Making conversation: “The Pen and the Plough” and “Tipping Points”

Tensions between conservationists and the farming community are often highly visible in modern nature writing. Pippa Marland describes how creative writing workshops and original films – part of the public engagement strands of the Pen and the Plough and Tipping Points projects – have fostered new conversations that might help bridge these differences.

In 1946 the writer and farm labourer John Stewart Collis declared that: “A farmer is a liberator of the energy in the earth, ceaselessly creating what is good, and adding on a vast scale to the beauty of the world.” The assertion falls strangely on our twenty-first century ears. The industrialisation of agriculture post-WW2 was followed by a growing awareness of the environmental damage wrought by such intensification and a widening divide between farmers and conservationists. In recent decades farming has been associated more with destroying the beauty of the earth than adding to it.

But when Rachel Carson famously “blew the whistle” on the dangers of pesticide use, she did not directly blame farmers.* Her concern was more with the society that had created the context for their work, including the hubristic assumption that nature could be “conquered” without there being repercussions for all lifeforms. In the striking fable that begins Silent Spring,the farmers are seen as being just as vulnerable to pesticides as the rest of the community. It is not they who had silenced the Spring: “The people”, Carson writes, “had done it to themselves”.

However, later commentators on agriculture and the environment have been more specific in their blame. In 1980, Marion Shoard observed that the English landscape was “under sentence of death”, the executioner being “the farmer”. In The Moth Snowstorm (2015), Michael McCarthy rails against “Farmer Giles” who, instead of being the custodian of the countryside, “turned on the tap and let a great flood of poison wash over the land.” It is a stark reversal from the early part of the twentieth century when farming and nature were almost synonymous. The schism has been accompanied by a gradual silencing of farming voices in rural and nature writing, while contemporary farmers increasingly speak of experiencing forms of “agri-bashing”.

Of course, this is an area of debate unlikely to find any easy resolution. The negative impacts of industrial farming are clear, and, for some, even more nature-friendly, compassionate livestock farming practices are still ethically unacceptable. Nevertheless, when I began my Leverhulme-funded project, “The Pen and the Plough”, I felt that there was a story not being told, both in terms of the burgeoning regenerative farming movement and of the systemic pressures on farmers in the broader social, economic and political context of our times.

The main academic output of “The Pen and the Plough” will be a monograph tracing the representation of farming in rural and nature writing across the long 20th century, and so providing a genealogy for some of the cultural attitudes to farming prevalent today. However, public engagement has also been an important element of this project, and in 2020-2021, I was able to combine my work on the Leverhulme project with acting as Co-I on the AHRC-funded follow-on project “Tipping Points: Cultural Responses to Wilding and Land Sharing in the North of England”. The latter was conducted under the umbrella of the Landscape Decisions Programme. The idea behind the public-facing activities of both projects has been to create a space in which the voices of contemporary farmers can be heard, as well as encouraging a greater public understanding of nature-friendly farming methods.

Events have included setting up creative writing workshops for the public with the theme of regenerative land use, as well as putting on writing workshops for land workers themselves. Writing groups for the latter have been led by the award-winning author Emily Diamand, who is experienced in working with rural communities, and the best-selling farmer-writer Patrick Laurie. There have been two rounds of the land workers’ writing course, one under the banner of “The Pen and the Plough / Tipping Points” and the second, “Written in the Land”, run by the Landscape Decisions team themselves.

The workshops led to two exhibitions. Feedback from the participants was appreciative and included comments such as: “I think a lot of us in rural and agricultural communities have an immensely deep connection to the land that we work, and want to put that into words but often haven’t had the formal education required to know how to do it, so the potential value of courses like this is huge”; “Hugely useful, as a rule a lot of farmers lack confidence when it comes to activities in academia and writing so having a course specifically geared to support their needs with understanding tutors is a fantastic opportunity to help farmers get their important stories out into the public”; and “What a wonderful way to bring people together and create a sense of worth for those rural voices who are so often vilified or unheard.”

As more and more of us live in cities, a growing divide has been identified between urban and rural folk (see for example, Anna Jones’ new book Divide: The Relationship Crisis Between Town and Country). There is a lack of understanding of what farming life – in all its many varieties – actually entails. The pieces written as a result of the workshops paint a vivid picture of some of the day-to-day realities of farming life. They describe the worry that accompanies Bovine Tuberculosis testing, the privations of farming through a harsh winter, the challenges of dealing with a difficult lambing, the practicalities of putting up fencing and repairing dry-stone walling, and the sense of broken continuity when land is taken out of the hands of families who have been tenant farmers there for many generations.

A second strand of the “Tipping Points” project was a series of films, known collectively as the “Slow Conversations”. Responding to the evident tensions between farmers and conservationists, the slow conversations sought to create a space for different stakeholders to speak to each other away from the heated environment of social media. Collaborations with artists and community groups resulted in the creation of three films. “Newland: New Vision for a Wilder Future”, was made for the “Tipping Points” project by film makers Suzie Cross and Dave Lynch, and won the AHRC Best Climate Emergency category at the 2021 Research in Film Awards. It features an interview with a father and son farming team and a slowly unfolding tour of the land for which they care.

The “Love and Soil: Slow Conversation” was devised and curated by Northern Heartlands, with the guidance and participation of Emily Diamand, Amy-Jane Beer, and Barbara Bray, MBE. An online conversation took place over the course of several weeks in which farmers, artists, academics and conservationists were able to respond to each other’s points carefully and appreciatively. Excerpts of the conversation were then made into a film weaving the different strands together. Responses from viewers of the launch screening included: “This slow conversation has led to a powerful meditation on farming, the environment, and what an inclusive, communicative future might require.” Early Career Researcher Dr Lucy Rowland, working with the artist duo somewhere-nowhere, wanted to bring to the fore the little heard story of nuclear impacts on Cumbrian farmers. The resulting multi-media artwork “Nuclear Legacies: Nuclear Energy and Farming Landscapes in Cumbria” includes a film, poetry and an essay. The piece demonstrates how richly artists can contribute to the investigation and articulation of sometimes hidden or overlooked narratives.

There is still some way to go in terms of bringing different groups together to discuss agriculture and environment. One of the initial aims of the Landscape Decisions project was to break down the “silos” that impede collaboration between different stakeholders. As I write this blog piece, debates around farming are still raging on social media, leading the regenerative farmer Jake Fiennes to tweet: “The Twitter farming / land use silos are on fire currently” (16 June 2022). However, as the project draws to a close, I have felt a renewed sense of optimism about the intersections of agriculture and environment. I have begun commissioning and carrying out interviews with nature-friendly farmers for the website blog as another means of bringing farmers’ voices to the fore. Recent pieces include interviews with the regenerative farmers Jyoti Fernandes in Dorset and Hywel Morgan in the Brecon Beacons. Encountering landscapes in different stages of recovery and learning how being part of that process benefits farmers in terms of their own sense of well-being has been inspiring and educative and given me a much needed sense of hope for the future.

*See Marland, Pippa, Davy McCracken and Tess Somervell. 2020. “‘Down on the Farm’: Introduction to the Special Issue on Literature and Environment.” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 24 (4), pp. 335-43, for a longer discussion of literary attitudes to farming.

**Cover photo by Hywel Morgan, used with kind permission.


Dr Pippa Marland is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Bristol. Her project “The Pen and the Plough” explores the representation of farming in the rural and nature writing of the long 20th century. She is the author of Ecocriticism and the Island: Readings from the British Archipelago (forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield, 2022) and co-author of Modern British Nature Writing, 1789-2020: Land Lines (CUP, March 2022). She is also the co-editor of the diverse nature writing collection Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century (Hodder and Stoughton, 2021).