I'm a city boy. Very much so, in fact. I never went to camp when I was younger, I've never been all that fond of going camping or anything of that nature...in nature. So when I received a copy of James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life, I really didn't know what to expect. I've actually never thought twice about what it takes to be a shepherd. To be honest, I never really cared. Thankfully, I was taught many years ago to try everything at least once. I guess the more appropriate adage here is "Never judge a book by its cover" (especially given that it is an ARC with no cover art.)
The Shepherd's Life is unique. Rebanks explains his day-to-day routines in great detail, blood and guts sometimes included. He takes you into England's Lake District: an area that because of its natural beauty (and because of famous residents like William Wordsworth,) is swarmed by guide-wielding tourists as well as sheep on its fells.
Rebanks does a wonderful job telling the reader about not only herding, shearing, lambing, shopping, feeding and showing, but about his personal life and influences. He makes it abundantly clear that he would not be the man he is today if not for the guidance of his grandfather and the support--and sometimes tough love--of his father.
Growing up, Rebanks was not a good student. He explains that he didn't care about most of the things being taught in school. His mind was on the farm and on the subject matter he decided to focus on with the books he read (voraciously.) And so he failed his GCSEs (thus never graduating from high school.) He describes his life with his friends in the pub as being similar to the movie Good Will Hunting. He had all the tools to be a scholar but was very rough around the edges. He was a shepherd, after all! His wits did not go unnoticed, though, and in his early twenties he was persuaded to retake the GCSE and apply to university: more specifically Oxford. Any guess how that turned out? If you have seen Good Will Hunting, you already know.
This book is not about overcoming obstacles, although there are some. It's not a feel good story either. Its real purpose is just to let the reader know what it's like to live as a shepherd on a farm: something that most folks take for granted. As much as I now appreciate the difficulty, the hard work, the beauty of it all, the best part of the book to me is Rebanks' writing. There is a certain poetic feeling about it. Maybe it's in the landscape and that's what influenced Wordsworth, but it is not something you would expect coming from a farmer and I don't think it is something that can be taught--even at Oxford. Here he is explaining the end of winter:
"These are the days that winter shows it is passing: the creeping out of the daylight each day, the warmth of the sun increasing, the bite of the wind easing, the grass greening. But the ravens honking above the fells speak of carrion from worn-out ewes and the fieldfares flashing out of the hedges are reminders that winter still holds the far North. Foxes steal withered-up moles from the barbed wire where the mole-catcher has left them, telling of the hunger that once would have tested men here as well as animals. The carrion crows still lord it over the valley, cawing from the tops of thorn bushes or trees. We know that without warning winter can grab hold of the land again."
He makes something as macabre as carrion seem beautiful as only a poet could.
The Shepherd's Life is something that every city slicker should read. Take time out of your daily grind to learn what it's like on a farm from someone who can write about it introspectively and beautifully. Not that a shepherd's life isn't a daily grind: it is hard work, but you already knew that. I just meant...you know what I meant, right?
You can also follow James Rebanks on Twitter (@herdyshepherd1). He posts lovely photos of his sheep and gives you a better idea of how pretty the Lake District is.
The Shepherd's Life will be available on April 7th.