Field Work’s aim is to broaden and insert nuance into our understanding of farming. Bathurst moves to live in a cottage attached to Rise Farm, a 180-acre Welsh hill farm run by Bert and Alison Howell. She recognises almost at once that “what I thought I knew of farming was based on living beside it, not within it”. The book is a record of life at Rise Farm and the lives of other rural characters who contribute to the little known but essential functions of British agriculture... I thought often of Melissa Harrison’s glorious agricultural novel All Among the Barley while reading Field Work. Partly it’s the engagement with a dying way of life. Partly it’s the fact that both books understand how important accurate and specific language is to bringing this rural existence alive on the page. Bathurst has a seemingly supernatural facility for getting people to speak to her honestly and movingly about the land and their place within it. One passage, in which a young Dorset farmer describes night-time lambing with her father, is among the loveliest pieces of writing I’ve read anywhere.
Readers expecting a lyrical evocation of the countryside may be disappointed, but Bella Bathurst’s Field Work is more important than that. It is anthropology not hagiography, a genuine attempt to get under the fingernails of the people who work in land-based industries and understand why they carry on doing what they do, usually for little financial reward, often in great discomfort and in the face of adversity. And it is a distinguished work of journalism by someone who asks the questions that the reader wants asked, sifts the answers perceptively, and is able to keep a professional detachment.
As Bathurst proceeds the book widens out from that Welsh farm to explore a range of other farms and rural professions through a series of in-depth portraits. It is a kind of reportage: telling the stories of the people who are left in the landscapes that the rest of us left long ago, but about which we increasingly have strong opinions. Highly researched and deeply thoughtful, it guides us through complex rural issues that are hardly ever well explained and which rarely escape simplistic ideological judgments.