Jenna London on “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is a place-based memoir in which the author describes his life as a traditional shepherd in the Lakes District of Ireland in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through his vivid descriptions, reflections, explanations, historical background and scenes, James Rebanks implores the reader to re-evaluate preconceived notions about the shepherding lifestyle. Rebanks argues that the shepherd’s life is a choice and, for many, a calling. Rebanks provides personal, scientific and philosophical details dealing with nature—primarily farmland and sheep—that convinces the reader he is a reputable source. The Shepherd’s Life is divided into four main sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Rebanks could have just as easily separated the book into the major periods of his life. But instead, he uses the section titles to illustrate an intrinsic connection with nature. Rebanks’ general purpose is to inform the reader about this lifestyle that suffers from many stereotypes. In doing so, the author also portrays his deeply rooted sense of place and connection to the land. Rebanks does not use his memoir for self-discovery. Instead, he provides the reader with information he has already learned.

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On a personal level, Rebanks examines his relationship with his father. However, this theme is secondary to the larger picture of the book: the narrator loves life as a shepherd and wants to dispel misconceived notions about this profession. Rebanks gives the following description of the Lake District:

“For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not…But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words…. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world.” [7]

Rebanks addresses how humans and the natural environment in a specific region are interconnected. The setting couldn’t simply be plopped someplace else without having a significant impact on the premise of the book. Rebanks states that the Lakes District is of ecological importance on an international level. In this manner, nature represents an ever-changing entity worthy of further exploration. Suggesting that the land prompts humans to feel something is empowering to nature, as is the notion that conservation principles have been formulated based on this geographic location. However, the idea of people having ownership over the land suppresses the environment.

Domestic animals—sheep—are a fundamental aspect of both the narrator’s identity and his livelihood. He demonstrates a largely symbiotic relationship with the livestock: people provide the animals with food and shelter. The sheep provide people with wool, sustenance and—perhaps most importantly—an identity and life’s purpose. Throughout the book, Rebanks provides the reader with an intimate view of a shepherd’s daily activities, thoughts, and mindset, as is evident when he describes an annual sheep sale.

“…But, as important [the sheep] goes to one of the top flocks, Turner Hall where he will be looked after and given a chance to breed with some of the best ewes. For weeks after the sales I miss seeing him each day, as if once I had a van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone.” [173]

Rebanks enables the reader to see how this lifestyle is a business with an emotional component. Most readers—whether they are interested in art or not—know who van Gogh is, and can understand the extent to which a piece of his artwork is cherished. Therefore, any reader could sympathize with the author, whether or not she can relate to having a similar relationship with an animal.

Throughout the book, Rebanks demonstrates a passion and admiration for the livestock without anthropomorphizing them. Rebanks’ overall tone is one of authority and confidence. While he reveals a great deal of admiration and respect for sheep, Rebanks seldom suggests the lifestyle is an easy or unflawed one. Instead, he provides a wealth of information about a little-known profession that requires a deep understanding of and dependence on the land. For example, he writes: “The best sheep have a sense of their specialness, and this ewe seems to know that she is one of the stars.” [168] Here—as is typical throughout his book—Rebanks regards sheep with respect and suggests they are a species capable of thoughts. But he does not suggest that sheep are capable of the same thought process humans have. Rebanks argues that the ancient life of shepherds is one of choice, not one of misfortune or poverty. Rebanks is not necessarily making this way of life out to be more glamorous than it actually is. But he does argue that this physically demanding livelihood is special and worth saving. Writing candidly, Rebanks easily convinces the reader that his convictions to farming are genuine.

He illustrates several generations of families to whom everything centers around sheep and the land, giving precedence to the needs of the animals before their own well-being. These actions are incredibly empowering to the environment. At the same time, however, the land and animals are manipulated to serve human’s needs. Nature is both empowered and suppressed in the following passage:

“Trimming sheep feet. Rescuing lambs from being stuck in fences. Mucking out the stalls. Trimming the muck from the tails of ewes and lambs. As you drive past, you wouldn’t notice them, but they add up over time. Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a millions little unseen jobs.” [55]

In this example the environment (via animals) is oppressed because it is controlled and manipulated by humans. Lambs are stuck in fences that wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t put them there. Feet and tails trimmed for humans’ aesthetic wishes. But one could argue that those same tasks give the environment a sense of empowerment. In another passage, though, Rebanks mentions that dinner isn’t served until the animals have been cared for. The sheep are given priority over human’s needs, which is also empowering towards the animals.

The length of his individual musings range from a few words to entire paragraphs but average a sentence or two. Rebanks incorporates musing primarily within passages of scene and summary rather than writing passages that are exclusively musings. For example, he writes:

“Tough farms were not places to get rich, but they offered opportunities to those willing (or forced by necessity to take a chance)…If you had a big lowland dairy farm with good soil, you probably looked down your nose a bit at these farmers on marginal land. These tough farms are two months behind in the growing season…” [58]

This moment of reflection is in the “you” point of view and appears to be prompted by the need to define “tough farms.” The reflection serves to describe via comparison. Rebanks refers to a generic person in the shepherding community who is embedded in the lifestyle. Nature has multiple roles in this passage, including educating the non-familiar reader. But most interesting is how nature contradicts itself. It not only provides a humble livelihood (not places to get rich) but also represents a status symbol (if you had…you probably looked down your nose…). This nature-centric passage is another example of the concurrent suppression and empowerment of nature. Rebanks does not romanticize the life of a shepherd in this passage. Even the individuals “looking down their noses” are not depicted as having glamorous or “easy” lives. These aspects add depth to the story and represent how both the placement of musing and the musing itself are critical in molding a work of nature writing.

Editor’s Note: For the next three issues of “In the Classroom,” we’ll be sharing three pieces by Jenna London. You can read each one individually, or read all three together, for example, as a classroom assignment to support the reading of each book Jenna analyzes. Up next, Rick Bass’s “Nine Mile Wolves” and Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge.”

***

j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

2 thoughts on “Jenna London on “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

  1. […] Editor’s Note: For the next issue of “In the Classroom,” we complete our three-part series by Jenna London. The next piece is about Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge,” and it would be particularly well paired in the classroom with the analysis on Rick Bass here. You can read Jenna’s piece “A Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks here. […]

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