It begins with the story of a young boy, in England, some four decades ago, helping his grandfather till a field. As the sun sets over the Lake District, the boy looks back at the clods of dirt, turned over and shiny. He sees the gulls swooping down to gobble up the worms and grubs upturned with the soil his grandfather has just tilled. He senses “that day might be worth remembering.”
It’s a confusing beginning for James Rebanks’s memoir of agriculture’s changes, Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey, since the reader is not told what to make of it. As a permaculture farmer myself, I cringe to hear about tilling, which exposes the topsoil and kills beneficial microorganisms. Is this what Rebanks, an outspoken advocate for wild spaces, wants to signal? Will he, as the book continues, repudiate his grandfather’s traditional way? Or will he do the opposite: nostalgically yearn to return to this bucolic moment?
It is not until a hundred pages later, in the section ironically named “Progress,” that we understand the full meaning of this scene: with the increased industrialization of farms in the Lake District, tractors are no longer followed by gulls—yet another sign that the soil health has been devastated. Whatever his grandfather was doing, it was better for the land than any of the modernizing infrastructure that Rebanks and his father turned to in their desperation to keep the family afloat.
Such questions—the old ways, or the new?—are hardly the exclusive preserve of one particular shepherd in northern England. But Rebanks’s earnest grappling with them is welcome—especially for me.
As new farmers in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia, my son and I read a lot. We also get advice from people of different backgrounds: some tell us tips from “the Old Country” (my Hungarian mother-in-law), some have been on this land for generations (the Doukhobors), and some are younger permaculture farmers or food foresters. The debates are heated, with everyone proclaiming that their way is the only way.
All these competing opinions render us incapable of making decisions about the most basic and urgent tasks that need to be done in order to grow something—anything!—this season. To till or leave the soil unturned? To use layers of cardboard (which decompose into worm food) or plastic landscaping fabric (more effective against stubborn rhizomatic grasses)? To build raised beds or hugelkultur mounds? To wage battles against weeds or reclassify them as volunteer species, and thus appreciate them?
Faced with these questions, my stomach knots with a distinct anxiety about my own ignorance, an ignorance that makes me so capable of unintentionally harming thousands of living organisms that I had never, before this year, even thought about: mycorrhizal fungi, soil microorganisms, dormant seeds.
This anxiety is familiar to me. I felt it most strongly 25 years ago, when I had my son. The debates about breast-feeding, sleep training, cloth versus disposable diapers, plastic versus glass bottles did not feel like supportive advice. They felt like ideological weapons. I had to choose my side correctly, if I didn’t want to damage my kid irrevocably. In the case of both farming and child-rearing, part of what makes the process so confusing is that it’s often sold to us as natural, as innate, as timeless.
But how we farm or raise children is, in large part, determined by cultural norms—not just natural impulse. To cut down trees in order to plant vegetables or husband animals, to bring children into the world: these are deeply entrenched human activities, whose commonplaceness is undermined by the fierce contentions around how they should best be done.
It is within this realm of heated debate that James Rebanks does his work and writes his books. Rebanks, a Lake District shepherd, became famous first on social media, by posting videos and photographs of his prize-winning sheep and cows, and then with his 2016 publication of The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.
Yet, what gives Rebanks the most legitimacy to write about his subject matter—his place in a long line of shepherds—is also what circumscribes his vision of how much he could and should change. To be a shepherd is not, at least in the opinion of some, to be environmentally aware. The most vocal critic of Britain’s fascination with sheep is George Monbiot, who in his polemical 2013 essay “Sheepwrecked” holds nothing back: “We pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside. The white plague has done more extensive environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place here, but to identify it as an agent of destruction is little short of blasphemy.”
Reading such compelling writing in praise of and in opposition to sheep farming makes one feel that one must pick a side. On the one hand, I admire the shepherd who goes out in all kinds of weather to help ewes give birth, and who posts such gorgeous pictures on Twitter of his woolly animals. On the other, it is not clear what these sheep are actually for, given that—according to Rebanks—their wool is no longer worth the work of shearing them and cheaper New Zealand lamb dominates the British market.
Rebanks makes money off his prize-winning Herdwick sheep through breeding them, so that other shepherds can buy them and breed their own sheep. This seems, at least from the outside, to be a self-perpetuating cycle. Rebanks is aware of the environmental impacts of sheep grazing, but also strongly argues for the effective use of sheep in regenerative pasture. He is invested in the tradition that his family has maintained for centuries, and he is trying to make a living in an undervalued and underpaid profession while not destroying the land.
This is not to imply that Rebanks advocates a return to the old ways. He recalls how, as a young man, he looked with envy at the farms around his almost bankrupt family’s rental fields and rundown property. He fought with his father about the latter’s resistance to change, his wariness of new technologies, loans, and perpetual growth. Rebanks and his father did follow suit with some of the new practices, such as the cutting down of hedgerows to expand their fields and make them easier to harvest. However, as he began to experience the detrimental effects of flooding and loss of biodiversity, as well as his family’s increasing debt, Rebanks realized that modernization might not be the way forward—and he began to do things differently.
In this regard, Pastoral Song sits alongside other popular recent agricultural/rewilding nonfiction books, such as Nancy and John Hayden’s Farming on the Wild Side (2019), Brent Preston’s The New Farm (2017), Novella Carpenter’s Farm City (2009), and Isabella Tree’s Wilding (2018). Each of these books follows a similar trajectory, in which land, depleted by industrial practices, is revitalized by a more biodiverse, soil-restoring approach. The horrors of factory farming, urban decay, or monocrops are enumerated through statistics and a hands-on description of the situation the protagonist faces upon embarking on their project. As the land changes, so does the narrator, growing into their role as a regenerative farmer. The narrative arc is satisfying, propelling the reader through the pages with the promise of transformation.
When Rebanks’s father dies and he fully inherits the land, he finds himself tasked with the imperative to “be honest about the past and the present, and to use some imagination and courage to think about the future.” These temporal markers are more useful, perhaps, than the literary ones he uses to divide his book: “Nostalgia,” “Progress,” and “Utopia.” Into these three parts, Rebanks loosely fits a narrative that traverses his life—but their titles don’t really convey the contents of his book. Rebanks never fully immerses himself in nostalgia, since he is clear-sighted about what was wrong with his grandfather’s ways of doing things; he rejects agriculture’s definitions of progress; and utopia is never achieved, though there are some beautiful natural scenes.
The passing of time is what is so hard to represent in Rebanks’s books, and in farm narratives in general. To reconcile the slow time of farming with the much faster time of telling a story elides all the almost imperceptible changes that happen in the process of land regeneration. Rebanks chooses to convey the passing of time through a series of fragmentary expositions, scenes, arguments, and personal anecdotes. Some are quite detailed descriptions of particular moments of shift—removing the pipes that forced the streams into straight channels; planting saplings along the banks; switching to a hardier breed of cows, more suited to the harsh winters of the Lake District—but then the narrative zooms out to a time two or three years later, when the effects of these changes are becoming visible.
With this technique, the slow slog of farm life is condensed to the highlights: the stunning, transformative achievements of all that hard, incremental work. It makes for exciting reading, in which expectations are fulfilled in a timely manner. But Rebanks does not convey, experientially, how slowly things grow and change.
Pastoral Song’s narrative pace skewed my expectations this season on the farm. Having left my armchair to kneel in the dirt, I had the pacing all wrong, impatiently expecting changes to happen in the time it takes to finish a book. Reading about farming, it turns out, does not prepare you much for the actual work of farming!
Reading does give you a sense of the decisions a farmer needs to make, weighing efficiency, cost, and environmental impact. What makes Pastoral Songdistinct is also what makes it such a compelling book: that Rebanks does not—indeed, cannot—take sides.
It would have been much simpler if I could have picked the good guys and the bad guys and told a morality tale. But the truth is messier and more nuanced that that. Ethically it is complicated. My family and my friends did these things: good people, not fools or vandals. The financial pressures on them were and are immense. The levels of stress and hefty workloads do not provide the right conditions for seeing and valuing nature, or for enlightened thought.
Unlike others who proclaim that their actions are the only correct way forward, Rebanks is immersed in a community that has been forced, due to extreme financial stress, to make choices that negatively impact their natural and social environment. Farmers have torn out hedgerows, expanded production, sprayed herbicides, and switched to industrial feed because of EU incentives and subsidies that made traditional small farms impossible to maintain.
Rebanks’s allegiance is with these people: his neighbours, relatives, and friends. That is why his narrative can seem to undercut itself, moving from impressionistic first-hand accounts of the beauty of reinstated biodiversity on his land, to a compassionate defence of people he knows who have “made the land more efficient and sterile.”
Yet the book ends with a father and daughter watching a barn owl hunting up in the hills. He hopes she will one day remember this moment, wherever she is. “Or, maybe, she will stand in this same place as a farmer, long after I am gone, and remember that I tried my best to look after this land.” The last lines of the book are: “This is my inheritance to my children. This is my love.” Will Rebanks’s children continue to be shepherds, and does he want them to carry on the line? Should tradition or new ecological imperatives win out in this particular generational story?
There are no right answers in Pastoral Song. There are only the muddled and muddied attempts of a parent and a farmer who tries to negotiate different pressures and advice, while living on the land his family has worked for so many generations.
As I write this review, I sweat through record-breaking heat, unable to open a window because of the wildfire smoke that hides the garden from view. My son and I are close to broken. Whether we, through our reading and YouTube watching, now know better than the traditional farmers who insist we must spray and till may be a moot point in the face of drought and fire.