James Rebanks began tweeting anonymously a couple of years ago (as the “Herdwick Shepherd’’) about day-to-day life in the land of Wordsworth, thinking that maybe a couple of people might be interested in seeing a sheep-filled photo or two of what he does and where he does it. He was wrong.
Today, 67,900-plus curious followers from all over the world are watching the seasons unfold with him, his strikingly handsome sheep and his tireless border collies in Britain’s Lake District, that brilliant green corner of the world that time (but not tourists) forgot.
That high tech can deliver to us in real time a daily glimpse of this simple, pastoral lifestyle — and that we crave it — is ironic, and telling.
Rebanks’ accounting of his world, “The Shepherd’s Life,” unfolds as a seasonal diary/memoir as he guides us through the cycle of a typical shepherding year while also reflecting on the tough and honorable nature of his people, those who have lived and worked in the appropriately named Eden Valley for the past 600 years and beyond.
The book is a bit romantic (come on, there are sheep) and a lot realistic, with what one reviewer aptly called “mud and blood” (nature can be cruel, too, and the author is the first to admit it).
It’s the sort of book that sweetly takes you to a place you have a hard time letting go of. There you are, sitting in front of a computer at work doing the bidding of the modern world, when suddenly your imagination conjures before you the head of a gorgeous Herdwick sheep snacking on long, swaying grasses on the side of a fell (yeah, you start talking in the lingo, too) or out in the spring fields helping to lamb a ewe, and not just any ewe, but one of the fair-faced daughters of the most revered tup (that would be a ram). I guess you could call that counting sheep during the daytime hours.
But at the heart of it is this: As a youth, Rebanks, now 40, recognized with a mature clarity and proud anger the precise juncture when the kids at school were being herded into one of two futures: those who would go on to study, or those who would stay and farm. The true grace here is that even then, this gifted farmer/poet knew what an honor living on the land was, and he fought for the privilege of that future.
What’s most moving about “The Shepherd’s Life” is the admiration you feel for his self-knowledge, his reverence for the animals and his heritage, his absolute surety of his place in the world and his generosity in sharing it. We all seek this understanding, this comfort. Some, their entire lives. Many will find it elusive.
While reading this gorgeous book or when checking in on @herdyshepherd1, we’ve all got a little bit of Herdwick Shepherd in us, and we’re cheering him on.
Michiela Thuman is the Star Tribune’s news design director.