James Rebanks’ moving memoir “A Shepherd’s Life” tells what it’s like to run a sheep-raising farm in England’s Lake District, a family occupation for the last 600 years.
‘The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape’
by James Rebanks
Flatiron Books, 293 pp., $25.99
James Rebanks is an old-fashioned shepherd. He uses a crook, has two dogs to help, well, shepherd a flock of about 450 sheep through life, and relies on experience rather than genetic engineering to breed his award-winning stock.
His book “The Shepherd’s Life” is part memoir, part how-to and very much a paean to a way of life that is rapidly disappearing. Though it comes from a seemingly unlikely author, it is as moving, truthful and at times poetic as anything you’re likely to read.
Rebanks’ family farmed the Lake District of northwest England for 600 years. For the last 60 or so they’ve raised Herdwick sheep, a hardy breed able to withstand the harsh climate. That might describe Rebanks as well.
He attended a comprehensive school, where Brits place their less academically inclined students. Teachers had low expectations, and so did the students. Bored, Rebanks quit at 15 to return to farming full time.
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Then two things occurred almost simultaneously. He met Helen, the woman who would become his wife, and he discovered he liked reading. At 21, he started work toward what in America would be a GED. He did so well he was accepted at Oxford, graduating with a degree in history from Magdalen College.
But there was never a question in his mind that he would return to shepherding: “Leaving the farm is supposed to make you have another life, but my leaving made me realize that the farm was the beginning and end of everything for me.”
He was fortunate. Working side by side with his grandfather and father, Rebanks found his passion early in life. I know people who are not so lucky.
Still, “fortunate” might best be placed in quote marks. Shepherding in the Lake District isn’t pretty. Rebanks describes reaching into ewes to pull dead lambs from their wombs. Treating sheep infected by maggots. Going out in winter to bring hay to animals lost in snow drifts.
“Tough work knocks the silliness out of you when you grow up in a places like ours. It teaches you to get tougher or get lost.”
It apparently also teaches a sense of honor and dignity. Rebanks retells a story told by his grandfather. A friend purchased sheep and later discovered he’d unintentionally paid less than they were worth. So he wrote the seller a check for the difference — about £5 each — which was refused. “A deal’s a deal.”
The only way to set things right was to overpay the next year, which is what happened. “Neither of these men cared remotely about ‘maximizing profit’ in the short term in the way a modern business person in a city would; they both valued their good names and reputations for integrity far more than making a quick buck,” Rebanks writes.
“The Shepherd’s Life” is satisfying on every level, but what I enjoyed most was these glimpses into a place where old-fashioned values of hard work, integrity and community reign supreme. In a world that at times seems about to fall off its hinges, there is much comfort there.
Somewhat paradoxically, the book’s roots were a Twitter account, 140-letter tidbits about his life (@herdyshepherd1). Rebanks started it after he acquired an I-Phone several years ago. He soon garnered some 40,000 followers, including publishers. Thank you Apple.