We are in a new era of reading; a time when it’s possible for a story to exist both before and after a book is read. I first became aware of the book’s author James Rebanks at a conference in London when the keynote speaker implored everyone in the audience to follow @Herdyshepherd1 on Twitter (“he shares the most amazing pics!”) I duly did as suggested and have been gripped ever since (11,400 images shared to-date). So for me this book began in 2013 as I, like thousands of others, began to follow this world so removed from that of most other people. A world of highs and lows, both topographically and emotionally. As I followed, the story built, from the joy of the new sheepdogs being born to the agony of searching for sheep buried in the winter snow. And as the story built, this stoic, pragmatic shepherd of the fells began to amass an audience of tens of thousands.
Twitter however allows for only 140 characters in a tweet, scant space to gain an in-depth feel for someone’s life. What was really needed was a longer piece of writing, something more detailed, a book of some kind perhaps…
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks is subtitled ‘A Story of the Lake District’ but make no mistake, this is about people as much as it is about a place. Throbbing through every page of the book is an almost tangible ache from the authors heart. It quickly becomes clear in the book (as it does on Twitter) that he cares a great deal about the special history and culture of this magnificent area and its place in modern life. There is also a sense of misrepresentation, that the tale of the Lake District to this point has ignored the very real, ancient stories of the shepherds, farmers and others that live in this remote region of the UK. As a reader this link between the land and the people, the then and the now cuts through deeply to emotional effect.
The book is structured roughly by the different seasons. Not the seasons as you and I know them; summer (yey let’s go down the beach!), autumn, winter (woohoo nearly Christmas, bit cold though isn’t it!) and spring. To the farming community of the fells the weather isn’t something that happens outside the window or within an iPhone app. Throughout the book the reader is allowed a wonderful opportunity to live Rebanks’ life vicariously through his engaging prose. Part autobiography, The Shepherd’s Life details the author’s life growing up on a farm in rural England. Events such as the Foot and Mouth outbreak in the early 2000s, that were just a newspaper headline for many, are viewed here through the tragic lens of experience. There are highs, too and a great sense of pride. Pride in the people, the values, the animals, local history and a way of life that has been largely lost elsewhere in the 21st century. Respect borne from the way you conduct yourself and treat others and that you very much reap what you sow. Reputation in these parts takes years (decades) to build and minutes to lose.
There is however, perspective to this life; opportunities to live in the wider world, to experience different ways of living which serve to add context to the shepherd’s life. Questions of ‘bettering’ ones self arise, leading to further question on what this means.
And the story continues… The feeling of ending a wonderful novel still abounds upon closing the book, but tweets from the fells allow us to remain attached to this world and follow along as the seasons skip from one to the other.
Our valley pic.twitter.com/8au6KNHe1Z
— Herdwick Shepherd (@herdyshepherd1) August 4, 2016
The value of a book is certainly in it’s enjoyment when read, but also in the legacy of thoughts and emotions it leaves in the reader’s mind. I for one now find myself checking the sheep in a field for a good posture and colouring. I worry when the summer rain threatens to ruin the hay drying in the fields and most of all, I find myself feeling protective of a place that I visited just once 15 years ago and hoping for the best for this small but important place and industry.
Find out more on the Penguin website
Featured image courtesy of James Rebanks @herdyshepherd1