Non-fiction Book of The Month: The Shepherd’s Life
James Rebanks' The Shepherd’s Life is a revelation. It is poetic, evocative and grounded in a lifestyle that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Rebanks’ writing is compelling, his language full of crisp descriptions and vivid imagery. Allow yourself to walk over the fields, and back in time…
Modern British culture is obsessed with the new - invention and fashion make items outmoded in mere months. Which is why to most of us, The Shepherd’s Life is a revelation. It is poetic, evocative and grounded in a lifestyle that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
The author, James Rebanks, is a farmer whose family have been farming the same tract of land in the Lake District for generations. Rebanks depicts a weather-worn, tumultuous life – farming, in this book, is not peaceful, this is not a quaint tale, he doesn’t quietly tend his flock. Life for him is fierce, dirty and hard. You feel his anger at crows, his frustrations with maggots, and his exasperation when nature conspires to thwart his plans.
But you can’t help getting swept up in his passion too.
I found it fascinating to read that Rebanks was mystified by his father’s use of language as a child. Around their farm, his father named tools by unfamiliar names and herded his sheep with the word “Cus”. It was only later Rebanks discovered the words were in fact Swedish - the origin of their use stretching all the way back to the Vikings’ invasion of Britain.
This ancient way of life has endured because of its remoteness, and yet the 300 or so farming families that he describes feel so intensely the sense that “we are each tiny parts of something that feels real and true”.
How many of the rest of us wish that we felt that way? So many of us complain of isolation and a sense of being adrift in modern life, while Rebanks, and farmers like him, feel connection: to each other, to the land and to their past.
In the end, The Shepherd’s Life may or may not make you wish to be part of the farming community – but regardless, it will make you want to put some boots on, find some green land and get muddy.
As Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, says this book is “bloody marvellous”.
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, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years.