Other people’s stories
Celebrating the everyday in James Rebanks’ English Pastoral.
English Pastoral is the long awaited follow up to The Shepherd’s Life, the surprise publishing hit of 2015. Rebanks lives in Matterdale in Cumbria, farming Herdwick sheep and Belted Galloway cattle, both of which are well adapted for northern upland conditions.
In English Pastoral Rebanks examines the changes in farming over his lifetime, reflecting on the way he, his father and grandfather have farmed their land. The story is not a romanticised tale of rural life but one that deals honestly with the stresses and challenges of everyday farming life across three generations, the rise of industrial farming and the economic pressures facing the sector. The themes of family, community and tradition are woven through the whole book, not as things that are static but as things that evolve and change.
We have a tendency to take farming and food for granted, particularly those things we see as everyday staples such as bread and milk. This is a book which challenges readers to think about some serious questions – what sort of farming system do we want? Are we prepared to pay for food produced in a way that is good for wildlife? What can we do to challenge the systems that govern our choices? With Brexit trade deal negotiations underway, these are timely questions.
In the final section of the book we follow the journey to a wilder farm, with plenty of places for nature. Rivers are ‘rewiggled’ and trees planted. Wildlife appears – voles, otters, wild flowers bloom, fish spawn in the beck, birdsong can be heard overhead. This work is being done in partnership with local environmental organisations, breaking down some of the traditional animosity between farmers and ecologists. The aim is to create a patchwork of diverse farmland habitats with managed grazing regimes.
As a writer he is attentive to the natural world around him and when he is describing pregnant ewes tucking into a feast of turnips, “The feast that followed sounded like lots of people eating crunchy apples at the same time” or farmland birds, “swallows hawk around catching the flies that swarm the cattle muck”, the images jump off the page. He can communicate these everyday things vividly because he understands the world that he is writing about. His joy in recording the returning wildlife is palpable.
Books like English Pastoral offer us a glimpse of someone else’s everyday. I was lucky enough to spend the first half of my childhood in Cumbria and one of the things I enjoyed most about both of Rebanks’ books was the chance to see a place I love from a very different perspective. I had superficially understood the concept of the Cumbrian fells as a working landscape but these books offered me deeper exploration of what it means to be rooted in a place and to understand the land through working it.
Whilst realistic, and we see the early starts and the real hard graft of farming life, the book evokes a childhood that can still include den building, catching fish and roaming free. Dragonflies, minnows and barn owls dart through the pages. It is this mixture of the poetic and the down to earth that makes the book so appealing.
Follow James on Twitter @herdyshepherd1
Shelly Dennison – Digital Engagement Officer