The Shepherd’s Life (2015)

The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful account of life on a sheep farm in the Lake District. Moreover, it’s the story of generational traditions passed on from father to son, mother to daughter. It’s a book, too, full of wisdom. Some of my favorites:

After fighting with his dad, favoring time with his grandfather, Rebanks writes, “I look back and realize I was wrong about all of this [he and his father had fought over]. I suppose that’s what growing up is, realizing how little you know and how many things you’ve been wrong about” (115).

When discussing his breeding of sheep, Rebanks writes about the successes, “As ever with a farming life, the little triumphs matter because of the countless failures” (166).

He lists three rules of shepherding:

First rule: . . . it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land.
Second rule: you can’t win sometimes.
Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work (208).

Rebanks also talks about getting work to supplement farm income: “I used to hate these tensions, this being pulled in two ways at once. . . . But I’ve grown used to it. Part of that is that I see many families like ours all finding ways to have one foot in the modern world and one in their living past” (217).

He talks about sheepdogs and how, when he was young, he had a dog that he didn’t train properly and that he “let down.” In response, Rebanks reflects, “[A] man’s life comes full circle; you can learn, and do better than your past. I am determined not to make the same mistakes again” (223).

He talks about their “rough northern form of egalitarianism,” where “[s]hepherds consider themselves the equals of anyone. The social status, wealth, or fame of Mrs. Heelis [i.e. Beatrix Potter] counted for little with Tom [her shepherd]. They were, for all practical purposes, equals, and he the superior party in many ways because of his specialist knowledge. When she worked on the farm (her property), she took orders from him for years” (264).

He closes the book talking about the freedom found on the fells in the Lake District. “Ours is a rooted and local kind of freedom tied to working common land, the freedom of the commoner, a community-based relationship with land. By remaining in place, working on it, and paying my dues, I am entitled to a share of its commonwealth” (286).

It’s a wonderful book. More than ever, I want to be a shepherd in Britain.

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