What is it like to be a shepherd? And what was it like before intensive livestock farming reshaped agriculture? You’re about to find out in James Rebanks’ autobiographical book ‘The shepherd’s life’.
James Rebanks grew up on two sheep farms in the Lake District and works his own farm there today.
The book follows the shepherd and his sheep through the year in its four chapters: summer, autumn, winter and spring. James Rebanks not only tells us of one year but of many hundreds of years, during which sheep farming in the Lake District worked with similar means and followed the same rhythm.
Sheep grazing on the fells they are hefted to, the work of a good sheepdog, shearing, treating claws, making hay, making breeding decisions, coldness of snow, birth of lambs. The description of the everyday life of a shepherd are detailed, realistic and beautiful to read. Every year some of these sheep are going to be fattened for slaughter. But before that they have experienced some freedom, eaten a lot of fresh grass, been with their mothers, had their milk and have been treated with respect.
So is this a book romanticising the olden days, rural life and manual labour as some critics write?
No, it is not. On the contrary. This book reminds us of the culture of work that formed and maintains the fascinating diverse Lake District landscape. Rural life among the fells doesn’t consist of climbing, wandering and watching sunsets. The sheep farmers of the Lake District are working ancient ways and skills of shepherding which have been forgotten in many other places. Skills which could be used elsewhere again, to keep animals differently.
Manual labour isn’t the opposite of intellectual work and never was. Wherever humans aren’t treated as automatons or do purely intellectual work both belong together. In his school James Rebanks experienced the devaluation of the farmer’s work. This devaluation likely played a big role in the social dislocation people who chose the path of higher education experienced.
Friendships sometimes last over multiple generations as many families are living in the same area for centuries. Benefits are neighbours who know and help each other out. But of course newcomers do face some difficulties blending in they wouldn’t encounter in the city. James Rebanks writes of the severe family difficulties which occurred in his close knit family as well as of the beautiful benefits: He describes how he worked alongside his grandfather, who could bear his physical decline through his grandsons growing strength.
When James Rebanks writes that this land belongs to the families who have worked on it for centuries, he does not invoke a blood and soil mythology. He merely explains the good status of sheep farmers in the Lake District as class differences didn’t prevail in this rural society as elsewhere.
James Rebanks’ book isn’t one to send you dreaming of meadows, fells and sunshine. It lets you appreciate a different lifestyle with all its benefits and drawbacks. And thereby you can see everything with new eyes and have new thoughts.
No. 1 good-book experience! I recommend this book with four paws!