Review: The Running Hare

Format warning: I listened to this book instead of reading so I’ll give some comments about the narrator

The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel is a book about a field.

The UK cover

That sounds like it could be really boring and I rather suspect that for some people this book will be boring, and that’s fine – not everything is for everyone.

But, I did very much enjoy this book.

Also, a disclaimer before we move on to the review proper: this isn’t the first book by John Lewis-Stempel, although it is the first I’ve read. He has an excellent publication history and I intend to read most of his work but for this book there are some mentions to his book Meadowland but they’re fleeting and I certainly wouldn’t say that you had to read Meadowland to read this book.

Moving on!

This book isn’t just a book about a field, it’s the story of John Lewis-Stempel’s attempt to plough, sow, and reap a field in the most traditional way. I think partly as an experiment and partly to try and give wildlife and wild flowers somewhere to live as modern farming methods are so efficient that wildlife cannot finds its way through the wheat-stalks as they once could and pesticides have killed off anything other than the crop in the fields.

The author has some trouble in finding a small field he can use for his project as most farmers consider the wildflowers weeds and are … less than amenable to the idea of letting their fields become infested with ‘weeds’. But find a field he does and sets to his project with a will.

Part memoir and part history lesson I thought that the book was well balanced between explanation of why the author felt the need to do this, how we’ve gotten to the stage we’re at (in terms of hyper-efficient farming), and a look back at old methods and folk traditions that have died away as the farming industry has modernised. John Lewis-Stempel is not only a good farmer but also an excellent wordsmith and can turn a phrase that echoes with you after you’ve read it.

The narrator does a good job and never stumbles on the phraseology. Although there were a couple of points in the audiobook where he’s given the wrong intonation to a sentence or missed a word and re-reads the sentence and it’s not been edited out so there’s a flash of confusion as you realise that’s what’s happened. But I think that was limited to two examples and everything else is absolutely fine.

It was lovely to see the evolution of the field over the year from barren hard ground to a lively, productive field that also became home and haven to so many different species and creatures. I thought it was an excellent mix of different kinds of story: a history lesson, a wildlife journal, a lamentation, or a hopeful look forward.

If nature writing is something you like – or might want to dip your toe into – then you should definitely think about The Running Hare. It’s an excellently written piece on an aspect of the countryside that we just wander past and shows a hidden facet to it and how it can co-exist with wildlife.

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