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.”

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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.

Assay@NFN15: The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World

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Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

By Jen Palmares Meadow

All literary conference attendees who work in the field should keep a field journal. In it they ought to record every panel they attend. No matter what kind of literary beasts they might be studying—whether they be poets, novelists, or essayists—their journals contain the study on which much of their work might be improved. The following are my NonfictionNOW field notes from the panel “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”.

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Conference: NonfictioNOW

“The Beast Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”

Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

Date: 30 October 2015, 10:45-12:00PM

Location: Flagstaff, Arizona, High Country Conference Center, Humphrey’s Theater

Steve Church opened the panel by warning the crowd, “This panel is not pumpkin spiced, but it should be fun.” He read an excerpt from “Seven Fathoms Down,” an essay included in his collection, Ultrasonic. Did you know that noodling is fishing for catfish with your hands? He also read an unsettling piece about consequence.

Kirk Wisland read, “What the Hawk Needs”, an essay concerning a red tail hawk caught an apartment sliding door, and other “instances of perforation.”

  • What good can come from the shattered glass?
  • Dear Neighbor, Be warned. There may be a hawk in your apartment.
  • Dear Hawk, Be warned. There may be a window in your sky.

Alison Hawthorne Deming read from the introduction to her book, Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. She asks, “What are we interrogating when we are writing about the animal kingdom?” and discussed what it means to be a human at this particular time, during the “incomprehensible diminishment of animals.”

  • “We owe our lives to the animal kingdom. We owe them our care and attention.”
  • “Animals are the core of what we are as creatures, sharing a biological world and inhabiting our inner lives, though most days they feel peripheral.”

Elena Passarello read from her in-progress collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, in which each chapter is named after an animal of historical record, including: Dolly the Clone, and (hopefully) a robotic bee.

  • Arabella, a spider was the first female in space
  • Sackerson, the baited bear made famous by Shakespeare

Passarello:

  • Is it uncouth to personify animals?
  • Once you start writing about animals, they start showing up everywhere.
  • Affection for animals is what sends me to the library.

Audience Question: What are the risks of speaking from the perspective of the animal?

  • Deming: Because we have no idea what animals are thinking or feeling, it’s really easy to get wrong. “It’s important we don’t misrepresent animals to serve us—we’ve done that,” and also, it can be construed as offensive to people’s oral traditions, people who have the right to speak from these animals.
  • Wisland: I teach a class on sustainability, so anything that get kids interested…I think the hawk gets a pass.
  • Steve Church: The Normal School once published a story entirely from the perspective of a bridge. It can be done.

Audience Question: How do you avoid sentimentality when writing about pets?

  • Deming: If you feel like you’re getting cheesy and sentimental, turn to science.
  • Passarello: I posted an essay on Twitter, entitled, “My Cat Sharky”, and I lost ten followers.

Works Referenced During Panel:

  • “What is it like to be a bat?” by Thomas Nagel
  • “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
  • “Dog Tags”
  • “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey”, by Christopher Smart

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Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Jen Palmares Meadows for an incredible job live tweeting during the NonfictioNOW Conference. Search the hashtag #NFNOW15 to see conference tweets, and follow Jen at @jpalmeadows.

Barry Lopez, “Of Wolves and Men”

In my own head, wolves already occupy a significant space, from a 9th grade publication in the High School Writer (a monthly newspaper publishing high school creative writing), a short piece on wolves that I had submitted to a contest sponsored by the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN—to reading Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem last fal. Fenris Ulf, from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—a name that comes from Norse mythology, found in the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Wolves in the wild, wolves being legally hunted. And more. This book is necessary—as it is written—because wolves constitute one of the animals considered “charismatic mega-fauna,” along with the big cats, elephants, bison, and others. They’ve been mythologized so often, throughout fairy tales and Twilight and elsewhere, that we think we know, when we know nothing at all.

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