A Tale of Hard Work and Farming, by John Stewart Collis - published 1973
"This book was written just before the corn-rick and the hay-rick were deemed unnecessary by modern methods... [it is] the last of its kind that can now be written in England."
- John Stewart Collis
"The cut worm forgives the plough"
- William Blake (Proverbs of Hell)
There is something to be said for immersing oneself in hard, physical work - it's been said by farm and forestry workers, dry-stone wallers, boatbuilders and carpenters alike. The outcome is directly dependent on the work put in, and the hurdles are immediately apparent. When I first read Collis' views on his farming experience I was taken with how much I had in common with him when I was working my allotment garden.
I have been happiest when hardest at work. I used to clean windows for a living, and spent my days running up and down ladders in pretty much all weathers. I had chapped skin from the winter winds, and in summer there were days I almost cried with frustration at having to cope with the heat and humidity, yet something kept me going through all that, and it wasn't just the money.
I kept an allotment garden for many years, and the clearing of the ground for planting was possibly the hardest work I ever did. I suffered the same symptoms from the cold and sun, and amazingly enough, something kept me at that too, and again it wasn't for the money - no-one pays you to dig your own garden.
The Poetry of Farming
Written by John Stewart Collis in 1973, the book is more than simply a celebration of hard work on farms. It is the history of farming practice in the South of England during and shortly after the Second World War. It is a celebration of pea and potato, meadow and hedgerow, rain and sun alike. Despite his education and experience, (having been an Honorary Lieutenant in the Irish Guards), Collis wanted to taste the spirit of agriculture as it was then - hard, physical labour, often alone, and in all weathers.
In practical and poetic terms he describes pretty much all the tasks that were involved in farming for hundreds of years, from planting potatoes to pruning trees and coppicing, hedging and ditching. From planting to harvest, he includes all the traditional tasks, and some that were starting to become standards (the spreading of "artificial manure" for instance). Basically, he is documenting the end of traditional farming methods - it is sad that "conventional" methods of producing food adulterate not just the food, but the very medium that farmers rely on - the soil and water table.
The book is a snapshot of a country life that is largely vanished from the English countryside, with the emphasis now on new methods, huge monoculture farms and the emphasis on quantity of crop, rather than quality. The idea that Man works with the land rather than taming it and squeezing the life from it, are largely gone, although doubtless Collis would be happy to see the recent increase in organic farming and general conservation.
He gives such a background not just into farming practice, but the culture and language of farming, that the reader joins him in each trail and joy - each furrow ploughed, each hard, trudging cold day and each crop harvested with sore back and joyful heart. It's almost like reading a biography of the English countryside, the life of farms, farmers and even crops.
Finally, it is a book about philosophy, life, and mankind, it is about history, the present and the future.
The Worm Forgives The Plough
Celebrate the earthworm. And Collis does. The worm that turns the soil, aerates it and draws humus deep into it, giving it life and strength, the lusty soul to produce good growth.
Throughout, the tone of the book is about Collis working with the land - he continually stresses how he feels about being able to work with the soil and the attendant life. He takes delight in each furrow ploughed (both with tractor and horse), each seed planted, each hedge or fence repaired. There's a sense of trust - Man and Nature each doing their bit - and the result is good for both parties. Each takes delight in the finished article.
At the time the book was written there was more balance between Man and Nature, the methods used were less intensive, less damaging. Maybe now, the worm cannot forgive the plough which tears up whole ecosystems, destroys every habitat and spreads destructive, sterile chemicals in those places once nourished by the humble worm. Where once the soil was ploughed daily by myriad worms, the dead dust lies empty and devoid of life.
The balance of Nature should be preserved - non-aggressive farming methods can and will work provided that no-one gets greedy, and whilst there are invariably casualties, they are generally small, Nature recovers and overall there is harmony and accord.
Published April 6th 2009 by Vintage Classics, ISBN 0099529483, 273 pp