Published in August 2021 by Custom House. 304 pp.
Reviewed by Janet Wallace
Pastoral Song is a great book for both farmers and consumers; it’s full of wonderful images and stories, beautiful writing and critically important lessons.
Farmers, particularly livestock farmers, might value the description of the highlights of raising animals and being close to the land. Consumers might learn to better appreciate their food by getting a glimpse into the struggles and challenges of food production, and the role all of us play in shaping farming and our rural landscapes. Rebanks concludes, “We need to keep unsustainably produced food out of our shops and markets; it cannot be allowed to undercut nature-friendly, high-welfare farming.”
In Pastoral Song, James Rebanks tells the story of a family farm. Nostalgia, the first of three sections, is a lovely account of the author growing up in the British countryside but under the shadow of growing tension between the author’s father and grandfather.
His grandfather resisted the modern methods. He continued to mow fields using a scythe, grow grain and hay for the livestock, and know each individual animal. As Rebanks states, “There was something about working the land on foot behind a horse that seemed to make him see the world differently from the way later generations would see it from a powerful tractor. My grandfather knew our fields as if they were extensions of his body.”
Meanwhile the author’s father saw the farm going deeper into debt and the struggle to find workers who could maintain the labour-intensive farming methods.
Rebanks witnesses the struggle between generations of farmers as modern farming is introduced to the area. Hedgerows and stone fences are ripped out. Hay is replaced with silage encased in plastic. Grain fields are gone because it’s cheaper to import pelleted feed. Hardy old breeds of livestock are replaced with more productive (and more fragile) breeds. Throughout this, birds, dragonflies and many other species are lost as pesticides and monoculture begin to rule the landscape.
Rebanks’ writing is magical. I found myself laughing aloud, smiling and wanting to share passages with others because they resonated so deeply with me.
For example, Rebanks describes the “(mostly) honest, decent, smart, and kind farming folk” as people who “lived insular, often deeply private lives focussed on their work. Their voices were rarely heard, because they sought no audience. Their identities were constructed from things that couldn’t be bought in shops. They wore old clothes and only went shopping occasionally for essentials. They held “shop-bought” things in great contempt. They preferred cash to credit, and would mend anything that broke, piling up old things to use again someday, rather than throwing them away. They had hobbies and interests that cost nothing…They rarely took holidays or bought new cars. And it wasn’t all work. A lot of time was spent on farm-related activities that were communal and more relaxed, or in the simple enjoyment of wild things. My grandfather called this way of living ‘living quietly.’”
The second section of the book, entitled Progress, describes how the author and his father embrace modern farming methods and agri-chemicals, and end up even deeper in debt. The author also accompanies an agronomist to visit farms in the US Midwest where “the landscape was created in the supermarkets of America – by the cult of cheap food.”
Needless to say, this section is quite depressing.
The last section, called Utopia, describes how the author takes over the family farm and begins to adopt organic and regenerative practices. There is a lovely scene at the 70th birthday party of one of his father’s friends. The older farmers complain about how farming isn’t what it used to be. Not only are the farms devoid of habitat for birds and wildlife anymore, but they’re still losing money, the soil isn’t producing well, and. And farming is “not fun anymore,” says one of the farmers.
Rebanks cites an old saying that “we should farm as if we are going to live for a thousand years.” He admits this may be a challenge but suggests “one of the best ways to create a better world landscape is to mobilize the farmers, and other country people, working with what is left of the world culture of stewardship, and tapping into their love and pride in their land. We can build a new English pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.”
He describes how he changed his farming methods and started to embrace regenerative organic practices. The process started with returning some areas to wilderness by fencing off riverbanks and, for the first time, he would “manage some land for something other than farming. These strips of land would be almost entirely given back to nature to do its thing.”
As a result, he writes, “I have come to care about half invisible but vital things we never thought about in my childhood, like moths, worms, dung beetles, bats, flies, and the wriggling life beneath the rocks in our streams.”
Many farmers can relate to Rebanks’ assessment that “the truth is a farm swallows you up, takes everything you have, and then asks for more. It is also an exercise in humility: you can’t do it alone.”
He concludes “I want a farm full of birdsong, insects, animals, and beautiful plants and trees. It should run overwhelmingly on sunlight – not on fossil fuels.”