THR Web Features   /   December 21, 2021

Galloway in the Shadow of Wendell Berry

Can farming aspire to more than paying the bills?

John-Paul Heil

( Enclosure in Galloway, Scotland by Anthony O'Neil via Wikimedia Commons.)

Patrick Laurie’s recent autobiography, Galloway, lost something in cultural translation. Galloway was originally released in 2020 in the U.K. under the title Native, and there is perhaps no more fitting title for a book that has so much to say about what it means to belong somewhere and the problems associated with returning to one’s homeland. As he tells the story of his life as a farmer, journalist, and environmental advocate in Scotland, Laurie grapples with themes like intergenerational fidelity to place, modernity’s misaimed attempts to improve the environment which ultimately end up doing more harm than good, the loss of local culture and the destruction of local communities, and humanity’s alienation from the land. He also calls for a more robust way of approaching the earth, one which recognizes that we are stewards, not dominators, of the soil and its creatures.

Laurie hails from a long line of farmers from this “south-western corner of Scotland” close to England’s northern border. Laurie’s father and grandfather worked the land and raised animals in Galloway, the former running “a mixed business based on sheep and beef cattle” and the latter, likewise, “devoted to cattle” on his hill farm, which the hand-drawn maps preceding the book show is not too far from Laurie’s farm today. Though Laurie does not talk much about his family before his grandparents, he mentions briefly that his grandfather’s grandfather had expertise with cattle. The introduction informs us that, from the roof of his shed, Laurie can see the places where generations of his family have either lived or live today.

Following the outbreak of mad cow disease, his father became a solicitor and left the farming life behind. For a while, Laurie likewise thought his future would take him away from his native land. One of the things that drew him back was another Galloway native, curlews. The bird, which the introduction describes as “a beloved member of the sandpiper family that traditionally nests in the grasses of local fields,” was an early love of Laurie’s, who “wrote about curlews as a teenager while [his] friends were smoking and chatting up girls.” When he learned that the curlew population experienced a “sudden collapse … over the last thirty years,” with Galloway itself losing three-quarters of its curlews since the 1990s, Laurie set out to write a book about curlews, stoked by his background in conservation and journalism. Although the book never materialized, his love of curlews led him to a renewed interest in local agriculture. Laurie recounts how, while attending a farm show with his wife, he reencountered the beautiful, black cattle native to Galloway and had a moment of clarity. “Here at last was a true point of entry to my own place. I turned to my wife and whispered, ‘We’re going to have cattle.’ To her eternal credit, she nodded.”         

As Laurie began farming, he found himself becoming more critical about conservation’s ill-advised attempts to improve the earth. The loss of Scottish cattle decades ago to afflictions like foot and mouth disease led to the disappearance of “that weighty heft of shared memory” present in Galloway’s farming community. In response, the government encouraged farmers to give up livestock for commercial forests. As “the world was utterly remade” by these forestation efforts, celebrated by the public as having “conjured progress out of waste,” it also destroyed the local ecosystem. As Laurie explains,

We’ve paid a sore price for this progress, but we can’t measure the cost and form a true balance. Lots of people work in the sawmill, but now the rivers are sour and the fish are killed by poisons from the forests. Timber makes valuable chipboard and wood pulp, but our ancient peatlands have been razed by ploughs and they dribble away like mud. We’ve lost our mountain hares, our black grouse and our eagles as the forests grew. Golden plovers are no more, and now salmon fade into silence. Years pass and the trees become easier to stomach because we can’t remember a time before them.

The costs are difficult to count. Curlews, which breed in the open land of the hill country, have had their “hearts … broken by the forester’s plough.” The government’s proliferation of forests and other technological advances in conservational progress, like wind turbines, run roughshod over the particularity of Galloway’s needs. Laurie prefers conversation with nature to this type of conservation of nature. Though far from perfect, Galloway’s older generation of farmers at least undertook, to quote a phrase from writer and farmer Wendell Berry, “to know responsibly where they are and to ‘consult the genius of the place.’”

Laurie also seems, at first, to spurn the farming industry’s increasing focus on efficiency and technology. Taking a class at the local agricultural college, Laurie noted that “their industry was shiny and new, decorated with gadgets and technology. I asked about birds and the lecturer frowned and said, ‘This is an agricultural course.’ My classmates had never heard of curlews.” Overreliance on technology and academic ideas of agriculture has led, he laments, to a lack of understanding a particular place’s needs. “Modern agriculture has snuffed out a world of know-how,” Laurie remarks, noting that “we’ve learned to get more from the best ground over the past few decades, but we’ve lost the skills and manpower we need to extract value from harder places.”

With the ease brought by chemical fertilizers and the proliferation of grass comes a loss of crop rotations, a form of mixed farming undertaken by forbearers like Laurie’s grandfather that worked to the benefit not just of the soil but local wildlife. Modern farming’s lack of natural balance, conversely, has broken down the biological order and separated old relationships between species. For instance, the natural ways of raising Galloway cattle are declining due to market imperatives that reward fatter beef produced more quickly. Even though Galloways produce the best beef at seven or eight years old, it’s more cost-efficient for farmers to fatten their cows over the course of thirty months and then slaughter them. With the decline of these cows in the hill area comes catastrophic consequences for sheep, who overeat thinner grass and destroy curlew nesting places. Laurie’s laments are reminiscent of Berry’s observations on natural biodiversity. Berry writes, “nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and upon their places … The making of these differences is the making of the world.”

Laurie argues that government-mandated conservation and industrial agriculture are both oriented towards maximizing profit. Laurie describes how “foresters say that nothing good happened until the trees came; we should be glad that there’s money to be made at last.” What this mindset ignores is that “new worlds have a habit of crushing their forebears.” One day, while cutting his six-acre field with an ancient mower, Laurie realizes that his slowness enables wildlife living in the grass to get out of the way, something that modern, faster mowers don’t permit. Though not perfect, “the problem has been driven into overdrive by the need for speed. I started to cut my field in the assumption that the old ways are too slow. Pondering the idea over several hours of noisy labour, I began to wonder if the new ways are too fast.”

To followers of Counterpoint Press, the publisher responsible for the American edition of Laurie’s book, these observations will sound reminiscent of the works of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky-based philosopher-poet-farmer whose corpus has been, for the most part, released by Counterpoint. Counterpoint has welcomed the association, advertising Galloway as “for fans of Wendell Berry … looking for a scent of grass and mud to get you through the darkening year.” Galloway itself acknowledges its thematic connections to Berry as early as its first page, in an introduction, penned by actor and writer Nick Offerman, that begins with an epigraph from Berry’s The Unsettling of America.

On the surface, this juxtaposition of Berry and Laurie seems appropriate. Galloway explores themes present throughout Berry’s poetry, Port William stories, and essays. But while Laurie’s Galloway certainly has “a scent of grass and mud,” it struggles to articulate the profundity of our inseparable relationship with the soil, our native home. Maintaining an unsteady relationship with the past, the memoir is ultimately ambivalent about technology and admits a progress-centered view of agricultural history. Ultimately Galloway lacks the coherent view of reality and humanity which characterizes Berry’s thought.

Despite his cogent (and Berry-esque) critiques of the technocratic reduction of nature, Laurie still often finds himself locked in a production- and progress-oriented mentality. He celebrates technology he associates with “the old ways,” like reaper-binders “which passed through the crop and left a trail of perfect sheaves in their wake. Those machines were big and complex.” Laurie takes pride in his collection of machinery, which “spanned over forty years of progress and development, boasting dependable British names like Bamford, Ransomes and Ferguson.”

Though a far cry from combine harvesters or other powerful implements, even these older machines compact the soil to deleterious effect and, as the introduction notes, were at least partially responsible for the destruction of southern Scotland’s curlew population. They may be antique, but these machines still represent for Berry an ideology of “limitlessness” which “makes it easy to think mechanically about the land and its creatures.”

Laurie praises the “deep slowness and patience” of his way of life and spurns a friend-of-a-friend who came to the farm and laughed at the inefficiency of Laurie’s decades-old reaper. However, he still contends, after his ill-fated agriculture class, that “it was some consolation to realise that my work was no better or worse than modern agriculture,” the same modern agriculture whose students don’t know that curlews exist. Laurie also struggles to make compelling distinctions between modern technology well-used and modern technology that is harmful to nature. Berry similarly does not articulate a difference between these two types of modern technology; this is because, however, Berry does not think there is any modern technology which aims at efficiency or human ease at some expense towards the land that can be well-used on a farm. (This would not preclude, however, Berry’s famous affinity for the prudent deployment of solar panels.)

It’s not surprising, then, that Laurie also sees agricultural history as a story of modernization and progress. The same “progress and change” which he castigates early on for having “sidelined” and “ironed out rich seams of variety” in Galloway cattle he treats indecisively in his final chapters. Looking out over a countryside dotted by commercial forest and wind turbines, Laurie reflects that “my ancestors dreamed of progress, but they’d grind their teeth to see this place as it is now. They’d call it wrecked and foul, and I feel that rage on their behalf, but even in this final extremity I still find plenty to love here.”

Laurie clarifies that this optimism is not rooted in the hope of a return to a more sustainable, human way of living but in the acceptance of the wounded nature progress has created as it is. “I’ve spoken to people who say we should pull out of the hills and let them heal,” Laurie writes. “They want the wild, and they ask me how I can love Galloway when it’s been broken and twisted into sickness. I try to imagine these hills as they were in their original state … but nostalgia can’t pay the bills any more than hills of cattle can. My heart breaks for Galloway, but I’ll never leave this place, where the only tradition that truly endures is change.”

Laurie has inherited the incredible power won for him by his ancestors, but not their feelings of righteous anger towards the injustice perpetrated on this land by technology and progress. By appealing finally to the hard realism of “paying the bills,” he dismisses an honest accounting of the damage to the land as little more than misplaced nostalgia. By believing that “the best of this place is not the past or future, but now” and breaking with the “whispers of the old ways” which make it “harder for [him] to connect with the world [he loves],” Laurie seems comfortable neither definitively commending nor condemning the same progress-focused outlook he ascribes to the foresters which instrumentalized nature for the sake of profit and wiped out the curlews.

There is no middle ground, for Laurie, between working within the ideology of progress and what father of natural farming Masanobu Fukuoka calls abandonment, “the belief that everything should be left to take its natural course … all at once.” (Berry wrote the introduction to the English translation of Fukuoka’s masterwork, The One-Straw Revolution.) In struggling to discern “what to carry forward and what to abandon from the old ways,” Laurie appears to forget at times one of the oldest and yet most present truths of all, not bound by the past or the future, Fukuoka’s “unmoving and unchanging center of agricultural development,” namely that “nature does not change.”

Nature knows what is best for itself better than we do. The work of human beings, especially farmers, is to discern what that lasting, unchanging goodness is and to act in communion with it. We must live, as Berry says, so that “what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it.” Laurie’s story, and the story of his people, shows how change, Galloway’s only truly enduring human tradition, and the pursuit of progress have brought ruinous consequences; despite this, Laurie seems content not to break with this tradition.

The way of life Laurie seeks and about which he writes eloquently—a slower life, one where he can raise his cattle in accordance with their nature, a world safe for the curlews—is a profound, even beautiful one. This makes it all the more tragic that he sees it as “no better or worse than modern agriculture.” Settling for the status quo of instrumentalizing progress cannot heal broken places like Galloway.