I picked up this book in order to learn about sheep. The Bible has a good amount of references to sheep, and I am thoroughly convinced by the amount of questionable sermons I have heard that pastors and preachers don’t really know much about sheep. I don’t want to be one of these ignorant pastors of whom I have spoken ill, so I like to take opportunities to learn about sheep.
James Rebanks did teach me a thing or two about sheep (apparently they don’t have teeth on their upper jaw, just the bottom), but this book is not about sheep, it is about shepherds. It is not just about shepherds, but shepherds in the Lake District of Northern England. It is not just about shepherds living and working here, but about the land, the work, the culture, the living that is being a shepherd there.
Rebanks structures his memoir around a year in the life of a farm, using the transitioning seasons to reflect on his life’s story while describing the major moments of this year on his farm. But he begins with a word, hefted, unfamiliar to many of us. Hefted is an attachment of a farm animal to an upland pasture; the animal knows that this place is home. Rebanks describes himself as hefted.
Rebanks’ childhood experience is all too common; attending school only to be taught that farmers and shepherds, skilled laborers and blue-collar workers, are inferior. The rural life and rural livelihood are things to dread, to escape from and only return to as a tourist. From an early age Rebanks rejected this notion, feeling deep within himself the desire to stay put, to love the land beneath his feet and the creatures he shared it with. He describes: “The potential wealth [of leaving the farm life behind] on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.” Though the world told him there was a better life elsewhere, Rebanks firmly said no.
With beautifully simple prose Rebanks shares the life of his father and grandfather, the men who hefted him to this land. The farms, the families, the sheep, the work, the mountains, the streams, the grass cannot be separated one from another. The symbiosis is life. “The stories,” Rebanks explains, referring to listening to his grandfather talk while they worked, “left you feeling proud to be part of that tradition, but very aware that as individuals we were bound by duty to carry it on, bound to try and live by those values.”
This is not to say that farm life and shepherding are the only things Rebanks knows. He tells of quitting school at a young age, only to discover shortly thereafter a love for books and learning, and a pride in being clever, that were never a part of him while in school. The young shepherd soon finds himself an Oxford student, at first feeling out of place before realizing that it was his unique background that set him apart from his fellow students. In one of my favorite (and most relatable) paragraphs in the book, Rebanks gives us a conversation he had with an Oxford professor:
“He asked what I made of the other students so I told him. They were okay, but they were all very similar; they struggled to have different opinions because they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies, and they thought they would always win. But this isn’t most people’s experience of life. He asked me what could be done about it. I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year to do some dead-end job like working in a chicken processing plant or spreading muck with a tractor. It would do more good than a gap year in Peru. He laughed and thought this tremendously witty. It wasn’t meant to be funny.”
Herein lies the heart of The Shepherd’s Life; this is not a pastoral love letter nor a tale of blue-collar success. As an advisor to UNICEF on the value of traditional economic landscapes and the impact tourism and modernity have, one who travels the world yet always longs to go back home, Rebanks writes with eyes open to the problems facing all who love and feel at home in a place, whose livelihood and lifestyle cannot be separated from place. He warns:
“…when local traditional farming systems disappear, communities become more and more reliant upon industrial commodity food products beings transported long distances to them, with all the environmental cost (and cultural disconnection from the land) that entails. They begin to lose the traditional skills that made those places habitable in the first place, making them vulnerable in a future that may not be the same as the present. No one who works in this landscape romanticizes wilderness.”
The Shepherd’s Life ends with hope; as Rebanks sees the newest lambs being born and surviving their first few weeks, he envisions their contribution to the continued health and vitality of his flock, and knows it will last for years to come. The presence of his daughters and son in the lambing pastures assures us of that. So the shepherd lies down to rest on the land that he loves, secure in the knowledge that this is a life worth living.