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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

Review: The Running Hare, John Lewis-Stempel

The Running Hare, by John Lewis-Stempel. Review by Barbara Copperthwaite

“John Lewis-Stempel has a rare and exceptional talent. It moves me to tears.”


Traditional ploughland is disappearing. Seven cornfield flowers have become extinct in the last twenty years. Once abundant, the corn bunting and the lapwing are on the Red List. The corncrake is all but extinct in England. And the hare is running for its life.

Written in exquisite prose, The Running Hare tells the story of the wild animals and plants that live in and under our ploughland, from the labouring microbes to the patrolling kestrel above the corn, from the linnet pecking at seeds to the seven-spot ladybird that eats the aphids that eat the crop. It recalls an era before open-roofed factories and silent, empty fields, recording the ongoing destruction of the unique, fragile, glorious ploughland that exists just down the village lane.

But it is also the story of ploughland through the eyes of man who took on a field and husbanded it in a natural, traditional way, restoring its fertility and wildlife, bringing back the old farmland flowers and animals. John Lewis Stempel demonstrates that it is still possible to create a place where the hare can rest safe.


I’ll make an admission here: I don’t think John Lewis-Stempel can put a foot wrong in my eyes. Over a year on from first reading it, I still dip into ‘Meadowland’ and read excerpts, marveling at the jewel-like language, the poetry of his imagery, and the raw honesty of his words. So you probably don’t need to read any further on, because you know I’m going to absolutely rave about The Running Hare.

For starters, how glorious is that cover? It draws me from across a room, enticing me to find out what treasure nestles inside. And treasure there is. Once again Lewis-Stempel conveys the truth of the modern countryside, simply, beautifully, honestly; and he wears his heart on his sleeve as he shares his hopes and dreams with the reader. This time, he has a plan to transform a barren field into a place for nature to thrive as well as the crop. No pesticides, no GM, just hard work and vision. Can he do it?

His love for all of nature, from hares to rooks to worms, is evident in his intimate knowledge of everything he writes about. Woven into the book is also fascinating snippets of history, along with a certain amount of longing for the older ways. This isn’t simply borne of desire for ‘the good olde days’ but because there is absolute sense and need for the countryside to use fewer pesticides, to embrace nature instead of battle it.

The Running Hare is a fascinating insight into a world gone by, a terrifying hint at the future we may have, all encased in simple but glorious language that perfectly captures the natural world and one man’s vision of it. It moves me to tears.

“A flint wind, no good for man or beast, cuts in from the east, so I hug the near hedge, which shivers naked and is no comfort at all. Magpies, those proofs of desolation, flap beside me.”

How beautiful is that? How precisely does he capture the cold, the atmosphere, the view, in so few words. Wonderful stuff!

John Lewis-Stempel has a rare and exceptional talent. Read this book. Please.

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