In the early days of World War II John Stewart Collis elected to work as a manual farm labourer rather than take a wartime occupation more suited to his studious, intellectual nature. In this book he not only describes his experiences on two farms in southern England, but reflects on the nature of everything he encounters, from manual labour through to nature itself. Although never stated, one can sense the difficulty and occasional loneliness he felt trying to integrate with fellow workers who were both suspcicious and sometimes openly hostile to his presence. But mostly this memoir is a happy meditation on the pleasure of hard physical work through the seasons in the open air. Anyone who has ever worked on a farm will recognise many of his observations, and anyone who yearns for a simpler way of life will find this book as evocative as the smell of a freshly ploughed field on a January morning. The second section of this book describes how for a year he worked alone thinning a wood near Iwerne Minster in Dorset, where he lived an almost hermit like existence, yet wanting for nothing more than to be where he was, and engaged in what he was doing. I have never read such a moving memoir as The Wood; a memoir of a man so at peace with himself and his surroundings, able to regard the warming sun on his back in early spring as the most profound of pleasures. If I ever get a chance to emulate Collis and his experience working in the wood I will count myself fortunate indeed.
I love this book. Mr Collis realises the only way to truly understand the countryside and agriculture is to get stuck in and get his hands dirty. A self confessed lazy person (though not by todays idlers standards), he takes his dinner-breaks very seriously! He gains a new perspective by working on the land at various farms across the country. His descriptions of the characters he meets and the places he works are delightful and manages to make even the most arduous tasks and grotty conditions sound somewhat desirable. John Collis leaves you under no illusion that farming is an idyllic, peaceful profession (as it may be viewed by city folk, driving past in their motor cars) but gives an insight into the toil and drudgery and back-breaking slog which so often goes unseen in such a beautiful setting. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in farming, the countryside or who just appreciates the wonderful descriptions of feelings, places, thoughts and people by a man as he experiences them.
John Stewart Collis wrote two books about his experiences as an agricultural and forestry worker during the Second World War. "While Following the Plough", an account of his works on two farms and "Down To Earth", which focuses more on his time as a forestry worker were published in the years that immediately followed the war. Here they are presented as a single volume. Although Collis had a place in the military, as a consequence of training for WW 1, he felt he would be given a pointless "home" job to which he was unsuited, so he chose to work on the land.
Apart from the excellent writing, this book is important as it contains as (highly) detailed account of two forms of land management that were about to fall by the way side - labour intensive agriculture and coppice management of woodlands. In both cases Collis manages to convey the shear hard work that is involved in both of these tasks, and the human toil involved in the maintenance of the "countryside".
Of the two books I think that "Down to Earth" is the more readable - largely due to it containing fewer, but longer chapters than "While following ....". Within the second book "The Wood" is the highlight, being concerned with the author's time in an Ash woodland. A number of themes run through the books, most noticeably being one concerning "natural cycles" - the creation of new plants, animals, soil and air from older materials. In this sense the book makes a clear ecological statement about connectivity in natural systems. In the introduction to the book (the nearly ubiquitous) Robert Macrfarlane makes the point that there needs to be return to the type of agricultural management shown in the books. This clearly has some validity given the state of many rural ecosystems, but as a horse is maltreated to the point of bleeding within the first few pages, we do need to exercise caution. At times Collis does seem to link any kind of event that brings forth plenty as a evidence for God, while the strange and macabre seem to be put down to evolution, and I don't this you really can have it both ways.
An annoying aspect of the book is its format. The letters on the lowest line of each page have their "tails" missing, both starts and ends of lines plunge deep into the fold in the middle of the books and the occasional footnotes often occur a number of pages after the reference. It seems that two large books have been squeezed into a small format.
This is a really enjoyable and possibly important read, although I have to question the thinking of a man who claims beer is only enjoyable in the summer! Recommended
I remember this book from fifty years ago when it was the hot pick for uni chums. A rush of nostalgia dictated I should revisit it and I was not disappointed. This is truly a classic of agriculture in a bygone age and has lessons for us in how we view our relationship to the soil.
This is one of the most wonderful books ever. I have read it several times and always find new things to love . For anyone who adores the country side it is a superb book and will give new insights to so many aspects of nature and creation.
This book consists of two sections narrating John Stewart Collis' wartime experience working on farms in Sussex and Dorset (published together in 1946 as While Following the Plough), a further section of rather more philosophical reflection on that experience, and a final section - both narrative and philosophical - on working for a year as a forester, also during the war and in Dorset. The latter two sections were first published in 1947 as Down to Earth.
When Collis opted for a wartime posting in the Land Army, he was 40 years old, had a wife and children (evacuated to the United States) and was already established as an author. He had no previous experience of farm work. Remarkable as it may seem, he appears to have settled-in tolerably well with the work of an agricultural labourer, with the horses, farm machinery, fellow workers and employing farmers, and most definitely to have enjoyed his exposure to nature, the seasons and the weather. When, later in the war, he turned to forestry, that for him was even better. There were of course moments of crisis when his lack of skill with horses and equipment had unhappy consequences, plus occasional tension with fellow workers, but for one determinedly jumping into the deep end he seems to have enjoyed a relatively pain-free experience, helped no doubt by being reasonably adept, a fast learner, and of equable character.
As readers, we discover much about farming at that time; a time made particularly interesting not only by the war-time aspect but by it being in any case the cusp of change from the old horse-powered, labour intensive ways to tractors, combine harvesters and unprecedented advance in agricultural productivity. We join in the adventure of the townsman going to live and work in the countryside, and learn with him of a huge range of natural phenomena, from the carbon cycle to the importance to the landscape of earthworms, to the cropping sequences of fruit crops and cereals; and the finer points of building and unbuilding hay and corn ricks, setting up a field for horse-ploughing and the various cash products of an ash forest. And much more besides.
Introducing The Worm Forgives the Plough as a combined volume in 1973, Collis noted the disappearance of corn and hay ricks and suggested that his book was about the last of its kind that could be written in England. Not defining 'its kind' as strictly as Collis, we may hope that the venerable line of writing about farming and the countryside to which he contributed may yet be continued. But nothing could detract from this account of agricultural life and work at a momentous time. Without question, it is a unique treasure.
Didn't read this book for ages, put off by the small type. BUT when I started reading it I loved every page. I didn't make quick progress due to the dense type but what this guy talks about its such as joy to "hear" that even one page felt a satisfying read. Its the thoughtful musings of a bloke who got tired about just thinking about things and wanted to go and DO something. So being too old to join the fighting forces during the Second World War he used the opportunity to joinm the land army and work on farms. Which he continued to do after the War. Just lovely. Read it, you won't want to hurry.
One of the best books i've ever read. I went through many emotions on my journey with the author. He writes with such care, thought, and poetry, without being smaltzy. We have lost so much in the last couple of generations, and it's brought home to us in this book. I lent it too my friend, and she thought it was wonderful too.