife: my life in days is published by Faber

Read Linda's review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

and of Sixty Harvests Left by Philip Lymbery


Caroline Pitcher said...

Yes. Lapwings and hares in particular are missing from our daily dog walks. So sad.

Caroline Pitcher said...

Lapwings and hares in particular are missing from our daily dog walks...

Rosemary Hayes said...

Yet here in East Anglia, hares are making a comeback. So many more this year than last. Such magical creatures.