From The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland, published by Doubleday on 5 May. Available to preorder now from the Caught by the River shop.
Words: John Lewis-Stempel
I was early. A parent being early is as useless as a parent being late, but it was only when I checked the texted directions on my phone that I realized it said ‘2’, not ‘12’, for post-sleepover pickup. What to do for two hours while I waited to prove my paternal reliability and save her teenage embarrassment? I was near British Camp on the Malvern Hills, those dinosaur-spine eruptions into the cultivated English Eden, and it was years since I’d last been up, so up I went, blue coat flapping like a sheet on the line. Edward Elgar lived close by for a decade, so ‘Nimrod’ played loud in the air as I ascended to the Iron Age fortress. Breathless, at the top I sat down for the view, which in another way took my breath away. Laid out, as in the view from an aeroplane window, was Herefordshire, the whole of it, to the Black Mountains in the west, the shining Wye to the south, the Clee Hills to the north. This is my heartland. Once, my London-born wife asked me to mark on a map everywhere my family, both paternal and maternal lines, have been born. From here I can see every place for the last eight hundred years. She laughed, but kindly, with the appreciation of someone whose own family have wandered. It was warm in the August sun and I was tired, so I lay down in a hollow and fell to drowsy dreaming:
Dream I: A memory, actually, from some time in the 1970s, I can’t be sure when, but before the river of life hit the dividing rock of exams, when some went one way, the rest elsewhere: I finger-toe climb the gappy stone wall behind my grandparents’ house in Herefordshire (going through the gate would be no Everest adventure) into the wheatfield. The cereal is gold and heavy-headed, the evening sun blood-red, the scene a Stalinist painting of promised-land plenty. I start pushing through the rows of the crop; since I am small and the wheat tall (wheat was dwarfed soon afterwards so it did not bend under the weight of chemical sprays) I can hold my arms aeroplane-like and skim the hard heads with flat hands to achieve equilibration. There is a slight wind in the wheat; my hands and the breeze make sibilance. Above me, and in fancy, swallows are Spitfires wheeling and diving. I stumble, look down, and put away the childish game. There are poppies and cornflowers and corn marigolds weaved through the cornstalks; and in the bare earth circle, where the seed-drill faltered, a cowering grey bird. I know what it is instantly, because I have spent days poring over bird books, trying to identify the bird making the comb-scraping noise. I’ve asked my grandparents; ‘Rail,’ they said, but to me a rail was the moorhen on the farm pond. Finally I had twigged. They meant landrail, or corncrake. The bird with the onomatopoeic Latin name: Crex crex. The corncrake evanesces. Perhaps for a tenth of a second our eyes had met; a lifetime, in other words. Wordsworth once wrote of ‘spots of time’, experiences so intense they expand and inform existence ever after. They have a ‘renovating virtue’. In that cornfield I looked into the eyes of what was probably the last corncrake in Herefordshire. I have never forgotten you, corncrake.
I woke up with a guilty start from the day-dreaming, thinking I had slept too long, scrabbled for my phone but found I had only catnapped for minutes. I looked again at the view, at the immense spread of fields, a watercolour paintbox of solid blocks of green and gold. There is a pleasant land before me, but I know when I descend into those fields they are silent, sterile, open-roofed factories for agribusiness. Units of production. At this point, full disclosure: I farm. I change the subject in my head to something more agreeable and get in touch with my inner teenage Eng Lit student. Somewhere on these same slopes, William Langland, the fourteenth-century poet, had his character Will fall ‘into a slepyng’ and meet a spiritual guide, Piers Plowman, who showed him a vision of a just society. I wonder where on the slopes exactly Will slumbered? I must have dozed off again . . . Dream II Piers Plowman is holding the reins of oxen while declaiming to a group of snaggle-toothed peasants about a good society. I am at the back, taller than the rest, leaning over . . . and he points at me . . . then I see myself back in the cornfield with the corncrake but now I’m middle-aged . ..
I’m wide, wide awake now. There is no sophisticated, writerly way to put this: I have had a gut’s-full of chemical farming. If the chemicals dousing the land are so fantastically safe, why do crop-sprayers have sealed cabs? By law, specifically European normative 15695-1:2009, the carbon filtration system on a crop-sprayer must be 99 per cent efficient in preventing any ingress into the cab of toxic dust and vapours. If pesticides and herbicides are dangerous to farmers, they are dangerous. Period. Now I’ve got a vision of my own. Piers ploughed in order to ameliorate society’s evil. Why don’t I take a modern, conventionally farmed arable field, plough it, and husband it in the old-fashioned, chemical-free way, and make it into traditional wheatfield? Bring back the flowers that have all but disappeared from British ploughlands, such as corncockle, Venus’s looking-glass, shepherd’s needle, corn marigold and the cornflower, with its bloom as brilliant as June sky? And the birds and animals that loved such land – grey partridges, quail, harvest mice. And hares. Could I entice in a hare? A corncrake is an impossibility because they are extinct in England except for a small introduced colony in Cambridgeshire. But perhaps I could manage a hare. Such is the vision of John the Plowman. There is just one problem. We farm in the hills of the far distance under the black wall of Wales, where nothing but grass and sheep grow. I need to find an arable field. A field to plough to grow crops. Another confession: I grew up with arable farming. And I miss it so. . .
But nobody wants to rent me an arable field to turn into a traditional wheatfield. I advertise, I tweet, I put up cards in village shops from Ross to Ledbury. There is the problem of taking a field out of crop rotation, there is the bigger problem of the ‘W’ word. As soon as I mention, to the handful of bites that I do get, that I wish to sow wildflowers in with the wheat I get the same response: ‘Those are weeds, they might contaminate our crop.’ One arable farmer of my acquaintance is more succinct still; I’m on my egg delivery round (we have free-range chickens, lots of free-range chickens . . . Light Sussex, Cream Legbars, Araucanas, Marans, Minorcas, Wyandottes, Speckledys, Barnevelders, Warrens, Old English Game) on the narrow back lane at Wormbridge when I have to slow the Land Rover down to pass an oncoming black Nissan Warrior 4×4, which is only slightly bigger than a battleship. I wind down the window, we chat for a moment, I pop the arable field question, he replies: ‘Weeds? You want weeds? I’ll show you some f****** weeds . . .’ Eventually, through a friend of ours, Joanna, I’m put in touch with Philip Miller, an advertising executive, who owns some land at St Weonards in south Herefordshire. ‘He’s a keen birdwatcher,’ says Joanna.
A decade ago, on a fancy, Phil Miller bought a three acre wood; with the woodland came three fields, two permanent pasture, one arable, plus a derelict cottage garden. He lives in St Albans, and rents the fields out. The present tenancy ends in December. Eventually, after some haggling I take on all the land, fifteen acres in total, on a two-year Farm Business Tenancy. Little of this is ideal, and the least-good aspect is that I can only have wildflowers in the arable field for a year. After that, I have to put the field down to grass. One year. One opportunity.
‘The Running Hare’ is Radio 4’s Book of the Week from Monday 2 May.
John Lewis-Stempel was the winner of the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing. He’ll be joining us at The Good Life Experience in September. More info here.