By Charles Foster
The ‘shadow of terrible possibilities’ is with farmers on any given day, says naturalist and author, Charles Foster. Now the rest of us are having to learn to live with this new and heightened sense of fear.
I’m not concerned here with the biological literacy, the sociological wisdom, or the political coherence of the UK Government’s response to the pandemic. But we can all agree that it has been supremely effective in generating fear. Perhaps that was part of the plan. Whether or not it was, its effects are far more profound and enduring than the physical effects of the virus.
I would like to believe that the fear is primarily that others will be affected, rather than fear of personal infection. And indeed there has been a remarkable and heartening outbreak of altruism and communitarianism. The notion of society, long disreputable, has been rehabilitated. We’ve realised that the real heroes of the nation are not, as we’d been taught, hedge fund managers and merchant bankers, but NHS workers, carers, bus drivers, supermarket workers, school teachers, parents, and people who bake cakes for their elderly neighbours. We’re all social democrats now. Our old Neoliberal emperor has, we now see, no clothes and very small genitals.
But despite all this, I can’t persuade myself that we’re staying at home mainly to help the NHS and to save the lives of others. That’s not what I hear when someone barks at my children on our walks, telling them to get out of the way. That’s not what I see in the pinched faces looking out of the windows, or in the eyes behind the masks at the shops. We’re scared literally out of our wits (how else can one account for the inability to distinguish between two metres and twenty – a disability on display outside every Tesco – and the public applause for police officers spending public money tracking with drones those walkers who are self-isolating in the wilderness by margins of miles rather than yards).
Fear is interesting. It shows us, like nothing else, what we’re really like. It dissolves pretence and disables pose. And so we now know what, as a nation (if we really are a nation these days), we’re like. It’s not how traditionally we’ve liked to think of ourselves. We are not characterised by robust common sense, pragmatism, an irreverent sense of humour, an intolerance of highhandedness, and a stiff upper lip. We have been occupied by a virus, and it has taught us that our commitment to freedom is skin deep. We know now that, however much we think that Dad’s Army captures the true spirit of England, we would unhesitatingly capitulate to any invader who offered force, and turn in any Anne Frank we found hiding in next door’s loft.
Why this rant on a blog about farming? It’s because I think that farmers are an important exception. This is not because you are intrinsically better people. I have no romantic delusions about farmers. I know lots of you, and dislike many of you. I’m writing a book at the moment in which I’m very rude about the Neolithic, which is when farmers were born.
But there’s this to be said for you: fear is the air you breathe, but you keep on breathing. I mustn’t over-dramatise, or pay you a compliment you don’t deserve, but you do live all the time under the shadow of terrible possibilities. In the lives of most of us that shadow would mean perpetual and pathological gloom. If the weather turns, you might lose the year’s harvest. If a man in a suit in Whitehall has an off day, or a supermarket buyer changes her taste, you might lose your market. If Foot and Mouth Disease comes to visit, a whole dynasty of livestock, built up by you and your fathers and your grandfathers, will be shot and burned in a pit.
Yet not only do you keep on breathing, but some of you keep on smiling, and lots of you still enjoy dinners, and playing with the children, and seeing new lambs, and many of you run your local communities and are decent and committed to rights and freedoms and to others.
You know a lot about what life is really like. You’ve got perspective. You’re the experts on contingency. You are important teachers, particularly at the moment. I have no idea how you can get into the nation’s locked-down classrooms, but please try.
Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and the author of Being a Beast. His website is www.charlesfoster.co.uk