I don’t often feel compelled to write a review straight after finishing a book, but English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks has such an urgent, important and readable message that it has to be shared.
I read Rebanks’ first book, The Shepherd’s Life a few years ago and although I liked his voice and story (a farmer who went to Oxford University via adult education), it didn’t get me in the gut. However, it did make me follow him on Twitter (I stalk lots of authors!) and I really enjoyed his straightforward take on farming, food and ecology so much I’ve crowdfunded his farm twice – contributing towards a cow and tree planting.
It was inevitable that I was also going to buy English Pastoral and it has turned out to be a my 2020 non-fiction highlight to-date. A cross between memoir and a call for regenerative farming, English Pastoral ploughs deep into recent changes in British agriculture and reveals the shocking truth behind the way our food is produced.
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As a boy, James Rebanks’s grandfather taught him to work the land the old way. Their family farm in the Lake District hills was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, it was barely recognisable. The men and women had vanished from the fields; the old stone barns had crumbled; the skies had emptied of birds and their wind-blown song.
English Pastoral is the story of an inheritance: one that affects us all. It tells of how rural landscapes around the world were brought close to collapse, and the age-old rhythms of work, weather, community and wild things were lost. And yet this elegy from the northern fells is also a song of hope: of how, guided by the past, one farmer began to salvage a tiny corner of England that was now his, doing his best to restore the life that had vanished and to leave a legacy for the future.
This is a book about what it means to have love and pride in a place, and how, against all the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.
The book is laid out in three parts – Nostalgia, Progress and Utopia, which roughly correspond with the stages of Rebanks’ own life. He has a rare place in the nature writing world because he’s qualified to speak as a ‘proper’ farmer and his voice, a combination of poet and practical landsman, reflects this unique vantage point.
The first section dwells upon James’ Rebanks’ relationship with his grandad, a traditional farmer who respected nature’s place in the landscape. In the 1980s, there was an emphasis on self-sufficiency and hard physical work – both of which Rebanks’ grandfather took huge pride in. He passed these values to his grandson. The apprenticeship is painted with throat-aching tenderness as we see the elder Rebanks stop the tractor to move a curlew’s nest, yet not everything is viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. This is also a world of frozen pipes, debt and back-breaking work – and the world is becoming greedier for profit.
English Pastoral shifts into another gear as Rebanks’ reflects on the industrial changes that started to take place in farming during the 1990s – spurred by demand from the big corporates in the name of ‘progress’. He writes about how these affected his family and community, wrecking the land and cutting incomes while acknowledging that some techniques had to evolve at the same time. We see the full implications of this movement unroll in slow-motion as nature disappears from the fields bit by bit – eliminated by excessive human intervention.
The closing part of English Pastoral brings the two earlier sections together and binds them together skilfully as Rebanks takes over his grandad’s farm and moves towards a regenerative farming model – one where nature and agriculture co-exist successfully. Rebanks reflects on his own journey, showing the hardships and the wonders that spring from owning a farm. More importantly, he reveals how his methods could lead to stronger communities, healthier food and improved ecosystems – a practical reworking of our relationship with the land.
English Pastoral is undoubtedly a very British book, but Rebanks’ sure prose and vision has global relevance. As we move into an era which could potentially protect or destroy the planet, this revealing memoir casts a cutting light on the food purchasing decisions we all make. Everyone has a role to play.
- Imprint: Allen Lane
- Published: 03/09/2020
- ISBN: 9780241245729
- Length: 304 Pages
Buy English Pastoral: An Inheritance | Amazon
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