The Shepherd’s Life

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Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

“…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.”   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

I was so taken with James Rebanks’ recent column in The New York Times, “An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America,” that I requested his memoir, “The Shepherd’s Life,” from the library.

On a recent trip to the United States to promote his book, Rebanks toured Kentucky and saw the economic devastation and dying towns in rural America, caused in part by industrial scale agriculture that has put small farms out of business. In fact, Rebanks was here the week that Trump won the election.

He and his family are sheep farmers in England’s Lake District; they lead a centuries-old way of life. Rebanks is blunt in rejecting the American model of industrialized agriculture. He believes it has wreaked havoc on families, our health, and the environment.

His memoir is a fascinating, day-by-day account of what it means to be a shepherd and adhere mostly to the old ways in a modern world. He takes us through a full year of tending to 900 sheep with his close-knit family and community.

Woven into this shepherding story is a history of Lake District shepherds and a recounting of Rebanks’ coming of age and adult life path. Determined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a shepherd, Rebanks ended up taking a brief detour to attend Oxford. Then, he recommitted to sheep farming. He went from being an uneducated local boy to a college-educated adult, relatively at ease moving back and forth between these two worlds, but still firmly committed to the old ways.

His views on the tensions between these two worlds makes for provocative reading. As a young boy, his teachers preached that staying on the farm was a dead end, and urged local kids to leave and make something of themselves. As I skimmed through reviews on Goodreads, I saw that some readers didn’t care for Rebanks’ tone, which can be highly critical of the world of so-called progress and intellectuals. But he does have important points to make about the value of his nearly forgotten lifestyle and the happiness and fulfillment it can garner.

He points out that shepherds possess knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, though they may never crack open a book.

“The great flocks of sheep are the accumulation of countless achievements at these shows and sales over many years, each year’s successes or failures layering up like chapters in an epic ancient poem. The story of these flocks is known and made in the retelling by everyone else. Men, who will tell you they are stupid and not very bright, can recall encyclopaedic amounts of information about the pedigrees of these sheep. Sheep are not just bought: they are judged, and stored away in memories, pieces of jigsaw of breeding that will come good or go bad over time. Our standing, our status, and our worth as men and women is decided to a large extent by our ability to turn out our sheep in their prime, and as great examples of the breed.”

And….

“They are sheep that show the effort several generations of shepherds have put into them. Each autumn for centuries someone has added to their quality with the addition of new tups from other noted flocks. There is a depth of good blood in them. They are big strong ewes, with lots of bone, good thick bodies, and bold white heads and legs. They return from that fell each autumn with a fine crop of lambs that are a match for most other flocks in the Lake District.”

I especially enjoyed reading The Shepherd’s Life on the heels of finishing Wendell Berry’s Our Only World, which I’ll write about next week. The two books go hand in hand, with similar themes and messages. Wendell Berry (who has been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau) has been a life-long farmer in rural Kentucky. On his visit, Rebanks saw the economic devastation there that Berry has written much about.

Here is another excerpt from The Shepherd’s Life that I like:

“I have met and talked with hundreds of farmers, stood in their fields and their homes, talked to them about how they see the world and why they do what they do. I have seen the tourism market shift over the last ten years with greater value attached to the culture of places. I see people growing sick of plastic phoniness and wanting to experience places and people that do different things, believe in different things, and eat different things. I see how bored we have grown of ourselves in the modern western world and how people can fight back and shape their futures using their history as an advantage, not an obligation. All of this has made me believe more strongly, not less, in our farming way of life and why it matters in the Lake District.”

My favorite section of The Shepherd’s Life is about the spring, when the lambs are born– hundreds of them in the space of a few weeks. The shepherds and their families must work nearly 24/7 scouting their acreage for ewes and lambs that might be in trouble due to difficult births or inclement weather. Families must be ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. It’s a matter of economic survival and an act of devotion. I was entirely caught up in the dramatic tension of these chaotic and miraculous spring days, as told by James Rebanks.

Some new “nature” words I learned:

Fell: An old English word for hill or mountain. A high, wild mountain slope or stretch of pasture.

Heft: to become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture. In The Shepherd’s Life, it refers to both the sheep and the shepherd.

If you like unusual memoirs and lyrical nature writing (although the editing of this book could have been improved), The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful read.

Here is James Rebanks on the shepherd’s life:

 

Have you read Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life or any of Wendell Berry’s work? Or do you have a favorite memoir with a similar theme to recommend?

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass cover

“Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair… Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you had forgotten.”   Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

I’ve been working on my first podcast in a nature series, and as part of my research I visited Ganondagan, a cultural center and historic site that was the home of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. It has an intriguing array of programs, from animal tracking to music to meditation to dance. Last Sunday, I heard Robin Wall Kimmerer speak about her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which I highly recommend to anyone who cares about nature, the land, and saving the earth.

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Robin Wall Kimmerer leads us in a song to save the earth at Ganondagan

I first heard of Kimmerer via Elizabeth Gilbert, who found the inspiration for her book, The Signature of All Things, when she read Gathering Moss by Kimmerer.

I’m about a quarter of the way through Braiding Sweetgrass. I’m loving the poetry of her writing as I take in the simple but profound indigenous wisdom Kimmerer is eager to pass on. It’s wisdom we as a culture have long overlooked and which may save us all, if we pay attention. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book to read slowly and savor.

Kimmerer is a botanist, a professor of environmental biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is descended from the Anishinabekwe of the New England region; in the forced Native American migration her people settled in Oklahoma.

There, her grandfather, by law, had to leave the reservation when he was nine years old to attend public school. At that point, their language and most of their indigenous wisdom was lost.

Kimmerer has spent a good part of her adulthood reclaiming both as she also pursues the life of a botanist and university professor.

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Making sweet grass medicine. © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Here Kimmerer expresses what she aimed for in writing Braiding Sweetgrass:

“I offer…a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story – old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.” 

I’ve still many pages to go, so I’ll write more once I finish the book. I’ll leave you with this:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us….It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be sold.”

Indigenous Peoples

Happy Spring! Duck Eggs Daily

duck eggs daily

“As the sun peeks up over the tops of the trees, I finish the last of my coffee and get dressed in my ‘barn attire.’ My schedule (and the ducks’) isn’t dictated by the time on the clock on the kitchen wall, but entirely on the sun. They want to be let out at sunup, whether that comes at 5:30 a.m. or 8:00 a.m….It’s cold outside, so I’ve heated up some water in the teakettle and have a special treat for the ducks to go with their breakfast. They’re getting a pan of oats, cracked corn, dried cranberries and mealworms, moistened with warm water.”  Duck Eggs Daily by Lisa Steele

I know it’s spring when, every April, a pair of wood ducks appear in our backyard. They like to swim in our two small ponds and they nest somewhere in the miniature forest of beech, maple, and hemlock behind our house that gets a bit swampy in the spring.

Our ducks haven’t shown up yet, but I’m expecting them any day now.

A pair of ducksWe never see any ducklings, though, and we worry because this is also the territory of a neighborhood fox, as well as hawks and owls. By midsummer our visiting ducks have disappeared – maybe they’re busy tending their nest – and I always miss them once they’ve gone.

So I was delighted when my favorite gardening and sustainable living publisher, St. Lynn’s Press, sent me a review copy of Duck Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy Ducks…Naturally by Lisa Steele. (Lisa is also the author of Fresh Eggs Daily.)

My husband and I have been learning (very) small-scale vegetable gardening, and I’ve been thinking about branching out into eggs. I’d read in one of my gardening books that ducks are great for pest control and fertilizer, and they’re easier to raise than chickens.

DucksIn Duck Eggs Daily, Maine hobby farmer Lisa Steele proves this is so, and I found her enthusiasm and love for ducks (and flocks of all kinds) to be contagious and inspiring.

An expert in small-flock poultry keeping, Lisa has been a long-time owner of chickens, too. She says that ducks are more cold hardy, heat tolerant, and disease resistant than chickens – so I’m thinking ducks might be the way for a beginner like me to get started. They have a longer and more productive laying life too, and duck eggs are especially rich in protein.

Duck Eggs Daily is a beautifully designed little how-to reference book that also reads like a daybook or nature journal, particularly the day-in-a-life-with-ducks chapter.  Lisa’s eleven ducks clearly bring her a great deal of joy, and these duck tending activities are lovingly rendered:

  • hatching ducklings in an incubator
  • collecting eggs at sunrise
  • making ducks happy with special treats (such as watermelon, dandelion greens, fresh peas, leftover squash and pumpkins from the garden, and delicious mealworms)
  • giving ducks swim time in the kiddie pool
  • watching typical duck antics like walking in a row, mud dabbling, tail wagging, and happy quacks.

Each duck topic covered is packed with useful details:

  • the characteristics and advantages of various duck breeds
  • hatching, brooding and raising ducks
  • one complete day in a life with ducks, from sunrise to sunset
  • duck behavior and duck treats
  • duck houses and duck pools
  • duck health
  • cooking with duck eggs, with tempting recipes like crème brûlée, lemony egg rice soup, herbed deviled eggs, and homemade pasta.

Ducks 2Lisa says that now is the perfect time to invest in a pair or trio of ducks, because many ducks adopted as pets are abandoned after Easter. She encourages interested readers to adopt two or three from one of the duck rescue organizations listed in the book’s appendix.

After reading Duck Eggs Daily, I concluded that currently we don’t have a lifestyle conducive to raising ducks and doing it well. However, we’re looking forward to ducks in our future when the time is right. It’s a daily commitment, and we’d need to find someone to take over when we travel. I have a hard time picturing myself filling water tubs twice a day, especially during freezing, snowy western New York winters. And, in theory, I like the romance of getting up with the sun to let the ducks out and give them breakfast, but rising early isn’t my favorite thing to do. I’d have to make a commitment to make that happen on cold, dark winter mornings. Still, I like the discipline this entails. I think it would be a great way to start to my day and get me at my writing desk earlier.

But those ducks, they sure are cute, so maybe it will happen sooner rather than later. I’ve never tasted a duck egg, and wouldn’t it be fun to make homemade mint chip ice cream with fresh duck eggs?

My St. Lynn’s Press Library

I’ve had a small herb garden as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved flowers, having grown up in a floral shop. Over the past year or two, since we began our vegetable garden and I discovered St. Lynn’s Press, I’ve assembled a great little library that’s still growing.

Herb Lovers Spa BookSlow Flowers, by Debra Prinzing

The 50 Mile Bouquet, by Debra Prinzing

Windowsill Art, by Nancy Ross Hugo

The Herb Lover’s Spa Book, by Sue Goetz

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

Yards, by Billy Goodnick

 

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