Image: Environment Secretary Michael Gove with Adam Horovitz's new book, The Soil Never Sleeps.
Out amongst the farms of England and Wales, in the depths of Britain’s valleys or up its highest hills, amongst carefully managed flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, and as often as not way out of mobile signal, it can be easy to forget about the hurly burly of day-to-day politics. Especially if one is a poet rather than a farmer.
I spent just over a year getting usefully lost in the rural landscapes of Britain, writing The Soil Never Sleeps as poet-in-residence for the Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PfLA), from April 2016 to July 2017.
Commissioned to write about the relationship between mankind, animal and landscape, I travelled to four PfLA farms, in the Yorkshire Dales, Cornwall, Kent and Wales, staying on them for a few days at a time over four seasons, getting to know the working practices of farms that eschew the remorseless productivity of post-World War Two chemical-driven farming consensus.
So far so idyllic, then; yet the endless thrum of politics inevitably seeps in to everything. In this instance, it became ever more noticeable as the Brexit referendum campaign began to hot up, during my first round of visits to the farms in the spring. By the time I made my second round of visits, in the autumn of 2016, the referendum result had left the landscape – both literal and figurative – in a state of change, of flux.
Of course, as Ted Hughes said (talking about his book of farming poems, Moortown), “…on a stock farm, as in a hospital, something is always happening”. One of the great pleasures of researching and writing a book of poetry about farming while on these four farms was getting involved in the constant happenings on them.
As a somewhat impractical poet, it was liberating to find myself engaged in the daily work (helping to hand-rear orphan calves, rounding up sheep, pegging out electric fences), and fascinating to learn more about the minutiae of a world, and philosophy, that was outside my usual purview.
It was instructive, too, to have to tread carefully through the political differences across the country, from farm to farm, listening to the opinions of others and putting my own aside as I wove the farmers’ voices into the narrative. My year was spent striving to understand, poetically and journalistically, the ways that farming could be improved and the soil preserved for the future.
Politics even seeped into the launch of The Soil Never Sleeps, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference this January. A copy was presented (by members of the PfLA) to Michael Gove, who has been making the most useful noises on a subject of his ministerial career of late, as Secretary for State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. My immediate response was to seek balance by giving a copy to David Drew, shadow farming minister (and also my local MP).
It is a search for equilibrium, for equal weight to be given to opposing viewpoints, that has driven the writing of The Soil Never Sleeps. A lifelong vegetarian, I visited an abattoir and was embedded on beef farms, places well outside my comfort zone, and have made friends with people whose views do not automatically or necessarily reflect my own.
It is a small step to take, but a necessary one. If we are going to get through the coming years of political upheaval relatively unscathed, through the fire and fury of opinion that’s been whipped up into an empty-calorie pretence of fact on social media by factions on all sides of the continuing Brexit conundrum, we will need, as a nation, to step outside the comfort zones of our set beliefs and look in detail at the minutiae of things.
Life is a tangle of many different roots, all taking succour from the same soil. We need to seek balance.
The Farm Faces Forward
The farm faces forward. Practicalities
are observed and acted upon.
If it’s easier to sell butter by the kilo
than to push the same weight of meat,
then in comes the dairy herd and
things shift accordingly. The scales
Everything’s an experiment in these
discordant, Brexit-weighted times.
The world seems stranger than it’s ever been
on the surface. It moves so fast that soil
is an irrelevance, in certain circles.
Unworthy of complicated thought.
out of whack, shouted down on all sides
as fear sweeps through the halls where
power festers in unoxygenated compost.
Where the worms have turned on each other
and nothing breathes that does not breathe
fire or money. They will keep on doing so till
returns to books and brains and hearts.
Until the quiet, relentless industry of soil
is recognised again for its ability to take
everything that seems separate and opposed
and unify it under the surface of the land
(this land, all land, any land). You cannot buy
It is only ever earned in the fertile scrum
of living together in each alchemical moment,
forging futures from the rot of shared history.
A farm faces forward. Spreads the muck
of living out in fertile handfuls. The pasture
is a place of beginnings as much as endings.
in the hay field. In high city towers.
Balance in fungal layers, in a cow’s
digestive tract. Balance. The ladder
shifts as you climb it, with no wall
to rest against. Balance in the dairy.
In the bank. In crumbs of soil. In
the steady pulse of everything that lives.