Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Akenfield, and lessons for now-age sustainability movements?

In the 1960s I was stationed as an Air Force weather officer in eastern England (Suffolk, or East Anglia).  I had my off-base lodgings in the intellectual town of Aldeburgh, on the shingle-beach of the North Sea coast.  Aldeburgh is a North Sea fishing town, but more notably the home of the distinguished composer Benjamin Britten, and was a long-time or passing-through place of many notable artists, writers and scholars in the early 20th century.  But Aldeburgh is something of an exception: East Anglia is basically a kind of wetlands rural agricultural area--scenic if you are just passing through, but a place of farming business if you live there.

Aldeburgh village and beach (Wikipedia)

In 1969 the author Ronald Blythe published a book, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, of reminiscences of Suffolk folk of various ages and professions.  That was when I was living there, but I didn't learn of the book until recently.  Akenfield is a fictitious name for a village, but the book's stories, told by the locals, are real.  This book is an evocative one, capturing the mood--and change--of an English village's way of life, as seen by people of all ages and occupations.  In your mind's eye, you can hear the birds and the livestock call, and see the farmers, shepherds, smiths and so on plying their trades.

Those familiar with Wendell Berry's work about American farm life, or Aldo Leopold's work on Nature and the American landscape, largely about the Midwest a half-century or more ago, will find Akenfield to have a similar mix of nostalgia by the old-timers, commitment by forward-looking younger people, deep love and dedication for the land, yet recognition of the harsh realities of the onset of industrial farming and the leaving of the land by the young, who headed for better-paying jobs in urban trades and factories.

Suffolk farm by Edward Seago, 1930s (Wiki images)
Tractors replaced horse-drawn plows, the many farm laborers were replaced by machines.  Posh landowners have been replaced by more business-like owners.  Produce and livestock are processed through the landscape on a rapid, no-nonsense (and generally no sentimentality) scale, unlike the mixed, small-scale less commercial farming that had come on.  At the time, the villagers largely located themselves in relation to the two World Wars that had so affected England: their roles in the wars, rationing and hardship, and so on.

That was then....and still is, now
By the 1960s, large-scale business-farming had taken root.  Many of the issues discussed by the Akenfielders would sound the same today:  animals being treated in what for humans or pets would be considered horridly inhumane ways, people being driven off the land by machinery, generalists or money people replacing skilled craftsmen, the new rough treatment of the land compared to the mixed-crop smaller-scale farming of the past.  Chicken and hog farms already had become jails for their inhabitants who may never see the light of day in their short, measured, lifespans.

1969 was nearly 50 years go!  In Akenfield in the '60s there were a few who clung to the older ways, who loved the land and refused to leave it, whose needs were simple and commitment great.  This was not for political reasons, but for local traditional ones.  I can't say much about how things may have changed in East Anglia since then, except that my last (also nostalgic) trip through there to Aldeburgh was in 2006, and the hog lots one passed were large.  No rustic slow-paced life!

These musings strike me as relevant to much that is happening today.  Industrial, now genomic-driven agriculture is dominating and many will say devastating not only the nature of agricultural life but also the land itself.  Soil is being lost, monocropping risks major pest devastation, and large farms have become huge impersonal businesses.  And of course livestock practices are every bit as inhumane as ever they may have been.  Of course the argument now, as then, is that more is being produced to feed more people (and there are now a lot more to feed in the world).

At the same time, some are trying to raise the alarm about what may happen if this continues.  Under the banner of 'sustainability', people are attempting to organize resistance to the Monsantification of the land, as one might put it.  There are small farmers who sell humanely raised, local, often organic, small-scale farm products.  There are those trying to use the land in a long-term sustainable way.

Is it pushing analogy too far to liken these scattered and often struggling movements to those who held on to traditional life a half-century ago?  They passed from the scene (as did some protest-era movements, such as communes, 'small is beautiful', and other similar movements in the '70s protest era). Will the current movements flourish, or are they like the trades of old, destined to pass into history?  If they do, will the industrial model sustain life, or destroy it?


Edward Hessler said...

I read "Akenfield" years ago and it became a favorite. My bookshelves are disorderly but it is placed near books by Berry, Jackson and other books on farming I like. However, I can still find it and sample its pages. I'm glad you wrote about it as well as your placement of it in sustainability-movements.

Ken Weiss said...

Reply to Ed
It's a fine book. I was listening to a BBC Radio podcast on a walk today, on a different subject, that involved experimental behavior research, and it made me realize how utterly brutal so much of what our supposed IRB protections committees allow science to do with animals. In this case it was about rat brain experiments. How people can complain, justly, about the housing of chickens and pigs, while we largely look the other way at what goes on in universities and corporate labs, is remarkable.

The justification that we at least to try to minimize unpleasantness in the name of future human betterment goes back to classical times (and, for example, Galen), and presents moral dilemmas that are not easy to work out.

Edward Hessler said...

I hope you allow additions. A movie was made unseen by yours truly. The book is more than evocative enough. I went to the Penguin web site which had three short one-line reviews and I thought you might be interested in how it was reviewed.

Still the best portrait of modern rural life in England, subtle and compassionate'
Roger Deakin, BBC Wildlife magazine.

'A hundred years from now, anyone wanting to know how things were on the land will turn more profitably to Akenfield than to a sheaf of anaemically professional social surveys'

John Updike.

Ken Weiss said...

The movie, available on YouTube free (in 3 parts), is not nearly as good as the book, in my view, but it's OK. There's a better YouTube, a program on Benjamin Britten's life, which evokes a different aspect of the area, and specifically the town of Aldeburgh.