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A hard living on the land

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SEXAGESIMA, you may be disappointed to learn, has nothing to do with sex. It is The Book of Common Prayer’s name for the Sunday which is roughly sixty days before Easter.

As a country parson for thirteen years, I got to know farmers well. Very down-to-earth they are too. I recall a rather delicate metropolitan type complaining to a farmer’s wife after the annual agricultural show dinner that in his speech her husband had made too many earthy references: ‘For goodness’ sake, instead of manure, can’t you get him to say fertiliser?’ The farmer’s wife replied, ‘I’ve only just got him to say manure!’ Whatever tales people like to tell of rich farmers, it’s a hard life. As one farmer said, ‘Perennials are crops that grow like weeds; biennials are the crops that die this year rather than next; and hardy annuals are those that don’t come up at all.’

Now farmers are having the worst time since the great famines and depressions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays the sower is hard-pressed to go out to sow because he is buried under a mountain of paperwork and tied to his office chair with red tape. British farming standards are among the highest in the world, yet there come still more calls for animal welfare improvements. Our fine butcher here in Eastbourne told me a particularly nasty tale – nasty for our lambs, that is. The French said they will buy British lambs only if we agree to ship them live across the Channel where they will be slaughtered, purely so that a French label can be stuck on them. But French abattoirs and their practices are squalid compared with ours. So it is the animals that suffer.

A particularly ripe piece of idiocy and injustice happened recently when the Advertising Standards Authority banned the promotion of top-quality British pork because the advertisements offended vegetarians and animal welfare campaigners and were deemed to be unfair to foreign competitors, who in any case produce sub-standard meat. What is this blend of bureaucracy, sentimentality and foolishness except national suicide? – a subject to which I shall return.

Then there is the so-called Climate Change Levy which is in reality another stealth tax that will do nothing for what we used to call the land – but now are forced to refer to as the environment – and it will merely help to price more farmers out of business. Meanwhile there persists the popular myth of farmers destroying the countryside. In fact the latest figures from the Department of Trade and Industry show that farmers planted 7,000 miles of hedges between 2005 and 2015 and restored 9,000 miles more – enough to go round the British coastline five times. No wonder suicides of farmers are six times the proportion in the rest of the population; every farmer in the country can name at least one relative, friend or colleague who has taken his life.

All very disturbing, as I’m sure you will agree; but what has it to do with today’s gospel, the parable of the sower? Everything – for the land is sacred. The earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is, but the miracle of grace is that he gave it to us, with the commandment Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowls of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And so our religion – and I include the Hebrew religion of the Old Testament – has always been inseparable from the land. The most evocative religious poetry takes the land for its theme: Thou visitest the earth and blessest it; thou makest it very plenteous. The river of God is full of water: thou preparest their corn for so thou providest for the earth . . . Thy clouds drop fatness . . . the valleys shall stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

The Christian year is an agricultural sequence in eternal return: Plough Monday, seed-sowing at Sexagesima, Rogation, Harvest. God does not bequeath to his people abstractions, disembodied systems of rules and rights; from the very first the subject was land and promise. The Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Our intimate description of England as God’s own country. It is not just the biblical sites in Israel that are holy. All the earth is holy. That is the mystical insight which inspired William Blake to the words: And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green; and was the holy Lamb of God in England’s pleasant pastures seen?

I have learnt from farmers that they truly love their land. It must be thirty years since I stepped out of my Yorkshire vicarage one morning and called on a farmer, Tom Pick. We spent the day walking his farm from east to west and north to south. He said, ‘You never really know your territory until you’ve walked it.’ It is precisely that tangibility which makes our link with the land into something religious. We are naturally – I should say supernaturally – invigorated when we go into open fields, when we see the curve of the hill, trees on a close horizon and we hear the ripple of the stream. Our exhilaration is not sentimental: it is the only appropriate response to the fact of creation. We are moved by the country because it is infused, haunted if you like, by the presence of God. In his hand are all the corners of the earth; and the strength of the hills is his also. When the ancient peoples said that every tree holds a spirit, they weren’t talking primitive nonsense. Wordsworth knew it.

The nit-picking biblical commentators explain why Jesus filled his parables with stories from the farm by saying that he lived in a farming society. There is a deeper meaning than that. We are always a farming society: if we weren’t, we wouldn’t survive. No, the parables are stories about sheep and seeds because the nature of those animals and plants really does contain the truth about our spiritual condition. We are just like sheep that have gone astray. The seed is the Word of God and with us it does frequently fall on stony ground. However mechanised, electrified and online we become, human beings can never escape the fact that we are of the earth, earthy. The earth is where we come from, it is where we live, move and have our being, and it is where we shall return. That is how close we are to the land. Our story is inseparable from the land. So God’s promises to us are bound to be expressed in the language of the hills and rivers, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air.

The reason why we grieve over the present plight of farmers is not just because they are on hard times: it is because cultivation of the land is the closest mankind gets to co-operation with God in the act of creation. There is no closer link. Even when it comes to our re-creation, our redemption and the life of the world to come, the words used to describe the heavenly life are chosen from the natural world: 

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations . . .

Turn thee again thou God of hosts, look down from heaven: behold and visit this vine. And the place of the vineyard that thy right hand hath planted: and the branch that thou madest so strong for thy self. Let the people praise thee, O God: let all the people praise thee. Then shall the earth bring forth her increase: and God, even our own God, shall give us his blessing. Amen.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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