Having just won the Thwaites Wainwright Prize 2015, John Lewis-Stempel’s exquisite account of a year in the life of a farmland meadow is reviewed by Rob Cowen.
Meadowland: The Private Life Of An English Field
by John Lewis-Stempel
Black Swan, paperback, 294 pages
Review by Rob Cowen
Britain’s traditional grass meadows have declined by as much as ninety eight per cent over the last century. Even now, despite local and governmental directives designed to stem loss, they continue to be denuded under the onslaught of agribusiness, repurposing of land and the inevitable creep of urban development. This wonderful and engaging window into this rare and vanishing world feels very much like a necessary act of conservation. Part-field study, part-love letter (knowingly) in the vein of John Stewart Collis’ The Worm Forgives The Plough, it is braided with description, details and natural drama, revealing both beautifully and painfully, the richness of what we’re losing with each year.
Nonetheless, I was aware of a paradox as I set out through Meadowland. Despite its immediately vivid sentences, scythe-sharp observation and ability to root me down among the creatures and conditions of the author’s patchwork of Herefordshire fields, I felt at first a strange sense of distance. The truth is that there’s an inescapable and ever-widening space between the urbanised reality of most of us living in the modern world and the kind of wild, wonderful, untouched corner of old England evoked here. Or any open land for that matter. This distance comes from enforced separation, historical and modern, from the continuing carving up and privatisation of the rural environment and the disproportionate division of Britain’s space between the land-owning haves and landless have-nots. Against this backdrop, Lewis-Stempel appears a man in possession of a considerable slice of heaven. The “shining tracts” he describes constitute a 40-acre farm a mile inside the English border with Wales, edged by the shimmering Escley, an idyllic trout river that sparkles with the sapphire flashes of kingfishers. He delights in its splendid isolation, away from the nearest town. “The fog comes down and erases all the world beyond the field. The field is an island…” he writes in January, and one senses that at least part of him likes it that way too. Add a voice that slips into the schoolmasterly at times; a penchant for eccentricity (like firing his 12-bore into the trees while wassailing at night) and early tangential detours about his family’s influential “armlock” over the court of Elizabeth I, and you’d be forgiven for feeling a little like your trespassing. Yet it is a mark of Lewis-Stempel’s lyrical prowess and the real depth to the book that, in the course of 275 pages, he closes that distance completely.
By March Meadowland is warming up, and so is its narrator. We are flung headlong into the opera unfolding in its furrows and burrows: the sex lives of foxes and badgers, ant nests with secret prisons where aphids are kept alive and “milked’ for their honeydew, gory tales of how moles keep pantries of “hundreds of entwined worms” zombified in a “meat larder” in dry weather. Truly we see that “the gentle pasture of England is tomb after tomb of animals and man, roofed with green.” But there is pleasure in the meadows too and its wonder comes across in the author’s sharp description – from spot-on metaphors for birds finding voice to his evocations of emerging insect life droning in the myriad grasses and wildflowers. His record of the passing days on his farm neither whitewashes nor glorifies the wildlife all around, meaning – just as with nature – we encounter a kind of starkly realist horror-wonder show with barely a breath between the two, like when Lewis-Stempel’s errant cow’s hoof crushes a nest of baby mice: “One baby has been squashed open, and squeezed from its skin…but a cow’s foot is not all bad news. “ He writes. “The hoofprint provides a microclimate that specialized invertebrae such as the blue adonis butterfly require for oviposition.”
There’s an art to keeping the diary format interesting, and Meadowland sets an addictive and assured rhythm, like a good walk. The pages, like the days of his year, whizz by with every new and intriguing observation or tale. The lush description is balanced with snippets of past literature on landscape and gleaned knowledge, meaning there’s scarcely a paragraph where you don’t learn something intriguing or draw closer to nature’s beauty and brutality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book jacket references two great icons of the nature writing genre, Roger Deakin and Richard Jefferies, but in many ways the writing – and indeed Lewis-Stempel’s voice – is far closer to that naturalist, hunter and fisherman Denys Watkins-Pitchford (known by the pseudonym ‘BB’), and it’s no shock to find the author doffing his cap to the man later on.
The high point in a meadow’s year is that run of hot, sunny days in July or August that triggers the start of haymaking. A conscientious custodian, Lewis-Stempel delays his own duties until the rare flowers have seeded in his patch, but then, when he does energetically set out, his mower is quickly damaged by a stone. His own fault, he concedes, for sparing the lives of the moles. Perhaps it was inevitable he would resort to scything the grass by hand, not only because he is clearly a resourceful man but also, and more importantly, because it enables him push through the curtain and into a pastoral proper: “Hiss. Hiss. The gentle sound of grass falling to the blade,” he writes. “The arc action of swinging the blade is entirely hypnotic and I fall into musing.” As it was for many haycutter-writers in times past (Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, John Clare), labouring in the field forms a kind of spiritual quest and a way of opening the mind. The meadow becomes muse and mission: “There is nothing like working land for growing and reaping lines of prose.”
Anyone who has ever helped cut and bail fields with machines (as I did as a teenager in Yorkshire) will wince at the notion of hand-scything acres of land and tell you plainly that to attempt it on your own is tantamount to sadomasochism; that you’ll only ruin the hay and your body. And they’re right. In times past whole villages would make it their work. Families and neighbours pooled together, making light(er) of the backbreaking work, as well as frolicking in the hayricks and grass, heat- and ale-dizzied, late into the summer night. These were folk who knew the scythe from childhood, who swung it as effortlessly and instinctively as we click on a seatbelt. But Lewis-Stempel’s solo, stubborn dedication is about more than pure necessity or art; it feels like his way of reaching back, an attempt to haul into the present a time when the land and its many lives were valued not plundered, when we all knew the names and stories of butterflies and flowers – and when a field was our entire world. Now the most frightening and profound changes are happening under our noses and we don’t care, or possess the emotional connection to our land to care. The author’s scythe swinging becomes a form of railing against this disinterest, against the encroaching cold modernity on the horizon – what he dismisses later as “HS2 and Bovis”. But despite toiling away like an agricultural Ahab for nine days, even he is forced to admit failure eventually and he ropes in a farmer to machine-cut the last six acres.
It was always going to be an impossible task. But his failure feels necessarily poignant. The divide between man and meadow grows ever greater; you sense it in these pages as powerfully as the strange, almost post-coital atmosphere that drifts over field after the hay is cut. It wasn’t so long ago that we all had meadow soil under our fingernails, which explains why many of the things you read in Meadowland feel half-remembered, like we used to know them, like we should know them still – that they are enriching in a way that is hard to put into words. But the mass and often forced exodus from the countryside first prompted by clearances for sheep, and then the systematic and often brutal land enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to a loss of unimaginable freedoms. We gained unimaginable freedoms too, but that’s another point. It created a divide that has done serious damage. The sadness you feel as a reader on the other side of that divide and living in a town is that we can’t easily cross over either, much as we might yearn to. And until something drastic changes Meadowland and its exquisite evocations may the closest most of us are able to get. By closing the distance between the reader and the field, Lewis-Stempel reveals too how great the distance has become.
Meadowlands is out now in paperback. Buy a copy from the Caught by the River shop, priced £8.00.
John will be among the guests appearing on the Caught by the River stage at Port Eliot Festival in July.
Rob Cowen is the author of Common Ground which is published by Hutchinson on 7 May. Pre-order a copy from our shop.