The Shepherd’s Life

The Shepherd's Life.jpg

 

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?

Book spine poetry for National Poetry Month

Stack of poetry books

What do we know

This present moment

Our only world

The wellspring.

You come too.

Winter reading

Stack of books

 

I’ve been out of town. A stack of books from the library and online were waiting when I got home.

The Steinbeck work journals for East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are recommended by Louise De Salvo in The Art of Slow Writing as essential if you’re writing a book-length work and want to learn about process.

Deep snow in backyardThe Age of Miracles is this year’s selection for “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book.” We love to read through the deep winters in our part of the world, and this novel of catastrophe and survival will be on many a nightstand here. Why not try it along with us – I’ll be writing about this debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker soon.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, a memoir, and Wolf Winter, a novel. I want to know more about my Scandinavian roots; biography, memoir, and fiction are a great way to explore ancestry and heritage.

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World (ten essays), because Berry is one of our greatest prophets, writing about the clash between humanity and nature and how we must do better. He’s been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau.

Backpacking with the Saints, a travel narrative and spiritual memoir. Belden C. Lane’s take on Celtic, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi Muslim writings as he treks the Ozarks and the American Southwest. The book jacket compares him to other lovers of the backcountry, including John Muir and Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, Wild, was just released as a movie.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, is an overdue Christmas gift for my photographer son. This newly published series of interviews with the filmmaker is so popular it’s been out of stock. I hope he finds it worth the wait.

No one writes about creating art with as much love and eloquence as Vincent Van Gogh.

More about these in upcoming posts at Books Can Save a Life.

 

Joyce Maynard, Elizabeth Gilbert, George Saunders coming up

Been away for a bit while designer Nicole Bateman of The Pixel Boutique gives Books Can Save a Life a fresh, new look. (Thank you, Nicole!) But I’ve been reading, as always, and here’s what’s coming up:

After Her book coverAfter HerJoyce Maynard’s latest novel. Joyce has written several novels as well as the memoir, At Home in the World. After Her is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late 1970s.

Tenth of December – I don’t usually read short stories, but I’d heard so many wonderful things about George Saunders I had to pick up a copy of his latest collection when I saw it on our public library’s “Most Wanted” shelf. Besides, he teaches a stone’s throw away at Syracuse University – he’s someone I should know about.

Sons of MadnessI’ve written about Susan Nathiel’s excellent Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Mother, a collection of interviews with adult women. Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Parent is a companion volume.

The Art of the Commonplace – I’ve always wanted to know what Wendell Berry is all about, so I’m reading his collection of agrarian essays.

Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has been made into a movie and will be released November 22. I wrote about the first movie and book here, so I just have to check out the next installment.

The Signature of All Things book coverAnd last but not least, I can’t wait to dip into Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. Beautiful book jacket and end papers. The epigraph: “What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.”  Lord Perceval

I’ll be back with a closer look at all of these.

They have started to harvest rye, so I am sitting here alone, writing

The tiny farm near Falkenberg, Sweden where the Johansson family lived at the turn of the century. Here my grandmother, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

The tiny farm near Falkenberg, Sweden where the Johansson family lived at the turn of the century before they moved to a larger one. Here my grandmother, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, and other chores.

 

The Forest House

I just finished reading The Forest House, Joelle Fraser’s memoir about divorce and living alone in a remote village in northern California’s Diamond Mountains.

Like me, Joelle is of Swedish descent. She writes of her great-grandmother, Emma, who had to leave her six daughters with foster families and neighbors in Sweden when she emigrated to America in 1919 after a family tragedy. Emma saved the money to send for her children and was eventually reunited with five of them.

Joelle has a hard time after her divorce, especially living only part-time with her young son, and scraping by on a tiny income. She wonders what her great-grandmother might teach her about weathering nearly unbearable troubles. Joelle wants to tap in to “the knowledge of our ancestors that still exists within us…It’s the instinctive way we respond to a sudden change in fortune, or to the many variations of loss.”

She quotes Wendell Berry, who writes of “the profound and mysterious knowledge that is inherited, handed down in memories and names and gestures and feelings, and in tones and inflections of voice.”

This reminds me of Lone Frank’s book, My Beautiful Genome, and her fascination with the genetic “coding” we inherit from our ancestors.

We’re getting ready for an extended family reunion, so I’ve been thinking about ancestry as I look forward to seeing several generations of my husband’s family. To celebrate and explore their Irish heritage, we’re going to be reading Colum McCann’s new novel, Transatlantic. More about that in my next post.

Family letters from Sweden

In the meantime, here are excerpts from letters sent to my grandmother from Sweden. Recently, my cousin and I had a few of them translated.

Dikesgård

July 31, 1938

Dear Hulda and Family,

I would like to tell you all that Dad is gone from us forever. I have a heavy heart and am tired…his heart was in poor shape, so he died of a heart attack. He went so fast. We should all be prepared every hour that the Lord may wish to call us from here.

Dad was so good; we hope he is resting in the arms of the Savior. He went with me both to the Church and partook of the Communion. We hope that the good Lord’s mercy is so encompassing that he will accept all of us as his children.

We have our health. They have started to harvest rye so I am sitting here alone, writing….

Warm greetings from all of us to all of you from,

Your Mom

***

Skrea, February 19, 1969

Dear Sister Hulda,

Oskar is so well now that he could leave [the hospital] and he is riding around on his bicycle during the day. He is well off since he has a pension of more than 500 Crowns a month and has electric light and heating; the temperature is always 20 degrees C inside since heating is automatic…..

Annie is quick as she has always been. I…remember when she was going to school in Bölse and had a blue velvet cap which I thought was so beautiful. Hulda, maybe you also had that velvet hat…..

The kindest regards,

Jennie

***

Stockholm, November 5, 1971

Dear Sister Hulda,

We sisters are wondering how you are doing following Ivar’s death…..

Considering the circumstances, Oskar is doing pretty well; you may know that his left leg was amputated last spring; he had a gangrene in it, so that was the only solution. He walks, takes strolls with the help of two goats…

You will probably celebrate Christmas at one of your children’s. We shall be with Inez, Bengt, and their four children on Christmas Eve. Gunilla, Lars and little Karin live in Luleå, but they are coming here during the Christmas holiday…

Regards,

Signa and Carl

***

Dikesgård, December 1

Thank you for the letter and the Christmas greetings. How are you there so far away? Everyone asks Oskar if you are well and hale.

Here in Sweden it is raining only and the wind is blowing, but perhaps by Christmas it will be crisper….

I have my one leg, so I got an artificial one so I can walk a bit and I can drive a small car. I can no longer bike, it is hard, one has to do what one can. Soon it will be Christmas again; time goes by so quickly. I go home and sit in [illegible] to pass the time. I can read whatever I can put my hands on and pass the time.

With kind greetings and wishing you merry Christmas.

Oskar

MEMOIRS WITH ANCESTRY MOTIFS

The Forest House, by Joelle Fraser

My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank

Ava’s Man, by Rick Bragg

The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, by Mary Gordon

If you can add to this list, please do so in the comments. And if you’ve read one of these books, let us know what you think about it.

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