This “Tale of the Lake District” , by James Rebanks, was a great surprise. I didn’t know about it , and would have never known this beautiful, terse piece of English prose existed, had I not spent a few days in Grasmere, where the local bookshop has a wealth of “Nature writing”. Apparently it was a hit in the Uk when it was published in 2013.
It has been called a pastoral for our times. It is an intelligent collective portrait of shepherds and farmers who live in the Lake District today, of their commitment to a kind of traditional farming that has nothing to do with factory farming and globalised markets. It is a statement of identity that is proud and humble at the same time because one of the idas that are repeated over and over again is that to be a proper fell shepherd (the fells are te mountains of Northern England: it’s an Old Norse word) you have to keep learning form others, all your life.
It is stark and harsh at times, and at the same time it can be very lyrical, especially when it describes outdoor work and the life of the sheep and shepherds as the seasons.
It is also a very good story. Normally, when I read non-fiction I usually also read a novel , because essays don’t usually involve me as much as a good story, but The shepherd’s life is as compelling as a good novel, and I read it with the same hunger, the curiosity to go ahead a bit and see what happened ahead of where I was, as I do with stories.
Which in a way it is: the author builds his account present- day contry life around his intellectual autobiography, which made it even more admirable to me: James Rebanks starts from his secondary school years, when he couldn’t wait to be free to be just a shepherd and a farmer, and when he resented outsiders who claimed to love his home, because it had been home to some of the greatest poets in English, who had made it into a mythical landscape. In time, he writes, he learnt that things were not that simple, that Wordsworth was not guilty of cultural imperialism and that although visitors to the lakes may miss many things they have had a role in allowing the area to preserve its traditional ways of farming, unlike elsewhere in Britain. Deciding to go back to school and going to Oxford were part of this evolution.
Rebanks is no naive prose writer: his use of time shifts between now and his childhood, or his teenage years, and the shift between the present tense for descriptions and the past tense for narration make the reading even more enjoyable. Although he claims that he intends to be a farmer, and nothing else (“This is my life. I want no other”) I do hope he writes more.
There is something I need to add: although it is a book of great beauty, it also has quite a lot of heartbreak – for me. I suppose it is impossible to conciliate my worldview as a vegetarian to that of a shepherd, who raises sheep for a profit although he obviously respects his livestock as sentient creatures. I don’t mean to criticise Mr Rebanks or anyone else who does the same; I am aware that the world won’t go vegetarian and that, if animals have to be raised to be slaughted, it is certainly less cruel and more morally acceptable if they are allowed to live their lives free in the fells rather than in some horrid factory. Yet I can’t see how you can celebrate the beauty and vitality of the creatures you raise, and struggle to keep them safe and healthy, while planning to turn half of them into steaks.
If I were a shepherd I would end up like the one in Wordsworth’s The last of the flock, who can’t bear to kill or sell his ewes and lambs.
As I am work at school, instead, I will end with noting the two different kinds of teachers the author recalls: those who take it for granted that you won’t amount to much if you don’t seem to like culture from the start, and those who make you love books.