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A Farmer Offers A Stark Time-Lapse Portrait Of His Family's Land Over A Lifetime

<em>Pastoral Song: A Farmer's Journey</em>, by James Rebanks
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Pastoral Song: A Farmer's Journey, by James Rebanks

James Rebanks is a farmer who shepherds sheep into pastures and words into books. He has a gift for capturing both the allure of his beautiful surroundings and his difficult work, and for articulating the complex, worrisome issues facing farmers today.

Pastoral Song, like his first bestselling memoir, The Shepherd's Life, enchants with lush descriptions of England's Lake District and Cumbrian hills, where Rebanks' family has worked the land for 600 years. But it is more than a paean to fells (hills), becks (streams), and flocks. Inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Rebanks' new book urgently conveys how the drive for cheap, mass-produced food has impoverished both small farmers and the soil, threatening humanity's future.

Rebanks hopes to help reverse this dangerous trajectory, not just by the environmental measures he has taken on his small family farm, but by using the bully pulpit of his books and popular Twitter account @Herdyshepherd1 to advocate for change. "How can we farm in ways that will endure and do the least harm?" he asks in this important — and frequently stirring — book.

Born in 1974, Rebanks is old enough to recall the old-fashioned, mixed rotational farming his grandfather taught him as a boy. He was lucky to grow up at a time when curlews and gulls soared overhead in abundance and "the hawthorn dikes around the barley fields frothed white with blossom and hummed with bees." Such cherished childhood memories — like seeing a mare in labor, with the foal's limb "pushing up jagged beneath the taut skin as if she had swallowed a stepladder" — have sustained him in difficult times.

As a young adult, Rebanks worked with his father and participated in the drive for ever greater productivity and cheaper food. Under the rubric of progress, farming became industrialized. Large, expensive new machines, fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics were all deployed to amp up efficiency (while adding to farmers' debt-loads). Chickens and pigs became "units of production" crammed into industrial-scale steel structures and fed the cheapest grain. Instead of homegrown hay, cows were fed bought silage — pickled moist green grass — which led to noxious gases and slurry instead of soil-enriching muck. Taking cattle outside to graze on distant fields was considered a waste of calories.

Within a few decades birds, bees, wildflowers, grasses, hedgerows, horses, turkeys, and hens were gone — and so was biodiversity. He eventually realized he had been party to "an ill-thought-through experiment that was conducted in our fields."

Rebanks divides Pastoral Song into three distinct sections: "Nostalgia" captures the physically arduous but satisfying rhythms of rotational farming in his grandfather's era. "Progress" — an ironic title if ever there was one — describes the new push for efficiency and increased production. Finally, there's "Utopia," which offers a more hopeful prospect.

Rebanks delineates the efforts he and his wife have taken over the past decade to replenish their land with the help of various environmental agencies and conservation groups. These measures include reducing if not entirely eliminating pesticides, drugs, chemicals, and bought feed; installing solar panels to cut reliance on fossil fuels; and fortifying fragile riverbanks with new plantings to help prevent flooding. They have planted more than 12,000 saplings and 6,500 tiny plug plants to regenerate the soil and re-introduce endangered plant species.

"It isn't a recipe for an easy life," Rebanks admits. Nor for a lucrative one; in addition to grants and government subsidies, he still needs a source of income outside the farm, which presumably comes from his writing. But he hopes that his four children and their descendents will be proud of "the generation that pulled things back from the abyss, the generation that was brave enough to face up to our own flaws."

In addition to being part of a long farming legacy, Rebanks, who studied history at Oxford, joins a storied tradition of British writers whose evocations of rural life appeal even to urban, armchair naturalists. Like James Herriot, the famous Yorkshire veterinarian, and John Connell, who wrote about raising beef cattle in Ireland in The Farmer's Son, Rebanks' writing is imbued with deep love and respect for the animals and land under his care.

Of course, the plight of small family farmers is not news — as Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, attests. But what Rebanks brings to this impassioned manifesto for change is a stark time-lapse portrait of his family's land over the course of his lifetime — and eloquent, inspirational ideas for bringing farming back to a brighter future.

Pastoral Song is a full-throated ode to "finding a balance" by using the land and animals responsibly and sustainably and heeding "long-term consequences." Rebanks writes, "We can build a new English pastoral. Not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 4, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story got the name of James Rebanks' first book wrong. It's The Shepherd's Life, not The Shepherd's Tale.
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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