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Arts & Life

“Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey” By: James Rebanks

“Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey”

“Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey”

Author: James Rebanks

Publisher: Custom House (William Morrow)

Pages: 304

Price: $28.99 (Hardcover)

Farmer’s Memoir Calls for Sustainable Practices

American poet and naturalist Wendell Berry of Kentucky happily tells the world that “Pastoral Song” is “just about perfect.”

That was certainly enough to get me reading this beautifully written, frightening yet optimistic book.

James Rebanks was already known in the U.K. as the author of “The Shepherd’s Life,” and “Pastoral Song” became a bestseller there and gathered many awards.

Rebanks begins by telling about his boyhood in the countryside, in the Lake District of England.

He lived on a farm with his family. His grandfather had his own farm not far away.

Not too surprisingly, young James did not take instantly to the exhausting, often dirty and dangerous work of farming which, in addition to its physical demands, kept most small farmers on the verge of bankruptcy. He had no intention of staying on the land. His own father was impatient with him and criticized a lot. Then Rebanks spent time with granddad who quietly taught the boy to see the beauty around him. He learned to be patient, to see the crops and the weeds, and the wild life that thrived in the hedgerows between fields and get to know, really know, the animals as individuals so you could tell whether a cow or a sheep was well.

He learned life lessons also, many that could be applied widely and wisely.

A broken tool or machine should be mended. Take care of the clothes you need to work--sturdy boots and a good coat will see you through a lot. Avoid buying the unnecessary. You don’t need a new anything every year.

The practice one hears about now in America, of buying cheap clothes, wearing them perhaps once or twice and then discarding them is preposterous and sinful.

The Rebankses’ diet was local and seasonal but varied. They had no use for vegetarianism; in fact, there was a kind of reverence for meat. Humans killed when called for, but the goal was to live “in nature.”

At the heart of the farm was the soil, the dirt itself, and Rebanks spends a lot of time on this. Yes, we need to feed the world’s growing population but not by destroying the world’s soil. There is now pressure to make bigger fields, to allow for bigger machinery, to get bigger yields, and to grow a single crop instead of raising feed for humans as well as for animals—sheep and pigs and chickens, with rabbits and birds in the hedgerows.

Monoculture, as opposed to rotating crops and leaving some land fallow, and having animals manure the fields, will kill the soil. It can be sustained for a while with chemical fertilizers but not forever. During a trip to the United States, Rebanks travels to Iowa, which looks lush, but which, agronomists assure us, is steadily blowing away.

Meanwhile, the animals, the chickens and hogs, are being raised in crowded factory farms and kept healthy with antibiotics, vaccines, and medicines to kill parasites, all of which eventually come to our plate.

The fear that prohibits change seems to be cost.

Proper farming will make food more expensive; that’s true. However, Rebanks reminds us, astonishingly, that Americans spent 22% of their income on food in 1950 and today only 6.4 %.

At times, the price of milk has fallen below that of bottled water.

And of the money we spend--the farmers get about 15%. The rest goes to the big stores, banks, equipment makers, pesticide corporations--everyone but the farmer.

Surely we could afford a little more, be a little smarter and save the small farms and thus the planet.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

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  • Now a retired English professor at The University of Alabama, Dr. Noble's specialties are Southern and American literature. He also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.Don Noble's reviews can be heard most Mondays at 7:45am and 4:44pm. and have been made possible in part through grants from the Alabama State Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.To listen to the audio version of Dr. Noble's reviews, just click on the book title to be taken to the full page. Audio is found either at the very beginning of the transcript or at the bottom of the page.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------0000017a-6379-d84c-a1fa-fffb6da90000Dr. Noble's Book Reviews are made possible in part with a grant from The Alabama State Council on the Arts, with the support of The University of Alabama, and from the generous support from our listeners. Thank you!