Inot Work on the field: What the earth does to people and what people do to land, Bella Bathurst identifies a series of painful truths about Britain’s relationship to its land. It is a country whose self-identity is inextricably linked to its agriculture, and yet farmers have become, over the course of a generation, “the kind of profession that everyone disrespected without really understanding”. Farmers are responsible, so the story of several books goes – see Mark Cocker Our place and George Monbiot’s Wild, for example – for genocidal cruelty to the animals they transform, and for the destruction of the countryside and its ecosystems by a mixture of hyper-intensive agriculture and devastating chemicals. We want our farms to be quaint yet productive, humane and able to provide us with cheap and tasty food.
Work on the fieldThe aim is to broaden and insert nuances into our understanding of agriculture. Bathurst moves to live in a cottage attached to Rise Farm, a 180-acre Welsh farm run by Bert and Alison Howell. She recognizes almost immediately that “what I thought I knew about farming was about living next door, not inside.” The book is a tale of life at Rise Farm and the lives of other rural figures who contribute little-known but essential functions of British agriculture.
We meet Ian, a brilliant knight, doing his rounds killing injured, sick or simply ineffective animals. We meet Heather and Sîan, NFU “Succession Facilitators,” who host community counseling sessions where they try to help families resolve thorny issues of inheritance. There’s Dean, the master butcher, whose work in the Bathurst slaughterhouse describes in visceral and exhilarating detail. Each of these characters takes on brilliant lives, with Bathurst’s prose giving their work a dignity that addresses one of the book’s central concerns: recognizing that “this place, this land, was not a job or a business: that was all – past and future, identity and rhythm, daily bread and Sunday rest ”.
There are also bad guys. The only farmers who refuse to engage with Bathurst are the companies that sell “standard kitchen staples – eggs, chickens, fries, burgers” – to large supermarkets. They send their PR managers, dressed in “polo shirts and reflective wrap hues,” to speak to him “with driven enthusiasm at the idea of inspiring forward-thinking innovation and harvesting sustainable resources and acting as environmental markers ”, but refused other interview requests. This is the future of British agriculture, admits Bathurst, part of the sad realization that we must either “accept a landscape that included tunnels and solar farms or we could shut up and have our chicken chlorinated.” of Kansas ”.
I have often thought of the glorious agricultural novel by Melissa Harrison All among the barley while reading Work on the field. Part of it is the engagement with a dying lifestyle. Part of it is that both books understand just how important precise and specific language is in bringing this rural existence to life on the page. Bathurst has a seemingly supernatural facility in getting people to speak to him honestly and emotionally about the land and his place within it. One passage, in which a young Dorset farmer describes nocturnal lambing with her father, is among the finest writings I have read.
A beautiful hybrid of social history, memories and writing on nature, Work on the field manages to bring an entire world out of the shadows. Like the great, largely forgotten Tony Parker, Bathurst shows us how interesting all life is when viewed with the right mix of sympathy and curiosity.