Shepherds: Past and Present

I finished reading a memoir about a man and his sheep– The Shepherd’s Life (2015) by James Rebanks– about a week after Trump was elected. In the days prior to and following the election, I consumed Rebanks’s rhythmic and simple sentences in the darkness of my dorm room.

 Of course, Rebanks’s book is not just about him and his sheep, it “also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world.” Rebanks begins by telling the story of how, at age thirteen, he realized the disconnect between the romanticized view of the Lake District in Northern England, and his family–“the people who work this land. “We were already here doing what we do.” Then, throughout the rest of the memoir, Rebanks chronicles the daily life of a year on the farm, from gathering the fell in the summer to shearing the ewes the following springs. Rebanks puts this lifestyle in perspective, asserting that “our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape.” Unfortunately, the stresses of the modern world (they also made it hard to set time aside to finish the book!) are encroaching upon this ancient way of life.  So is the book a nostalgic attempt to hold onto the past? Yes, and no.

 Rebanks isn’t just a shepherd; he’s also an advisor on sustainable tourism for UNESCO. He didn’t grow up only on the family farm; he studied at Oxford. His book itself both remembers the past way of life and reconciles it with the present.

For me, falling asleep with the steady rhythms of life­–“The sun rises, and falls, each day, and the seasons come and go.”– on the farm ebbing in my head, the best part is not just that Rebanks offers hope that the past and present can coexist, but that his past in the Lake district is one of respect and equality and it’s this past that lives on. –Sage Marshall

Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. 

THE SHEPHERD’s LIFE: Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape
Written by: James Rebanks
Published by: Flatiron Books
293 pages