The pasture farms of Britain are remarkable places. They may seem sleepy and idyllic – pockets of land where little happens very slowly – to someone passing through on a walking holiday or whizzing past in a train, but if one gets in close and puts one’s hands in the soil it quickly becomes apparent that they are as busy as cities, only in microcosm.
There’s a video, which has been doing the rounds for the last few years, that opens with the smiling face of a woman lying in a garden in California. It then rapidly zooms out through solar systems and galaxies to show the view of the universe from billions of light years away before zooming back in, as swiftly, to the woman, cascading down into her eye, and right down to the heart of a single atom.
I spent just over a year as poet-in-residence for the Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA), exploring pasture farming in much the same way as that video explores the universe. Commissioned to write about the relationship between mankind, animal and landscape, I was given freedom to write what I wanted, access to four farms across England and Wales over four seasons, and a welter of information and books by John Meadley, then chair of the PFLA, whose idea it was to throw a poet at the farmlands of Britain and see what happens.
There was, it is fair to say, a certain amount of surprise amongst some of the farmers in the PFLA at my appointment. Poetry is not necessarily the most practically minded of the art forms, and poets can sometimes be more whimsical and erratic than is helpful on a farm. It comes of living too long in our heads, perhaps. However, I arrived at each of the farms armed with a head full of the poetry of Ted Hughes, and of the great American farmer and poet Wendell Berry and Virgil’s Georgics (all of which are deeply rooted in the practicalities of the land), plus a notebook and a willingness to listen and learn.
It was that willingness to learn that earned me acceptance – that and my (often clumsy, particularly at first) attempts to help out on the daily rounds of the farms I stayed on. I grew up in the country, at the edges of a pasture farm in Laurie Lee country, yet I only ever saw the daily processes of that farm from a distance, and only got involved when it was necessary to phone the farmer after his cattle or sheep had escaped their bounds and started raiding the neighbouring gardens.
I visited farms in the Yorkshire Dales, Cornwall, Kent and the Black Mountains, and delving deeper into the daily practices of farming on these four very different landscapes proved to be an intellectually liberating experience. Each farm’s practice was noticeably different, and tied to the needs of the landscapes they inhabited.
All four farms eschew the remorseless productivity of post-World War II chemical-driven farming. Nick Miller and Sarah Dickins in the Black Mountains, had largely beaten orf, which the fields were riddled with when they took over the farm, by using homeopathy and building up the flock’s resistance. Neil Heseltine’s farm in Malham had reduced by half the number of sheep they kept after joining the PFLA, which had increased their profits enormously because they were no longer feeding them concentrates and automatically dosing them with antibiotics.
I spent the first seven months writing notes and absorbing information, with little in the way of actual poetry to show for the commission. This made the farmers a little nervous, given how used they are to seeing things grow on a daily basis. Then in January 2017, I went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) to be their poet-in-residence for the two days of the conference, and everything I had learned beforehand began to fall into place.
At the ORFC I found myself weaving the voices of the farmers I spoke to, or heard speaking, into the poems I wrote there. This allowed me to go back over the notes I had built up over the previous months and work all of the quotes and nuggets of science I had gathered into a coherent collage of journalistic practice and poetic observation. I began to tie into verse my own experiences of the farms, from an interested outsider’s perspective, with the deeper understanding of the farmers, who had observed the land they worked for years.
It was at this point that a book began to take shape – and quickly. From one of the poems written at the ORFC, I had a title, The Soil Never Sleeps, and a direction. Words came quickly from memories, notes, photographs and observations. After staying with Neil Heseltine in February of this year, I came home and wrote a long poem, Walking the Bounds, which explores the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales and Neil’s careful, considered management of the land and animals in his trust whilst walking up and down Pikedaw on one cold, hallucinatory February morning. The orphaned calf I’d bottle-fed on Fidelity Weston’s farm in Kent, during my first visit there, took on a life of its own on paper, demanding to be written about as it grew beyond our desperate initial attempts to keep it alive.
I began to understand that the land needs the sustenance of stories being told about it as much as it needs to be sustained by good practice. At the ORFC, I had written “Too much fact runs off busy people / like water from compacted soil”, and, with that as an instruction to myself, I began to tell the stories of the farms from as many perspectives as I could manage. I started at the surface of the land and delved deep, into the essential fungal layers of plant communication, into the motorway tunnels cut by worms, into the deep cityscapes of the soil, guided all the way by the farmers, whose understanding of the science of it was so much deeper than mine.
Then came the hardest part of my commission: I was required to visit a small, family-run abattoir near my hometown, one which is used by the PFLA because it treats the animals as humanely as possible, given the circumstances. As a lifelong vegetarian, I was dreading this visit. I didn’t go on a slaughter day, fortunately, but nonetheless I came away with my perspective changed. The poem that came from that visit (see the video below), written in a giddy and slightly shell-shocked weekend, seeks to understand mankind’s relationship with the food we eat from a wider viewpoint, looking back over millennia to the roots of farming, as well as forwards. This understanding is something that has been lost in a time when the western world relies too heavily on convenience and strives to separate itself from the essence of what makes us human.
The Soil Never Sleeps closes with a poem that entreats farmers to go into the cities “laden with produce and stories, / your tongues ripe with carefully / disguised science, the bare / bone facts dressed in the muscle / of myth and memory.” I believe that it is essential that they tell their stories as clearly and as often as possible, be it in person, on social media or in print, and that writers and artists continue to help tell these stories of the land, of the people that work it and the often unromantic hard truths that come with that work, as I have tried to do.
Hand in hand with science and with toil, art can, and should, aim to help people see beyond surfaces into the greater depths and wider expanses of how we live, and what the effects of our choices are. It is vital that we do this, as a species, in order to survive.
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