Posted by: Jon | 20/11/2009

Natural fertility or misconceived nature?… the truth about grass

Forgive me if I use ‘artspeak’ for a moment when I tell you that I’ve become intrigued by the interface between art and ecology. Near to where we once lived in Scotland, sculptures by Rodin, Epstein and Moore gaze across the rugged Galloway moorlands and the work of Andy Goldsworthy, who lives there, may be seen in some of the local landscapes. And I have a family interest in that my brother is a land artist with works in places as far flung as the Shetlands and Hawaii. 

During this past year we have seen artistic wheat growing on a derelict urban site in East London, an African rain forest upended in Trafalgar Square and a major art and ecology exhibition, Radical Nature, at the Barbican. 

Two of the members of my local Transitions group are the visual artists Ackroyd and Harvey who are active in drawing attention to climate change in their work. Over some years they have experimented with seedling grass in their installations, growing turf on landmark buildings and in other unusual settings to cause us to reflect on ecology and the built environment. And verdant grass hills and pastures are very much how we conceptualise our naturally fertile island that William Blake immortalised as ‘this green and pleasant land’.

But our nation might also be typified by our taste for immaculately striped lawns that some consider to be ‘green deserts’ – monocultures devoid both of ecological value and productive yield other than the pleasure we might take in their tidy symmetry. Too domesticated, deep ecologists would argue. Nature isn’t really like that.

Richard Mabey, the naturalist and writer best known for his books ‘Flora Britannica’ and ‘Food for Free’, recently questioned in BBC Wildlife Magazine the value of artistic attempts to heighten our understanding of ecology. He argues that, unless the subject matter is well understood by the artist, such works can only reinforce our view of nature as ‘little more than a plaything, its energy and independence dismissed’. Not unlike our lawns….

But Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd have got me thinking about how we mentally conceptualise our grasslands. Do we regard grass primarily as a source of recreation in the local park or in the wonderful pastoral landscapes of the National Trust? What does grass mean to us – a cherished lawn, a muddy council playing field, the worn crease of a cricket pitch, a rolled and manicured bowling green? Does it bring to mind nostalgic images of long summers stretched out in fragrant meadows, of hot and dusty hay harvests with pitchforks and horses and carts, or childhood memories of gleefully fleeing from an irate park-keeper? Do we see grass primarily for its aesthetic virtues, as green belt land or urban breathing spaces for rest and recreation? Or do we think of its food value? Well, all of these and more perhaps, though happily the days of ‘Keep Off the Grass’ have largely vanished as our understanding of ecology has improved and public spaces are managed now as much for wild-life as for public recreation.

But how well do we really appreciate our grassland pastures as our vital source of nourishment and sustenance? If dangerous climate impacts occur, Britain will be one of few places predicted to remain viably fertile so we have considerable incentive to think about it. But in our largely urban lives, we are mostly familiar with the mythical landscapes of supermarket labels, the idealised farms of children’s storybooks and advertising images of cute Jersey cows contentedly chewing the cud while the suns shines and the sky larks sing.

The reality of what we call our ‘conventional’ agriculture is that it is all just as artificial as the ads we subliminally absorb on TV. Which is a tragedy as we have been blessed with some of the most naturally fertile soils in the world. Our rye-grass monocultures are unnaturally fed by regular applications of chemicals that impoverish the soil and destroy its natural fertility. Meanwhile industrial machines lumber up and down the fields, compacting the healthy open structure of the soil that has built up over generations. The land can no longer easily absorb heavy rainfall and much fertiliser runs straight off the fields to pollute our water courses. This is the end-result of the ‘Green’ Revolution, an artificially vivid shade of green, which came about as farmers abandoned mixed and diverse agriculture in the ’50s and ’60s for the tempting early profits of large scale agribusiness. And like most industrialised systems that pay no heed to nature, it has become a monster.

For a while the Green Revolution worked and yields soared with the first rich flush of man-made fertiliser on still naturally fertile land. But mono-crops attract pests which require chemical spraying and, as the land has become exhausted, more and more fertiliser and pesticide are applied to ensure a crop. In this self-perpetuating downward spiral, old skills and knowledge have been lost as mechanisation replaced human labour and the whole industry become propped up by subsidies and the profitable aspirations of the chemical companies. This is modern ‘conventional’ farming in Britain and, now embarked on, it is difficult to change as corporate and free trade interests have taken a firm hold. It is undeniably true that industrial methods have enabled us to feed twice the number of people since 1945 for far less effort and labour. But at what cost to the land? And to the nutrition we gain from our food?

When we look at a field of grass now, what is it we think we are seeing? Diverse grasses and herbs carefully selected to plunge roots to different depths and draw up vital nutrients from the soil? Balanced sustenance that dairy herds browse at will to keep themselves immune from TB without antibiotics and their milk rich in nourishment? Or dead land artificially fertilised with chemicals that have robbed the pasture of many of the minerals and vitamins that should enrich the milk we drink and keep us – and the cows – naturally healthy?

Jimmy Docherty enthused on television recently about a new robotic milking machine that has increased the yield of a milking cow from 20 to 35 litres a day. He also described current mechanised milking arrangements as ‘traditional’ farming. (Foolish me – I thought traditional farming meant three legged stools and 10 steaming litres squirted into a bucket). But what he didn’t say was that cows only produce a limited number of vitamins in their milk and the greater the yield, the more these become diluted. Or that the unnaturally cumbersome udders and the bony flesh that you might observe in a dairy herd are the result of breeding for the highest yield and of beasts who digest their own body fat because they are malnourished by the grass they eat.  

Modern pasteurised and homogenised milk is worryingly deficient in minerals and vitamins, a poor substitute for the gold top once left on our doorsteps. It is no longer capable of providing us with the intake of calcium that the adverts still insist is why it is so good for us. And the same can be said for a long list of other industrial processed foods on the supermarket shelves that we blithely assume to be nourishing us but have in reality made us prone to diabetes and cancer and heart disease.

This is not a new concern – although, as the supplies of imported gas from which we make our nitrate fertilisers deplete and grow expensive, the situation becomes more worrying by the day. Predicted climate impacts – like hot dry summers in the south and increased flooding of farmland nationwide – can only exacerbate our problems. Our future food security all depends on how we think about our grass.

Fortunately, early pioneers like Newman Turner, Sir Albert HowardArthur Hollins  and Walter Yellowlees have well researched our options, even if agribusiness has taken us down the wrong path. And modern organic experts such as Graham HarveyPatrick Holden, Patrick Whitefield, and Charlotte and Ben Hollins, (Arthur’s children who have revived their father’s organic farm in Shropshire), are still holding the field gate wide open for us. 

So with Heather and Dan challenging us to reflect on our conceptions of grass and Charlotte and Ben showing us the practicalities of growing it well, what’s keeping us back from entering the organic meadow?  Just because the decisions for how we feed ourselves are currently in the profiteering hands of a mere half-dozen corporations, we are not prevented from deciding for ourselves what best sustains us. If we put our minds to it, we can make our own plans for a healthy, well nourished, locally resilient future.


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