Review: The Shepherd’s Life
I admit it: I judged a book by its cover. When my editor asked if I’d rather review a memoir about Denali National Park or a memoir about shepherding, the choice seemed easy. A snarling grizzly or a bleating sheep? Jagged cliffs or rolling hills? Action or shepherding (which seemed like it was barely a verb)? To my surprise, once I had both in my hands I gravitated toward The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. The pastoral landscape I’d first pictured stretched from the front cover to the back, with two border collies keeping vigil over a flock of white sheep. But the title was set in a punchy and square type, leading me—as the designersurely intended—to believe there might be some grit in these pages, something beyond the staid portrait of an old man and his crook. Denali could wait.
In his memoir, Rebanks, a shepherd by trade, chronicles a year in the Lake District of Northern England: from the “ancient communal work” of gathering the fell in summer, to lambing in the spring, and the finger-numbing work of a brutal winter in between. Hovering above it all is Rebanks’ unyielding belief in this traditional way of life—much of it predating written history—and the idea that a landscape offers more than just a pretty sunset for those who linger some time. “We are weathered like the mountain ash trees that grow here,” he writes. “They bend away from the wind and are battered, torn and twisted. But they belong here because of it. That weathering makes us what we are.”