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The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland by John Lewis-Stempel

I experienced so much pleasure reading The Running Hare that I told my grandsons about it (8 and 5 years old). It made sense to them too. The book is a mixture love, etymology, naturalism, polemic, folklore, birds, arable farming and historic writing, including one of the English poets I love most: John Clare. And hares.

The author, John Lewis-Stempel, is a farmer and a writer. He says in the preface,

Now that I look back, I see that I have written with some anger. …

Where our friend lived was beautiful, but as life-full as a cemetery. Someone had removed the birds from the farmland all around her. For hundred and hundreds of square miles around her.

The Farmer is to blame. The Supermarket too. And let us not forget the Politician, and the Consumer. Let us not omit Me, or You.

Really I just want the birds back. (11)

I would say that this book is delightful and important and angry.

What’s it about?

The book is an account of one year in the life of a field, and what happened when it was farmed in the old-fashioned way. The account takes John Lewis-Stempel down many byways as he explores the origins of words, his recollection of farming in his youth, what 19th Century writers described about the countryside, a visit to John Clare’s village, the corn dollies, local churches and information about birds, flowers, bees and hares.

Piers [Plowman] ploughed in order to ameliorate society’s evil. Why don’t I take a modern, conventionally farmed arable field, plough it and husband it in the old-fashioned, chemical-free way and make it into a traditional wheatfield? Bring back the flowers that have all but disappeared from British ploughlands, such as corncockle, Venus’s looking glass, shepherd’s needle, corn marigold and the cornflower, with its bloom as brilliant as June sky? And the birds and animals that loved such land – grey partridges, quail, harvest mice.

And hares. Could I entice in a hare? (17)

And he does. He finds a field, Flinders, close to his own farm in Herefordshire, and takes out a short tenancy on it. He proceeds to plough and sow and harvest in the old ways, and to watch the variety of birds and animals, butterflies and bees, return. And there are hares.

Some problems

  • The weather.
  • The farm next to the field, quickly nicknamed the Chemical Brothers, who use chemical methods that sometimes spread in the wind.
  • The previous neglect of the field.
  • Equipment failure or inadequacy.
  • Predators: foxes, sparrowhawks and kestrels.

Some pleasures

The physical pleasures of ploughing.

The experience of Flinders from the perspective of a small animal. On the eve of cutting the wheat, in late August, the author lies down.

… so I might know the world in which the hares and the red-legs [partridges] live.

My God: the terror and the beauty.

The robin in the hedge begins a wistful song. …

The docks in the field margin are rusting; chains of bryony, Tic-Tac orange and lime green, are tying up the hedges, there are insistent wasps on the flowers of the ivy, and daddy-long-legs are puppets on invisible strings. The evening swirl of swifts has become thick and black, because the young birds have joined in.

Summer is past its peak. (218)

The pleasures include watching the lives of birds and animals in the field, and the return of the wild flowers as they bloom and shed seeds, even getting stranded without a torch in the woods at night.

And the pleasures also include learning the old techniques, like sowing broadcast.

Outcomes

Albrecht Durer. Hare

He got his wheatfield, without chemical pollution, and the birds returned along with the wild flowers. And there were hares.

And there were even economic gains: savings of £30 a ton on animal feed, for which he used the harvest.

And uncountable gains from saving flora and fauna.

One field, just one field, made a difference.

If we had a thousand fields … (288)

My reactions

Part of the pleasure from reading The Running Hare came from a familiarity with the area. I grew up in what was then called Monmouthshire neighbouring Herefordshire. The world of his childhood was familiar. I realise with horror, how much has disappeared. I only turned away for 40 years. I don’t recall any hares (plenty of dead and dying rabbits), but I have seen them since in the Black Mountains and in Cumbria.

And now I have returned to the countryside, and find special pleasure in the wild flowers, the birds, the landscape. Reading this book I renew my sense that it is precious, and may be in mortal danger.

Or perhaps not. Here’s how John Lewis-Stempel ends the book.

I drove past Flinders recently, so I turned on the Land Rover’s headlights.

There were still hares there. Running. Dancing. (295)

The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland by John Lewis-Stempel (2016). Paperback edition by Black Swan. 314pp

Illustrations by Micaela Alcaino.

I first heard of this book when it was read by Bernard Hill on Radio 4 in October 2016. No longer available on the iplayer, but a recording can be purchased.

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