As you travel around the countryside, particularly in the west of Britain (although, as in other respects, the country used to be less polarised than it now is), you will see a lot of grass. It looks pretty, or, at least, quite pretty, but you should look closer. Like most greenwash it hides an ugly secret; it’s the equivalent of green concrete as far as nature is concerned.
This book is a celebration of what meadows could be like. I do not propose that all the green concrete should return to wildlife-rich meadows, but as you read this book you will regret that we have left so little space for real meadows in our countryside and in our lives.
For this is a celebration of an old meadow and the life that it supports. The author takes us through the year, in a calendrical manner and tells us of the life and times of his meadow – its insects, its cutting, its smell, its place in his heart.
The author clearly loves his meadow despite the back-breaking shearing of sheep and cutting of hay, the bites of horseflies and the prickles of thistles. He sees its place in his life, in the landscape around him and in the history of this land.
Through the book he recounts finely observed, and very finely told, observations of nature and also of the work and worries associated with managing this small plot of land. It’s intelligent, delightful, cultured and informative. It’s a very good read and I feel I will come back to it each year to dip into what was happening in this meadow at the corresponding time of year.
What this book does not do, and this is not a criticism (merely information for the potential reader), is to give much explanation of why the author’s experience is such a rare one, why you can’t share it and how depleted is our stock of such places. And it proposes no way forward to redress the green concrete/meadow balance. In that respect it resembles George Monbiot’s Feral; Monbiot’s book is wonderful at telling us how awful the present is (it is) but less strong on setting out the route to a better future, whereas Lewis-Stempel tells us how wonderful his present is and tells us little of how we might share it or why we have lost it. That does sound like a criticism doesn’t it? It’s not meant to be – I recommend this book very strongly.
We don’t have many meadows like the one described in this book because our agriculture system doesn’t allow them – economics don’t allow them. As you drive through the green concrete of the west of England, in Cheshire or Somerset, you are driving past highly fertilised grass factories. They are close to monocultures of the most productive grasses and are cut maybe three times a year to be conserved (!) as silage. That is modern farming, and we won’t, and shouldn’t, turn it all back to meadows like those of the author but we should be very protective of those real meadows that remain, recapture some of their value in our own gardens and not fool ourselves that we have a green and pleasant land – we have a green concreted, less pleasant land. But that’s the price you pay for over-population, over-consumption and overemphasis on economics at the cost of quality of life.
I am, you may have gathered, naturally contrary – I’m quite inclined to take the opposite view just for the fun of it. I’d like to think that this is more to do with being unwilling to accept orthodoxy unless I think it is right than sheer bloody-mindedness. Whatever the reason, after reading that Sir Tim Smit rated this book as one of the best five he had ever read I was slightly disposed not to like it. I couldn’t not like it – it is too good a book. I like it a lot. The writing is excellent and the subject is engaging. Do buy this book. Read it and weep for what we have lost.