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The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from…

The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (2015)

by James Rebanks

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5882326,871 (3.99)60
Some people's lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks' isn't. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, his family have lived and worked in the Lake District of Northern England for generations, further back than recorded history. It's a part of the world known mainly for its romantic descriptions by Wordsworth and the much loved illustrated children's books of Beatrix Potter. But James' world is quite different. His way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand. It hasn't changed for hundreds of years: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the grueling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the hills and valleys.… (more)

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In the early 1800s, the New England landscape was dominated by sheep herding. To this day our forests are full of stone walls left over from this era, and Vermont still has a fair bit of pasture. This tradition has heavily influenced by immigrants from the Brittish Isles. In this book, James Rebanks walks us through this way of life that is still somewhat intact in his home of the Lake District. Due to my upbringing in the rural New England landscape, as well as a familiarity with sheep from both childhood and adulthood, I felt a certain kinship with Rebanks’ story.

As might be expected, Rebanks has a number of somewhat conservative views. He speaks of dunking sheep in WWI chemical warfare agents to keep the flies off of them. He discusses the way in which collective ownership with an aesthetic that appeals to the beauty of “natural” lands can be at odds with the needs of a traditional agricultural economy, such as when Londoners want the Lakes District as their summer retreat when the farmers would rather be left alone.

In early adulthood I spent a year farming and homesteading. The founder of the program, Ben Holmes, told me as he was walking me around the farm while I was considering enrolling on a wet and dreary day that it would be a place where I would learn the drudgery of farm work. It is hard to use the word “romantic” to describe such a sentiment, but there is something about the drudgery of farm work that comes through in Rebanks’ writing, and it is clear that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of the fascinations in the book is all the discussion on breeding. Similar to heirlooms seeds, maintaining a breed is as much an art as a science. The genetic diversity must be kept broad enough so that the breed is vigorous, but not so broad as to diverge from the hallmark traits.

A gaping hole in the book regards Rebanks’ cursory coverage of the Herdwick massacre of 2001 as a result of foot-and-mouth disease. No time is spent discussion what it meant to revive the breed, or how the farming community at large with this issue. Although there’s mention of slaughter and subsidies, we’re left in the dark as to how that wasn’t the end of the breed.

Rebanks states that farmers in his region can’t make a livelihood from their agricultural endeavors, and have never been able to do so. Although there is a good bit of truth to this sentiment I find it both disconcerting and depressing to reinforce such a message. Unless we can move to some kind of Universal Basic Income model, societally, we need to find ways to make agricultural economics work. Much of my professional work has revolved around this issue, and I know there are models that work. I wish Rebanks did more to highlight the ways in which agriculture can provide a living wage; I know a number of case studies in the subject.

To attest to its merits and grit, after listening to the audiobook, I actually purchased a physical copy of this book from my local bookstore to circulate amongst my community. ( )
  willszal | Jan 5, 2020 |
Rebanks provides a clear, intelligent, beautiful, and timely case for preserving traditional methods of family farms, local food production, and heritage breeds in today's increasingly industrialized world. His personal insights on class elitism, gentrification, economic pressures on the farming community, and the culture clash between city dwellers and rural communities are very welcome and important additions and are rarely presented as eloquently in this literary genre. His description of the work, shepherds, animals, and landscape are rich, detailed, and utterly lovely without being romanticized. A truly fine piece of writing accompanied by wonderful photographs. Read it, even if you are apartment dwelling vegetarian. ( )
  dele2451 | Jun 22, 2019 |
Five stars may be faint praise for this book. Rebanks has a remarkable story and is a gifted storyteller. There are sections and details that may not be to your liking but who is 100% comfortable with another person's story? It saddens me greatly to read he quit a panel reviewing England’s National Parks after a social media attack by conservations who opposed having a farmer on the panel. I do not live in the UK but it seems a lost opportunity and smallminded and undemocratic to stifle input before actually giving the person a chance to give it. ( )
  KateSavage | Mar 29, 2019 |
Mellow interesting read about the life of a modern N. England shepherd. It is told by season and largely moves temporally from his childhood to 21st century (mid-adulthood). Very far-removed from my own existence so interesting to just read about daily life, especially set again the modern societal landscape. My only complaint is that the story is entirely man-focused. It almost like the women (who I would guess lay a major role) are just bit parts in this book. Its all about the sons. ( )
  technodiabla | Dec 9, 2018 |
This was such a nice book to have with me on a recent holiday. James Rebanks is descended from shepherds, is very proud of his family history and takes great pleasure in sharing some of that history with his readers. A man closer to his grandfather than his father, the stories are all centered around his family and the family farm in the northern Lake District of England. The sheep they farm are all descendants themselves, of flocks that have grazed the fells for generations. I enjoyed reading how these hardy sheep practically look after themselves and teach their lambs to recognise and return to their home fell every year. James obviously has a deep love of his farm and is proud of the old farming ways that continue still, through the fell farms of today. You wouldn't think sheep farming could be an interesting topic to read about for someone who is a city dweller, but it was! I guess any topic, written about by someone who truely loves what they're talking about, will be. James Rebanks also holds an Oxford degree and works from his farm as an advisor to UNESCO on sustainable tourism. I chuckled and loved hearing that when he drops the O word into a conversation, people change their attitude, start looking at him with interest and pay him a little more attention than they were perviously paying him as farmer joe! ( )
1 vote Fliss88 | Jul 8, 2018 |
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Towards the head of these Dales was found a perfect Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturalists, among whom the plough of each man was confined to the maintenance of his own family, or to the occasional accommodation of his neighbour. Two or three cows furnished each family with milk and cheese. The chapel was the only edifice that presided over these dwellings, the supreme head of this pure Commonwealth; the members of which existed in the midst of a powerful empire, like an ideal society or an organized community, whose constitution had been imposed and regulated by the mountains which protected it. Neither high-born nobleman, knight, nor esquire was here; but many of these humble sons of the hills had a consciousness that the land, which they walked over and tilled, had for more than five hundred years been possessed by men of their name and blood... William Wordsworth, A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England (1810)
Dedicated to the memory of my grandfather,
W.H. Rebanks,
and with respect to my father,
T.W. Rebanks
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I realized we were different, really different, on a rainy morning in 1987.
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