Pastoral Song
Pastoral Song

Pastoral Song – A Farmer’s Journey

book review by Lynn R. Miller

With James Rebanks’ Pastoral Song, the jacket blurbs, many from people who may not have read the book, are hot to the touch from the glow of unanimous glowing assessments. What’s missing is any hesitation, at least as regards message and aim, something that might have provided more contemplative critiques.

Example? I say it is a good book, much of it superb writing, with paradoxical messaging that bites itself on the ankle several times. The text comes entirely from a shepherd-writer at once torn by his journey while still living this story’s outcome right now. The book IS for the most part hot on target, stirring, elegant and vital. BUT, it too often slips and becomes side-swiping, a ‘realist’s harangue’ against those who are the better and best examples because their courageous farming comes from passion and a perpetual husbandry-alignment with nature.

Rebanks asks: “There is an old saying that we should farm as if we are going to live a thousand years. The idea is that we might protect our natural resources better if we had to face the long-term consequences of our actions instead of passing on a mess for someone else to sort out. I find the thought of a thousand years in the future rather daunting and impossible to comprehend. Who is rich enough to be that holy?” p206

To which I respond, I know many millions are and have been ‘rich enough to be that holy’ because they gave the most valuable and sacred thing anyone can own in order that the long long view of farming work – they gave their lives.

To the details: Pastoral Song is the sort of volume which SHOULD (and sometimes does) give the unapologetic side-eye to the economist’s mantra, instead we hear “we have to be realistic…” Instead we get homage to the ‘inevitable’ reality of economics, homage couched in conflicted melting regret. Instead contradictions in the polemic structure confuse by setting the book with either/ or tropes, either you are over here or you are the enemy, and then pretending that was never ’neath the message.

Rebanks: “I grew up understanding that a farm was a piece of property, a private thing owned by someone, a family’s entire wealth, or else a tangled legacy of debt and obligation. It was above all a place of work – work that defined people and gave them purpose. It was also a business, a commercial enterprise, producing food to pay the bills and feed other people … get farming even slightly wrong and people begin to go hungry, the poor first, get it badly wrong and millions starve.” p268

While we understand the absolute urgency of these times, we choose to see that urgency stemming from the too often crippling arrogance and stupidity of academia, governance, and corporate board rooms. Humans are OF nature. The premise that our species is somehow separate and expected to correct and improve on nature, that premise is what got us here. Now, authors such as Rebanks argue we are best suited to correct the problem. Every second of every day, the supreme force that is Nature works to correct the problems that humans cause – sometimes successfully.

Rebanks: “The biggest lesson I have learned is that the whole idea of the heroic individual farmer is a bit of a macho-male myth.” p249

Meaning to say, there are unavoidable portions of the book which are dangerous in their fallbacks. But you dare not skip over them because Rebanks’ prose, when he speaks of nature in farming, is of the best ever. You don’t want to miss anything. Yet when he slips to the contradictions of an angry apologist for “the realities of farming,” his conclusions and observations, for me, qualify, even excuse, the powerful and essential remainder of the message.

When you tell her she’s beautiful you don’t add “for a woman her age.” In any discussion of matters which matter, when I hear the words, “let’s be realistic” my ears plug.

Rebanks: “I have worked here my whole life, but I am only now beginning to truly know this piece of land. I stumble across a field at a different time of day, or in different light, and I feel as if I have never seen it before – not the way it is now. The more I learn about it, the more beautiful our farm and valley become. It pains me to ever be away. I never want to be wrenched from this place and its constant motion. The longer I am here, the clearer I hear the music of this valley: the Jenny wren in the undergrowth; the Scots pines creaking and groaning in the wind; the meadow grasses whispering. The distinction between me and this place blurs until I become part of it, and when they set me in the earth here, it will be the conclusion of a lifelong story of return. The “I” and the “me” fade away, erode with each passing day, until it is an effort to remember who I am and why I am supposed to matter. The modern world worships the idea of self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noisy age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue.” p216

Perhaps I am over sensitive. In today’s political arena the ‘reality’ mantra is so often the province of liars on the hunt.

Nothing I nor anyone else has to say in criticism will make any difference as Pastoral Song is already crowned an international best seller.

Rebanks: “… His farming dream fills me with pride, hope and fear. Pride and hope because I would of course love one or more of my children to be farming here one day in this place that has become my life. I love the idea of this old farm continuing on, and that one or more of them might feel somehing like the love I feel for this valley, and have the same sense of purpose it has given me. But I don’t want them to feel trapped in their father’s dream. I fear for them too because it is at times a crushingly hard way of life, and the economics of what we do are terrible.” p265

But I must offer my lament that a book, this good at its core, is most unfortunate when it fuels industrial short-sightedness – even if only a little. We believe James Rebanks and we trust him, at least for a man his age.