When “The Shepherd’s Life” was published last year to rave reviews, James Rebanks’ devotees on Twitter told him that there was only one way his bestseller journaling a year in the life of a modern-day British shepherd could be better.
He listened, and went to work on a companion book, “The Shepherd’s View: Modern Photographs From an Ancient Landscape.”
Come inside this beautifully crafted book and find saturated color photos of the verdant Lake District landscape of fells and valleys where Rebanks and his ancestors (descendants of Vikings) have herded sheep for half a century. Linger over pictures of sheep through the seasons, handsome sheepdogs, neighboring shepherds and life on the farm. Look closer and you might think you can divine the character of individual sheep, or tell the time of day from the slant of light.
One of the book’s best features is that it’s a literary slice of shepherding life. Read it front to back or back to front, simply admire the photos or open it at any short chapter and dig in. From the buffet:
• Rebanks’ Bucket List. (Yes, his every last dream involves global adventures with sheep, including walking through the desert in Rajasthan with India’s nomadic shepherds).
• A Beginner’s Guide to Judging. (The runup to a sheep show is akin to Oscar week prep; big clue to winning: Teeth matter).
• How to Speak Shepherd. (“Git yursel ower’t yat and turn them yows down’t lonnin.” You’ll need to read the book for that translation.)
• How to Speak Sheepdog. (Shepherd says: “Lie down,” sheepdog hears: “Please stop and drop to the ground, because you have gone crazy, the sheep are scattering, and if you don’t lie down right now they will be halfway to Manchester.”)
But, as made clear in “The Shepherd’s Life” and Rebanks’ daily Twitter posts at @herdyshepherd1 (with 84,800 followers), there’s so much more going on here than sheep.
This is a man and a place for our times.
It’s clear from all he writes that Rebanks is all about good stewardship, and the book details a sort of holy trinity of principles honoring the natural world: observation, conservation and preservation.
Rebanks has been a shepherd virtually his entire life, and he shares with us his very first memory, at age 4: a conversation with his dad in which he relays that the pet lambs under his care are already growing so strong that they could knock him down. His natural education, too, started young, with his grandfather pointing out “everyday miracles.”
Readers can’t help but stop here to ask themselves rare but revealing questions: Who first taught you what beauty is? What awe feels like? And how did this shape your relationship with nature into adulthood?
“Being surrounded by wild things is a part of why I love working on the land through the seasons,” Rebanks writes.
Britain’s Lake District is a birthplace of the global conservation movement. Turns out the people who live there have always known it was a sacred place and have worked hard to keep it that way.
“We have a duty to hand on the land in good condition at the end of our life,” writes Rebanks, who counts among his growing responsibilities that of expert adviser to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Let us remember, too, that shepherding isn’t his pastime, it’s how he makes his living.
When it comes down to it, what is so magnetic about this man’s pure love of place, his plain yet profound beliefs, his iPhone snaps of sheep and the day’s changing light? They allow us to slow down and turn inward. This place that captures our imagination and soothes our anxieties in a world changing at breakneck speed has been a big draw to outsiders for centuries. “Writers, artists and thinkers flooded into our landscape and found in it a counterpoint to everything that worried them about the emerging modern world,” Rebanks writes.
One of the most famous of them, of course, was poet William Wordsworth. Read his words, written in 1802, and you get a prophetic glimpse into the soul of James Rebanks and the good life his books and tweets have so generously shared:
“My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky/So was it when my life began/So is it now I am a man/So be it when I shall grow old/Or let me die!”
Michiela Thuman is the Star Tribune’s news design director.
The Shepherds' View
By: James Rebanks.
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 176 pages, $24.99.