Illustrations: Michaela Alcaino
The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel
(Doubleday, 304 pages, hardback. Out now and available here in the Caught by the River shop.)
Review by Sue Brooks
John Lewis-Stempel’s previous book Meadowland is subtitled “The private life of an English field”. Private and Secret then, and both located in Herefordshire, the unknown county. I could not help, with this second book, poring over OS maps 161 and 162, to see how well I knew the county after fifteen years of living and working there. Not well at all, it turned out. Could that patch of green be the three acre wood adjoining Flinders? Could that house be Brook Cottage and the one at the end of the lane Pool Farm? I stop off on the way home from Hereford and drive the lanes of St Weonards, Broad Oak, Orcop, Garway and it feels as though I have never been there before. I am looking at it in a different way: not land or landscape, but crops, livestock, hedges, gates. Herefordshire farmland. As the story unfolds, I realise that to the casual passer-by, there will be no evidence that the transformation of Flinders Field ever happened. It begins to have a fairytale quality in my imagination – a task set by a King for the hand of his daughter…“he who can restore a field farmed with chemicals to a traditional wheat field within four seasons Yule to Yule…” Especially when the local people I meet in the lanes have no knowledge of it. “Flinders? Never heard of it. And my family have lived here for six hundred years!” All this appealed enormously. A very different enterprise to Meadowland which ends – The sheep and hay are in. The raven croaks. I shut the gate and leave. This is how it is, has been, how it shall be evermore.
There are only two years between the two books, so Flinders must have been well underway on May 7th 2015 when Lewis-Stempel was awarded the Thwaites Wainwright prize for Meadowland. It is a love-letter to an English field, he told his audience, and a wake-up call. There’s an ecological holocaust going on out there. A wake-up call. A holocaust. These resonate strongly in The Running Hare.
Having taken on the task, Lewis-Stempel loses no time and is not afraid of taking short cuts. A bird table is installed and two pheasant feeders. Copious amounts of bird seed, nuts, suet and meal worms are brought in to attract the birds he hopes will stay and breed. On March 18th, when the soil temperature has reached the eight degrees Centigrade necessary for spring sowing of wheat, Flinders is ploughed with the Ferguson TEF -20 tractor and sown, using a seed fiddle, with wheat and wild flowers. 200,000 seeds of traditional arable wildflowers – Corn Cockle, Corn Marigold, Cornflower, Corn Poppy, Corn Chamomile – some mixed in with the wheat, some along the three metre margins.
The talismanic hare of the title seems a long way off, although on January 4th, when Flinders was presenting itself as a lost cause, two hares reveal themselves in nearby fields. Superstitious John does not immediately see it as a blessing, but in true fairytale manner, an anonymous donor delivers five hares in early April. Lewis-Stempel finds the gate blocked off at the bottom with fertilizer bags and a note under a stone saying HARES. They stay and breed. Lewis-Stempel records the birthday of the first Flinders leverets – May 18th – and on the enchanted evening of June 4th, sees them suckling. I had supposed she would feed them individually, but they scamper out to meet her and suckle simultaneously hanging from her front while she is satisfied yet wholly alert. By September 1st, the five hares have become ten.
And so it goes on, gathering speed and incident – the first Corn Marigold, the first Cornflower, the arrival of the swifts. As well as wildflowers sown from packets, Lewis-Stempel counts fourteen others which have either survived modern farming, blown in on the wind or arrived via the faeces of birds. The glorious diversity and colour of Flinders is compared to the adjoining twenty acre field, also growing wheat, but farmed the modern way by the bad boys in the story, the Chemical Brothers. However unappealing at first sight, Flinders could not have been more perfectly situated. It allowed Lewis-Stempel to sound his wake-up call, to blow the horn with outrage. I raged with him. There are no butterflies fluttering, no songbirds singing in the next-door field, only stillness and silence. He lists extinct and vulnerable arable plants and Farmland Specialist Birds 1970-2014, carefully catalogued by DEFRA. It is all horribly familiar, and because he is a farmer, there are other even more chilling details.
– Only 3% of arable land is given over to winter stubble.
– The principal EU subsidy to British farmers requires them to do no more than observe the environmental protection legislation they are anyway legally bound to observe.
– The advice from the agro-chemical company Bayer Crop Science on how to choose from their arsenal of chemical weapons to eliminate a particular weed. The herbicide “Othello” for example, has been designed to kill the Corn Poppy, Shakespeare’s balm that brings sweet sleep.
– The New Holland T8 tractor costs £250,000 and is fitted as standard with a full leather steering wheel, leather seat and deep pile carpet. There goes the face of chemically addicted agricapitalism. A modern arable farmer has no need, should he so wish, to touch the soil.
By December everything is winding down. Flinders comes to an abrupt end on the night of December 26th. Lewis-Stempel has overrun the deadline in my private fairy story – “four seasons, Yule to Yule”, and Boxing Day is the day after Yule. My heart took a lurch, and another lurch when I read in the Epitaph that the grass ley (required under the terms of the tenancy agreement) effectively killed off all the arable flowers in a season. Perhaps he didn’t win the hand of the King’s daughter (and anyway he is happily married to Penny…) but he did, I reflect, make a dream come true. I shall continue to look for Corn Marigold and Corn Poppies as I drive the lanes of St Weonards, and I will, this year, leave an even larger part of my back garden to benign neglect. The wake-up call in The Running Hare is loud and angry. Anger prevents us from tipping over into despair. We have to care and care passionately and remind ourselves we can all do something. John Lewis-Stempel’s brave experiment shows us another way.