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“There cannot be change without loss”

Jan 11, 2023 | Insights

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We must overcome the anxiety accompanying the loss of old ways with compassion and sensitivity if change is to succeed.
Sally Coulthard’s book The Barn is the history of the Rye Valley, where we live, seen through the eyes of her old stone barn.

I read the book over Christmas. It is a captivating description of how life has changed in our valley over the centuries, with the loss of old customs, processes, and cultures as an ever-present theme of the book.

Sally describes, for instance, the annual hiring fairs, a regular event for hundreds of years that carried on into the twentieth century in some parts of Yorkshire. She tells how, in 1855, “ten thousand men and five thousand women, all seeking work and a good day out, packed the streets of Malton” (our nearby market town). These were magnificent events, a time of celebration and meetings of family and friends, and, of course, employment.

Inevitable evolution

Inevitably, hiring fairs came to an end with agricultural mechanisation. With good equipment, just two labourers could harvest a field rather than the dozen it would have taken, and farmers no longer needed the cattle-market style hiring fairs.

The loss of hiring fairs is just one example of the changes that have taken place in our local area. Sally tells of the evolution of everything from water supplies to waste disposal (to put it politely). She tells of the enclosures of the eighteenth century and their impact on our rural society and landscape. Changing ownership patterns is another theme of the book, and greed, science, and wealth have all played their part in how the land here has been owned and farmed.

I read the book with awe and excitement. I was thrilled to discover so much about my home turf and how it has changed over the centuries. However, I was also left with a vague sense of unease and disquiet when I finished the book, a feeling I could not fathom until I came across these words in Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life:

“There cannot be change without loss.”

Here is the explanation of my disquiet on finishing The Barn. Every time Sally writes about the evolution of rural life, she also describes the loss of what had gone before. A minor travelling fair (dodgems, ghost train etc.) has replaced the old riotous and productive hiring fairs. Pumped, sanitised water replaced the spring and well water that kept The Barn going for many years. And while the railways and then cars revolutionised transport in the nineteenth century, they also extinguished the peace and quiet of the valley forever.

Change and loss

That is not to say change is bad. On the contrary, we live today in comfort and security that our forebears could never have attained. For example, most would have welcomed the new laws governing workplace safety and child labour, even though they led to new working patterns and all they involved.

However, it’s a lesson worth remembering, especially if you are determined to create change in your life and the lives of others, that change and loss go hand-in-hand. The expectation of loss is why many people fear change (often with good reason, in Ryedale’s past).

Sally’s book teaches us that we must overcome the anxiety and resistance accompanying the loss of old ways, preferably with compassion and sensitivity if change is to succeed.

Attributions and references

Tracey Phillips at Ryedale Photography

Other references

Coulthard, Sally. The Barn: The Lives, Landscape and Lost Ways of an Old Yorkshire Farm. London, Head of Zeus, 2021. (Goodreads)

Grosz, Stephen. The Examined Life. London, Vintage Books, 2014. (Goodreads)

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