Rebanks is at his best when focusing on his home patch rather than railing against economists, supermarkets and cheap food. If you want a detailed analysis of how we could bring about the sorts of changes that he and many of us would like to see, you will be better served by Dieter Helm’s Green and Prosperous Land. But for pure pleasure, read English Pastoral. It is a cri de coeur for a healthier countryside, rather than a manifesto. Seen in these terms, it is a magnificent book.
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.
In “Digging”, Seamus Heaney wrote how, unable to handle a spade like his father and grandfather, he chose to dig with a pen instead. For Rebanks, farming and writing have proved complementary: while working long hours on the land, he has produced a book in a pastoral tradition that runs from Virgil to Wendell Berry. To farm sustainably and stay solvent is a sisyphean task, but so far so good. By the end of the book, he’s the image of his grandfather, “Sisyphus with a smile on his face”.
In the third part, “Utopia”, Rebanks describes his own way of dealing with it. The family has given up the tenancy on the lowland farm where he grew up and retreated to a farm on the fells. He has taken the conscious decision not to ruin his health by trying to earn a living solely from the land. The farm is run as far as possible in such a way that there is room for wildlife. His cattle and sheep graze as nature intended on a rotational system, trees are planted and the becks are allowed to flood. A moment of catharsis at the end shows him sitting on a quad bike with his daughter watching a barn owl.
This is a wonderful book. James Rebanks writes with his heart and his heart is in the right place. We should listen to him.
What makes this book sing is not its argument — which is not unique — but Rebanks’s right to say it. He is a farmer. Unlike many dreamier books about nature aimed at townies, he uses hard facts, he manages his own land, and he has fired his potent prose in the furnace of his own experience. But it is more than a polemic. It is also a book full of love: of his grandfather, of his children and of the Lake District valley where he lives and farms.
Rebanks’s own solution has been to turn his grandfather’s farm into an environmental haven, farm in traditional ways and tend his flock of sheep. Ecologists work with him. Schoolchildren visit him. He is evangelical in his zeal to persuade people that we need to do things differently: to live more modestly and to think of future generations. This part of the book is a passionate polemic, a plea for a “new system that brings farming and ecology together” and for “more kindness, compromise and balance”.
It’s eloquent, persuasive and electric with the urgency that comes out of love. “Our land is like a poem,” he says at one point. So is this brilliant, beautiful book.