Country Sights and Sounds
During a short trip to Belgium, which happens to be one of Europe’s most densely populated countries (second only to the Netherlands), I couldn’t help but be impressed by the industry shown by the average suburban family. It seemed that house after house had a small amount of land attached to the dwelling, barely an inch of which was wasted, but was invariably put to good use.
Close to back doors were vegetable beds sprouting all kinds of greenery. At the rear of these could be found currant bushes. Beyond the currants were fruit trees, beneath the fruit trees were some poultry, and at the bottom of the garden either a pig in a pen or a goat on a tether. Thus, a good deal of the population have the means to provide, at least in part, for the needs of their own household.
Even the woodlands were made good use of. In some places not a stick fit for kindling had been left upon the ground, but had been gathered and taken home by the hard working inhabitants, so that the forests had an almost manicured appearance. There is an environmental cost in that true wilderness appeared completely lacking, and I imagine the benefits of wild places, such as having a great diversity of wild flowers and variety of songbirds, might be hard to find. But who would evict the people from their carefully tended garden plots to let nature overthrow their work?
It is the modern industrial scale of farming that has grubbed out almost every mile of hedgerow and turned the flat land into vast monocultures of grains, legumes, or root crops.
There are benefits from this for the human population, if only that the cost of food is not extortionate. I bought cheese and ham with a handful of loose change, not really caring that the cow that gave the milk to make the cheese is likely never set foot on a grassy field, or that the pig, which had so generously contributed its own haunch in my cause, might not have felt the sun on its back for a moment of its life. The contents of my sandwich complimented each other fully, certainly as well as anything found in this country, in flavour and succulence, if not in happy morality.
I was happy, though, to be back at home, where cattle roam the fields and sheep are still free to wander over boundless hills, and where both can find shelter, when they need it, beneath ancient hedgerows almost as wild as ever they were.
And later, when I bought my steak for supper, I knew at least that the animal from which it had come had lived comfortably for a good portion of its existence, which gave some ease of conscience.
I got to thinking though. Does it really matter to the pig, confined to its crate with a score of similar animals, that he is alive only because we want to eat him, and that he is well fed because we wish to be the same or better? Or the battery hen, crammed into a cage and pressed into service for a few short months, does this misfortunate bird really care where it is, as long as it has food and warmth? It knows no different, and we choose to ignore its plight that we might not need house, feed, and care for the half dozen bantams that would give us all the eggs we could ever need, or worse, that we might save the price of a pint and not buy proper free range foods.
I have neither the time nor the inclination to keep a pig, and goats are more trouble than they are worth. Hens are easy. Unfortunately the fox also finds them so. Beans, onions, apples. We can all manage these. And really there is nothing finer than to enjoy the fruit of one’s own labour.
And so this autumn, inspired by our cousins in the Low Countries, I shall sow my broad beans and have the plants grown almost to maturity by the month of March, and shall be picking their fruit soon after. Before that, even today, the seeds of broccoli and winter cabbage shall be sown. That is the plan.
Enjoy the land we have, with its small fields and tangle of wild wood and diversity of life. I hope we never change.
Well, not too much.