Books Nature Review

The Shepherd’s Life


Really enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, a memoir of a sheep farmer told season by season. I followed his Twitter account for a while and enjoyed the seeming simplicity the stream of sheep pics depicted. Reading this memoir, however, disabused me of any assumptions I’d made about the life of a shepherd.

Rebanks tells of growing up in a farming family, hating school and the anti-farming condescension that came with it. He covers a lot of interesting aspects of the profession that has run in Rebanks’ family for centuries: training sheepdogs, the long-range strategy required for successful breeding, the arduous sheep birthing process (“Imagine a couple of adults looking after several hundred newborn babies and toddlers in a large park”), the disturbing yet oddly endearing way orphaned lambs are paired with ewes whose own lambs had died, and the unexpected legacy of Beatrix Potter in his region.

But this isn’t a kindly pastoral. The region of the Lake District in northern England, made famous by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is tough terrain at any time, let alone during the long, cold, glum slog of winter, which the hardy sheep can endure but only with help from the equally tough expert farmers. Though lauding its natural beauty, Rebanks openly resents the tourist-attracting romanticization of the region and the at-large decline of his profession and way of life.

Neither does he spare the gory details of life with livestock. It’s hard, sweaty, demanding, low-paying, seemingly never-ending work. Yet even when, almost in spite of himself, Rebanks attends Oxford (his account of which drips with wry bemusement), he tends to his farm work on weekends and holidays and sticks with it even when the possibilities of the “outside world” beckon.

I’d like to think Rebanks has read or at least heard of Wendell Berry, whose writing on farming, community, and modern life echoed in my head as I read The Shepherd’s Life. Odds are Rebanks would feel at home in Berry’s pseudo-fictional community of Port William, and Berry in the Lake District. Both men deploy a simple yet vigorous writing style, the occasional flourish surrounded by spacious prose — not unlike the rural landscapes they inhabit.

Formally educated or not, Rebanks makes good use of the local dialect. Words like heaf, croft, heather, tup, fells, beck, ghyll, and shearling look and sound positively British, and help to ground us in the turf right alongside the sheep. (Check out the names of the fells — my favorite: Barf.) I also liked the book’s four-seasons structure, which, like two other nature books I love (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson), gives readers the energizing feeling of spending a year on the ground with a wise, seasoned guide.

“It’s bloody marvelous,” H Is For Hawk author Helen Macdonald blurbed on the book’s cover. From one nature writer to another, she was right. Check this one out.

Some Quotes

On what he learned from a terrible experience in school:

This crappy, mean, broken-down school took five years of my life. I’d be mad, but for the fact that it taught me more about who I was than anything else I have ever done. It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.

On physical work:

Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.

On the pull of the landscape:

The landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.

On how city life can shortchange us:

I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we had seen just enough of the wider world to know we liked our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far afield as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous, and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.

On functional beauty:

My grandfather had an eye for things that were beautiful, like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him with a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried the full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow, and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications—namely the end of winter or better weather to come.

Photo above from James Rebanks’ Twitter account @herdyshepherd1.

Books Film Review

H is for Hawk

David Fincher’s Gone Girl opens gazing upon the back of Amy’s blond head. Her husband Nick, in voice-over: “The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other?” I thought of this while reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, when Macdonald’s gaze tried to penetrate the machinations of the goshawk, the notoriously difficult and lethal bird of prey she set about training:

I wave my hand in front of her face. She appears not to see it at all. Her eyes seem as remote from thought or emotion as a metal dish or a patch of sky. What is she thinking? What is she seeing? I wonder.

The relationship Macdonald fostered with her baby goshawk, which she named Mabel, often seemed as shifty and tenuous as the marriage in Gone Girl: begotten in a joyful serendipity but then marked by tumult and grief. Macdonald’s grief came from her falconer father’s sudden death, which inspired her, a falconer herself, to try for the goshawk. She deftly weaves details of this process with those of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, whose own inner turmoil compelled him to train a goshawk; his journals from the experience became his 1951 book The Goshawk.

I enjoyed the book for another, more pedantic reason: the author’s judicial deployment of the em dash. It’s a pet (peeve) issue of mine, how some writers whip out the em dash willy-nilly as an all-purpose intensifier—often where there’s nothing to dramatize. Or they use them—in lieu of commas or parentheses—to offset a parenthetical phrase. Macdonald’s Hemingwayan restraint and terse simplicity of prose befitted her subject, an animal with (literally) sharp features and ruthless killing efficiency. Both styles, of the writing and the hawk, come through in this passage describing Mabel’s first kill and the revelation it conjured for Macdonald:

Time stretches as slows. There’s a sense of panic at this point, a little buffet of fear that’s about annihilation and my place in the world. But then the pheasant is flushed, a pale and burring chunk of muscle and feathers, and the hawk crashes from the hedge towards it. And all the lines that connect heart and head and future possibilities, those lines that also connect me with the hawk and the pheasant and with life and death, suddenly become safe, become tied together in a small muddle of feathers and gripping talons that stand in mud in the middle of a small field in the middle of a small county in a small country on the edge of winter.

I stare at the hawk as she grips the dead pheasant, and her mad eyes stare right back at me. I’m amazed. I don’t know what I expected to feel. Bloodlust? Brutality? No. Nothing like that…. I look at the hawk, the pheasant, the hawk. And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. It shakes me to the core. She is a child. A baby hawk that’s just worked out who she is. What she’s for.

Once a child obsessed with hawks, Macdonald was now the parent of one. And like any parent-child relationship the battle of wills, triumphant victories, discouraging setbacks, and sleepless nights would come to form Mabel and Macdonald in unexpected ways. I greatly enjoyed reading about them.