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Two books about farming

Perhaps my previous book review post Two books about the countryside could have had the same title as this one. The two books reviewed here are by people, who are currently farming in the north of England. I didn’t read them consecutively, sandwiching a work of fiction between them. Look out for my review of that shortly!

Book cover Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess

Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen is the first of her books I have read, but the fourth she has written. It is described on the cover as ‘The new book from TV’s favourite shepherdess’. I haven’t seen her on TV, either. However, I follow her on Twitter and have heard her speak on BBC Radio 4. I read Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess on my phone using the Borrow Box App, where it was one of the featured books. It was published in March 2020.

Amanda Owen has a lively style of writing. The farm and her large family provide her with plenty to write about. How she finds the time is difficult to imagine, but as she said in the book, ‘If you want anything done ask a busy person’. The introduction sets the scene and we meet the family with their six children. Although part of a series, Adventures of the Yorkshire Shepherdess stands alone. Farming successes and sad events as well as the purchase of a house and its refurbishment make for variety. Stories of missing animals add drama. There is a section with photographs. Conversations in particular are in Yorkshire dialect. The family increases in size and other interesting characters feature in the adventures. Amanda Owen’s next book is being published on 28th October 2021.

Book cover - English Pastorl

Reviews of two of James Rebanks’ earlier books have appeared on this blog. His latest book English Pastoral – An Inheritance was in the local library when I made a flying visit to it recently. I had wanted to read it since its publication in September 2020. James Rebanks farms in Cumbria not all that far from Amanda Owen. The counties of Yorkshire and Cumbria neighbour one another. In English Pastoral James Rebanks considers the introduction to farming his grandfather gave him as a boy. His family’s farming history on two farms and his life on one of those now in the changing climate (of ideas as well as weather) are described evocatively. I have followed this author on Twitter since before his first book was published and his anonymity as @herdyshepherd1 (a contributor to Cumbria Life magazine) ended.

Although this book is mainly about a particular location, there is nothing parochial about it. The author is well aware of the wider world. One of the people, who endorsed English Pastoral is Isabella Tree, whose book Wilding I reviewed recently. It’s a small world! English Pastoral was the book of the year 2020 in several UK newspapers. James Rebanks is working on his next book.

I enjoyed both these books and feel that I now understand more about the various activities I observe in the fields around the village where I live, than I did even last month!

With all the debate about climate change, rewilding and food supplies, the voices of people working on the land are particularly worth listening to. These two authors want to leave the world a better place than they found it.

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Two books about the countryside

Photo of 'The Women's Land Army' and 'Wilding'

Before I read the books about trees, I had just finished reading The Women’s Land Army by V. Sackville-West. My mother was a land-girl during WW2. Although I must have seen the book many times on her shelves, I had not opened it before it came into my possession. The author, Vita Sackville-West, was an aristocratic woman with knowledge of the countryside and gardening. She wrote many books – fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

The Women’s Land Army includes many photographs and anecdotes collected by the author from land-girls. The Women’s Timber Corps was also included in this book, although it does not appear in the title. In 2008 when the UK government decided to recognise the contribution of those who had served in The Women’s Land Army and The Women’s Timber Corps with badges and certificates, the two titles were used. I found the book very interesting, being able to compare the experiences of other women with the tales I heard over the years. It is well written in the language of the time and reflects the social structure of wartime Britain and the contemporary culture.

Logo and wording about conformity with the authorised economy standards

It was published in 1944 and contains many statistics. The list of possible occupations for women leaving the Land Army as the male farm labourers returned to their homes and work was particularly interesting. Nowadays a wider range of occupations is available to women. Nursing was included; my mother trained to be a nurse. All proceeds from the sale of the book went to the Women’s Land Army Benevolent Fund. It was published by Michael Joseph ‘under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’. There was also a statement about compliance with wartime economy standards. Materials for book production were in short supply like everything else.

The second book was one I borrowed with the two books about trees mentioned in a recent post. It was related to the book about the Land Army as the farming methods, which had been introduced as a result of WW2 had led to a decline in the wildlife in the countryside. Wilding – The return of nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree is the story of how she and her husband, Charles Burrell, allowed and encouraged wildlife to return to his family farm (Knepp) in Sussex, which had become unprofitable due to industrial farming practices.

It is a fascinating book with photographs illustrating the text. There is a wealth of information about agriculture and animal husbandry as well as the personal story of how rewilding a site was not always straightforward. There were regulations to follow and neighbours to pacify! There are literary quotes as well as a timeline from 12th century to 2019, a map of the land in its local context and an index.

The story of how a board of advisors for the project was set up and of places overseas with relevance to this project is fascinating. Explanations of the loss of habitat for birds, which were common around seventy years ago are sobering. The discussion of the pros and cons of reintroduction of some animals, which prey on others, is very interesting. There is a list of all the sources of information for each chapter and another bibliography lists many books about nature.

Wilding represents a huge amount of research and record-keeping. This book won the Richard Jeffries Society/White Horse Bookshop award for Nature Writing 2018. It also gained a special commendation from the judges of the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize in 2019, which was won by Robert Macfarlane’s Underland.

You may be interested to learn that the lady who guided the wildflower walk I wrote about on Sue’s words and pictures had recently returned from a visit to Knepp, where tourism is one of the ways the farm has diversified.

Another surprising connection is that the old castle at the farm was built by William de Braose in the 12th century. A historical novel I reviewed recently has a member of the de Braose family as its main character.

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Two books about trees

The day we climbed Black Combe I was lent three books. Reviews of two of them are included here. I intend to write about the third one for my post next week.

The Hidden Life of Trees and Overstory
The two books

The Hidden Life of Trees is a very readable nonfiction book by Peter Wohlleben translated from German by Jane Billinghurst. The strapline is What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World. The German edition was published in 2015 and the English translation in 2017.

Some of the information from this book was not new to me as it was included in Underland by Robert Macfarlane. One of the facts I already knew – trees are linked together underground by a network of fungi, which is essential to the healthy life of a forest. In The Hidden Life of Trees Peter Wohlleben was writing from his practical experience of managing forests in the Eifel mountains of Germany.

Much research has been done particularly from the 1990s onwards and there is a bibliography supporting the arguments in the book. It is fascinating to read about how trees protect their young, warn of an attack by pests and decide when to produce the most seeds in a so-called mast year. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the natural world and especially for those with responsibility for management of woodland anywhere. Understanding is essential for the good of the planet.

It should also be read by people responsible for planning and development.

The next book I read was a work of fiction – The Overstory by Richard Powers, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019. This book is in four main parts Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. In Roots we are introduced to seven individuals and one couple. Their stories are then woven through the book as they realise the vulnerability of the natural world in the face of human greed. There is much drama and suspense. Story is a powerful way of sharing ideas.

The amount of detailed research behind this book is quite astonishing. Unfortunately, like one of the characters in the book, the author has not provided a bibliography. Perhaps this would have been unusual in a work of fiction.

These two books are both excellent on their own. Reading them one after the other reinforces the message that trees need protection.