|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)|
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?