Nature-writing requires a finely-tuned attentiveness to the natural world, coupled with the inquisitiveness of a scientist and the patience and persistence of a prophet, seeking transcendence from human experience.
When you read the writings of English farmer and nature-writer John Lewis-Stempel, you detect immediately he has honed these skills so that they have become part of his personality.
Lewis-Stempel was in Glencree, Co Wicklow, in June for a public interview at the new Shaking Bog Festival of Nature Writing. He spoke about subjects from his year-long experiment to grow wheat in a nature-friendly way, to how re-wilding is just a diversion from the “eco-holocaust” caused by intensive farming, and how the distance between humans and animals is much less than we’d like to think.
But first he explained how, when he returned to farming in Herefordshire after years of working as an academic, he quickly realised that sitting in an air-conditioned tractor cab, staring at a computer screen, you become detached from the environment.
“One day, I got into the tractor and spent five hours going up and down the field without getting out of the cab, and I realised I don’t want to do this kind of farming anymore,” he explained.
“I wanted to hear the birdsong and feel the wind on my face. So, I thought I’d go back to that style of treading lightly on the land, in the way that my grandfather had done years before,” he said.
In his book, The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland, he chronicles that experience of working with old farm machinery while encouraging wildflowers, insects, birds and wild animals back to a four-acre wheatfield.
One of his first tasks was to put up a bird table to attract birds and throughout the year from ploughing to sowing to reaping the corn, he counted far more birds coming into his field compared with those in the neighbouring field, farmed conventionally by farmers he dubbed “the Chemical Brothers”.
He counted 22 different bird species in his field, compared with four in the next field.
His experiment resulted in yields almost as high as the intensively farmed land next to his field, and because he stacked his wheat in traditional sheaves, he was able to use the species-rich straw to feed his animals. The chemically-doused straw left over from the conventionally farmed crop wasn’t suitable as fodder for animals.
“If you farm with wildlife in mind, and drop the chemicals, you can actually get more productivity but do less harm to the soil and the environment generally. We have only about 100 harvests left if we don’t take care of our soil,” he said. He also mentioned how studies have shown that if soft fruit farmers have a strip of wild flowers next to their soft fruit – food for the bees that pollinate their crops – the yield can be increased by 50 per cent.
“I spent my childhood with my grandparents, who were hop and arable farmers in east Herefordshire. Their hayfields had lots of wild flowers, and they cut holly and tree hay for fodder. I was very interested in birds and nature as a child. My grandmother taught me how to tell the time by the opening and closing of flowers and how to smell for rain on the wind,” he explained.
Lewis-Stempel suggested that the so-called “re-wilding” movement, which encourages tracts of land to be let go wild and re-populated with animals such as wolves, is a distraction from the problems caused by intensive farming. “Seventy-five per cent of England [and about 65 per cent of Ireland] is still in farmland, so that’s where all the birds are being lost from,” he said.
Speaking about how he manages to write his books while working as a farmer, Lewis-Stempel said that “there is a lot of thinking time when you are farming”. A livestock farmer for more than 25 years, he moved out of cattle/sheep farming a few years ago and now grows lavender, grapes and walnuts on a farm in the Charente-Maritime region in the south-west of France.
He explained how he writes on bits of paper and in his diary when he is out on the land and that he transcribes and expands on these notes later – while listening to songs of the American rock band The Killers on repeat. “I started writing to celebrate things and to raise alarm bells about what is being lost by intensive farming,” he explained.
His books include Meadowlands: The Private Life of an English Field (which won the Wainwright prize in 2015) and Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War, which explores how soldiers kept pets, planted gardens in the trenches, fished, hunted and had deep relationships with the horses they brought to battlefields from the English countryside.
In Meadowlands, he writes about the trick in observing wildlife without disturbing it: look over their heads at something beyond or look at them out of the corner of the eye.
Quoting the 19th-century English nature writer Richard Jefferies, he writes “the secret of observation is stillness, silence and apparent indifference . . . because if very near, it is always the eye they watch. So long as you observe them . . . from the corner of the eyeball, sideways or look over their heads at something beyond, it is well.”
Lewis-Stempel also writes with great affection for his farm animals, acknowledging how his sheep, cattle and horses were all given names – sometimes by his now-adult daughters when they lived on the farm. Growing up close to all farm animals, especially horses, he says, “it is entirely possible to have a proper emotional bond with a horse and horses can form friendship bonds with other horses that last for years.”
His most recent book, Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond (Penguin, 2019) looks at the wildlife and plants that live in and around the pond.
At The Shaking Bog festival, he read an excerpt from Still Water and encouraged his audience to nurture ponds – as they are a rich habitat for insects, bats and rare plants.
“Nothing in the countryside is more humble or more valuable. It’s the moorhen’s reedy home, the frog’s ancient breeding place, the kill zone of the beautiful dragonfly and more than 100 rare and threatened fauna and flora depend on it,” he said.