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English Pastoral An Inheritance

Biography / Memoir Nature Writing
By: James Rebanks(Author)
286 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Allen Lane
Winner of the 2021 Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.
English Pastoral
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  • English Pastoral ISBN: 9780141982571 Paperback Sep 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • English Pastoral ISBN: 9780241245729 Hardback Sep 2020 Out of Print #251112
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

James Rebanks was taught by his grandfather to work the land the old way. Their family farm in the Lake District hills was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, that landscape had profoundly changed. The men and women had vanished from the fields; the old stone barns had crumbled; the skies had emptied of birds and their wind-blown song.

English Pastoral is the story of an inheritance: one that affects us all. It tells of how rural landscapes around the world were brought close to collapse, and how the age-old rhythms of work, weather, community and wild things were lost. But this elegy from the northern fells is also a song of hope: of how, guided by the past, one farmer began to salvage a tiny corner of England that was now his, doing his best to restore the life that had vanished and to leave a legacy for the future.

This is a book about what it means to have love and pride in a place, and how, against the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Moving vision for restoring nature to our farmland
    By Ruth 13 Sep 2021 Written for Paperback
    James Rebanks learnt from his grandfather the 'old ways' of working the land, just as those ways were on the cusp of being abandoned. And thirty years later he inherited his father's farm just as farmers and farming were being slated as the villains of the English countryside - accused of denuding nature in pursuit of spiralling profit.

    His book is a scything and emotional reflection on those two tipping points in the agricultural history of Britain, and at its centre is one key question: can the ecology and economy of our farming landscape be rebalanced? His answer is a three-part tale.

    'Nostalgia' recounts his awakening to the pattern of farming traditions, as his grandfather cast a guiding arm round the awkward boy who couldn't break through his father's brusque and careworn bearing. His grandfather's fields became his classroom, where he "walked and rode with him through the seasons", listening to tales "full of horses", watching from the tractor the plundering gulls following the plough, and wondering "whether the cows worked for my grandfather, or the other way round". With his farm education complete, Rebanks realises he is a true believer in "that old farming world", but at the same time he doubts that a Lakeland mixed farm like his can survive without leaving the old traditions behind.

    This doubt is laid bare in 'Progress'. It is a clear-eyed – and painful – telling of the seductions of intensified agriculture, bearing intensely personal witness to the struggles of his own farming life. The modern economies of food production drove the Rebanks' farm deeper into debt so, with initial resolve, the lifeline of new technologies is grasped – hedges are grubbed out, artificial feeds bought in, crops sprayed, flocks enlarged. But modernisation is itself costly. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is Rebanks' epiphany, echoed in his father's alarm that no gulls pursue the tractor as it ploughs his neighbour's land ("there must be no worms in those fields"). Rebanks realises he had almost conditioned himself "to exclude nature from how we thought about the farm", and he gives a damning account of how the cheap food ethic has driven that mentality, and what its consequences are: how dependency on fertilizers and pesticides has impoverished the soil, how habitats have been sacrificed to field size, and livestock – 'engineered' for rearing off the land, in factory units – have become ghosts of their hardy forebears.

    In 'Utopia', there is a regathering of memories and mores as Rebanks seeks a settlement for his farming future on the land he now owns. He knows he "must work out how to make money from our land without wrecking it", and his beacon on this quest is the personal history of the place bequeathed him, which resides in his grandfather's care for his animals and the natural world of the farm, and his father's honest labour and instinct for tradition. But Rebanks is both a romantic and a realist. The 'old ways' have value not simply as a show of heritage, but as a means of ensuring the cycle of production can continue: diverse meadows "run on sunlight" supply hay for native bred animals that are adapted to the fellsides, and their roughage-rich manure cast on the fields sustains the soil microbiome (and subsequent hay crop) in a way that ammonia-laden slurry from silage-fed cows will not. In turn, the nature that comes to fill the fields of the old valley farm sustains Rebanks himself, as the damage of past improvements is repaired and habitats are revived. Rebanks' path is no easy step – the current economic model of food production does not reward good husbandry and he is resigned to working off the farm to top up the family's income. But he is committed to maintaining his "beautiful compromise", where "the hard work of breeding and selling stock recited on fields of grass" can at the same time restore a wild heart to farmed land.

    English Pastoral is an intricate, seamless patchwork of farm journal and polemic, laying out the lure of modern farming's treadmill and one family's dilemmas on whether to tread that path. Ultimately Rebanks turns back to the farming values he was lucky to receive in his youth, seeing that the wisdom of 'the old ways' lies in respect for what the earth of a place can give, and what is required (love, labour) to nurture that earth so it can continue to give. In the last pages he movingly seeks to pass these values on to his young children, so they, if they wish, can spend their life "under the wing and the song" of the curlew, as he has done.
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James Rebanks is a farmer based in the Lake District, where his family have lived and worked for over six hundred years. His No.1 bestselling debut, The Shepherd's Life, won the Lake District Book of the Year, was shortlisted for the Wainwright and Ondaatje prizes, and has been translated into sixteen languages.

Biography / Memoir Nature Writing
By: James Rebanks(Author)
286 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Allen Lane
Winner of the 2021 Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.
Media reviews

"Wonderful [...] I can't imagine anyone starting to read English Pastoral and not being eager to read it all at once, as I did"
– Philip Pullman

"A wonderful and timely account of one farmer's lifelong effort to do right by his family, his land, his animals and his ecosystem"
– Nick Offerman

"Just about perfect."
– Wendell Berry

"Through the eyes of James Rebanks as a grandson, son, and then father, we witness the tragic decline of traditional agriculture, and glimpse what we must now do to make it right again. As an evocation of British landscape past and present, it's up there with Cider With Rosie."
– Joanna Blythman

"English Pastoral is a work of art. It is nourishing and grounding to read [...] this brave and beautiful book will shape hearts and minds."
– Jane Clarke, author of When the Tree Falls

"James Rebanks describes the life of a Lakeland working farmer from the inside with a unrivalled truth and eloquence"
– Tom Fort, author of Casting Shadows

"Vivid, accessible, inspiring – a story about one man's emerging land ethic, and an appreciation of the old ways in modern times. A vital book for anybody who eats"
– Kathryn Aalto, author of Writing Wild

"James Rebanks is a beautiful writer, in a unique position to describe the challenges currently being faced by farmers throughout the world. English Pastoral is a joy to read and extremely moving – a book which should be read by every citizen."
– Patrick Holden, Sustainable Food Trust

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