Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: Agriculture (page 2 of 5)

Mactaquac commentary abounds

In the months leading up to the Mactaquac decision, the editorial pages of the Telegraph Journal is filling up with opinion pieces. Early in May, Keith Helmuth of the Woodstock Sustainable Energy Research group (who was an expert at our citizen jury) spoke out for dam removal, looking towards more efficient, greener energy options for the same investment and a boon for agricultural production. LarryJewett of Lakeway Houseboat Rental on the headpond (who rented us the houseboats we used for floating focus groups in 2013), and Friends of Mactaquac Lake, responded to support the rebuilding of the dam and generating station, for the local amenity it has become. Since then, Peter Cronin of the Atlantic Salmon Federation has responded to both in a two part commentary (1 and 2), supporting dam removal to foster a healthy river and restore fish stocks, among other things. While TJ has a firewall, as a subscriber the commentaries are just as interesting. A recent blog post on the NiCHE website by once-NB now-Maine environmental historian, Mark McLaughlin, uses our Before the Mactaquac Dam storymap to illustrate the need for academics to avoid focusing on stories of environmental decline: dams dramatically change landscapes and ecosystems, but are the exception among infrastructure in creating new amenity. I’m heading next week to the ISSRM meeting in Michigan, where I am co-convening a five-session stream on energy landscapes and transitions, which will examine just such trade-offs.

Fun week of workshops

I seem to be giving bad news to Joyce and Simon from WWF on the HCV maps behind, as Beckley observes . Maybe I was, a little. (photo: Sarah Saunders, WWF Canada).

I seem to be giving bad news to Joyce and Simon from WWF on the HCV maps behind, as Beckley looks on. Maybe I was, a little. (photo: Sarah Saunders, WWF Canada).

Last week, with winter marks submitted, launched the workshop and conference season. Monday I spent all day in the marvelous new Halifax Central Library with a range of government, academic and NGO experts interested in agricultural risk management in the face of climate change. We workshopped AgriRisk research grant proposal ideas, well provisioned by Pavia. Then I hopped into the car with recent MREM alumna Sarah Saunders, now a tidal energy specialist at WWF Canada based in Halifax, to drive to New Brunswick for a meeting on the Saint John River. Organizer Simon Mitchell, WWF Canada’s Saint John River Advisor, always picks great meeting places, this time the Brundage Point River Centre in Grand Bay-Westfield, north of Saint John. That Tuesday meeting was to troubleshoot the first maps out of the Habitat Friendly Renewable Energy Mapping Project. WWF Canada uses the HCV system to identify constraints to development – high conservation value – which has 6 elements including social value and community needs. Those people-oriented maps were almost empty, prompting lots of suggestions from me and my Energy Transitions colleagues Tom Beckley and Louise Comeau, also in attendance. A thoroughly fun day for nerds like us, but I particularly enjoyed taking the long way home, across the Westfield ferry and up the Kingston Peninsula – entirely worth the extra half hour.

Akenfield

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

Another second-hand bookstore treasure from someone who knows me well, Akenfield (1969) is a remarkably engrossing (and surprisingly undated) study of an anonymized rural Suffolk village, in the voice of fifty or so local residents. It tells the story of post-war England, agricultural modernization, social liberalization but also lingering fealty and class boundaries. The author, Ronald Blythe, interviewed and synthesized each voice, sometimes adding a sympathetic preamble of description and context. Surprises abound, such the description of WWII as a boon: conditions were so mean pre-war, that young men worked to the bone on farms found war service easy (with more food), and even bad farmers grew rich to supply that food. Some of the most compelling parts for me related to the farm landscape and how it was perceived and used. For instance, in the Introduction:

“…its hedges – now being slaughtered – were planted in the eighteenth century and, where they remain, shelter all the wild life of the particular fields they surround. Earlier field boundaries can be easily traced by ridges and ditches, and here and there a great tree spreads itself out in Time, making no sense at all. The clay acres themselves are the only tablets on which generations of village men have written … I am, but nothing remains of these sharp straight signatures.” (p. 14)

About the taciturn field workers, the last holdout of peasantry, working over generations for the same farmer, for compensations that keep him bound – a farm cottage, etc – Blythe writes: “Science is a footnote to what he really believes. And what he knows is often incommunicable “ (p. 15) . That younger generations continue to look to farming is described such: “perhaps, they have inherited the small residual static quality in all village life, that thing which is either condemned as apathy or praised and envied as contentment, but yet which is really neither of these. The attitude contains something determined and enduring, and also incorporates some kind of duty or loyalty to the village fields” (p. 91). For instance, a young ploughman bemoans the loss of the hedges, being undertaken to expand farms and enable increased mechanization, which make it difficult for a ploughman to keep his bearings:

“A well-kept hedge is a good sight and tells you where you are. The hedges belong to the village. You get used to seeing them standing there – they are like buildings and you miss them when they are knocked down. Some hedges are important and when they go you feel as bad as if a wood had been taken away. I think that there are certain hedges which the farmer’s shouldn’t touch without asking the people – although I can’t see this happening.” (p. 279).

An older farmer, an emigrant from Scotland, gives an outsider’s perspective on the impact of landscape on long-time residents, reminiscent of Swift’s observations in Waterland of what flat fenlands make of fenlanders: “The big skies leave the East Anglians empty. The skies are nothing. The horizons are too wide. There is nothing for a man to measure himself by here. In Scotland you have the hills, the mountains. They diminish a man. They make him think. … they last and he doesn’t.” (p. 320)

Blythe’s anthropology is thorough and generous, but does not shrink from difficulty. I do not know how he negotiated access and approval within such a small village given the blunt assessments many interviewees make of one another, individually and collectively, but it is a true gift that he made this record. It was made into an eponymous film in 1974 and is still in print – I just saw a new edition in Bookmark last week. This book is of a piece with early and modern tales of shepherding by Hardy and Rebanks discussed last year, as well as Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways. A recording of Blythe and Macfarlane on the dais together at the Charleston Festival in 2013 for a celebration of rural life and sense of place is worth a listen.

Talk to NSFA Leaders Council

marginalreportcoverAfter two snow days here in Halifax, Simon Greenland-Smith was off to Truro last Wednesday to present the results of our Marginal Land survey (final report now available) to the Council of Leaders of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA). The NSFA is our partner on the Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Land (SARPAL) project funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada. The Council of Leaders includes the NSFA executive as well as regional and commodity representatives from across the province. They were interested in the research findings, particularly evidence that Nova Scotia farmers have a strong stewardship ethic.

The modern shepherd

I was in the middle of Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), by Thomas Hardy, when I received word from the Halifax Central Library that the hold I placed on James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life (2015) was ready for pickup. This was a nice bit of symmetry, as the hero of Hardy’s novel is Gabriel Oak, stout-hearted and reliable shepherd of Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ (south-west England). Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) is a modern shepherd who runs a family ‘fell farm’ of Herdwick sheep in the Lake District, as well as an Oxford graduate who advises UNESCO on ensuring tourism benefits local communities in cultural landscapes. The ‘fell’ is an area of marginal commons pasture shared by local farmers for extensive grazing.

James Rebanks worked up to this book on shepherding in the UK Lake District from twitter, and a column in Cumbria Life magazine.

James Rebanks worked up to this book on shepherding in the UK Lake District from Twitter, and a column in Cumbria Life magazine.

It was fascinating reading these books in parallel, seeing the same farming practices described, despite differences in vocabulary. They were also both deeply landscape-driven and embedded in place. Rebanks is eloquent and pithy, and mounts a passionate defense for this way of life, in part rejecting calls by folks like George Monbiot to destock grazed landscapes to rewild and revegetate them. Many analogies suggest the sense that the land is itself part of the family in shepherd life. About his grandfather’s connection to the land, Rebanks shared (p. 72):

My grandfather had an eye for things that were ‘beautiful’ like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him like a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried hte full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications – namely the end of winter or better weather to come.

Above the love of the land, perhaps, is his love of the sheep themselves. The book also presents a new vocabulary for scholars of place: hefted, from Old Norse for ‘tradition’. Hefted sheep have “become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture”. It seems clear from this book that humans can be hefted, too.

Older posts Newer posts

© 2018 Kate Sherren

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑