book cover imageThe Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland
by John Lewis-Stempel.
Doubleday, 2016.
Hardcover, 298 pages, £16.99.

“Really: I just want the birds back.”

So concludes the brief preface/apologia of writer-farmer John Lewis-Stempel’s wonderful new book The Running Hare, in which he describes his one-year effort to sow a four-acre field in wheat and to farm it the “old-fashioned way,” in hopes of drawing back to the land some of the flora and fauna that have gone missing from English fields under the regime of industrial agriculture.

In diary fashion he chronicles the year, from the field’s acquisition in January on a two-year lease, through the first harvest, and on through to the end of the calendar year. Along the way, in addition to documenting the agricultural happenings, he provides interesting bits of local lore and history, memories of his rural childhood, and perceptive literary references.

Lewis-Stempel is a fine writer with wonderful descriptive skills and a winning sense of humor. If the chaffinch, he writes, “wears a drudge’s dress, she is nevertheless an artist. The nest, in a hawthorn fork, is exquisite …” A hedge, trimmed incorrectly, “has been flailed flat; it has not so much been trimmed as committed. Like a crime.” Sunlight changes rooks’ nests “from blots on the treescape to black diamonds in an ash crown.” An attempt to get a close-up photo of an odd caterpillar turns into “a nature-watching nadir,” as the lens accidentally knocks the critter into the undergrowth, lost.

The writing deftly moves back and forth between the poetic and the conversational, the heartfelt and the humorous. In lesser hands this might be not only ineffective but jarring; our author makes it work here almost perfectly, with hardly a wrong note sounded. As a result, The Running Hare never grows tedious, as books like this sometimes do if they’re too focused on only one aspect of the thing at hand—the farming or the birds or the flowers. Lewis-Stempel wants us to see both the small details and the big picture.

Mention also should be made of the book itself: it’s a fine example of bookmaking, printed in very readable type on thickish off-white paper, and illustrated throughout with pen-and-ink drawings by Micaela Alcaino, who also did the lovely cover.

There is a political element in The Running Hare, but the book’s occasional polemic moments, largely on target, are seldom shrill or bitter, and you never feel as if you are being preached to. The book is not a tract then, even though the author’s disappointment and anger with what industrial agriculture is doing to England’s rural environs does come through. As it should.

What is ever-present throughout, what drives his writing, is Lewis-Stempel’s obvious love for his place. He cares about Herefordshire like Wendell Berry cares about his patch of Kentucky, the care extending to its people, its ecology, its topography. He’s neither an environmentalist Luddite nor a nostalgic Golden-Ager, but a farmer who has witnessed his countryside lose much of beauty and value. He writes with passion about that loss, but also about how some of these valuable things can be regained. Thus, this is a book for the localist, the agrarian, the nature-lover—the conservative who’s truly interested in conserving.  

Robert Grano writes from outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His articles and reviews have appeared in Touchstone, Again, and in various small press journals.