I’ve done my fair share of farming, at least for someone in their early twenties who lives in town. The first time I worked in agriculture was the summer after my junior year of high school, when I worked five days a week in a community garden in Washington, Connecticut. Working for my boss, Denise, in the pale, damp light of summer mornings. , I learned the principles of organic farming: hand-picking thumb-sized green hornworms from tomato plants; plant flowers like marigolds to enrich the soil instead of using chemical fertilizers; weed by hand instead of spraying flowerbeds with herbicides.
It is this type of agriculture, integrated with the natural world, that James Rebanks advocates in Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journeya book half memory of life on the farm, half manifesto against modern agricultural practices.
James Rebanks uses his intimate knowledge of the land and the people who work it to take a stand against today’s mechanized and inhumane methods of growing plants and animals.
Rebanks, a graduate of Oxford University in northern England, is not officially an environmental scientist or the founder of a conservation nonprofit. Coming from a long line of farmers, he uses his intimate knowledge of the land and the people who work it to take a stand against today’s mechanized and inhumane methods of growing plants and animals. Rebanks’ background turns a persuasive argument about the damage of modern farming techniques into a thrilling personal testimony of frustration and despair, but ultimately hope.
Like an ecological triptych, pastoral song presents the past, present and future of agriculture’s relationship with the environment. In the first 100 pages, Rebanks reminisces in vignettes about growing up on his family’s farm in the hills of northern England. He recounts how his grandfather, an old-fashioned farmer who is wary of technological upheavals in farming, taught him how to perform daily farm chores.
The second section of the book focuses on three years after his grandfather’s death. Now Rebanks’ father has taken over management of the farm just as the economic austerity measures of the Thatcher years in Britain reached their peak. Escaping his own father’s phobia of technology, Rebanks’ father begins using pesticides, fertilizers, and a host of other modern techniques that promise small family farms a fighting chance against large, up-and-coming factory farms. But as crop growth becomes more efficient, Rebanks reminds, the soil becomes poorer. Flooding in the nearby town intensifies and the wildlife that once inhabited the fields disappears. His father comes to regret the destruction this new style of farming has wrought, but the economics of farming leave him no choice but to continue.
Finally, Rebanks writes closer to the present, after the death of his father, leaving him the farm. Rebanks also came to appreciate his grandfather’s skepticism of profit-driven agriculture. Defenders of the environment, sensitive to the challenges of agriculture, made suggestions for him to harmonize his farm with the natural landscapes. Gradually, Rebanks began to implement farming methods that allowed natural flora and fauna to cohabit with livestock and crops.
Like an ecological triptych, pastoral song presents the past, present and future of agriculture’s relationship with the environment.
Ultimately, Rebanks offers hope for the future, albeit a nuanced one. We humans have the power to stop species extinction, water pollution and the destruction of wilderness. But, he says, it is as naive as it is counterproductive to envision a perfect balance in which nature and humanity are both able to thrive at full capacity. “The logic chain is simple: we must farm to eat, and we must kill (or displace life, which amounts to the same thing) to farm,” Rebanks writes. In the future, nature will be compromised as long as we feed ourselves through agriculture. The key is to minimize the damage.
The book goes against the tendency in environmental circles to jump to utopian ideals of agriculture without considering the practical realities of the work required to get there. Rebanks bristles at the idea that the life of the farmer is some kind of withdrawal from the responsibilities of work. Instead, “I’ve come to see that the reality of being a farmer is anything but an escape from the world; it is often like being a slave to it,” he writes. When Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, God was clear with them that producing food would be hard, backbreaking work. Rebanks knows that experience well.
He reminds us that human farmers remain at the heart of the agricultural process, even if impersonal supermarket shelves insulate consumers in rich countries from this reality. The rise of commercial agriculture has caused the prices of agricultural products to fall, so that family farms are rarely able to stay afloat. In what might pass as a blunt paraphrase of Pope Francis’ “Fratelli Tutti,” Rebanks writes: “None of us can escape commercial realities, but we can try to reshape our society to make it fairer, more decent, and more friendly. I’m sick of the economic bulls of the 1980s – t.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that Rebanks also appreciates the beauty inherent in her family’s otherwise thankless profession. When he writes about his farm, his words often skip like stones on the border between prose and poetry: “The glass of the old farmhouse” has “volutes, like knots in an oak trunk”; and he remembers how his arms, after picking berries from a thorny bush as a child, were “scraped like chalk with the beards”. His great skill for metaphor demonstrates a deep love for the smallest details of his farm, as if they were glimpses of the divine face.
pastoral song comes amid renewed interest in returning to humanity’s agrarian roots. Several thousand people have developed an interest in farmer-run TikTok accounts, chronicling the personalities of various animals alongside daily barn chores. This trend reveals a longing that many people carry deep in their souls for something better than the current way of living, working and being city-centric. Unfortunately, few ultimately act on these transcendent drives because their imaginations have been unresponsive to society’s insistence that there is no alternative to a corporate capitalist economy.
As Rebanks sees the situation, this yearning to return to the land is part of a story that spans generations, something we cannot extricate ourselves from no matter how hard we try. In the industrialized West, “we act as if we came to the city to earn a living a generation or two ago, but will soon be returning home to a place in the countryside,” he writes.
For the majority, pastoral song does not offer a concrete game plan to find the way to the farm. Instead, the great value of Rebanks’ book is the framework it provides readers to consider how they want to live their lives in relation to the earth, our common home.