Review: The Forgiveness Of Nature Essay, Research Paper
All flesh is grass The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass Graham Harvey 371pp, Jonathan Cape A quarter of the earth’s surface is covered in grass. It is the natural vegetation of the vast, arid regions of steppes, prairies, savannah and veld. But in rainy Britain, if you leave a meadow ungrazed for long enough, it will revert to the woodland it once was: each field represents centuries of pastoral work and care. Even a lawn engages our vestigial instincts for husbandry. In his engrossing and wide-ranging history, Graham Harvey traces the human partnership with grazing animals that has maintained the turf since Neolithic times, when he believes we were probably wandering pastoralists and acquired the race memory by which we associate greenswards with freedom and pleasure. It is our deep cultural bond with grass that interests the author: the story of a human contract with nature that, until recently, has always been about symbiosis, not exploitation. Shepherds, we learn, were buried with a hank of wool to explain their absence from church on the sabbath to St Peter. The legendary strength of the shepherds of Plynlimmon in Wales derived from a lifelong diet of sheep’s milk. Harvey is at his best quite literally in the field, meeting grassy individuals. The head groundsman at Wimbledon views the new “sports grass technology” with resignation: “I can walk out on to a court and say that it needs rolling. I can see it through my eyes and feel it through my feet. The younger ones, the college-trained ground keepers, they are the ones who need all the data to make their decisions.” The new farming also places more reliance on artificial systems than on the instincts and experience of individuals, such as the fenland farmer who points out to Harvey the slight ridging peculiar to the base of a Hereford cow’s horn “that reveals the number of her calvings as surely as the rings of a felled tree denote the seasons of its life”. Writing with well-researched authority and passion, Harvey reveals the subtle evolution of a common wealth of sheep and cattle naturally improving land by grazing it, creating fertile soil rich in humus all over Britain. Harvey hymns humus, but he is no romantic: he writes in the commonsense tradition of William Cobbett, John Seymour or George Ewart Evans. He knows that all flesh is grass, and is dismayed at the destructiveness of a deeply discredited new agriculture, dominated by supermarkets and chemical companies, that has half-killed the soil and most of its vital earthworms, and relegated the carefully evolved native-bred cattle – the Herefords, Galloways, Welsh Blacks and the rest -to museum pieces. These are the very animals capable of fattening outdoors on the native grasses and herbs that will grow in fields free of chemical fertilisers. Harvey claims that their meat is much healthier than that of the grain-fed Charolais or Limousin because it contains the right kind of fatty acids. Today 85% of our grassland is a monoculture so heavily fertilised that it will support only one or two specialist super-grasses. Harvey calls it “everyturf”. Hay meadows are one of our oldest inventions, yet we have been so busy trashing them with the plough, the crop sprayer, land drains and chemical fertilisers that only 3% of those we had as recently as 1975 have survived. England now possesses fewer than 20,000 hectares of natural grassland rich in wild flowers. The old system of crop rotation, building fertility with nitrogen-fixing clover and the dung of grazing animals, has also disappeared. No farmer would ever have used the word “sustainable” to describe it, but that is what it was. By the time we woke up to the new agrarian revolution, says Harvey, “the culture had gone out of agriculture”. He sees BSE as “the harvest of betrayal” by a monstrous industry that turned a herbivore into a carnivore. Harvey argues persuasively that “the wealth of grass [has] been squandered and with it the health of the planet”. Like Darwin, who studied how earthworms plough the land, Harvey believes we could profit from a greater appreciation of the detail in what we vaguely call “the landscape”: the microscopic riches among the roots and soil. Grasslands, he says, are the unsung purifiers of the earth’s atmosphere, locking up as much carbon in the organic matter of their soils as temperate forests, and far more than tropical rain forests. This timely book may prove controversial, but it points a way forward to a time of fair fields full of folk, and earthworms too.