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In the book The Shepherd’s Life, author James Rebanks writes, “There is nothing like the feeling of freedom and space that you get when you are working with the flock and the dogs in the fells. I escape the nonsense that tries to consume me down below. My life has a purpose, an earthy sensible meaning.” 

In a recent discussion of faculty scholarship, Jason Lief (fellow blogger here on The Twelve) made the comment that many young people struggle with their identity because our current world requires significant effort to connect the corporeality of the physical with an abstract reality. Jason gave the example of a vinyl record vs. music in a cloud. What is the difference between the two mediums? And what are the implications for the separation of identity from the corporeality of the physical? I keep chewing over these ideas.

I think James and Jason are on to something. Rebanks emphasizes the physical reality of shepherding work. He provides a connective thread between what he does, daily and by season, with his father’s work as a shepherd, his grandfather’s work as a shepherd, and the long line of shepherds from the part of northern England that have continued their work, deeply connected with the landscape, for more than a thousand years. On a side-note, Rebanks’ book about sheep avoids the overused tropes of sheep as dumb (and comparable to Christ’s followers). The book is enlightening and well written, but why is it a New York Times bestselling book? I suspect the answer has to do with audience – a modern world that is hungry for an “authentic” life lived in intimate contact with nature. For many of us in industrialized countries or with enough wealth to insulate, we are disconnected with the landscape and the world of muck, mire, and blood that comes with care for animals (or, let’s be honest, to a much lesser degree, parenting). Wealth can be defined many ways, but when people acquire a certain amount of ‘wealth,’ what are the tasks they most readily pay others to perform? Childcare, cleaning, hunting/growing/preparing food, maintenance of technology – in other words, the work that encourages physical contact with the physical world.

The popularity of Rebanks narrative of a sheep farmer’s life holds the interest of so many because he has a physical and tangible connection with his work, his sheep, and the land. And yet Rebanks makes no mention of religion. I cannot know for sure as I have only read this one book by Rebanks, but I suspect his religion is his work. See the way he talks about his calling as a shepherd:

16/10/15 Matterdale , Cumbria – Shepherd James Rebanks author of The Shepherds Life with his Herdwick and Swaledale sheep

“This is an ancient, hard-earned, local kind of freedom that was stolen from people elsewhere. The kind of freedom that the nineteenth-century peasant poet John Clare wrote about. He lamented the changes in the Northamptonshire landscape he loved because of enclosure. He saw the disconnection that was being created between people like him and the land, something that has only gotten worse with each passing year since then. Across most of England, over the past couple of centuries, common land has been enclosed, until only islands of it have been left, in poor or mountainous places like ours where something older remains. Ours is a rooted and local kind of freedom tied to working common land, the freedom of the commoner, a community-based relationship with land. By remaining in a place, working on it, and paying my dues, I am entitled to a share of its commonwealth.
Working up these mountains is as good as it gets, at least as long as you are not freezing or sodden (though even then you feel alive in ways that I don’t in modern life behind glass). There is a thrill in the timelessness up there; I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time. To work there is a humbling thing, the opposite of conquering a mountain if you like; it liberates you from any illusion of self-importance. I am only one of the current graziers on our fell (and one of the smaller and more recently established ones at that), a small link in a very long chain. Perhaps no one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains in a hundred years’ time. They won’t know my name. But that doesn’t matter. If they stand on that fell and do the things we do, they will owe me a tiny unspoken debt for once keeping part of it going, just as I owe all those who came before a debt for getting it this far.”

A31W4T herdiwick sheep by a river in the lake district


Did you see the search for a corporeal reality and sense of religious connection with the land and his calling in Rebanks’ words? And the satisfaction of “carrying on something bigger than me”? This disconnection from the land and the physicality of the landscape has significant consequences. The question is, what can we do about it?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • steve van't hof says:

    This is why I hunt.

  • mstair says:

    “This disconnection from the land and the physicality of the landscape has significant consequences. The question is, what can we do about it?”

    The images of The Bible are all about land and the physical landscape. There is no mention of the technological, virtual reality we also reside in here in our 21st. century. Off-handedly, we logically toss that off by considering the ancient times in which it was written, but you lead us to consider something more. Perhaps, “in the fullness of time” means more than God’s timing for The Gospel. Perhaps, His deliverance of The Gospel, when He did, is to also draw us back into the images of the land – as our real and actual reality – where we clearly find His Grace and Forgiveness?

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    I hear you. I often think it would be awesome to ditch Chicagoland (traffic, people, taxes) and move to Southern Illinois and live off the land. But then I remember I’m not particularly competent or self-sufficient. Also, farming is really hard, I think. And there’s no good restaurants down there. So, I’ll make the best of it here…

    But, let me suggest to you an answer to a lack of purpose in daily existence: be productive.

    “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” (Prov. 12:11)

    “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” (Prov. 22:29)

    Granted, farmers and herders are more tangibly connected to productivity – watching crops grow and raising livestock to maturity. But the rest of us can find meaning, too. Cast Stone manufacturers make good stone pieces for buildings. Accountants arrange businesses for profit and efficiency. Moms run households and raise children with enormous implications for the Kingdom. Pastors preach Good News and tend to wayward flocks. Professors teach Truth and Beauty to impressionable minds.

    We all have a little part of the fallen Garden. Make it better.

  • William Harris says:

    Wordsworth sang about all this, too. Then again, there’s a reason why so many fled the farm and field. John Clare notwithstanding, such Romanticism often arrives with a bankbook.

  • RLG says:

    Good responses, Marty and Bill. Rebecca’s article sounds like a longing for the good ole days, when cars were made by hand and not on a mechanical assembly line, or when a farmer singly milked ten cows by hand himself rather than ten or twenty thousand dairy cows micro managed by a crew of a hundred workers on ten to twenty milking parlors. Or one of a hundred design engineers contributing to the design of a hundred story condo building in Chicago rather than a crew of four men building a single dwelling home from a set of hand drafted blueprints. The older we get we hear people (and ourselves) longing for the good ole days when life was simple, when our daily work had a more immediate connection to the end product.

    There will come a time when a hand made car will make little sense other than as a piece of artwork. Maybe even cars, as we know them today. will make little sense. We’re getting close. And of course, life in Bible times is about as primitive and archaic as you can get. Anything that was not understood was attributed to the supernatural. Living by the principle of “spare the rod and spoil the child,” will land you in jail today, especially if you apply such a principle in a grocery store in obvious sight of others. Oh, for the good ole days.

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    I don’t think Rebecca is indulging in nostalgia. I’d suggest she is pointing us toward a more sacramental way of looking at the world, where the divide between heaven and earth is more permeable than we often seem to believe. A world where tangible things are holy, where our bodies are gifts, where rituals and routines are good. I blogged on it several years ago and called it a gradual shift toward Aristotle and away from Plato That’s too simple, but it is a valuing and attending to the local and the little. Thank you , Rebecca!

  • RLG says:

    Ok, Steve, maybe it isn’t exactly a sense of nostalgia that Rebecca is shooting for. Along your line of thought, she could be searching for a sense of meaning, or a connection to something greater than just her work, maybe a sense of purpose. Rebecca does a lot of quoting from Rebanks, so it isn’t easy to differentiate between Rebecca’s thoughts and Rebank’s.

    I often think people working on an assembly line, or a short order cook, or a common laborer, miss a sense of meaning and purpose in their work, other than to make a wage. I suppose that is true also of people in other fields of livelihood that they feel no particular calling to. It’s just a job. Perhaps there are more people caught in such a plight of meaninglessness than we care to realize.

    But thankfully many (maybe most) people in such employment situations find meaning and purpose in other things, such as their families, friends, their hobbies, sports, or religious faith. It is hopefully there that such people also find that connection to meaning and purpose, even at a deep level of satisfaction.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    This is a beautiful post asking an important question. Thanks! I’ve followed Mr. Rebanks on twitter for a couple years now and love how his presentation of what appears simple on the surface is actually quite complex and profound. He had a fantastic opinion piece in the Times a little more than a year ago talking about rural life, food and farming, but not at all nostalgic but rather, imbued with questions of significant political and economic values and their underpinnings. I’ve not yet read “The Shepherd’s Life” but want to now!

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    RLG – thanks for your conversation. Steve is correct – I am not wistful for the ‘good old days’ because I don’t know what where and when these ‘good old days’ occurred. You are also correct – I quote more from Rebanks than articulate what I really think about it. Rebanks seems to find a connection with the land a religious experience and one that is lost in the ‘modern’ world – as Rebanks himself and others have pointed out, this is not a new idea and it often romanticized or even overly romanticized. While I take Rebanks’ point, I am more interested in the search for meaning by youth, often motivated by the loss of physical and corporeal identity. I also think the church has a long history of treating the physical and the bodily as sinful and ‘less than’ while glorifying the soul and the spiritual. That also seems to contribute to this loss of physical and bodily identity. I’m increasingly convinced this dualism of body and soul is not biblical or practical.

    • RLG says:

      Rebecca, I wouldn’t want to put thoughts into your head, or the head of Rebanks. But as you suggested for Rebanks, his religion seems to be his work. His religion, his God, is more tangible than a God in the sky, a God in heaven, or a God unseen by physical eyes. Isn’t that what the nations ridiculed Israel for in the Old Testament? More pantheistic religions identify God with nature or regard God as one with the material universe or the forces of nature. Not to put words in your mouth, or thoughts in your head, but this last response seems to have some affinity for a pantheistic world view, or at least leanings in that direction. I’m not criticizing, if that is the case. I’m just wondering.

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