The Shepherd's Life

Jul 3, 2015

You read a book about what? You’re recommending a book about what? That’s the reaction I’ve been getting from people, and I can’t blame them. There are sheep on the book’s cover, after all. What does that have to do with our life? Shepherds on harsh yet beautiful mountain farms in a far corner of a distant country? After I finished reading why did I keep thinking about this book—the fiercely independent people, their beloved landscape, their irreverence toward modern society, their most admirable sheepdogs, and even the hardy mountain-hefted Herdwick sheep themselves? Well, because that’s the gift a fine book gives you—its people, and also in this case its dogs, live on in your heart and mind. And because happily, surprisingly, the rich things in a shepherd’s life make it easier to think about what could be, should be, richer in our own.

The Shepherd’s Life is a memoir by James Rebanks about a profession and a whole way of life that most of us know little about. Rebanks is a shepherd in the Lake District in northwestern England. Tourists know the place as a stunning natural landscape. Farmers there know that their age-old herding practices have created that landscape and maintain it much as great poets like Wordsworth described it two centuries ago. Shepherds tend flocks in sweet valleys and on the common land on the grassy tops of mountains they call fells that spread away on a long green horizon toward the sea. The work is only possible with well-trained sheep dogs that are are born to the task of herding. Floss and Tan seem almost to read their shepherd’s mind about how to gather up and guide the flock forward, but only because their human has learned how to be clear-headed and smart about sheep and dogs and their shared life on the fells.

But Rebanks is not telling a fairy tale about some wooly northern Garden of Eden. Atop the fells the winters can be brutal to sheep and shepherd and dog alike. While growing up, young people in the Lake District may struggle to see farm life respected in the schools or by the wider society. As adults they will likely struggle again to buy and keep solvent a family farm of their own. Big-farm corporate food culture threatens traditional small producers and the health of an entire nation there just as it does here. Most people still don’t know how to direct their food dollars toward regionally produced, sustainable, healthy small-farm food.

But Rebanks finds so much that is good to hold onto there. Strong-willed elders acknowledge in time that they have raised up good, strong children of their own. Neighbors stand by each other in a crisis and watch out for each other when snowstorms sweep over the fells. Local auctions and competitions bring shepherds together socially and spur on careful breeding of each generation of sheep. Strengthening a flock by choosing which animals to pair during the breeding season is a fine art that takes a lifetime to master. The few weeks of lambing in the spring are grueling and ecstatic. Sometimes the shepherd must help a ewe give birth by taking the just-visible sloppy-wet forelegs of the lamb between the knuckles of his fisted hand and at the right moment giving a hearty pull. He teaches that skill to his young daughter too, when she’s keen to learn it. There’s much pride in having freely chosen the yoke of a worthy life and work.

There are many clues about ourselves in The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. For me, one of the most pressing is this: I’m afraid that young people here in the Midwest have rarely seen an adult they admire take firm hold of some worthy thing and help pull it blinking into the world. You’ve got me thinking, Mr. Rebanks. Thank you.

See also the daily updates and the many hundreds of color photographs of Lake District landscapes and farming life at the author's Twitter feed: @HerdyShepherd1. His 2012 Atlantic article explores the value of social media for giving voice to little known groups of people: "Why This Shepherd Loves Twitter."

A photograph of the shepherd's life taken by James Rebanks.
Credit Published here by permission of the photographer.