VetSalus Book Review: English Pastoral: James Rebanks
This is a refreshing, honest, optimistic and ultimately, I believe, important book. James Rebanks is well known to many within the UK farming scene. He is a multi- generational farmer who farms in the Lake District in the North of England; leaving school at 16 Rebanks took his A levels at evening classes, later being accepted by Oxford University where he achieved a double first in history.
His profile was raised when his first book, The Shepherd’s Life, became an unexpected best seller five years ago. He has a strong social media presence and contributes to online and media discussion about farming. But this second book is far from the whimsy of the life of a shepherd in the Lake District. This is a book of passion; of despair at times; of insight, and ultimately an exhortation for all of us, to find a better way to rescue our planet from, what seems to be, a headlong flight over the edge.
Rebanks’ talent is in building bridges; in seeking common ground; in recognising that nobody is to blame, but that we are all to blame. The book is refreshing for its avoidance of the binary approach that passes for ‘discussion’ these days. He doesn't preach- he leads by example. That he is brutally honest about the challenges his family have faced over their farming years- financial and other- makes these examples humbling.
The book is divided into three large sections- essentially periods in time- which could make for hard work. But Rebanks divides these again into a myriad of entertaining and beautifully written vignettes. He begins with a long section on how his grandfather farmed. Ironically, the opening passage is a poetic, bucolic hymn to ploughing. You’re biting your tongue- ‘but surely?’- and sure enough, by the end of the book Rebanks is acknowledging the harm this apparent harmless, nostalgic act does.
The power of the book is the honesty, woven through each section. He doesn't shy away from the things he and his family have done wrong over the years. And he learns - he’s always learning. Whether it’s at his grandfather’s plough, his ‘old fashioned’ farming neighbour Henry, or from the ecologists he invites to his farm to advise him. His thirst for knowledge is as inspiring as his honesty and his commitment to always do better.
The message of the book is really twofold- the value of rural communities, and how best to retain these; and the importance of all of us to do our own bit to help avoid environmental disaster. Rebanks- perhaps unsurprisingly- recognises the importance of farming across the globe. But he notes that 80% of the 1.2 billion farmers are not practising intensive farming. And his cry is a cry of support for rural food production - local, simple, traditional, sustainable.
His belief that food is too cheap is important too. He doesn't want people to starve- he wants them to have access to good food that is produced sustainably, as part of a holistic ecosystem. This might mean no strawberries in winter; or slightly more expensive bread- but his belief is that this is the only way to save us from ourselves. This is not a polemic on veganism but a return to what we may call more traditional farming. And he acknowledges that this won't work for all farmers- that there is a time and place for intensive operations. But he encourages every farmer to do better - whatever that can look like on each farm.
But the most powerful message of the book was his support for rural communities. For those of us who have the privilege of living and working rurally, this resonates. Most people are removed from both farming and rural communities - a disconnect that Rebanks suggests helps drive the ‘industrial ag’ approach, leading to cheaper but unsustainable food production. His cry is for us to recognise and support rural communities, trades, skills and move towards a more sustainable future.
But for all this, Rebanks’ real talent is that he is simply a superb writer. He paints pictures with lilting metaphors; and his eye for detail in nature is superb. This book is worth reading for those things alone. The fact that he leads us to a recognition of a better place and our role- and his- in this, makes this book an important addition to any bookshelf.
Mark Bryan, June 2021
English Pastoral by James Rebanks. Penguin Random House. 2020