The transition from hunting and gathering food to growing it was undoubtedly one of the great turning points in human history. It was probably the first human undertaking that involved changing the environment to meet our needs, and likely led to the growth of cities and city-states.
The failure of some food systems has been cited for the decline and fall of some major civilizations. Today, we face a different kind of challenge to our food systems: the globalization of our food supply (and its breakdowns) and the effects of industrial-scale farming on a vast scale across the globe.
“Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey,” by James Rebanks is a personal story about the changes on an English hill farm over the last half-century. It’s a microcosm of what has happened in agriculture since the end of World War II.
Born in 1974, the author comes a bit late into the story, but it’s no less compelling for that. His opening pages link back to the past as he describes sitting on the back of his grandfather’s tractor as a child:
“I was a boy living through the last days of an ancient farming world. I didn’t know what was to come, or why, and some of it would take years to reach our fields, but I sensed that day might be worth remembering. This book tells the story of that old world and what it became. It is the story of a global revolution as it played out in the fields of my family’s two farms. It is the story, warts and all, of what farming was like here in my childhood, and what it became.”
The book is in three parts, focusing on three generations: “Nostalgia,” “Progress” and “Utopia.” To me, these all have a tinge of irony. None of these is an ideal time, none is unremittingly bad, but there is hope at the end.
The protagonist of “Nostalgia” is Grandad, wed to the old ways, mostly — he’s given up horse-drawn machinery in favor of an almost-antique tractor — and has taken James under his wing to teach him as much as he can about those ways. Without knowing the name for it, he is operating a “mixed” or “rotational” farm, where planting fields for forage and raising sheep and cattle work in concert to feed the family and maintain a fine balance.
Grandad is as committed to the birds in his fields as he is to his livestock and crops. He knows intuitively that the land is healthy (he might not call it that) if the birds are well.
At one point, while rolling a field, he stops the tractor and retrieves a clutch of curlew eggs from a nest on the ground. He then resumes his work and returns the eggs to the nest when he’s finished. “When we came around the field ten minutes later, the mother curlew was nestled in the dusty seedbed like nothing had happened, and my grandfather grinned.”
On another occasion, Grandad decided to teach James the names of all the grasses in one of the farm’s meadows: meadow fescue, timothy, ryegrass and others. He tells James “that each species of plant told a good farmer something.”
Some tell him the soil is fertile; others signal that it needs its nutrients restored. This man understands what the land is telling him.
In “Progess,” James’ father is center stage. He farms rented fields not far from Grandad but often denigrates the old man for being stuck in the 1950s — not harvesting his crops when everyone else is doing so, caring about those curlew eggs, maintaining thorn hedges rich with plants, insects and birds.
Dad is struggling to keep up and is falling deep into debt as he tries to acquire new machinery and new livestock breeds while working harder than ever. At the same time, supermarkets are forcing prices of meat, milk and other commodities lower, squeezing out the small farms. Other farms are getting bigger, the hedgerows are gone and the fields are managed with chemicals and high-priced equipment in the name of efficiency.
James comes to realize that things have gone too far, that the new technologies “were being used in such a way to [make] it impossible for wild things to live or breed.” This isn’t intended, he recognizes, but it is the effect.
After his father’s death, James is now the main character in “Utopia.” His family lives on Grandad’s farm and he is drawn to restoring a balance to the land’s ecology — not “rewilding” it, but bringing back the plants and animals that his grandfather saw as co-inhabitants of the place.
He learns that the stream running through the property had been straightened over time, leading to flooding downstream and robbing the fields of their topsoil. He relearns how to rotate pastures to prevent overgrazing and encourage the “good” grasses his grandfather taught him to memorize. He doesn’t use the word “agroecosystem,” but that’s what he is creating.
“Pastoral Song” is a book to savor. Although James’s story is primarily on the scale of one farm, it nevertheless has lessons to teach us of where we’ve been and where we’ve gotten lost. And though the present is no utopia, this book shows what is possible, for the farm, for the birds — and for the planet.