James Rebanks (well known to his Twitter followers as @herdyshepherd1) shepherds Herdwick sheep in the Lake District, in an area which has been home to his family for countless generations. The Shepherd’s Life is his record of that world; one which is tramped across by droves of tourists like me every year who have, post-Wordsworth, viewed it through a very different lens to the families who work there. Part family history; part diary; part portrait of an ancient and still-mysterious way of life; and part lesson on the importance of seeing our countryside as more than just an aesthetic treasure, this is a hugely enjoyable, and often humbling, read.
Rebanks mentions the Odyssey early on as one of the few works of literature he took to as a child (I remember loving the bit about Odysseus and his men clutching to the bellies of his giant fat sheep to escape the One-Eyed-Giant’s Cave), and his own story has echoes of Odysseus. Like Homer’s mercurial hero, Rebanks is a man who is bound to his home by an unbreakable cord. He is “hefted” to the fells, and needs the passing of the seasons and the proximity to his animals to feel like himself. As he tells us the arch of his life – from a childhood spent working with his father and grandfather; the troubled years spent at a school he leaves with no qualifications; the first, difficult years of working with his father on the farm; and eventually his spell at Oxford University – Rebanks lays out before you his rock-solid sense of self. Like any wandering hero, he closes the book with nostos, a declaration of self-knowledge and that fierce sense of belonging – This is my life. I want no other.
He doesn’t romanticise the difficulties of shepherding in the least – there are heart-breaking descriptions of the devastation wrought by foot and mouth disease and its mishandling, for example, images of blood, loss and grief – but it’s impossible not to feel an envy for such a bond with a place. There can’t be many people who can claim to come from such a rooted family and profession, but he explains those ties to his farm in the most accessible, thoughtful way – and, after a brief spell in London, with an understanding of why the rest of us head for the hills whenever we can:
I didn’t know anyone in London, and I never wanted to be there. This was not how my life was meant to be, but needs must. It was as if the gods were showing me how tough everyone else’s lives were, and what I had left behind. I understood for the first time why people wanted to escape to places like the Lake District.
Modern life impels us to travel; to find work far from home; to accumulate and spend. Many of us (myself included) are almost entirely detached from the reality of where our food comes from (as an aside, this is a fantastic piece on that idea: http://www.monbiot.com/2015/10/05/on-bullshit/), and the management of farmland and its consonant policies are, Rebanks says, handled by an urban government. In that context – and with things like rewilding; climate change; and conservation in mind – Rebanks springs from the page like a hybrid, ancient/modern prophet; one who tweets about shepherding, whilst carrying the torch for an egalitarian, physical, historic profession. Again, this comes across as a kind of obvious wisdom rather than any sentimental idea of rural living – but as he says, just once, we may well need to reacquaint ourselves with these kinds of skills if we can’t find a way to moderate our extractivism.
Running through the book like a spine of steel are three generations of Rebanks men: our author; his father (known to the family as The Loose Canon); and his grandfather, whom he idolises. All three of them share an unshakeable work ethic and moral code; if a neighbour needs help with his sheep, it’s given without question. If it turns out that a man has overpaid for a tup or a ewe at a fair, then the money must somehow surreptitiously be returned to him at the first opportunity, without anyone losing face. There is a brilliant description at the beginning of the book when it’s time for “the gathering”, and all the shepherds in the area turn up with their dogs at 5 am one morning to move the sheep from the fells – it’s described like a military campaign, with every woman, man and sheepdog working hard for the good of the community and to maintain personal pride. It’s stirring stuff, but none of it is sugar-coated – the three Rebanks men are hot-tempered, intelligent and stubborn, and often argue over what’s best for their land. Arguments aside, the book reads like a love letter to those two titanic figures in his life – they will, Rebanks is sure, take on the mythic qualities of the men and women in their family who have gone before them, and their stories will still be told by generations to come, in the oral tradition of their community (there’s Homer again, creeping in).
She [Rebanks’ grandmother] loved to talk about him after he had died. And he glowed in those stories, like some great dead king.
The language is another of the book’s great pleasures. Rebanks explains that the commands used by a shepherd in the Lake District today would be recognised by a shepherd in Sweden; in the same way that You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. It is rich, practical, and full of history. I love the idea of being “hefted” to a piece of land (a lamb is hefted when it becomes attached to an area of upland pasture); the writing is full of references to tups, ewes, stints, mowdies, and gaeblics. Neil would generally elect to spend a holiday in the UK rather than abroad, on the grounds that there is already so much to explore here – and this certainly proves his point. It’s so easy to march across the countryside without listening, and remembering to look for something other than a pretty view. What Rebanks demonstrates so beautifully is that there are ancient parallel universes on own small island; entirely “foreign” ecosystems, languages and cultures which have been living side by side for centuries, without really recognising one another. I sincerely hope his world survives for another six hundred years, hidden in the fells.