“This is my life. I want no other.”
Oh, do I have a treat for you this week.
So there’s these books that I keep visiting at the bookstore. Some of them have only come out in hardcover and I’m waiting for them to come out in paperback, some of them are so long I know I should only buy them before going on vacation, and some – well, some are not something that I would usually buy, but they are commercially successful. Through their popularity, they become old acquaintances in the bookstore – the book equivalent of ‘people you know because you cross paths so often, but you’ve never really spoken to them.’
The Shepherd’s Life was one of those books. The cover – a dog sitting on a hill in fog – was aesthetically pleasing (seriously, if you want me to pick up a copy of a book, just put a dog on the cover), but the description – it’s a family memoir / portrait / diary of a sheep farmer in the Lake District in England – wasn’t really my cup of tea.
Then I found a copy of it in a second hand bookstore, and I figured ‘why not’. Worst comes to worse, I would lose a day’s worth of reading time and move on.
Oh boy, was I wrong. This book is marvelous.
It is exactly what I said before – a family memoir / description of a year in the life of a shepherd – but it is also a book about continuity and roots and sense of belonging. And it’s so beautifully written. James Rebanks has this amazing writing style – like Tim O’Brien, he writes deceptively simple sentences that manage to echo in your mind for a long time afterwards.
But most of all, what I loved about this book was the sense of love the author has for this small piece of earth that he calls home.
His family has farmed the land for over six hundred years, and this gives him a completely different outlook on life. Life, for him, is a circle – it’s about those that came before him, and those that will come after him. He sees himself less of an individual and more of a part of an unbroken chain that goes back centuries.
All of this is possible because his family’s way of life – farming on the fells, which is the hilly section in the Lake District – has been the same for, well, thousands of years. Rebanks says it goes back for as much as 5,000 years – because of the region’s ‘historic poverty, relative isolation, and because it was protected from change by the early conservation movement.‘
There can’t be a lot of people in the world for whom the change is true – the world is changing quicker than ever, people are giving up their rural lifestyle every day to move to the city – so the fact that this lifestyle has been preserved is nothing short of a wonder.
And the author doesn’t mince his words – it’s not that he loves every bit of his life. He doesn’t glorify it – he speaks at length about the ups and downs, about the sacrifices he makes. But for him, it’s part of life. It’s not that he thinks it’s ‘worth it’ or that the ‘good makes up for the bad’ – for him, it’s all part of the same thing, the good cannot be without the bad.
You have to know what losing feels like to appreciate the wins.
And in a way, this is also a coming of age story – Rebanks tells the story of his life, how he never wanted to be anything else than a farmer, but how he ended up in Oxford for a while – and then went back to the farm. (Well, he never really left – he spent weekends and odd days at the farm, then went back to Oxford to study.)
His way of rebellion was to do exactly what his family has done for centuries. And that, for me, is one of the more powerful messages of this book – how he defied society’s expectation of him.
It is fucked up how we expect everyone to have a university degree, and how we look down on people who earn their living with their own hands. There’s more than one kind of intelligence, to put it simply.
And that’s probably the reason why the love Rebanks has for the life he built shines through so powerfully – because he chose it, and he is unapologetic about it.
(i’m one of those people who’s book-smart, but quite an idiot when it comes to working with my hands. I admire the heck out of people who do.)
All throughout the book, Rebanks shifts between the personal and the historical, between the urban and the rural. He’s really good at this codeswitching – so good, in fact, that you forget how hard it can be.
Go, read this book. You won’t regret it, I promise!
And one last thing – Rebanks used to be on twitter, but he was chased off there by idiots. This is why we cannot have nice things. He didn’t delete his account though, so if you want to scroll through it, his handle is herdyshepherd1 . (there’s also amazing pictures of his dog on there.)