Friday, 31 January 2014

Working the land

Winter evenings spent reading works by E M Forster, D H Lawrence and others soon underlines just how much our rural landscape has changed. In many cases it is not so much the changed landscape that hits you, although this is striking enough, but the very great change in our rural populations. Our rural landscapes are no longer peopled and worked in the way that they were a century ago and things are, clearly, very different now.

Such differences reflect the great surge of agricultural intensification that brought with it increasing mechanisation, new chemicals and expanding global markets. These new technologies and opportunities reduced the manpower needed to produce crops and to manage the great country estates that were once the cornerstone of the English landscape. The rural communities that housed the farmhands, woodsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths and others have, to a greater extent, been replaced by communities that look elsewhere, to the cities and market towns that hold the new kinds of jobs that make up our shifted economy.

These losses are felt more widely than perhaps we realise. A reduction in the numbers of people working on the land has left us divorced from it. We are also divorced from the food and other products that are harvested and cropped; our relationship with vegetables has shifted from the fields to the sterile aisles of supermarkets and the polythene packaged specimens that are uniformly sized and scrubbed of the soil that would form the last link back to the earth that nurtured them.

The removal of this connection with the land may be one reason why we, as a wider society, seem so disinterested in what has been happening to our countryside. If we do not have a role in the production of food then how can we value it properly? All we see is the price on the packet and we know little or nothing about the process by which that vegetable or piece of meat has ended up on the supermarket shelf. If we do not live in the countryside, how can we value its component parts? A tremendous part of our heritage has been lost and old skills have died out with the passing of their practitioners. Maybe it is time to put some of them back.

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