Pastoral Dreams

Lately I’ve been dreaming of moving to the country. There’s something about the chance to work closely with the land, to have more chooks than suburban living allows, to grow one’s own fruit and vegetables, that I yearn for. I know this is not a unique dream—the possibility of escaping into the country seems to hold out a tantalising promise to many of us. Poets and writers have been romanticising the country, the pastoral life, since at least the 3rd century bc when Theocritus poetically idealised rural life in his Idylls. In this literary tradition, happiness was associated with the simple, natural life of the shepherd tending his flocks. The opposed image was the corrupt city, with the bitter competition of its inhabitants for ever more worldly goods.

Clearly, country life is not simple or innocent like this. The predominant images of the country these days are more consistent with our nightmares than our idealisations. Rural areas are portrayed both as redneck wastelands and as places that were formerly pleasant, but have now been devastated by drought—natural and economic. We pity their lost schools, banks and other community resources while fearing their xenophobia. Or so it seems through our popular media.

And yet the dream of escaping to the country for a different, fresher life remains strong. So what are the possibilities for such a move? What are the consequences and costs? And why is the idea of uprooting and starting again in the country such a tantalising one? Two recent books, David and Gerda Foster’s A Year of Slow Food (2001) and Patrice Newell’s The Olive Grove (2000), give a sense of the dreams and realities of particular kinds of rural life. Both trace the move from the city to the country, but the country life they moved to is markedly different from our conventional imaginings.

In the mid-1970s David and Gerda Fostermoved from Sydney to a rundown house in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales and began the process of rebuilding the house and living off the land. Twenty-five years on, A Year of Slow Food charts a year of growing and cooking almost all their food. Written in journal form, it details the week-by-week activities while also reflecting on the 25 years past. It’s an engrossing tale, ranging from what it was like bringing up eight children to managing their menagerie of chooks, cows, pigs and bees. Fittingly, each chapter ends with a (usually) mouth-watering recipe from the week’s produce.

In the mid-1980s Patrice Newell was tired of her life as a television presenter, and with her partner, Phillip Adams, bought Elmswood, a farm in New South Wales’ Upper Hunter Valley. The Olive Grove follows her attempts to make the 4000-hectare property sustainable by farming biodynamic beef cattle and starting an olive grove. It, too, is fascinating in its details—from managing cattle in a drought to the taste of fresh olive oil and the politics of water management.

At their hearts, both A Year of Slow Food and The Olive Grove are Australian pastoral tales, stories of living more closely with the land. And thus they are linked to the ancient literary tradition of holding the country up as a place to escape from the ills of the city. In her foreword, Gerda Foster relates how healthy her children were growing up in the country: ‘Now that they live in Sydney they have encountered a number of the usual city lifestyle health problems. They come back here to recover.’

A former model and TV news researcher, Patrice Newell extols the pleasures of working with the land, and living with an aim other than that of being seen:

Out here, around the hills of Gundy, no one is watching. No one sees me reverse from the garage in a four-wheel drive to drive to a gully with a pile of books, intent on identifying an unusual grass. Nobody is watching when I get up at dawn to help cut testes from young calves, or butcher a lamb on the kitchen table with a bandsaw. Only I see, and the experience is liberating.

I sing everywhere I go.

But while both Newell and the Fosters escaped the city for the farm, they were not interested in mainstream farming as it is currently practised. As Newell says:

Oh yes, there’s serious agribusiness, those mechanised, monocultural rural enterprises managed from town where profits go to a corporation, usually overseas. But that’s not the farming I want to do, which involves the desire to really work with land—where you’re dust-covered or mud-splattered, depending on the season; working as a mechanic, a water expert, a weight lifter, a soil analyst, all before smoko.

David and Gerda Foster were interested in eating farm-fresh foods, but as David Foster says, ‘It is hard to find a farmer today with the skills and inclination to feed a family and if you did, you wouldn’t be able to buy the food, for reasons of public safety.’ So they too practise an alternative kind of country life, growing most of what they eat. They eat slow food: authentic tucker … It is farm food, prepared only from freshest of fresh ingredients, that tastes as food should taste, as food did taste, in the days when rural Australians grew their own, before they had a choice.

In these passages both Newell and the Fosters hark back to a previous era, an era less devastated by the ravages of commercialism, a time when you could scrape a simple life by doing everything that needed to be done. The model for this nostalgic pastoralism is Henry Thoreau’s Walden, in which Thoreau describes a year of living in a small hut he built near the Walden ponds of Concord, Massachusetts. In  Walden Thoreau explicitly sets himself apart from both the city life of his peers, and the commercial farming life of his neighbours. Self-reliant with a vegetable patch and fishing tools, Thoreau was free to contemplate nature and undergo some kind of inner, spiritual transformation (or so he presents it). Here was the essence of the pastoral, the search for a life of simplicity and integrity, and the grounding  of this life in the rhythms and cycles of nature.

Like Thoreau, the Fosters and Newell share a desire to live differently from the prevailing ethos in both the city and country. They are all committed to leading an organic style of life, eschewing the use of synthetic chemicals in food production, in their search for a sustainable way of living. So what are the possibilities for the kind of life they want to live? What are the costs and consequences?

A Year of Slow Food gives the sense that David and Gerda Foster have been pretty successful at establishing themselves in the country. Not that they rely completely on their property. A Miles Franklin Award-winning novelist, David Foster speaks of writing as his cash crop. Gerda Foster also works as a counsellor at a local prison. And in addition to their own garden, they also do a bit of share farming with someone else who lives nearby. Still, through share farming, their own garden and the town commons where their cows roam, they get almost all the food—vegetables, eggs, meat, dairy, fruit and honey—that they need.

The struggle for sustainability seems harder in the life that Patrice Newell is trying to create. Rather than relying on her own garden and a few animals, she relies on a market for biodynamic beef and a prospective market for biodynamic olive oil. Her olive trees are also reliant on water from the local river, a diminishing resource on which many others have a claim. A small producer, Newell is up against large agricorporations in the competition for both consumers and resources.

Life for Newell on her farm is therefore complicated by a dependence on others, a dependence from which the Fosters seem largely free. But the complications of  Newell’s necessary engagement with others seem beneficial in certain ways, opening her up to consider questions of ecological resource management and local versus global consumer cultures. Part of the joy of her book is its exploration of these questions, as she recounts the difficulty of communal water management, and the possibilities for community action and reform for a small producer in a global world.

Literary scholar Daniel Peck has argued that, in the pastoral tale of Walden, Thoreau acts to contain the complexity of the 19th-century world, to create a space free from the mores of the ongoing industrial revolution and from the everyday violence of human life. In a similar way, both the pastoral dreams found in The Olive Grove and A Year of Slow Food act to contain the complexity of 21st-century life.

For Patrice Newell, Elmswood is a way of holding back a genetically engineered future that seems to have little regard for social or environmental sustainability. The Olive Grove offers a different future, one which values the local and sustainable and acts to conserve natural resources, working with nature rather than against it. To me her particular path, while desirable, seems a bit unattainable; one needs a lot of capital to buy 4000 hectares and attempt to turn it into a going concern. The life of the Fosters seems more attainable.

But I have more questions of it.

In escaping to a largely self-sufficient life, Gerda and David Foster contain the perils of the present. In a way this seems like an idealistic response to the epidemic of uncertainty that is late capitalism: whom to trust, how to deal with the many external threats. In the face of these modern perils, the Fosters live fairly independently of the market, of fashions, of rationalisation.

But this is too harsh. A Year of Slow Food is meant to be ‘a culinary account of one year’, not a solution to environmental and social ills. And the Fosters do have relationships with the person they share farm with, with their children in Sydney, with Gerda’s counselling and David’s writing. Yet I think part of my—and perhaps some of our broader—attraction to country living is the fantasy of a self-enclosed life where one is free of the complications, hassles and uncertainties (as well as the joys and gifts) of sharing life with so many others.

In his book The Virtual Republic, McKenzie Wark writes of the ever-increasing specialisation of modern jobs, and the associated loss of community, of a local commons: ‘People just head further and further down the track of specialisation, looking after their own.’ David and Gerda Foster live a life that is largely unspecialised, producing and cooking almost all their own food. Yet their local town commons is in danger of disappearing, and while they do have some engagements with their local community, it is unclear whether their self-sufficiency allows for full participation ‘in the whole of civil society’ that Wark seeks. Patrice Newell is more obviously an active reformer.

Both A Year of Slow Food and The Olive Grove show that fulfilling lives in the country are still possible, despite popular press accounts to the contrary. They also illustrate much of the hard work that goes into making that life physically and financially sustainable. The costs and consequences and the possibilities for social sustainability are less clear. Both books fired my own pastoral dreams, but they didn’t make the dream or its associated dilemmas seem any easier. 

Matthew Klugman is a Melbourne writer.

Books discussed in this essay: A Year of Slow Food by David and Gerda Foster (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2001) and The Olive Grove by Patrice Newell (Penguin, 2000).



submit a comment

Similar Articles

The frontier fallen

  • Tom Griffiths
  • 05 July 2006

Historians are fighting a mini war over frontier history and the number of Aboriginal dead. Tom Griffiths argues for a different approach.


Peter Roebuck - man on a journey

  • Matthew Klugman & Alex McDermot
  • 05 July 2003

Peter Roebuck’s cricket commentaries connect us with more than just a game.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up