I admit it: I judged a book by its cover. When my editor asked if I’d rather review a memoir about Denali National Park or a memoir about shepherding, the choice seemed easy. A snarling grizzly or a bleating sheep? Jagged cliffs or rolling hills? Action or shepherding (which seemed like it was barely a verb)? To my surprise, once I had both in my hands I gravitated toward The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. The pastoral landscape I’d first pictured stretched from the front cover to the back, with two border collies keeping vigil over a flock of white sheep. But the title was set in a punchy and square type, leading me—as the designer surely intended—to believe there might be some grit in these pages, something beyond the staid portrait of an old man and his crook. Denali could wait.
In his memoir, Rebanks, a shepherd by trade, chronicles a year in the Lake District of Northern England: from the “ancient communal work” of gathering the fell in summer, to lambing in the spring, and the finger-numbing work of a brutal winter in between. Hovering above it all is Rebanks’ unyielding belief in this traditional way of life—much of it predating written history—and the idea that a landscape offers more than just a pretty sunset for those who linger some time. “We are weathered like the mountain ash trees that grow here,” he writes. “They bend away from the wind and are battered, torn and twisted. But they belong here because of it. That weathering makes us what we are.”
As Rebanks proves, grit is an essential force while living in the idyllic, yet callous countryside. In one particularly gruesome passage, Rebanks recounts the carnage wrought by foot-and-mouth disease in the UK in 2001. To stop the spread, the government slaughtered 10 million cattle and sheep. “From the high ground where we feed our ewes and lambs, for as far as I can see, there are towers of smoke rising from pyres of burning sheep, cattle, and pigs,” Rebanks writes. When they finally came for his flock, he loaded the wagons himself. “I have never done anything that felt so wrong, so against everything I was ever taught to do . . . Sixty years’ work wiped away in two hours.”
There’s plenty of sunshine, too—tenderness between family and friends, between man and animal. Rebanks’ daughters join him in the work. While watching his youngest work in the field he writes, “She stands over the lamb, which wriggles and shakes itself free of the afterbirth slime, her face a mixture of pride and awe.” Still, Rebanks rarely stoops to the sentimental. It makes sense: on the farm, who has time to romanticize?
Born the first son of a shepherd, who was also the first son of a shepherd, Rebanks holds the idea of schooling at arms length. His family has been steadfastly farming the land and tending its sheep for generations, none of which, he maintains, requires a textbook. “My father can hardly spell common words but has an encyclopedic knowledge of landscape,” he writes. “Some of the smartest people I’ve ever known are semi-illiterate.” Rebanks bears little patience for those who ignore the wisdom accrued through a life driven by nature and its seasons. He returns to this theme time and again, though it grows more complicated after he enrolls at Oxford University. When he graduates, he returns to his work in the Lake District mostly unchanged, now being “reclassified as clever.” And yet it’s thanks to that Oxford education that Rebanks can shepherd comfortably—he now works part of the year as an expert adviser on sustainable tourism for UNESCO.
One of the great joys of this book is Rebanks’ insistence on employing the language of the work and of his people. The lexicon of shepherding—as well as the many descriptions of the land and centuries-old work traditions—lends these pages a degree of authenticity. Words like heafs, ghylls, peat hags, and scree soak the reader in culture without dragging them through tedious scholarly asides. By the end, readers will find themselves repeating the words as if they were born in the fell themselves.
If the author sometimes leans too heavily or too long on the deep-rootedness of these traditions, he can be forgiven. The Shepherd’s Life is not just a clear-eyed account of life in the Lake District. It’s the defense of a culture that in many ways let modernity pass it by, that honed its technique over thousands of years and refuses to forget it. It’s a love song to a landscape preserved by “the great forgotten silent majority of people who live, work, love, and die without leaving much written trace that they were ever here.”
The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks, Flatiron Books, 304 pages, $17.05. Buy it at Barnes&Noble.