The Shepherd’s Life

When we call it our landscape, we mean it as a physical and intellectual reality. There is nothing chosen about it. This landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks at the library: something celebrating the purity and simplicity of rural England. A story of a rugged, lonely life among the Romantic landscapes of the Lake District. I assumed sheep might be involved.

Ha.

Let’s just say sheep are very much involved.

(Rebanks post regularly at twitter.com/herdyshepherd1)

“Modern Dispatches from An Ancient Landscape” is the subtitle for my copy of the book (alternatives for other editions I’ve seen online are “A People’s History of the Lake District” and a “A Tale of the Lake District”) and with its explorations of how traditions are passed on across generations, the things that change and those that don’t, the subtitle seems to fit. Rebanks begins his account of life as a shepherd by discussing the way his sheep are “hefted” to particular pastures in the fells. To be hefted is to feel attached to a specific piece of land, something sheep are taught by their mothers as lambs “an unbroken chain of learning that goes back thousands of years. … Their sense of belonging is so strong that some have been known to go straight back to where they were hefted with their mothers, an irresistible urge within them to head home to their ‘stint,’ even if some haven’t been to the mountain for three or four years.” Much of the book is about this sense of belonging, both for the animals and the people who care for them, and how to protect and sustain a hefted life: a life rooted in a particular history, a particular landscape, in a place that can be called “home” in a deep and loving sense.

To carry on the old ways in a modern world is not a straightforward task. It’s easy to romanticize the pastoral life, but only from a distance. Actual shepherding is, one quickly learns, a lot of work. It involves blood and guts (you may get a little queasy reading about fly-strike) and the realities of figuring out how to pay the mortgage. Paradoxically, in order to stay rooted in the fells, most farmers have to leave and work off their farms to make ends meet. Rebanks completed a history degree at Oxford (the journey from dropping out of his dismal comprehensive school at 15 to later pursue an Oxford degree in his twenties is described in the book) and works as a sustainable tourism consultant for UNESCO. He admits that “if there is the faintest hint that I should be doing something else that would bring more money in, then I am banished as quickly as possible back to do it. I used to hate these tensions, this being pulled in two ways at once. It went against the feeling I was brought up with that the farm should always come first. But I’ve grown used to it. Part of that is that I see many families like ours all finding ways to have one foot in the modern world and one in their living past.”

Outside of the practical tensions created by the movement to increasingly industrialized agriculture and the difficulties of making things work financially in the modern economy, there are other challenges. Rebanks can be prickly and defensive in ways that can be off-putting at times (although I enjoyed the prickliness for the most part – it gives Rebanks’ voice a sense of authenticity in that he does not present himself as some sort of pious farmer-saint). Wordsworth and the continued romanticizing of the Lake District as an empty vessel waiting to be described by outsiders gets a good tongue lashing. But, it is clear that the defensiveness comes from the feeling that this is a way of life in need of defense. There are actual people where Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” Rebanks emphasizes, and they have been there for centuries: “From [the] fell I look out over a place crafted by largely forgotten working people. It is a unique man-made place. A landscape divided and defined by fields, walls, hedges, dykes, roads, becks, drains, barns, quarries, woods, and lanes. I can see our fields and a hundred jobs that I should be doing instead of idling up the fell.” It is a landscape crafted and sustained by “nobodies” who too often have been condescended to and ignored by outsiders due to differences in class, education, and values.

More often though Rebanks is celebratory, describing the pleasures and intricacies of the work. The challenge of leading sheep to shelter in a snowstorm so they won’t freeze to death, learning the rhythm of clipping sheep over years of practice, enjoying the pride that comes with showing a prize-winning tup (male sheep). It is a demanding life, but the demands are part of what give meaning and value to what Rebanks does. He says at one point: “Some people’s lives are entirely their own creation. Mine isn’t.” This is something Rebanks celebrates rather than laments. He’s the product of a landscape that was created by all the “nobodies” who came before him, and he feels a responsibility to sustain it and live out of those roots. This is in stark contrast to one of the dominant stories of modernity, the idea that freedom (as the theologian Stanley Hauerwas has memorably put it) means being “people who believe they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.” Such a freedom, Hauerwas caustically remarks, results in people who think that being able to choose between a Sony and a Panasonic is what having freedom means. In the dominant modern narrative of self-construction Rebanks, who is reminded every time he looks at the landscape that his story is not one he has chosen, is to be pitied (or, more often, as Rebanks notes, people like him are simply ignored … at least until it comes out that he graduated from Oxford).

Stories are important for Rebanks. He talks about the stories his grandfather would tell him while they worked on the farm: “True stories. This is how he passes on his values. How he tells me who we are. They have morals, these stories.” The Shepherd’s Life is partly an attempt to tell these stories again to others and convey a certain set of values to readers who might be quick to dismiss them in another form. But, it’s not just stories that pass on the shepherding identity and values from grandfather to father to son: it’s a set of practices, of habits, of demands that are made day after day, season after season, year after year. The sheep must be fed (even on Christmas day). To honor constraints the way Rebanks does, to celebrate being hefted, bound to a particular place and tradition, sounds strange to modern ears. But to embrace the routines and demands of the shepherd’s life provides its own sort of liberation: “There is nothing like the feeling of freedom and space that you get when you are working with the flock and the dogs in the fells. I escape the nonsense that tries to consume me down below. My life has a purpose, an earthy, sensible meaning.”

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