A Q&A with James Rebanks on English Pastoral
In his new book English Pastoral, the author of the beloved The Shepherd's Life, James Rebanks, recounts a very personal history of the British countryside across three generations, through the prism of his family farm in the Lake District.
In this interview, Rebanks talks about what can be done to reverse some of the worrying trends of modern farming, the positive effects of allowing nature back into the farmlands, and the importance of asking where our food comes from.
What is your new book English Pastoral about?
English Pastoral is a very personal history of the British landscape over the past forty or so years. It starts with me as a child in my grandfather's fields, trying to understand his patchwork world and how it worked. He grew a whole range of crops, had cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and horses, and his fields were always changing with each growing season. I fell in love with the farm on the back of his tractor. As I grew up, that all changed. My father and I shifted to a more modern style of farming, that used bigger machines and more chemicals, and encouraged farmers to simplify down to raising just one crop or one type of animal. Thinking this was ‘progress,’ we stripped everything back, until our farm began to look like a factory floor. Over time, we realised we had actually been making our fields poorer places for nature, and ultimately destroying all the things we loved. After my father died, and I took over the farm, I wanted to find a different, more hopeful future for it, and for us all.
You write very lovingly about your grandfather, why did you admire him?
He seemed to belong in his world, and he knew everything about the birds and animals on his land, and he set out to teach me his values so I could someday keep his world going. And he loved me, and that made me stand a lot taller.
Why did you want to write this book?
We hear so much bad news about the British countryside, and we know that farming has created significant problems, but most of us don’t know what really happened or why. Modern life has lifted most of us far from the fields that feed us, and knowledge of farming and nature has become vanishingly rare. I wanted to write a book that told this story, because I think it is the most important story in the world right now. And I wanted to tell it in a way that anyone could read and understand, because it is a human story. I believe passionately that we can choose another, more hopeful future for the British countryside if we understand how we got here, and have a vision for how we might change it.
You say you are ‘hopeful’ but why?
On our farm, we’ve spent the past decade reversing many of the choices we made earlier on, in order to allow nature back in. We’ve returned to keeping native breed cattle, ponies, sheep and pigs, and we raise everything on grass, with no synthetic fertilisers and almost no pesticides. We’ve replanted miles of hedgerows, and ended up with a farm of little fields and hay meadows, surrounded by trees and wilder areas. We’ve created more than a dozen ponds, and ‘rewiggled' several streams so we have healthier wetland habitats. Every step along the way we have been rewarded with nature flooding back onto our land, often masses of common species, like frogs, voles or grasshoppers, but then after them the things that eat them, like kestrels, herons and barn owls. These small changes have transformed our farm for the better.
What can non-farmers do to help reverse the trends that are so grim?
Try and grow something to eat, at least once. Of course not everyone is lucky enough to own a field, or even a garden, but just growing something like a packet of lettuce on a windowsill can help us to appreciate the beauty, the challenge, and the importance of growing food. Food loses something when it's reduced to a commodity, we begin to forget the miracles that made it possible. It's good for us to have our hands in the soil, and to nurture living things. It brings us closer to the elemental processes that sustain us, and that are so important if we are to understand our place in the world.
We can also all ask more questions about our food, and how it was produced, whether we’re eating animal or plant products. You have the power to influence the systems in which your food is grown – just start by asking a simple question in restaurants and shops: Where did this come from? If the food has no back story, don’t buy it. The things we eat should have a story you can understand and trust. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to (and lots of people aren’t), try to shorten your own food chain, and buy direct from a farmer (there are loads on social media who will talk to you and deliver), or through a trusted intermediary like a local butcher - make sure they know your values and expectations that your food is grown in sustainable and decent ways.
You write about reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a moment of realising things were going wrong, do you admire her?
Yes, she’s a hero of mine. If you’re writing or thinking about these issues now, you owe a debt to other brilliant people who came first and helped us understand. Carson is one such writer. Another is Wendell Berry, and, for me, Jane Jacobs. All three are Americans, which I think reflects the fact that these staggering changes to farming and nature happened first in the U.S., so that is where disillusionment and concern first arose and found its voice. It takes guts to say, ‘Whoa everyone, this path is taking us in the wrong direction’. Carson had guts.
Can we really change anything?
Yes. And the first step is understanding clearly what has happened, what we’ve done. I hope my little book can help with that.
Who are your favourite authors?
I am an obsessive reader, and have loads of favourite writers. Amongst living writers, I love Hisham Matar and Mohsin Hamid, and I love the recent translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson. Among the classics, I love the great writers of 'simple' prose like Hemingway, Hersey, and Orwell. I am crazy about the twentieth century Russians, particularly Akhmatava, Sholokov, Grossman and Shalamov. But perhaps my favourite author is Albert Camus, and especially his unfinished masterpiece The First Man - it is full of love for the poor people of his childhood.
The reviews of the book have been amazing, have you been surprised by the response?
You have no idea, as a writer, whether your words will connect with anyone else. I just tried to tell a simple personal story that would shed light on the changing of rural England. It is a thrill that amazing writers like Wendell Berry, Alan Bennet, Isabella Tree, Caitlin Moran and Philip Gourevitch have responded so warmly. Hopefully that means I turned my story and experiences in to something that others find useful and relate to. I think most of us know something is wrong and want something better.
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