The Shepherd's Life
"No one who works in this landscape romanticizes wilderness," writes James Rebanks in his wonderfully enthralling The Shepherd's Life. I love that idea: that only those who work on the landscape can tell its true story. He begins The Shepherd's Life with the line "there is no beginning, and there is no end." He places his farming way of life in a larger history of five thousand years. I felt immediately transported to the Lake District. You may think of the Lake District and think of William Wordsworth or Beatrix Potter. Rebanks' Lake District is not Wordsworth's. He does not "wander as lonely as a cloud," he is firmly rooted in place. And his love of place, and of shepherding and farming and his family, comes through so strongly. The story starts slow, but builds into a captivating read. You fall into his world of sheep and seasonal rituals (his narrative is structured into four parts, split by season) and you don't want it to end (when it did end, I stayed up reading every interview I could find with him on the internet. This one is fantastic.). It made me want to go back to the Lake District and explore the land with a greater understanding of the culture. The Lake District (in northwest England) was my absolute favorite place I travelled to this past fall when I studied abroad in London and travelled England and read a ton of books (see my list of 2015 books, #s 21 - 52 are London). My favorite bookstore (Daunt Books in Marleybone) listed James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life as one of their top books of 2015(calling it "literary magic from working life"). It was practically inevitable I read it. And I am so glad I did, for gems like this passage (from the "Spring" section):
I understand why people once worshipped the sun and had countless festivals to celebrate spring and the end of winter. It is this endurance in a place throughout everything that nature throws at it, year in, year out, that shapes our relationship with this place. We are weathered like the mountain ash trees that grow here. They bend away from the wind and are battered, torn, and twisted. But they survive here, through it all, and they belong here because of it. That weathering makes us what we are.
He belongs to the Lake District, and the story of the way of life of the Lake District belongs to him. Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape, as the subtitle reads, extends beyond Rebanks' book. He runs a twitter that is filled with updates from his day and photos of his sheep and the land. For example, his sheepdog and a pack of his sheep (under the break):
"Got you" pic.twitter.com/OI7hQoApxl — Herdwick Shepherd (@herdyshepherd1) March 14, 2016
Rebanks also works consulting for UNESCO on the impact of tourism -- and you can see his desire to protect local people in his book. You will be enraptured by this vivid tale of locality and sheep. As the NYT book review writes, he has "an easy ability to shift gears between the personal and the historical, as well as between gritty descriptions of life and death on the farm and more lyrical descriptions of the land he knows like his backyard." I remember my Lake District tour guide saying, "you’re not a local until your Grandfather is buried in the churchyard." Lake District inhabitants are proud of their history and their locality. And oh, is James Rebanks a local. Rating: ★★★★★