In his non-fiction book Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field
(2014), British author and farmer John Lewis-Stempel chronicles a year of activity in a meadow on the farm where he lives in Herefordshire, England near the border of Wales. According to The Guardian
, "Books have been written about entire countries that contain a less interesting cast of characters than Lewis-Stempel's account of one field on the edge of Wales."
Even though no modern farmer cuts hay by hand with a scythe anymore, at least not as a matter of necessity, Lewis-Stempel prefers using a scythe in his hay meadow. He believes the labor of cutting grass is a rich and inspiring experience dating back to other farmer-poets, many of them who did so out of necessity, including writers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, and Franz Kafka. Lewis-Stempel expresses the act of hand-cutting hay in a spiritual way that ties generations of men across the centuries together. He also points out that the phrase "aftermath" originally referred to the first tiny shoots of grass that flourish after a field has been cut.
Lewis-Stempel dispels the notion that hand-cutting hay is a romantic dalliance or, even worse, a new age therapeutic tool to combat the ennui of modernism. He argues that the vitality of the wildlife who share his meadow is something he takes pride in maintaining. Indeed, much of his book is devoted to the various animals whose lives he chronicles as though they are characters in a soap opera. He relates the sex lives of badgers and, even more interesting, the badgers' tendency to work together to bury their dead in a ritual that resembles a funeral. He observes a prison cell for aphids in an anthill, where their captors milk their prey for honeydew. Tawny owls will leave their young, forcing them to survive on their own and to "secure a fiefdom for food and for breeding. By wintertime pure they will either have succeeded or they will be dead."
Along with haymaking, Lewis-Stempel shears sheep and occasionally herds cows. At one point, he sits with one of his Red Poll cows as she dies. "I am there at the last, when shit and life leave her. She dies in the afternoon sky painted in heavy purple oils. I cover her face with a plastic sugar-beet sack so the crows won't peck her eyes out." He rages at the government veterinarians who come to do mandatory tuberculosis tests on the badgers. And he laments the loss of traditional farming to machines. "No longer was the farmer alive to the elements, or even close to the earth." He bemoans when a red kite predator kills one of his lambs. At another point, Lewis-Stempel and his wife fear that their young daughter is missing and may have been eaten by pigs. When they discover her, she is simply sunbathing with the pigs.
Lewis-Stempel's love of animals and the earth is complicated by the fact that he also hunts pheasant and fox. He acknowledges this inner conflict, stating that he is the only person he knows who has both hunted foxes from horseback and acted as a fox hunt saboteur. He tries to settle this conflict by arguing that hunting prey that knows you are there is more ethical than, say, sniping a deer from a far distance, unbeknownst to the quarry.
He also feels an ancestral connection to the meadow. The farm has been in his family for centuries; allegedly, the wool it produced was used to make Queen Elizabeth I's stockings in the 16th century. Lewis-Stempel expresses his thoughts on the form and rules of haymaking, stating that it should be done in the morning when dew still sits on the blades of grass. Moreover, a haymaker should be graceful, his motions akin to those of a tai chi expert.
Although he does not consider his lifestyle as reflective of a nostalgic desire to return to the past, nevertheless, Lewis-Stemple acknowledges that building projects, new roads, agribusiness, and sheer neglect threaten to turn English meadows like his into a thing of the past.