‘I found the poems in the fields and only wrote them down’ JOHN CLARE
Fields have meanings and memories for millions of us. In their manifold forms, fields express our cultural crafting of the land. They are our unwritten history, carved clearings in the wild wood, the accumulation of practical experimentation, invention and subtlety, extending over generations. Yet under our gaze this rich combining of culture and nature has been smoothed and sprayed out of existence in half a lifetime.
Deep ploughing has reduced ridge and furrow, buried villages and countless barrows. Agricultural intensification and development have caused the demise of our hay meadows, our chalk and limestone downlands, our Culm grasslands during the last 50 years. Over the same period, and for allied reasons, farmland bird populations have declined drastically – the native grey partridge, spotted flycatcher, lapwing, and skylark.
But it isn’t only bees and birds that are in decline. People have disappeared from the land too. Now only a tiny proportion of the workforce in Britain is involved in agriculture. Farms have become larger, so have farm machines. As agriculture has become more mechanised and intensive, it has become more remote and more excluding, people even feel unable to engage in debate about it. The result has been increasing isolation and pressure for those left to work the land, and a detachment from nature and the seasons for those who do not work the land.
Farming with nature, culture and locality, rotating crops, mixing livestock with arable production and reducing our dependence on artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, could solve many problems. The more farmers produce food for local consumption the more they are in direct contact with the surrounding community, and more likely to be valued and understood.
We need to re-think what fields are for if we want them to continue to fulfil a wider role than just crop and livestock production. Fields are not factories – they are our unique and variegated expression of a long relationship with the land.
What do we want fields to be, look like and sustain? Grants to farmers and landholders have enabled and encouraged most of the detrimental changes to the land. As taxpayers, we are footing the bill for massive subsidies. These grants benefit a few, not society as a whole. They have led to the destruction of our common wealth – our wildlife, evidence of the way we have worked the land over millennia, the pollution of watercourses, the reduction of the intrinsic potential of the soil.
Fields should be full of life, we should be working with this natural exuberance and diversity rather than trying to suppress it.
Common Ground is concerned with the conservation and celebration of fields, not only as valuable ecological environments but as distinctive cultural and historical forms. Our Field Days project formed an exhibition of multi-disciplinary show at the Royal Agricultural Show in 1996. Alongside, we published A Manifesto for Fields and Field Days: Ideas for Investigations and Celebration. We have also collaborated with theatre groups, poets, photographers, and many local communities to explore ways of engaging with the diverse kinds of stories that fields might tell. Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles Theatre Company wrote a new touring play called Fields and Blue Nose Poets and Common Ground launched a poetry competition on the subject which was won by David Hart. Common Ground also edited an anthology of poetry called Field Days with an introduction by Adam Nicholson.
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