English Pastoral—James Rebanks

[I am reading this 2020 memoir in its three parts, writing in detail about each part before reading on. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything as I read it!]

16th May 2021
Prologue—The Plough and the Gulls and the first part—Nostalgia
This memoir is written by a farmer who grew from childhood to adulthood during the last 40-odd years, a period of what he presents as deeply disturbing changes in farming methods. But it reads as   a very knowing, literary work—this is not a criticism—as though Rebanks knows that if he is going to bring about a change in hearts and minds, he must present his own experience as a in a very particular way. He wants to be taken seriously… and wouldn’t it be nice if the readers of carefully crafted polemics like this one, readers who will be moved by what he has to say—people like me—had any influence at all on policy-makers? I know after reading only one of the three parts that I’m on Rebanks’s side, and I’m grateful for the chance to read a farmer’s-eye-view account of English country life, but… but what? Any ‘buts’ won’t be Rebanks’s fault, but that of a world which, as is already clear from what he writes, has little or no interest in listening. However… maybe I should leave the ‘buts’ for now. Everything about this book so far is carefully considered and composed, and I’m loving it.

Perhaps I’m bound to love this book. Even the title is ging to appeal, especially when taken with the last part of the explanatory note on ‘Pastoral’ on the first page: ‘Noun: 1) A work of art portraying or evoking country life, typically in a romanticised or idealised form for an urban audience.’ This isn’t just James Rebanks explaining something for us—he probably knows that we are already familiar with what a pastoral is. It’s a wry little reminder to 90-plus per cent of us that we have a skewed vision of what he’s going to write about. And an indication to us that he knows what he’s doing as a writer: by calling it a pastoral he’s telling us it isn’t going to be that at all.

The prologue sets up the main time-line of the first part, subtitled Nostalgia—which itself, we guess before we read it, is another irony. In the prologue, The Plough and the Gulls, Rebanks describes his remembered experience of a single day. He is sitting behind his grandfather on a tractor, and we think at first that it really might be a romantic vision: ‘The black-headed gulls follow in our wake as if we are a little fishing-boat out at sea.’ There really is a ‘wake’, of course, and it’s the worms being turned up that interest the gulls…. But soon, our attention is on the ‘oil-black smoke spewing from the exhaust’ and how his nose ‘fills with the smell of diesel and earth.’ We aren’t being brought down to earth with a bump, but Rebanks is preparing us for some realities. The prologue ends with the information that this day began his interest in farming, in ‘who we were and what the field was,’ and that times were changing for the worse. ‘The last forty years on the land were revolutionary and disrupted all that had gone before for thousands of years—a radical and ill thought-through experiment…. I was a witness.’

Nostalgia’s main time-line is the year that follows that ploughing. It’s no accident that the process from ploughing to harvest to feeding the cattle with the grain in winter is a perfect metaphor of the farm’s yearly round. The yearly round is a concept that Rebanks wants us to understand as fully as he can make us, and the best mentor for both him as a child and for us as we read is his grandfather. At some time around 1980 he is already a long way behind the times, relying on old ways that the big farmers consider obsolete. When the driver of the combine harvester he hires complains of the awkward field entrances and at the woeful lack of weedkiller used, we get it. The pressure to move with the times is far too great for most people to resist.

Rebanks’s father is certainly finding it hard. His farm is separate, but also still run along old-fashioned lines. Rebanks tells of the punishingly long hours, of how his mother has to do the work that would once have been done by one or more men, as well as trying to keep house. Her mother-in-law has little sympathy. Rebanks’s grandmother is a farmer’s wife of the old school, spending all day on the cooking, cleaning and pickling—almost all their food is from the farm, the hedgerows and the vegetable patch her husband grudgingly allows her—and she can’t understand why the younger woman can’t manage to do it. In a single incident, Rebanks shows exactly why. After a long day of hard work, her attention strays from whatever is in the oven while she gets on with another part of the meal. Her reaction to the smell of burning is what you would expect from anyone too stressed-out to imagine how it can possibly carry on like this.

Rebanks is good at feeding in little details like this. Meanwhile, there are other time-lines running, and he is remembering years of strain for his parents as the cost of running the farm gradually but relentlessly becomes too much. He, Rebanks, only brings us up to more recent times when describing events in his own life—like, early in the book, visiting the local solicitor to have his grandfather’s farm confirmed as his own in the old man’s will—so we don’t yet know how things are going to pan out for his parents through the 1980s and beyond. I doubt it will be anything good. The young James Rebanks in the early time-line had been put off farming up to now by his father’s stress and bad moods. It takes a year with his grandfather to make him want to go out and do the jobs he’d hated until now.

It’s a carefully crafted narrative. There are no chapters, only scenes or background stories, often less than a page long and rarely more than two. A passage detailing how the cows are fed in winter might include the sight of the steam of their breath caught in the early morning light. A celebration of the old man’s scything skill also has the pain of the boy’s blisters as he learns to avoid the pitfalls of using his smaller sickle tool. Every single sense is brought into play, every feature from hedges laid in the old style to the repair of broken drystone walls and the feel of having to trudge through deep mud. And, of course, there’s every kind of weather. He doesn’t only refer to this one year, but to other years of drought or torrential rain that make it very clear indeed that nothing about it is ever predictable. Rebanks really does build up a story, not only of how different generations continue the unending struggle—he quotes Virgil’s Georgics relating to how farming is war waged against nature—but of how, by the 1980s, most people in farming don’t want to run things like that any more.

This is the longest time-line of all, the one starting those ‘thousands of years’ ago and continuing to the time when, as though all of a sudden, everything was changing irrevocably. There are other farmers on the Lakeland fells who work the land as the Rebanks family do, but when they meet people from the lowland farms they catch the comments of how behind the times they are, how inefficient, how they will never be able to carry on. Perhaps Nostalgia isn’t an entirely ironic title for this section after all. Rebanks really is thinking back to a time when the battle hadn’t been lost yet. A time, as he puts it in the prologue, when he wouldn’t have to write about ‘what some of us are now trying to do to make it right.’

22nd May
The second part—Progress
This part was never going to be an easy read. I suspect it was never going to be an easy write, either, because Rebanks has already signalled so clearly what tough things are going to be in it. As with the book’s other subtitles, there’s an irony in this one. The ‘progress’ is real—Rebanks often reminds us how productivity has at least doubled in most areas of agriculture, and real-terms food prices are a fraction of what they once were—but, as we knew it would be, this section is all about the real cost. For page after page—and yes, it does sometimes seem repetitive—the terrible effects of the innovations are listed, to the point at which it seems the damage is irreversible. I think we’re quite near the end of this part before we are offered some small signs of hope.

Any readers of a book like this one are likely to be aware enough of what’s going on in farming for the arc of Rebanks’s narrative to be pretty clear before he even starts. What we don’t know are the details, and it’s these, added to his own experiences as a ‘witness’ to some of them, that make it all so shocking. His own stories, both about his family and about other people he talks to, intersperse the often dense informational content of sub-sections explaining longer-term, more global changes.

One of many anecdotes brings the parallel threads together. Whilst still young enough to still be living with his parents, he discovers and reads a copy of Silent Spring. It’s the beginning of his awareness that not all scientific ‘progress’ is without its problems. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, itself 30 years old by the time Rebanks would have been reading it, eventually helped to bring about the banning of DDT. Rebanks, in an earlier sub-section, had described how this very product had been hailed as the great saviour, and how it had made a huge difference to farmers all over the world. The truth about its appalling impact becomes a foretaste of the much bigger story he is about to tell.

A mixture of scientific innovations and global competition, both happening together, lead to an ever stronger expectation from customers that food is always going to be cheap. It’s extraordinary how the new ways of doing things sometimes seem almost too good to be true. Rebanks tells of how haymaking, for centuries the only way to turn grass into winter feed, was quickly replaced by the creation of silage from new strains of quick-growing grass. Instead of the old labour-intensive methods, involving hard work and, sometimes, a hay crop ruined by too much wet weather there could be two or more crops of luxuriant grass that needed no drying and could be cut and processed quickly by one worker instead of many.

But, as becomes the pattern for every one of the innovations Rebanks describes, there are down-sides. A monoculture of a single strain of grass, feed that leads to cattle producing a slurry of unusable muck instead of useful manure to revitalise the land, and harvesting methods that demand big fields and leave no room for ground-nesting birds. Gradually, the soil becomes poorer, and the increased use of newly-developed additives does not offer long-term solutions. Meanwhile, an acceleration in the selective breeding of cattle might lead to far higher milk yields and beef cattle that produce more meat much faster, but many dairy cows are exhausted in a couple of years and antibiotics are routinely added to feed to counteract the diseases suffered by cattle living in ways never before dreamed of—indoors and far too close together.

Rebanks actually starts Progress with a trip he made in his late teens to work on an Australian farm. It feels like the future, because the economies of scale are undeniable. And it also feels totally alien, with rectilinear fields and decisions made by way of spreadsheets. But in a world where this kind of farming exists, it seems impossible for farms like his family’s to survive. Yields are a fraction of those in farms run according to new, more efficient principles… and so there’s an ever more depressing thread running through the pages, of this seemingly undeniable truth forcing changes that do nothing to improve the land. Hedges are ripped out—one trip to southern England has Rebanks noticing how bare the landscape seems, with trees and hedges seen as superfluous—and other changes are made as Rebanks’s father bows to what seems to be the inevitable.

But, of course, it’s no good in the long term. Food might be cheap, but it’s at the cost of the degradation of the land, of biodiversity and of the very makeup of the soil. Rebanks never says it, but there is no need for food to be so cheap in the west that it forms only a small fraction of weekly household spending. It’s using up the resources of the earth—that is, among other things, the soil itself—and it’s shrinking the diversity of animals and plants used in agriculture that took ten thousand years of breeding to bring about. All the breeds and hybrid crops developed in the last 50 years come out of this stock, and if the old ones disappear, their unique biological features die with them.

And it’s from this that one of Rebanks’s rays of hope emerges. All over England, especially in the more marginal farms, there are breeds that are particularly hardy, or particularly useful in other ways, and ways of nurturing the land that do it more good than any modern methods…. He’s focusing on his own experience again—but, of course, it applies to the whole world, especially where modern techniques have never been used. Resisting the urge to focus all agriculture on the few most efficient breeds and crop strains will mean that the genetic heritage of all human history since the first agricultural revolution will not be lost. This, I assume, is what Rebanks meant in the prologue when he wrote about ‘what some of us are now trying to do to make it right.’ There would be no point in resisting all the innovations, and he isn’t advocating that. But… etc.

Meanwhile, there’s another thread. We’ve seen it since that first sight of the gulls from the back of the tractor, and it has to do with a well-loved image of what the countryside should be like. Rebanks is fond of offering a picture of modern-day farming warts and all—his description of the near-toxic slurry that comes shooting from the back end of a cow fed on silage is particularly memorable—but he’s good at evoking the pastoral, too. It’s why, from the start, I’ve been suggesting that his title isn’t entirely ironic. It’s important for his case that he engages his readers’ hearts as well as minds, and in all our hearts is a vision of England containing drystone walls and well-laid hedges. If he needs to persuade us that the old ways are in many ways the best, he’s pushing at an open door.

This is a really well written book, and Rebanks isn’t averse to some stirring lines. Like those that end this second part, almost a rallying cry: ‘I knew we would have to chart a difficult and compromised course: being good enough farmers to pay our bills, while continuing to steward the wild thinks on our land so that we could hold our heads up and look our children, and perhaps someday grandchildren, in the face.’

Bring it on. And bring on the final part, Utopia.

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