Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Shepherd's Life, read from the Lakes

Our family philosophy is a reading philosophy and I love sharing all the books. In lieu of this philosophy, I want to create a series of posts highlighting books that I would recommend to others because EVERYONE needs good literature. #roseandtoastreads

Over the summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to the UK for my granddad's 90th birthday. My whole little external family on his side, would be there for this reunion and it just so happened to be held in the land of my birth. The exact land of my birth,  just a few miles from my old coach house in Lake District. Yes, yes, you should be jealous that I was born in this breathtakingly beautiful country and you should be equally jealous that I got to spend a whole week there this summer; though it is I who is jealous of all the people who get to live there full-time - Like James Rebanks, author of the book The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (ps follow him on instagram for all the herdy picts you'll ever need, @herdyshepherd1).

When I was six or seven, I proudly exclaimed from the back seat of Betty Margaret (our little red BMW), that I would be a farmer when I grew up. This occurred while we were paused behind a herd of sheep crossing from one side of the road to the other so I'm sure the accuracy of the statement was fleeting at best. I knew no farmers. I had very little experience with livestock. And no land from which to raise my fleet of sheep and pack of dogs. However, as I grew, that tiny little stubborn girl kept saying, "wouldn't it be awesome to be a shepherd in the Lake District?" and now thanks to James Rebanks I want to quit my life and relocate.

His book is downright beautiful. Not only is it a testimony of the land and the profession, but it is a beautiful memoir of his family, his granddad and dad in particular. The book is divided into seasons, much like his life, and he weaves the history of his family with the history of his profession and his own personal journey providing insight and grit to a long-established, necessary and hardy way-of-life.

He begins with, "There is no beginning, and there is no end. The sun rises, and falls, each day, and the seasons come and go. The days, months, and years alternate through sunshine, rain, hail, wind, snow, and frost. The leaves fall each autumn and burst forth again each spring. The earth spins through the vastness of space. The grass comes and goes with the warmth of the sun. The farms and the flocks endure, bigger than the life of a single person. We are born, live our working lives, and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter. We are each tiny parts of something enduring, something that feels solid, real, and true." Each aspect of life is connected - the physical changing of the seasons, the routine of managing the sheep, the daily humdrum, and the life well-lived.

Throughout the book, Rebanks moves seamlessly between the past, present, and future within each seasonal section. He explains how his granddad did the job, how he and his dad do the job, and how his children will likely do the job - in the exact same way as the vikings who brought the sheep thousands of years ago. This is no one-time offer of a profession, this is a lifestyle in an era when "lifestyle" has become a catch-phrase, a buzzword, lauding the busy-ness of so many people without actually accomplishing much in the way of living. James and his family are busy folk, but not unnecessarily so. They do what needs done, when it needs doing. Another aspect of life handed down from generation to generation.

I find it particularly interesting that the title is THE Shepherd's Life, instead of "A." Yes, he was alluding to another book of the same name; however, I think it is worth noting that this life is not unique to Rebanks and his family. Quite the contrary. This way of life is lived by hundreds of others around the globe; the ordinary folk who do the necessary jobs. The average Joe who is always so much more than average. Often, he points out the irony of our modern education and way of life, with examples like, "My father can hardly spell common words but has an encyclopedic knowledge of landscape. I think it makes a mockery of the conventional idea of who is and isn't intelligent;" and "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 [drunk] 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." Rebanks describes the community, the camaraderie, and the education required to sustain a life on the land. A life that is filled to the brim of every emotion, including the bad ones, which are necessary to living a full, un-secluded life.

The lives we lead are not led in isolation. There's a meme-y, tumblr-y thing or something similar that's floating around the internet that tells the story of a man who has died and meets God. During this meeting, he, the dead man, is told that he will live again as another person, and that ultimately all the people in all the world that ever lived was this one person. Though religiously I cannot believe this story to be true, I believe it contains elements of truth. And it claims a point that Rebanks reinforces, that is our stories are entwined, "we are, I guess, all of us, built out of stories." Our stories connect us - to our landscape, to our jobs, to our community, and to our people

I could never end this discussion better than he did so I would like to share one last block quote from this tremendous and lovely book: "Working up these mountains is as good as it gets, at least as long as you are not freezing or sodden (though even then you feel alive in ways that I don't in modern life behind glass). There is a thrill in the timelessness up there; I have always like the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time. To work there is a humbling thing, the opposite of conquering a mountain if you like; it liberates you from any illusion of self-importance."