gardening & foraging reading pile

The Wild Life by John Lewis-Stempel

The Wild LifeI loved this book. I think it’s one of the best pieces of British nature writing I’ve come across in a good couple of years. Certainly the best I’ve come across since Roger Deakin’s work. What makes it even more unusual as a piece of nature writing, is that it’s explicitly about taking things from nature – but with utter dependence upon nature.

The concept is pretty simple: Lewis-Stempel, who has access to a bit of land (though who is by no means wealthy), plans to live entirely off that land. No home-grown vegetables are to be found here, though. Lewis-Stempel aims to forage for his greens and shoot for his meat – for an entire year. Anything else is cheating.

There’s plenty to say on foraging, though it’s mostly nuggets of useful information and recipes. As you might expect, it’s actually quite an ethical book when it comes to the subject of killing animals, though. Lewis-Stempel has some very interesting reflections on the meat trade: that wild game has lived a far more pleasant life than anything led to slaughter, which is how the rest of us get our meat. And that killing is not – and ought not to be – a pleasant experience. It highlights a clear disconnect in the modern world, though: food is packaged up, kept well away from our conscience. We are desensitised to meat production. This unwillingness to accept and to face that we must kill to eat meat is, I think, not a good place to be. Yet in this book, we are dealing with wild meat, and Lewis-Stempel engages with the natural world on a far deeper scale. So much so that he can taste the difference between food caught in the wild and that which is slaughtered, an impressive feat. (It’s a remarkable transformation of taste, too, and by the end of the experience Lewis-Stempel can no longer get on with starchy carbs and sugars.)

To be a human is to take from nature, though some take more than others. It’s unavoidable. We’re not even really a part of nature as, able to control mechanisms of selection such as our access to food and the environment we can endure. We sit outside of natural systems. But Lewis-Stempel’s efforts to jump back in shows us just how removed we are from the natural process, but also how much everyday humans take in comparison. Hunting and foraging for wild food is minimalistic. Probably as minimalistic as it gets. No vast tracts of land are handed over for monoculture. There are no pesticides. It’s not insensitively reared food. Could you feed the world like this? Probably not. This is one man, with access to land, but even so it’s a heck of a lot more sustainable (in the non-greenwashed sense) for more people to attempt to live this way.

Throughout the reading, my feelings moved on from one of huge respect to one of envy. I actually became jealous of his experiences, the fact that he became tuned-in to the natural world in a way that we were designed to be. This is far beyond growing one’s own food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good bit of free wi-fi and a Macbook Pro, but in this book I was shown something deeper, something truly authentic. It spoke to my current personal quest to connect with genuine things, to find satisfaction in the authentic rather than some abstract quest for happiness (or what we’re sold as happiness). Clearly, living off the land has its ups and downs, and moments of desperation, but Lewis-Stempel reveals a rugged realness that I’m sure would appeal to us all in some way.

Aside from the content, I do want to mention that the prose is bloody good. It’s written from an intimate, friendly perspective, with vivid descriptions of the natural world and some occasional, very hilarious references and anecdotes. Lewis-Stempel’s use of language was a joy, and was an example of nature writing that lacks whimsical pretension. It was as invigorating as a storm.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

2 replies on “The Wild Life by John Lewis-Stempel”

Hi Mark, sounds an interesting read and a different approach to nature writing. I’ve added it to my list. As a matter of interest, have you read Tim Dee’s Four Fields at all? Only published this year but might be something you’d enjoy as it’s in that nature writing fold (with wonderfully descriptive prose.) All the best. Mark.

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