A PAEAN TO PASTURE
Meadowland – The Private Life of an English Field
John Lewis-Stempel, London: Doubleday, 2014, hb., 294pps
To a town-dweller in transit to another town, or looked down on lazily from a plane, the English countryside can still look green and biodiverse. It would be easy and pleasant to assume that whatever about England’s altering cities, the hinterland continues much as always, a place with traditional rhythms and balances, where wild things cling and co-exist with each other, and careful human custodians. Meadowland simultaneously celebrates this Romantic ideal, and reminds us that that kind of rurality is now the exception rather than the rule. It is a paean to pasture, but it is also a plaint for a critically endangered habitat.
John Lewis-Stempel is rooted in a way few Britons are now rooted, inheritor of a small parcel of the Marches that has belonged to ancestors for so long they are almost antecessors, and with whom he feels an unusually intimate connection. His few acres of Herefordshire might be in Arcady – small, chemical-free fields browsed by tail-flicking livestock and mown for hay, strewn with wildflowers, wandered over by wildlife, and stewarded by a shrewd idealist. Landscape like his has inspired Georgics and melodies – but also murderous covetousness during the long Welsh-English wars, while in more recent history it formed an integral part of the patriotic photo-library impelling Englishmen to kill or die in its defence. Many of the officers whose lives were cast away a century ago on the Western Front – Lewis-Stempel has written admired books on this doomed cadre – will have carried memories of once-traversed meadows along with their pocket copies of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as they dashed gallantly through the storm of steel to become compost for Flanders. Disgracefully, the dreamscape they died for has been largely destroyed, with 97% of meadows erased since the 1930s, sacrificed to expediency, greed, mismanagement and myopia. Even as Stanley Baldwin emoted “For me England is the country and the country is England”, the engines were revving up for ripping up.
Meadowland is the monthly record of what the author sees, hears, thinks and feels during the course of a year as he husbands livestock, mends fences, harvests (by hand), watches wild creatures, or simply leans over a gate, staring west at the wall of Wales, wondering what the weather will bring. His twelvemonth teems with piquant facts. Kestrels track voles by their urine trails. “Wren” stems from the Old English wrœnno, meaning lascivious. The delicate yellow cowslip, harbinger of spring, is named after its favourite nutrient, cu-sloppe – cow-slop or cow-shit. The collective noun for buzzards is a wake. The musket was named in honour of the male sparrowhawk. The green woodpecker was the object of a Neolithic cult.
The book is also full of striking and suggestive imagery. Winter trees and hedges are “X-rays of their former selves”. Herons “trail ancientness behind them”. Even a pared-down sentence like “A blackbird spinks in a far-away hedge” feels full of expansiveness, as though his blackbird somehow sings for all, and that January afternoon stands for all January afternoons that have been or will be.
As well as an elegantly Parnassian it is also an acutely personal chronicle, down to lists of flora and fauna observed, which in themselves constitute a kind of folkloric poetry. He includes his “Meadowland Library”, which as well as agreeably outmoded textbooks on sheep management features Adams, Clare, Cobbett, Hudson, Jefferies, Seymour, White and Williamson and many others, some less predictable – like Orwell and the Anglican mystic Thomas Traherne. He lists favourite music, ranging from Tallis via Purcell to the appropriately named Supergrass, and in his acknowledgement even thanks “the flowers, grass and trees” along with his family, agent and publisher. He denounces unnecessary artificial light, and believes that putting cabs on tractors destroyed the spirit of agriculture by placing a barrier between the farmer and the outdoors. He is angered by the red kite that takes a lamb, and agonizes over the death of a favourite cow. He brings down pheasants for the pot, then bathes in guilt.
He anticipates accusations of sentimentality, reminding us that country people are sometimes the most sentimental of all about animals, and that kindliness need not preclude commonsense. He takes on the “science Puritans”, joyless counters and classifiers, for whom the environment is a resource rather than a repository. Operatives of this kind always snort at anthropomorphism, however closely observed or scientifically sound – but perhaps it is they who are the most sentimental, by striving to set us apart from other beings, and from the animal side of ourselves. He asks, reasonably,
Is it really so difficult to enter, in some slight degree, into the mind-frame of an animal? Are we not all beasts?
Reductionists would also be impatient of or even offended by Lewis-Stempel’s aesthetic sensibilities, which they would regard as irrelevant, or even some slightly sinister class construct. Yet human beings live in the countryside too, and their imaginative needs should surely be considered. To love your country, as the Burkean saw goes, your country must be beautiful. Surely at some level it does matter if farmers work on rather than in their fields, if nights are broken by bathetic light, if vistas are marred by insensitive development, if roadside Ice Age floral islands are mown into billiard-table baize by residents hankering for suburban bungalows?
Severe critics would be even less approving of his meanderings into place-specific myth and metaphysics, his linkages between family, fields and faith. For him, the natural world is inseparable from the supernatural, and everything is simultaneously earthy and uplifting. So far as he is concerned, responsible agriculture is an act of piety, while the phraseology of the King James Bible wafts across everything he sees. He is clearly thinking of his own meadow, his own pastoral care, when he cites Isaiah –
All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field…surely the people is grass.
There is (or should be) “no difference between the cathedral and the field”. November days possess “cemetery eeriness, and the churchy smell of damp musting leaves”. Starry nights stun with their immanent immensity, he traces stellar patterning in the plumage of starlings, and finds cause for awe in the curve of an earwig’s pincers, and the amber of its carapace. Summer birds remind him of human impermanence –
“The willow warbler is passing through, but then we are all passing through.”
Succumbing to “a bad case of tradition”, he goes wassailing by himself, a shotgun-toting shaman firing into winter apple trees to scare away infertility. Foxes pounce as their fossil forebears pounced on the same spot, his cows alternately look like aurochs or make him think of Constable, while an Elizabethan ancestor’s effigy eerily resembles his grandmother. In his universe, the soil is sentient, the dead lean on the living, and his children stretch part of a national chain-of-being towards the eternally recurring seasons of the future. His pasture is also his patrimony and patria, and he is one of the rare contemporary ecologists who comprehends these connections, and can convey them in quietly ecstatic prose.
A slightly shorter version of this review was first published at Quadrapheme.com in November 2014, and is republished with permission