5 Rural Reads: a Book List for 2021
This time last year, like many others, we had been setting ourselves rather ambitious targets for what we would achieve in 2020, completely unaware of what 2020 had in store for us. Our resolutions had been environmentally focused – more thrifting, less waste, more foraging, less meat, more gardening, fewer chemicals.
This year, we are approaching our resolutions a little differently. Many of the targets from last year have now become second-nature, so instead of a lengthy list of lofty ambitions, we are keeping things simple: we are making reading lists.
If there is one thing that working from home has taught us, it is a new-found respect for the landscape around us. Not just the natural landscape of plants and animals, but the rural landscape populated with people who work on the land. It is the landscape we both grew-up in, it is true; but a year spent walking these fields, watching the crops growing, ripening, and being harvested, and researching the history of these houses and farms, without the distractions of town or city, has given us an appreciation for rural life that has become something of an addiction.
We have been surprised – a little ashamed, even – by our lack of understanding about the rural world in which we have both lived since birth. From the names of plants and animals, to the way the history of the countryside has been shaped by the declining fortunes of farming and the landed estate, this has been a year of unexpected discoveries. And our growing interest in gardening (pun intended) has also prompted us to think more about the agricultural year.
Over the years, we have been drawn to a number of books on the theme of rural writing and the natural world, and this shortlist will form a backbone of our reading this year. We will be posting reviews and thoughts about these titles throughout the year as we read them, so keep an eye here and on our Instagram!
Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (2018), by Isabella Tree
We’ve lost count of the number of times Wilding has been recommended to us since it was published in 2018. Tracing the unprecedented decision to rewild their 3,500-acre farm in West Sussex, this is the story of a very different vision for rural life: one with natural ecological patterns and biodiversity at its heart. Wilding exposes the bleak, toxic futures presented by our current intensive farming methods, and offers a much more hopeful alternative.
Corduroy (1930), Silver Ley (1931) and The Cherry Tree (1932), by Adrian Bell
In 1920, Adrian Bell was sent from the glittering cocktail parties of bohemian London to learn agriculture at a farm in Bradfield St. George, near Bury St. Edmunds. A decade later he captured these early experiences of rural Suffolk in these three wonderful volumes.
We were both born in Bury St. Edmunds, now living just a few miles from Bradfield St George, and have a keen interest in local history, so were amazed when we found this beautiful little trilogy from one of our favourite publishers, Slightly Foxed. Written with a careful eye for detail, a moving respect for rural life, and a poetic imagination, Adrian Bell captures the spirit of the Suffolk farming communities in the interwar year (and proves that not much has changed since!)
Hollow Places: An Unusual History of Land and Legend (2019), by Christopher Hadley
To be honest, it was the cover of this book that first caught our eye. But on closer inspection, it sounded like just the sort of title to interest us: one of us has a keen interest in folklore, and the other completed their MA in medieval history.
Hollow Places tells the history and legend of a very particular local tradition: the slaying of a dragon by Piers Shonks outside the village of Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire, and carefully examines all the sources we have available to understand more. This looks like a fascinating read, with another (very different) perspective on rural Britain; one populated with myths and monsters.
The Fat of the Land (1961), by John Seymour
Another rural Suffolk read, The Fat of the Land, is the story of John Seymour’s early experiments in self-sufficiency near Orford, and illustrated by his wife, Sally Seymour. It was published in 1961, 15 years before he would write the best-selling The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency.
Like many other weekend gardeners, allotment owners and smallholders, much of what we are trying to achieve with our garden, our cooking, and our lifestyle has been influenced by the dream of self-sufficiency, and while being truly self-sufficient is an impossible aspiration, it is sometimes those unachievable goals that help shape the way we live. In his introduction to my Little Toller edition, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall argues that “Seymour’s is a voice that still needs to be heard, and a voice that can change lives”.
The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017), by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
Our increasing separation from the natural world can also be seen in our changing vocabulary, as was highlighted when the Oxford Junior Dictionary replaced about 50 nature-related words – words like acorn, blackberry and chestnut – with 21th century technological terminology, such as analogue, broadband and chatroom.
The Lost Words is a moving affirmation of the importance of natural vocabulary in our children’s education and play. Jackie Morris’s opulent illustrations reflect the richness of the natural world in all its variety, while Robert Macfarlane’s playful acrostic poems celebrate the power of words: the poems beg to be read aloud, rolling off the tongue like Beowulf, giving joy to both listener and reader.
At first glance, there is a thread of melancholy running through all of these titles, focusing, as they all do in their own way, on loss. The loss of a rural way of life, with its associated relationships and traditions; the loss of myths and legends from our landscape, to be replaced by simple, brutal economy; the loss of the special relationship humans used to have with the land on which they lived; the loss of a language and childhood grounded in the natural world.
But these are also books about hope. Some seem to suggest better ways to interact with our environment. Others highlight the threads of continuity that link past and present, finding new ways to tell old truths.
So, while we may not have set ourselves New Year Resolutions this year, hidden somewhere in this small reading challenge is a vast set of aspirations for 2021: about our relationship with our food, whether animal or plant; about our understanding of the people who work to bring that food from field to plate; and about our connection with the land, its traditions and legends, its history and language.