Real beauty vs artificial cosmetics in the English countryside
We are beings that are driven by beauty, whether we know it or not. So our definition and conceptualisation of beauty is important, it shapes us in the now and shapes our collective future. We all want a beautiful future, and there are many aligned values and visions across cultures that might drive this, but there are also social and economic factors which impose a false beauty and a false ‘wealth’ upon us, that depletes life and leads to a very ugly future for the majority of people. Reclaiming beauty in its true diverse forms is part of the work of cultural and landscape regeneration.
Beauty dances between scales, it can be an individual and personal process and also a cultural configuration, dogma or imposition. Finding beauty in the day-to-day wonders of life through our perspective shifts and gratitude for life - this is what ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ means to me. This is an empowered beauty, a reverent beauty in the honouring of life’s wildness and simple wonders; the magic of a sunrise, the breath-taking birdsong of a Wren or the peaceful hum of a wildflower meadow. There are many forms of diverse beauty; wildness and diversity are intrinsic to true beauty. Alongside the personal perspective journey of beauty, there is a parallel thread of our entwined lives, in how our cultures and surroundings shape our cosmology of what is ‘beautiful.’ We are unfortunately living in a world of depleting beauty and diversity, many children growing up today, especially in cities and glued to phones, will not experience the beauty that some of us have been blessed to experience, the deep beauty of life’s symphony, a murmuration of starlings, a rich wildflower meadow, a truly wild forest, an unpolluted night’s sky, a clean river to bathe in… Furthermore, cultural conceptions of beauty have been rigged and hijacked, both by cosmetic capitalism, consumer culture and monocultural landscapes of production. This writing aims to distinguish between two typed of beauty. There is false beauty which we have grown to believe in and substitute into our void of modern disconnect, a cosmetic chemical ‘aesthetics’ that we impose monoculturally on both people and landscapes. There is a truer, wilder beauty that we see in diverse landscape of plants, peoples, bodies and ecologies. As always, there are parallels between how we treat land and how we treat people (especially women), and our modern impositions of cosmetic beauty have repressed the true beauty and power of both. The way that make-up and toxic cosmetics are encouraged for women and expect a monocultural beauty norm, is a reflection of how we paint the beautiful landscape of earth with chemicals, monoculture and commodity. These have been driven not by true beauty but by pharmaceutical and agro-chemical industries, often owned by the same profiteers, with the same dearth of values and the absence of real beauty.
Starting with landscape, and the beautiful rolling English countryside… it is indeed still beautiful, and I find plenty of beauty remaining in this sacred land. I don’t agree fully with the extreme provocation of George Monbiot that it is an ecological wasteland, with blame disproportioned to farmers. We do live in a diminishing ecology in general, in far less diverse and forested lands, and far more polluted soils and waters – this is indisputable. The majority of the farming and landscape practices are indeed monocultural, destructive, chemical based and anti-ecological, and this is not beautiful or practical. But there is much more nuance to the story, there are pockets of hope and regeneration, and farmers are leading this charge. Including many ‘conventional’ farmers who are making huge transitions to restore and regenerate, after having been forced into their degenerative choices for survival in a backwards economic system, forced into this by the very people/corporations and tech billionaires that propose a farm-free future and lab-grown food in alignment with Monbiot’s ‘vision.’ We are living in an age of both depletion and regeneration, and the sooner we can dance with this paradox the sooner we will be able to emerge into the real solutions, without blaming and shaming those that have kept us alive and fed, instead taking everyone along with us on the regenerative journey, in all its myriad manifestations of beauty.
Our shifted baseline of beauty stems from our modern human minds, addicted to neatness and order, conditioned by big Ag and big Ads, and these forces have created the idealised farming vision of a big red tractor on a neat monocultural chemical sprayed field, or an English pasture of domesticated animals fed on imported grain, then probably exported to New Zealand whilst we import the same quantity of the same thing in a very ugly system of waste and commodity global trade. The shifted baseline of beauty is divorced from what is really going on, the hidden exploitations, chemical sprays and artificial inputs, and this has arisen from the disconnect of ‘agri’ from ‘culture’. And thus our conditioned cosmologies of ‘beautiful’ are easily shaped and hijacked by external forces, and a human imposed landscape becomes perhaps soothing to the chaos and dis-ease we feel in our minds from our nature disconnect. Many people will admire and comment on a sprayed and fertilised monoculture field, whilst disregarding their nearby forest, or suggesting that a nearby organic farm is ‘messy’. Whilst to my mind organic and regenerative farms are much more beautiful and ecological, this is not the mainstream conception, and this needs challenging and transforming. These perceptions of organic, regenerative and agroecological farms as more ‘messy,’ imperfect, less luscious (in the absence of artificial fertiliser), more weedy, maybe less straight lines and controlled ‘order’… This messaging and worldview actually stems (surprise, surprise) from the dominant forces in industrial agri-chemical world, and from big ag’s advertising alongside our relatively recent cultural additions to order and control. There are deep cultural shifts and perspective transformations that need to happen for the majority to see the beauty in regeneration, complexity and polycultures. And over time these farms actually appear more abundant, luscious and healthy as the soil, water and biodiversity is regenerated. There are economic and political shifts, in the need to shift the funding flows and support from destructive to regenerative practices. It is in the dance between these scales that we can recreate what beauty means, and co-create a beautiful future. Key players in this are the ‘beauty police’, both the residents (farming and non-farming) of the countryside and the governing bodies that dictate the ‘rules of the game’ that need to wake up to the realities of a cosmetic rural landscape, and accept that true beauty and natural abundance may take time to restore, but that it is indeed a more beautiful future, and perhaps the only possible future if we are to emerge from the ecological crises.
The navigation of these challenges is particularly heightened for farmers and landworkers like us in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), green belt and protected areas – despite most of them being monoculture factory food production and largely unprotected from any sprays or pollutants, as evidenced by our water and soil quality in these areas. In our early years of establishment we faced challenges from every corner, having to justify our case, defend our livelihoods and explain our regenerative farming methods to Natural England, AONB, Wessex Water, planning officials, local council, and many other governing bodies that wanted a say in our 15.5 acres. Land that they often had never visited beyond google maps, whilst they ignored the chemically intensive and monocultural practices of farming more generally, and actively made our lives unbearably stressful (and incredibly costly to battle for our rights to grow food ecologically on our collectively ‘owned’ land). These pressures and challenges did stem largely from one or two objectors to our planning permission for a solar barn for our agricultural operations, which highlighted how extreme perspectives of NIMBYism and cosmetic beauty can dominate the systems that govern us, providing they have enough money and lawyers. Cases like this are happening across the country, and privileging the few instead of the many, whilst totally disregarding what is practically and ecologically needed as urgent solutions of our times.
But the scariest part is that these governing bodies from their offices still sent warning letters, legal letters and threats, succumbing to some sensationalised objections, and perhaps also from their own conceptions of beauty and neatness in the English landscape, again rooted in our modern cultural ideology rather than in what is best for land, communities, farmers and place. We got over all these hurdles, and are now transforming many of these relationships, for example working with the Cotswold AONB to implement an ambitious Pollinate Avon project for biodiverse farming across the bioregion – and it is so refreshing that there is the appetite, expertise and goodness of people within these organisations to allow this to happen, despite the shadow side of some of these bureaucracies. They are also so big that it sometimes feels like talking to different people in different departments is like being on a different planet, rather than having aligned values and visions like small organisations more often share. The challenge and question remains of who decided the definitions of beauty in these landscapes, and how their imposition and implementation has at times gone astray from ecology and true beauty. Perhaps many of these organisations are at their own tipping points, as reports continue to show the ecological scarcity of some of the most protected lands, and the water pollutions levels sky-rocket, it is clear that a new way of organising and regulating landscape are needed. These organisations are either becoming defunct as the power is returning back to landworkers and communities, or they are invited to transform and support these landworkers to regenerate and work together, for a truly beautiful future.
Diverse and polycultural farming is not encouraged economically or through policy, particularly planning and rural policies, nor is it conducive to horticulture or small scale production near to people’s homes, where fresh local food could be a beautiful and pragmatic idea. There is instead too often a fetishization of grassland, chemically-induced neatness and monocultural livestock. From studying Regenerative Agriculture and ecology I have come to embrace livestock, permanent pastures and rotational grazing as a part of our climate, land and food solutions. I have seen the ecological and social benefits of these potentially regenerative practices, and know of many beautiful farms regenerating land in these ways. However, a large number of these farms (including in the AONBs) are chemically sprayed, fertilised and intensively managed, in a spiral of debt and degeneration. This has not been chosen by farmers, but by the cultural and economic frames they’ve been forced into, for survival, and to keep producing food for people. The emphasis and energy of regulation and policy should be to support these farms transition, and to also encourage small-scale, regenerative start-ups alongside the increased access to land that this necessitates. The systems and cultural perceptions of beauty currently block these beautiful projects and emergent solutions. To transform these barriers requires a new cosmology of beauty, which would flip the paradigm and would regenerate our minds and landscapes.
I write this during Organic September, a month to celebrate and highlight the work and benefits that have come from generations of organic farmers who believe in beauty through integrity and diversity. This is referencing to ‘true organic’ that is diverse, soil building and agroecological, rather than the false commercial organic that simply replaces x chemical with y certified chemical, all the while growing in a cosmetic monocultural landscape then sells the product for double the price to the wealthy. Commercial and monoculture Organic is as ugly as industrial factory farming. It is only through the appropriate scale, regenerative and collaborative organic that we will find real beauty and harmony with nature, and I have seen and lived this in so many ways.
Organic and regenerative farms do need to value beauty, and many do – it’s what drives us. But this drive for beauty should not be confused with a desire for cosmetics or neatness, as has been conditioned into us from consumer cultures monetisation of beauty, and the obsession with neatness, control and anthropocentric order. Many organic farmers, including myself, have fallen trap to the cosmetic false beauty, based on fear of judgement from others, and unnecessarily weeded a field, mown grass too short /too often, taken a mesh netting off an organic crop (a necessary alternative to pesticides whilst biodiversity repairs), worked all evening to ‘tidy’ a crop, or strim some brambles, and many other practices which may actually detract from ecology, soil health and compromise on true beauty. We do not need to bow down to a falsely imposed cosmetics of the English countryside, just as we do not need to cover beautiful faces with make-up or dress in the way expected of us just to fit into a monocultural and degenerative culture. What we are doing is beautiful, the land is becoming more and more beautiful over time – this is what regeneration is truly about on its deepest level. We are re-writing beauty and reclaiming it from corporate capture, from pastoral nostalgia and from anthropocentric thinking. The English country idyll has been led astray from ecological beauty, misinformed and duped by big Ag, driven by privileged aristocracy aesthetics and an ugly vision for a rural countryside for the few not the many. We can engage with and transform these cosmologies of beauty in our own minds, cultures, farms and communities. We must continually ask ourselves and each other why we are doing a certain practice, or viewing a field in a certain way, and then co-create a new story based on integrity and a new cosmology of beauty: real, imperfect and wild beauty, in harmony with real humans and real food.