Book Review – “The Wild Life” by John Lewis-Stempel

Anyone who has attempted to follow the Paleo or Primal diets has probably wandered around outside at one point and wondered “Just how hard would it be to live off nature? What is there to eat out here?” Plenty, it turns out, especially if you have a 40 acre farm in the Midlands of England.

Which brings us to John Lewis-Stempel, an English farmer and writer and his book “The Wild Life: A Year of Living on Wild Food.” The beginning of the book finds John and Penny taking the plunge and buying their plot, Trelandon Longhouse Farm. To say it’s in disrepair is an understatement, and the ensuing battle with builders, the bank and buearacracy send John to the edge of despair. He wanders down to the river one day and is suddenly struck by an idea:

Along the wooded bank of the Escley I reach a glade and look into the water to see a trout bullet for cover. There are field mushrooms in the grass and in the hedge of Bank Field, where it runs to a close on the Escley, grey squirrels are eating hazelnuts, haws are shining lipstick-red against the blue sky and tendrils of blackberries cascade down. A wood pigeon is coo-cooing in the quarry wood across the river. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if I could just live on what nature provided for free.

So John embarks on a one year oddessey of hunting, gathering and scavenging food from his farm. He can’t use the freezer or refrigerator, so all the food must be pickled or eaten seasonally. He allows himself only salt and honey as store-bought foods (and later duck fat after the duck season closes.)

The book is much more than a diary of what he shoots, gathers and eats on any given day. He recounts his travails with his gundog in training, Edith, life in the Herefordshire area of England, his family’s history in the area, and the dying occupation of farming and living off the land.

Breaking open the silage bales, with their pungent smell of pickled grass, on a raw winter’s morn as the sun rises behind Merlin’s Hill to catch the breath of the cows as they begin their contented munching is as good as farming gets. The worse the weather, the more I like it. Farmers will give all sorts of explanations as to why they farm – they know nothing else, they need to perpetuate a family holding, they desire to put food on people’s plates – but if you scratch them deep enough you will find the truth; they actually like the struggle against the elements, they like endless hard work. Especially hill farmers: they are willing martyrs to the cause of being the last hard fold, the last individuals in Britain.

The author writes of his revitalized connection with nature, his instincts and senses enhanced by time spent in the field stalking, and the differences between an animal killed with one shot and taken fresh from the field versus the terrified beasts killed enmase in the slaughterhouse. But this is not a hippy-dippy, pie in the sky new age book. It is unsentimental, honest, funny and engaging. Frankly, I’m not sure why it is not high on the list of Paleolithic nutrition books out there. It definitely deserves a place on the shelf right next to the Paleo Diet, The Paleo Solution, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Lights Out, The Primal Blueprint and The Vegetarian Myth.

The Wild Life is highly recommended.

Unfortunately, this book is not available in the USA, but it is available from Amazon.com UK. If you have an Amazon USA account it is quite easy to order from the UK store.


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