Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey (English Pastoral: An Inheritance in UK version)
Custom House, 2021. $28.99, 304 pages.
In Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey, James Rebanks offers a realistic perspective on the demands of farming as a profession and why farm systems across the world have shifted toward convenience and efficiency over the past four decades. Trying to balance both art and science, tradition and innovation within his own farm, Rebanks offers, “Our land is like a poem.” Compared to other treatises on the perils of modern agriculture, such as Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America or the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Pastoral Song is a firsthand account of change and compromise within a multigenerational farming family that speaks to the heart our most urgent land management question: Can a commercial farm be a regenerative part of an ecosystem?
Although his first book, The Shepherd’s Life, was also replete with rural tales, Pastoral Song takes a big step back from Rebanks’s personal revelations to examine his homeland, the Lake District in England, within a larger global-industrial context. “As I moved through my adult life I witnessed hundreds of little shifts that together added up to transformation,” he writes. “The gateways widened for the new more efficient combine harvester, the slightly wider and faster mowing machine and the bigger, deeper cutting plows with more furrows.” These incremental movements mirror farming’s progress and modernization, and reflect the notion of “get big or get out,” a phrase first coined by Earl Butz, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the 1970s, and that speaks to the complexity of scale and sustainability in food production that Rebanks examines.
In three sections (“Nostalgia,” “Progress,” and “Utopia”), Rebanks writes of learning to plant barley and tending animals with his grandfather, to witnessing the seismic transition of family farms into agribusinesses across England and the United States. In these movements, he invites readers into his most intimate moments shared with his young children during their daily chores on the farm—inherited land once farmed by his grandfather. This chronology and intimacy is effective in illustrating two important points: real change takes time, especially when you are tethered to a landscape, and healthy ecosystems, including agroecosystems, are more a practice than a destination.
As a witness to his grandfather’s careful attention to the land as well as the stress and burden his own father carried trying to stay financially viable amid massive food system consolidation and modernization, Rebanks is in a unique position. And he is willing to share what he has learned, and is humble enough to admit what he has yet to figure out. “I have worked here my entire life, but I am only now beginning to know this piece of land.” Torn between what is good and what is necessary, Rebanks educates his readers on the workings of his own farm, like soil biology and animal breeding, and suggests possibilities for the future of food, such as a return to diversification in animal and plant production and a revitalization of local food-processing infrastructure.
Particularly striking is the image of a young Rebanks lying under a tree devouring Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—a book that changed his perspective on pesticide use and, he admits, changed his life. In later sections, an environmentalists named Lucy appears to offer ideas, as well as financial support, to improve water and habitat conservation on the farm. Her ideas take root and revitalize Rebanks’s perspective on stewardship.
Pastoral Song honors old and new ways and is a testament to Rebanks’s own curiosity and tenacity. He does not, by any means, make his life seem easy, and he also concedes that “to have a robust and resilient food system we need many different kinds of farmers.” Part lament, part manifesto, this book does what most critical books about agriculture fail to accomplish—it acknowledges the value of nature and provides a convincing argument that humans have a necessary role in it—only, however, if we are enduring enough to stay, and pay attention, and live quietly within our means, season after unpredictable season.
Jessica Gigot is a poet and sheep farmer in the Skagit Valley of Washington.