We live in a rapidly urbanising world. In 2009, the number of people living in urban areas surpassed those in rural areas, according to the UN; that trend has only continued, and our relationship with the land is increasingly rooted in a mythical past. This dislocation goes some way to explaining the popularity of James Rebanks.
In 2015, and already a star of the Twittersphere, the farmer from north-west England published The Shepherd’s Life — part-journal, part-memoir, part cultural history — which proved an instant hit. Structured by a series of modest but compelling vignettes, the book guided readers behind the postcard scenery of the Lake District, to reveal the charms, the challenges and sheer bloody hard work involved with life on a family sheep farm.
Five years on, and the 46-year-old Rebanks has returned with English Pastoral, a more ambitious — and in many ways more accomplished — work that details the dramatic changes that have occurred in farming, and in the cultivated landscape, over his own lifetime as food production has become supercharged by technology and the pressures of global markets.
“Most people are now largely illiterate when it comes to agriculture and ecology,” writes Rebanks, though some may argue they have been for some time. He offers his book as a kind of corrective in three acts — titled, with knowing irony, Nostalgia, Progress and Utopia.
It begins with his grandfather, a proud stockman with a deep connection to the countryside and its traditions, who approached farming as an elemental battle for survival. “He existed in nature, as an actor on the stage, always struggling to hold his ground. A risen ape, not a fallen angel,” Rebanks writes. And it goes on to describe his father’s increasingly desperate efforts to keep up with the “gradual revolutions of scale, timing, uniformity, efficiency and speed” in farming practice.
The author explains how postwar UK government policies, designed primarily to avert food shortages, encouraged a drive towards larger farming units, a growing dependence on agrichemicals and a move away from the more sustainable rotation farming system in favour of widespread monoculture. He details how ever-cheaper food in relation to incomes has enriched supermarkets and big business at the expense of everyone else. And he is eloquent — scenes of mud and guts are interspersed with quotes ranging from Virgil to Schumpeter, Rachel Carson to Wendell Berry — on the catastrophic impact all this has had on natural ecosystems and the very fibre of rural communities in Britain and around the world.
In the final section of the book, Rebanks describes his sense of enlightenment, and efforts to reconcile a commitment to his family’s farm with the moral responsibilities of our age. He consults the interfering environmentalists “we [farmers] once all hated” and he plants hedges and trees, improves riverbank habitats and reduces pesticide use to almost nothing. The diversity of plant, insect and bird life that begins to flourish on his land stands as testament to the power of individual action.
English Pastoral is refreshingly non-partisan: farming is “shaped by a host of powerful external forces”, and we are all, whatever we choose to eat, in some way complicit in this system. But it is also hazy about systemic solutions. “We have to flex our political muscles in our millions to create a politics that sees the land and what happens on it as being at the heart of building a more just and decent society” is about as specific as it gets. There is no comment on the UK government’s Environmental Land Management scheme, which is set to replace the EU’s Basic Payment Scheme, part of the Common Agricultural Policy and a critical feature of the rural economy, or advice on how the consumer can lobby for positive change.
Meanwhile, the author’s disdain for economists ignores the work of Dieter Helm and others, who in recent years have made thoughtful recommendations on how to balance food production with a care for the environment — and undermines his wider theme of the importance of dialogue.
Rebanks remains at his best when drawing vivid sketches of rural life. “I was scrunched up in the back of the Land Rover with the sheepdogs dripping candles of saliva on to my legs”, he writes. On blackberrying: “The tangled mass of thorny vines was black with ripe brambles, and we picked them, arms scratched chalky with the barbs.”
There’s no doubt that this sort of lyricism plays into an idealisation of the countryside that has existed for centuries, gained momentum in recent years and only intensified as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet English Pastoral builds into a heartfelt elegy for all that has been lost from our landscape, and a rousing disquisition on what could be regained — a rallying cry for a better future. And you can’t argue with that.
English Pastoral: An Inheritance, by James Rebanks, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 304 pages
Laura Battle is the FT’s deputy books editor
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